Take Another Step

Posted on October 13, 2015

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I like meditating on details in the familiar stories of Scripture.

Take this one, for example, in the story of Moses and the burning bush.  The story opens with Moses, erstwhile prince of Egypt and fugitive murderer, living in contentment as an exile in the land of Midian.  Moses is tending the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro.  After leading the flock to the foot of Mt. Sinai, an angel of the Lord (possibly the pre-incarnate Jesus, as many early church fathers thought) appeared in a bush that was engulfed in flame but not consumed.  Moses, understandably, wanted to check it out up-close.

“This is amazing, ” Moses said to himself.  “Why isn’t that bush burning up?  I must go see it.”

When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, ‘Moses!  Moses!’

“Here I am!” Moses replied.

“Do not come any closer,” the Lord warned.  “Take off your sandals, for your are standing on holy ground.  I am the God of your father- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  When Moses heard this he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:4-6)

Around the burning bush, the ground itself is holy.  That’s amazing, isn’t it?  God’s mere presence can transform something from common to totally and fully charged with his purity.  I don’t know what would have happened if Moses had left his shoes on, or what was accomplished by taking them off.  Based on zero exegetical evidence, I’d guess an allusion to the removal of shoes upon entering of one’s tent/house- Moses, here in God’s presence and on his holy ground, is now in God’s personal space, his ‘house’.  Regardless, the point is made.  Whatever is happening on that ground, one could not treat it as if it were normal soil, because it was anything but.

“Do not come any closer,” God says.  How stark, how different a sentiment from our rhetoric today, in which access to the presence of the Lord is often spoken of so casually, with such presumption.  Not that we should not feel free to come close to God.  We certainly should.  The symbolism of the temple veil tearing at Christ’s crucifixion, the explicit statements of Jesus in Matthew 18:3 and the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 4:16) make clear that we can, and should, enter God’s presence with joy and confidence.

And yet here in Exodus Moses- the Moses!- is told, as he stands in terror on holy ground, not to take another step.  Don’t come any closer.  The ground is holy, Moses.  Take off your shoes.  And stay where you are- not one more step. 

Later in his life, Moses would be allowed to take that step.  In Exodus 24, after leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and across the Red Sea, God again met Moses at Mt. Sinai.  He called Moses to the top of that very same mountain and surrounded him with a cloud of his glory.

I wonder if Moses remembered as he walked up that mountain.  What was it like, that upward climb towards the presence of God?  As he made his ascent, could he help himself from remembering the burning bush?  Did he think at all about this place, this Sinai where he had first met the Living God?  Having now become so familiar with the voice of God, did he reminisce about that day when he had first heard the name Yahweh?  As he looked at the peak and wind whipped across his face, did Moses recall the feeling of burying that same face in his hands so long ago, trying to shield his eyes from the glory of the Lord?

Once, he had been warned not to come any closer.  The ground is holy, Moses.  Don’t take another step.   Now things were different.  Come up and meet me at the top of this mountain, Moses.  Walk toward me.  Take another step.  

Stay back, Moses.  You’re on holy ground.  Come closer, Moses.  Meet me up here.

God, through the shedding of Christ’s blood, has compressed Moses’ two experiences for us as believers now.  Yet, both still remain true in some way.  The invitation to the Lord’s presence is no less open, and the space around him is no less holy.

There is value in remembering this as we pray, as we read Scripture, as we worship, as we live.

Take another step towards the Lord.  Remember that what we walk on to get there is never just common ground.

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