How does God ‘appear’ to a human being? Those who have felt they ‘experienced’ the divine, but usually find it hard to describe or explain. The Bible tells of some of these events, and mostly they keep an aura of mystery. One of the strangest is in a plant – not a majestic tree like the California redwoods nor the cedars of Lebanon that the psalms often speak of. These indeed can be awe-inspiring. But today we hear of a scrubby desert bush.
Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
Early in the second book of the Bible is the call of Moses to be the one who will lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. To know what Moses is doing tending flocks out in the Sinai wilderness, you can read his backstory in chapter 2, and the account of the oppression of the Hebrews is just before that.
Horeb is another name for Sinai, the term more familiar to us. To take off shoes shows reverence, an odd idea to Europeans but Muslims still do so to pray in the mosque. Covering his face was based on the idea that one could not ‘see God and live’.
Our abbreviated reading leaves out God’s telling Moses he is the one to lead the people, and Moses’ first objection of being unworthy for that mission. We pick up his second concern, which is to have some authorization of who has sent him. God gives him this with a new name, linking it to the older designation as the God of the Patriarchs. ‘I Am who I Am’ is one translation of the Hebrew words ehyeh asher ehyeh which are variously interpreted. The word ehyeh is first person form of the Hebrew verb for ‘to be’, so that I AM may be seen as expressing the unique existence of God – existing ‘of God’s self’ – whereas all lesser beings have been created. It may also have the sense of ‘being with’, as God tells Moses ‘I will be with you’ in his mission. Some, however, take it as a refusal to give any name that can be used to make a claim on God.
The third-person form of the verb ehyeh is ‘Yahweh’ which is used in parts of the Hebrew Bible as the name of God. It was later thought to be so holy that it should never to be pronounced, in case it was ‘taken in vain’ as the Ten Commandments forbid. In reading the Hebrew Bible aloud, the words ‘the Lord’ was substituted, and this has passed into most English translations and modern use.
Psalm 102/103:1-4, 6-8, 11
The response picks up themes from the first reading: the holy name, redemption, Moses, and the abiding love of God.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
The background to St Paul’s instruction is the book of Exodus, but in later sections than our first reading. He is concerned with stories from the time of wandering in the desert, and also refers to some events in the book called Numbers. Paul’s teaching is based on the idea of ‘types’, which are a form of symbol in seeing a past event as foreshadowing a later fulfilment, usually in the life of Christ or Christians. Here Paul is using sacramental language, as if what happened to the Hebrews in the desert had something of the essence of Christian baptism and the Eucharist.
His next step is to urge his readers to learn the lessons of the failures of the Israelites who, despite all that had been done for them, grumbled and distrusted God and fell into idolatry and general sinfulness. Paul warns the Corinthians that we who have been baptized in Christ could also fail to be faithful to our calling.
The idea of a rock as water comes from the miracle in Exodus 17:6 God tells Moses to strike a stone and from it drinking water will flow. The ‘following’ of the stone as Christ was an echo of Jewish thinkers who thought of the Lord in this manner. ‘Rock’ is a favourite symbol in the psalms for God as one strong whom we can rely on for protection.
We are at the point in Luke where Jesus has ‘set his face to Jerusalem’ (9:51) knowing that there he is to finish his journey, his ‘passing’ – the exodos as we heard at the Transfiguration last week. Luke uses this travel time to collect various teachings and events. In the previous chapter, Jesus warned that a serious time of judgment was ahead and people needed to be ready. Some of the listeners come with recent news of an atrocity of Pilate. Luke does not tell us what the listeners expected Jesus to say or do. Some, like the party of the Zealots at that time, may have wanted a call to fight against the Roman rule. Jesus, however, will not use force to bring his Kingdom, not even to use power to ‘come down from the cross’ when taunted.
Others may have wanted him to condemn the victims as receiving what they deserved. The idea that good people will come out well and the evil will have bad things happen to them was taught by the Pharisees, and found in the book of Job. It is still widely heard today as, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ Jesus does not support this belief; after all, he has done nothing to deserve the suffering and death that he is heading towards!
Instead he reminds them of a recent accident that killed a number of people who might also have been thought of as sinners deserving death. None of these people were any more evil than the rest of the country, he says. Rather than a religious reason for those misfortunes, he warns them that death and judgement are coming for all of them, but there is still time for all who have turned away from God to make a change. He may have meant the destruction of Jerusalem which came in 70 CE by the Romans, but it is a message that suits all times for we will all die sometime. There is urgency in Jesus’ words – the time for repentance is NOW.
Luke adds a parable that gives hope with the promise that God is always waiting – waiting far beyond human patience – for the conversion of those who first reject him. This is another example of how threats, even ones so strongly expressed as definitely ‘coming’, are meant to turn people back to seeking the forgiveness which God continues to offer.
Nicholas King in his translation adds a question for thought or discussion at the end of his comments. ‘Are you on a journey of repentance?’ for this reading fits Lent. A question I ask myself is, ‘Am I ready for God to “tend me like the fig tree” in digging out my sins and shortcomings, so that I will bear the fruits of Christian living?’