I have spent my life studying the Bible and trying to teach it in such a way that students could experience it as living and active in their lives. That is a high bar that more often than not I failed to clear; I was powerless to implement the deeper learning that I desired for my students. I could not make them love anything, or care for anyone, or open their hearts to the word of God. But I could invite them to follow me on a pilgrimage into the world of the Bible; I could invite them further up and further in (to borrow C.S. Lewis’s phrase) to this world where they might experience the glorious presence of God and feel convicted to live a glorious life.
I would often invite my students to follow me into the world of Exodus 3, the narrative of Moses’ call and ordination:
“Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I feel within me their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So now you start walking. I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go walking to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’” (3:1-12, NRSV except italics, which is my translation.)
In the minds of many people today, a wilderness is the enemy of civilization and needs to be conquered or at least tamed. Many North Americans fondly tell stories of heroic pioneers skinning animals, clearing forests, breaking sod, damming rivers, and laying rails and roads as they moved ever westward and founded a nation. In the minds of the people of Israel, a wilderness was something quite different. This narrative of Moses’ call and ordination begins in the wilderness through which he is passing. It is one of many wilderness narratives in Scripture. Abraham, Hagar, Elijah, and Jesus: each leaves home, travels through a wilderness, and returns home a changed person. What did wilderness mean to the people of Israel?
When I was younger and stronger, I used to canoe the rivers of northern Ontario with my professor of theology, Dr. Eugene Osterhaven, and a company of his friends and seminarians. Over a fortnight, we would paddle our way deeper and deeper into the Canadian wilderness.
I remember vividly one trip down the Shekak River. It was late May and there was still ice along the banks of the river. We loaded our canoes with all our paraphernalia early in the morning and set out downstream. The river was pristine and had no well-traveled portages. We had to slog through bogs to get around rapids. To make matters worse, we encounter huge logjams that we had not anticipated, and we constantly had to get out of the river and portage around them. We were cold and tired when we finally made camp in the evening. A few of us started a fire and began cooking rice, and the rest went fishing. Whether it was too cold or the spring run-off had driven the fish into deep holes in the river, I do not know, but no one caught anything. This was a problem. The pure rivers of the great north were teeming with trout, and we had planned on supplementing our meals every evening with a fish fry. We carried with us the “carbs”—peanut butter, oatmeal, rice, noodles, and dried potatoes, but we expected the river to supply the protein. That first evening we ate the rice, and we went to bed hungry. Our rumbling stomachs told us that they had not received enough nourishment to carry us through the next day.
We woke to a breakfast of coffee and heavily buttered oatmeal, broke camp, and set out again. The Shekak River was no friendlier to us the second day than it had been the first. The river was surging with the spring snowmelt, and we had to work hard not to be swept against rocks and capsize. We made camp that evening in silence. When hungry and cranky, best not to say anything. We started a fire, and this time we all grabbed our poles to go fishing. After about an hour someone yelled, “I got one.” Then someone else answered, “I got one too.” We salivated and kept fishing; maybe our luck had changed. It hadn’t. After hours of fishing, we had two fish for six people; it looked like it was going to take Jesus to multiply them and made a meal of it.
One of the fish was a northern pike, a fairly big one about thirty inches; the other a trout about seventeen inches. Not the fish fry we were hoping for, but enough to calm our stomachs. Fresh trout is a delicacy, northern pike not so much; but I never ate a fish that tasted as good as that one. Of all the meals I have eaten over all the years, this is one of the few that I remember. I can still see the pan on the fire, smell the aroma, and taste the fish. All the physical exertion and the hunger had heightened my awareness of my bodily existence, both my contingency and my dependency on the gifts of the world around me: breathing the air, drinking the water, eating the food. After eating we all sat contented around the fire. I was thinking about the gifts of the world, and then I was thinking about the quiet giver. The world was full of the glory of God. My every breath, drink, and meal came to me from the hand of God.
What is the meaning of wilderness? The wilderness is a vast world beyond our control, beyond all the systems we have constructed for our ease and comfort. The wilderness is an untamed world where we become more deeply aware of our contingency and our dependency on the gifts of God. The wilderness is a world in which God appears to us in ordinary things that we might otherwise ignore.
The Bush that Burns
Moses finds himself in such a wilderness, and God appears to him in an ordinary bush, yet not ordinary at all, a bush burning yet not consumed. When he turns aside to investigate, God calls to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses,” and he answers, “Hineini”: “Here am I.”
This burning bush is not a ploy to get Moses’s attention; it is one of the most evocative and underappreciated self-revelations of God in Scripture. God is revealing Godself to Moses as a burning fire. Hardly a divine being aloof from the affairs of the world and unmoved by the pain that people inflict on one another, the heart of God burns with an all-consuming and passionate love for the world and its people. God reveals this fiery love when he says to Moses: “I have seen the oppression of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cries on account of their taskmasters; indeed, I feel within me their sufferings.” The Hebrew word I translate “feel within me” is yadah, which refers to knowing something or someone intimately. It is the same word used in Genesis 4, when Adam knew Eve and she became pregnant.
Not only is God a burning fire, but God is a fire that does not burn out. God’s passionate love is inexhaustible. As Scripture reveals to us throughout its pages, God’s burning love overcomes resistance, refines the hearts of God’s people, and binds them so tightly together that nothing can ever separate them, as Paul so memorably said. God’s love burns until all the prodigal children of God come home and share in the great feast that God has prepared. How long Oh Lord, how long will your fire burn? So very long, but we do not lose heart. With Martin Luther King we affirm that while the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice (and shalom) and that in the struggle for justice we have cosmic companionship.
At this point in the narrative, we become aware of Moses’s sandals. God calls to him out of the bush, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” My Sunday School teachers told me that God told Moses to take off his sandals for the same reason that my mother told me to take off my dirty shoes after playing outside. Like her, God was trying to keep the House of God clean. My teachers understood one part of what this gesture meant, but not all.
Sandals and shoes are more than the leather we strap to our feet; they are symbols of our lives. All this came home to me quite vividly when I visited the death camp Majdanek in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis viewed the death camps as factories and people as raw material. They tried to make the camps “profitable.” They reprocessed everything from human hair and golden teeth, to the clothes people wore when they arrived. Most of the camps had warehouses where the “goods” were stored. When Majdanek was liberated by the Russians in the spring of 1944, some of its warehouses were still full and awaiting shipment. The liberators left everything intact as a witness to the atrocities.
One of the warehouses was filled with tens of thousands of shoes. When my wife Judy and I walked slowly though it, we saw slippers, baby booties, high heels, work boots, sport shoes, orthopedic shoes, every kind of shoe ever put together. We stared in silence. Every pair of shoes was a person and a symbol of his or her life. Looking at the shoes, we tried to imagine what each person looked like, whom they loved, and what they must have felt when they took their shoes off for the last time.
When God says to Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet,” God commands him to cast away his old life and get ready for a new one. God wants Moses to leave shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro and start shepherding the sheep of his father Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the people of Israel. Moses will be in need of a new pair of sandals.
Further, Moses’s act of removing his sandals bears even deeper meaning in this passage. God wants Moses to stand barefoot on holy ground. Why barefoot? Here are two things to consider.
1. God does not what anything to come between them. Filled with an all–consuming and passionate love for the world and its people, God desires touch; God desires to be in intimate contact with God’s people. This is the God who tabernacles with us. This is the God who takes on flesh in the person of Jesus in order to touch and to be touched. This is the God whom Jesus portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son with arms extended and waiting to embrace all the prodigal and pharisaical children of God. This is the God whom we celebrated at the communion table who through the power of the Holy Spirit makes the body and blood of Jesus available to his followers.
2. God wants Moses barefoot in order to feel the ground at his feet. Sandals are symbols of the life we have cobbled together, a life that can easily separate us both from God and from the world so loved by God. Our cobbled-together life protects us, but we risk losing touch with the ground around us, losing touch with the injustices of our institutions and those who suffer these injustices. God wants Moses to remove his sandals so that he can touch the world and feel more intensely both the joy of existence and the suffering of the oppressed.
Since the advent of the coronavirus, we have experienced many losses. Some of us have lost family members and friends; some of us employment and financial security; some the embrace of loved ones. While we have experienced many losses and the isolation of sheltering-in-place, the coronavirus has ironically put us more in touch with our world. In many ways, it has taken away our cobbled-together life and made us stand barefoot on the ground. We have become more aware of the disparities between the rich and the poor and the racism that reinforces those disparities; we have become more aware that the suffering has fallen disproportionately on the poorer and more vulnerable communities among us. Like the God of Moses, many among us have begun to see the misery, hear the cries, and feel the suffering of God’s people, and are calling on us to take this opportunity to address the systemic racism that has plagued our nation since its founding.
God’s Vision; Our Walk
Standing before the burning bush, Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Hold this image in your mind’s eye. Moses stands with his face covered and his feet bare on holy ground. Moses’s feet, not his face, come into direct contact with the fire of the Holy One. The significance of this peculiar stance is made clear in what follows. God takes up the theme of face and feet and says to Moses, “I have seen (my eyes have seen) the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard (my ears have heard) the cry on account of their taskmasters; indeed, I feel within me their sufferings…. Now you start walking (halach, walk), I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (verse 10). Our English translations miss halach, miss that God told Moses to walk.
Moses standing face covered and feet bare before God suggests the stance we should all assume as followers of God. Faithful service to God requires God’s eyes and our feet, God’s vision and our walk. This is not as glamorous as we would like. We tend to think that the faculties associated with our heads are the most important to God, our so-called higher faculties. We say to God: I am intelligent, Lord, use my mind; I am perceptive, Lord, use my ears; I am visionary, Lord, use my eyes. And God answers us in the words of the prophets, “You have eyes to see but you see not; ears to hear but you hear not. Remove your sandals from your feet. I need to empower your feet for the walk ahead.”
Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet
When do we memorably encounter bare feet again in the Bible? There is another narrative that should be connected to Moses’s removal of his sandals in Exodus 3: the narrative of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13. The foot washing was a sign of humble service, but it was much more. Jesus may have had Moses and Exodus 3 in mind as he knelt down. Not only was foot washing a sign of intimacy between Jesus and his disciples, it was also a sign of a transition. The disciples were at an important passage between their old life and the new life soon coming. In this between-time, Jesus had been instructing them, praying for them, and washing their feet. He washed their feet because he knew that his disciples would need all the strength and endurance they could muster to move in the direction that he wanted them to walk.
The problem with the church today is not a shortage of sermons, theological systems, and vision statements; it is a shortage of courage, commitment, energy, and perseverance. As all of us know, it takes great courage to put one foot in front of the other and walk in the direction that God is pointing.
The lessons of John 13 are found first in Exodus 3. We serve a God who burns with a passionate love for the people of the world, who sees their misery, who hears their cries, and who feels their suffering. God is pointing Moses and us in their direction, and our feet will need a blessing to have the strength to walk the road before us.