I wonder how I could get your attention best at the beginning of a sermon! It’s quite hard these days really to get someone’s full attention, or even to find yourself giving it. We’ve got so used to doing several things at once, to reading something while also having the television on and trying to have a conversation with someone. When you have a computer, a land-line, a mobile phone, a TV, a radio… and then people around you as well, there can be a lot going on at once. I can be reading an e-mail when a mobile phone message comes up on the computer – and then perhaps an alert about something in my calendar or some breaking news from somewhere else in the world. It’s not easy to concentrate, not easy to give something my full attention. And I suspect that some of you, despite your best intentions, are already half thinking about something else. Even now. I don’t blame you. I can even be preaching a sermon sometimes and find myself suddenly remembering something I’ve to do or say to someone or try and sort out! It’s so hard to concentrate, to give something my full attention. But I try, I really do, especially when I know I really need to.
Moses, I suspect, was just the same as all of us. He was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro and leading them through the wilderness. I bet shepherds have to have eyes everywhere and I imagine there’s lots to think about. And Moses would have been thinking about the task in hand. He’d forgotten all about the slaves in Egypt and the people who were still being cruelly treated by Pharaoh. He’d got out of all that, escaped. He was happy just thinking the thoughts of a shepherd, enjoying the company of the dogs, not reading the newspapers or listening to the news or thinking about what God might be up to in the world.
Then he came to Horeb, to the mountain of God. But he wasn’t thinking about God. Perhaps it was a bit like going to a cathedral at Christmas and thinking back over your summer holidays or like coming to church, but miming the hymns while you think about what’s going on at home while you’re away. So God had to get his attention. And God did. God got his attention in a way that the world has never forgotten, in a way that’s inspired countless church logos and synagogue paintings, as well as hymn writers, icon painters and composers. I could tell you about St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, where they believe they’ve got the original bush that burned and wasn’t consumed. I know because a great scholar showed me a photo of it from the monastery, amusingly with the fire extinguisher right next to it… But now I’m distracting even myself… You see how good I am at distractions?! There are so many ways of thinking about this story that will keep us from the main point of it all.
God did something so extraordinary that Moses had to look and keep on looking. God got Moses’ attention. There was a flame of fire, and the bush was blazing but it wasn’t consumed. And Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’ And so, he forgot about the sheep, and the dogs and his family, forgot everything except this astonishing sight. And something so called to him from that bush, something so caught his attention that it was like hearing his own name. ‘Moses, Moses’. And all he could say was ‘Here I am.’ He could do nothing but be there, be 100% present, his feet firmly on the ground that he now knew in a way he hadn’t known before was holy, no sandals or even socks, just bare toes, bare Moses, intently Moses, before the fire.
The sight was so intense that Moses could hardly bear to look but he certainly couldn’t look away. He knew that this was an encounter with God – and that this was the God of his ancestors, something holy and strong. And he understood, as he hadn’t understood before, that this God was not just some kind of weird phenomenon in the desert, but someone who cared about human beings, and the misery of his people. This was a God who heard the cries of the suffering and who was calling Moses to go and do something about it. ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt..’ This God, this holy God, was going to bring them out of Egypt, out of the place of suffering and abuse and hunger and slavery, and into a land of milk and honey and plenty and joy. ‘I will send you’ says God, ‘to bring my people out of Egypt.’
Perhaps God had been trying to make this clear for some time, but Moses hadn’t got it. So God had found a way to make him see what he needed to do; to give up life as a shepherd, as a small business man in a rural location, and go and do God’s business. He had to lose his life for God’s purpose. Moses, even now, even all but face to face with God, couldn’t believe this was the task for him. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoah?’ And he asks for the name of this God. But God just says something like, ‘I am who I am’. ‘Just say that God, the God they’ve always known, has sent you.’ And the rest of the story, we know.
I wonder whether you have ever had an experience anything like that one, a moment when you ‘turned aside’ from the many things of your present life and looked with new eyes at the world, a moment when you stopped for a moment and when life couldn’t go on as before. Has there been a time when God has interrupted you and made you ‘turn aside to see’. Rowan Williams once said that ‘Faith begins in the moment of stopping… the moment when you can’t just walk on as you did before’. And I wonder whether there is a way in which God is calling for your attention, our attention, now, today, at the time in your life and in history. How will you know unless you ‘turn aside’ and look.
I imagine that we have all had moments when we have stared, like Moses, into a fire. Perhaps it was a fire burning in a grate and you find yourself staring into it rather than the television, seeing shapes in the flames. And, letting the warmth into your bones, you begin to let go of other things around you and think about what life means. Or perhaps it was a camp fire or a bonfire, where you were drawn to thoughtfulness… Or perhaps it was staring into a boiling sea. Or that moment when the bread and wine comes round and life becomes focussed on the one who you want to follow with your whole life if you knew how. Or perhaps its that moment before sleep when you give thanks to God for the day and give yourself into God’s safe-keeping. There are moments, and sometimes they catch us unawares, when we turn aside from life and see. And from such moments comes grace and awareness of God and sometimes a new direction for life, even if it’s simply a new desire for kindness and a longing to give and receive love.
And God had caught Moses’ attention not just because he wanted to be known, not because he wanted Moses to get religion in a new way. He had caught his attention because he wanted him to go and rescue the slaves, to bring justice where there was none, to do something about the sorrow and suffering of God’s children.
Jesus too was a way that God caught the attention of the world. He was one who by his living, by his dying on a cross, love burning from the tree at Calvary, begged the people of the world to ‘turn aside’ and to see what hate had done and what love could do. And his life was a call to us to take up a cross too if we are called to, so that suffering can be lifted from others and so that a new kind of world could come to be. Jesus too was the way God chose to catch the attention of the world and to draw us into life.
So, where does the fire burn for you? Where does God get your attention? Where do you ‘turn aside’ to see what God is doing and what God is calling you to? It is all too easy, even at church, to be distracted by so many things. But God is calling to us. Let the fire burn in our hearts and our lives, so that we will hear God’s call to let the oppressed go free… Amen.