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Monday, February 17, 2014

Holy Ground

Exodus 3:1-9

1 Now, Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3 So, Moses said, "I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up." 4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." 5 Then He said, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 He said also, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. 7 The LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. 8 So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. 9 Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them.”

I began reading the book of Exodus this week. At the beginning of Exodus, Moses, the writer, introduced himself as the son of a Hebrew woman and raised by the Egyptian princess to be a prince of Egypt. This story is very familiar to Jews and Christians. The story is a very strong example of the power and love of God. From a young age, Jews and Christians teach their children this history. This week, I delved deeper into the story. There are several things we should acknowledge and understand, things Moses learned, which we need to learn today. The main question, though, for this story is - Will we recognize God and what He sets apart for His purposes?

Before we study this passage in depth, remember that Moses was a Hebrew from the tribe of Levi. His mother laid him in the Nile River in a woven wicker basket coated with tar to save him. The Pharaoh mandated at that time that midwives kill male Hebrew babies because of the increasing number of Hebrews in Egypt. God had a plan for Moses and led him in his basket to the arms of the bathing Egyptian princess. While he was nursing from a wet nurse, who happened to be his biological mother, he learned of his Hebrew heritage. Once weaned, Moses was educated as an Egyptian. For forty years, Moses lived as an Egyptian, until one day he saw a slave driver beating a Hebrew worker. This enraged Moses and he killed the slave driver. Moses fled for his life and arrived in Midian. He traveled about 10,750 miles (6,719km) to arrive in the current lower Saudi Arabia. He traveled from Egypt on the Nile across the Sinai Peninsula then across the Gulf of Aqaba to a land inhabited by the descendents of Abraham’s son, Midian. Moses arrived at a well there and met seven daughters of the priest Reuel (Jethro) whom he defended from the shepherds. Jethro was not a priest of Yahweh when Moses met him. Jewish tradition says Jethro worshipped many idols before he believed. He offered a benediction to Yahweh in Exodus 18:9-10; this is when we recognize his acceptance of Yahweh as the true God. From Jethro’s daughters, Moses chose Zipporah to be his wife and for forty years, Moses tended Jethro’s sheep.

After Moses shepherded Jethro’s sheep for forty years, he saw a bush burning, but it was not consumed. This captured his attention. Where was Moses when he saw this burning bush? He was in the Sinai Peninsula, the west side of the wilderness as verse 1 says. Why he traveled so far from where Jethro normally kept his sheep we do not know. We do know Moses encountered God on Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. What the writer of Exodus (Moses) told his readers is that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush. God chose to use a weak, small thing, a thorn bush, instead of something grand, such as a cedar. He chose to use a shepherd and humbled man, Moses, instead of a trained leader of the Hebrews, like a priest. We need to realize, too, that in the Bible, people often recognize God as a fire, consider the pillar of fire that led the Israelites. The Old Testament identifies the “angel of the LORD” with God in many passages.

Moses said in the passage that YAHWEH God appeared to him in the fire. Moses turned from his path and went to examine this unconsumed burning bush, and that is where God called to him. Here is where my enquiring mind began to dig deeper. How did Moses understand it was the LORD speaking? How did Moses recognize the voice of the LORD? In retrospect, by the time Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), he had a history with Yahweh and could recognize His hand out of hindsight. The question remains though, how did Moses recognize God’s voice when he was trained and had lived as an Egyptian for forty years and then lived with a priest of false gods for forty years? My answer, from personal experience, is when a thought or idea comes to your mind that is not in your line of thinking at the time or in your inclination, and is not contrary to the laws of God, you should consider it to be from God. Jewish teaching, Midrash, says when the voice you hear is like your father’s or mother’s voice – authoritative, calming, giving confidence, and giving hope – you hear God’s voice. Jewish teachers teach this to their students. The teaching makes sense, too, when you think about it. Moses understood God was speaking to him.

The remaining verses in this passage show us how else Moses realize God was speaking to him. Upon following his instinct, Moses turned aside to examine the bush. God told him not to come near the bush and to take off his shoes because the ground he was standing on was holy. He identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, too. God taught Moses three things here. Humankind cannot be too near God for His glory is too great for a sinful human to bear. When in the presence of God, you are on holy (set apart) ground. He is Yahweh, the One his mother spoke of to him when he was a toddler. Moses surely was overawed and humbled. The God whom his mother spoke of was speaking to him, one who had not followed Yahweh. His immediate reaction must have been to humble himself in the manner he understood from his days as a receiver of reverence, hiding his face and bowing low to the ground. Moses could have chosen to hear God calling him, but chosen not to acknowledge Him. Many people do that today. They realize God wants to lead them in their moral and life choices, but they choose not to recognize God’s glory and power and, instead, follow their own plans. Moses’ curiosity led him to the bush. His recognition of a voice not from himself led him to follow God. His humility led him to acknowledge God’s majesty and obey. Moses spirit spoke to him to recognize, acknowledge, and obey God. God’s presence set the place apart as holy. He called Moses for His purposes. From this point, God set Moses apart as His instrument of power, freedom, guidance, and provision.

Let's take a closer look at this encounter between Moses and Yahweh. Let's consider God's command for Moses to remove his sandals. This was a common custom in the Middle East and Asia at the time and continues today in places. It is a sign of reverence and respect for the persons of the house. With respect to God, this action is a token of respect and submission. Removing one’s sandals is the expression of inward reverence through outward behavior. By taking off one’s sandals before entering a holy place or holy ground, it keeps the dirtiness of non-holy ground from the holy and sanctified place. God taught Moses to prepare himself to be in His presence. We must understand, too, that the ground was no more holy than any other until God chose to meet with Moses at that moment in time at that place. The ground was holy because of God’s presence. Any place can be holy. God can meet people anywhere. The question is - are we prepared to acknowledge God anywhere and anytime. What would it take us to be in that position?

Moses learned quite a bit that day. He learned how God’s voice sounded. Moses learned how to approach God. He learned that anywhere God is He makes holy. Moses learned God uses the humble and weak to show His power and majesty. He learned God had a plan for Him. Moses learned to adjust his life to follow God’s plan.

We should learn the same three lessons - 1) recognizing the voice of God, 2) knowing that where God is is holy ground, and 3) knowing how to approach God.  We should be prepared at all times to be in God's presence, hear His voice, and obey Him. How do we do that? We should always recognize our sinful, finite, powerless selves. We should be humble, confessing our sins and need for God, and looking always to see where God is at work, seeking Him. If we keep an attitude of humility and realize God is near and may at any time reveal Himself and His will to us, we will be able to recognize, hear, and obey Him.

Do you need to adjust something in your life to hear God speak to you? Are you too self-focused and busy to see and hear God? Is God trying to get your attention? When He has our attention and we are listening, we are on holy ground. To be in a relationship with God, we each must attend to Him, by recognizing, listening, and heeding Him.

Be prepared for God to speak to you. Be humble and recognize God’s voice. Give reverence to Him and listen to Him. Be ready to obey what God tells you, even if just to “remove your sandals.”

God can make any place holy ground.

Are you willing to recognize Him and what He sets apart for His purposes?