Reading Exodus 2.23 – 3.10
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The last time we met Moses at Evensong was back in Eastertide. The Israelites were in the wilderness and hungry, and God spoke to Moses about what he proposed to do for them. We thought then about what it might mean to say that God speaks, or ‘speaks’, to us. Tonight we find Moses much earlier in the story, and God speaks to him again, through the burning bush. So we must now ask what we are to make of this scene, in which God communicates with a human being in an apparently audible voice, an event pretty remote from contemporary experience; or, at least, the experience of most of us.
‘If God did that for Moses, why doesn’t God do it for me?’ you may ask. Is it because you have too little faith? If you put more in, might you get more out? But a major thrust of the Bible is that God takes the initiative, and often with people of questionable religious credentials. Certainly, Moses has so far shown no especial faith before God chooses to communicate with him so vividly. So, again, if him, why not you or me?
If this silence of God is probably not your fault, then what is the problem? You may conclude simply that the biblical narratives emerge for some very different world from ours – if it ever was like that then, it sure isn’t now – and, sensing a film of unreality over these stories, you may flirt with ditching the whole idea of God addressing us. Readings like this then have but a fleeting effect, providing vaguely religious background music to this evening time of quiet and reflection. The danger of this total scepticism is that it makes any notion that God might be an active presence in your life that much harder to entertain. If you are never to have a burning bush moment, what can you hope for, if you take God seriously? Anything?
It’s good to have someone you can use to wrestle with questions like these. The rather forbidding, ten-guinea title for such a person is ‘spiritual director’ – ‘soul friend’ is a cuddlier term – but it can be anyone whom you reckon to have a reasonable degree of experience on the journey of life and faith, and with whom you can find space for such questions. In conversation with the person I used to go to, I raised this matter of connecting biblical stories with real-life experience. The advice I got was good. He said I should read the Bible, and also read some Christian biography. Alongside the classical narratives of our faith I could then set the stories of men and women living lives of faith in a world recognisably similar to ours. I could look for any resemblance between the God of the Bible and the God whom they knew; then, finally, I might see connections between these great and public lives and the life I was leading, less dramatic, less celebrated, but carrying its share of joys and troubles and perplexities.
Let’s try that, using the story of Moses and Let the Trumpet Sound, Stephen Oates’ biography of that great, flawed man of faith, Martin Luther King, a vivid portrait in which Oates makes great use of King’s own words, from speeches, sermons or later reflections. We have met Moses, in exile while his people are oppressed as slaves in Egypt. We now meet King, in January 1956, working to emancipate black Americans oppressed by the segregation laws in Alabama. Moses has fled for his life, while King is staying put, despite repeated death threats. Moses hears the voice of God calling him to return and rescue his people; and when he expresses fear at this mission, God tells him, ‘I will be with you.’ Here now is King’s experience of God speaking to him.
Late one night, he had just come home, exhausted, from yet another public meeting. The phone rang. Steeling himself, King picked up the receiver, to hear a voice telling him to get out of town in three days, otherwise his brains would be blown out and his house blown up. At that moment he decided to quit, for his family’s safety – he had a wife and young children – and because he himself had had enough. He prayed out loud: ‘O Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right, But, Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m afraid…I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left, I can’t face it alone.’ He sat there, head in hands, tears burning his eyes. At that moment, he felt something. Oates describes it as
a presence, a stirring in himself. And it seems that an inner voice was speaking to him with quiet assurance, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice, Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.’ He saw lightning flash. He heard thunder roar. It was the voice of Jesus telling him to fight on.
King later said of this moment, ‘He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.’ He had been a church pastor for some years by then, but it was that night that
for the first time God was profoundly real and personal’ to him. The idea of a personal God was no longer some ‘metaphysical category’ he found philosophically and theologically satisfying. No, God was very close to him now, a living God who could transform ‘the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope,’ and who would never, ever, leave him alone.
Let us pray.
Let us hold before God the story of Moses, servant of God, and the story of this servant of God from our own age.
And let us each lay before God our own story, especially that part of our story we are still telling in the present tense.
And in the silence which follows, let us each hold before God any part of life in which we feel scared, or weak, or at the end of our powers. And let us seek to listen to what an inner voice, now or at another time, may say to us.
Let the Trumpet Sound, Stephen B Oates, Search Press, 1982, pages 88f.