Dark and light

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

During the ongoing war in Gaza, much has been made of the small area, and how many Palestinians live there. It is 139 square miles, a bit smaller than the Isle of Wight, and 1.8 million people live there. Now, of course, about half of Gaza is uninhabitable, so 1.8 million people are squashed into about half the Isle of Wight. Given how much people are squashed in there, and you’ll find people squashed in just the same in other parts of Palestine (12,000 people live in an area that would fit inside the Farnham one way system in Bethlehem), you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole of Palestine and Israel is grossly over crowded. However, it isn’t: there is a great deal of desert.

If you travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, it’s very easy to see there’s plenty of desert. You can travel for what seems miles and miles and never meet another living soul, except perhaps for the odd Bedouin shepherd. It’s not just on that road, but also if you go to the Dead Sea, or Masada, or Sinai. Although many, many, people live in that land, there’s still acres of desert. We don’t have much desert in the UK, at least not the physical kind, but there’s plenty of it in the Holy Land. It’s a desolate and unforgiving place; not for the faint hearted. Vistas of barren land; endless sandy landscapes, broken only by the occasional scrubby bush, or remote shanty camp. Shepherds trek for days with their flocks following where they are led, searching for patches of poor vegetation; a bush that burns in that terrain may not even be noticed…unless of course it had an other-worldly or mysterious appearance.

This is exactly what happened to Moses, who sees a bush burning without being consumed. I’m sure we’d find that quite mysterious enough, but even more happened to Moses. Into this mystery; this hot, arid, scene comes a new dimension: suddenly Moses is called by name. Now, to have someone who knows us, and knows our name, and to call us by our name signifies a particular sort of relationship (or at least, it used to; it certainly did when the story was written) to move from formal to more personal; to be addressed and known, implies a deepening connection, a moving into more familiar territory. The voice calls to Moses, and he responds; and what happens next has now been made ordinary only because we have heard the story so many times; we have seen the illustrations; we have imagined the scenario; the passage of time and history has removed the shocking reality of the next revelation: “you are standing on holy ground, I am God!”

Our Bible readings today describe holy encounters; and each is familiar, known, well explored over many years. In both a man has a conversation with God. In both the man argues, challenges and is challenged. Moses said, “Who am I to do this? What will I do if they don’t believe me? Who shall I say you are?” Peter said, “No! No, you cannot be serious! This cannot happen.” They were two different conversations, but both were light and dark; encouragement and rebuke; fear and reprimand.

Moses receives his mission; he will take God’s message of hope to the suffering people of Israel; and his mission is confirmed by God revealing God’s name: offering to deepen the connection; to offer a personal relationship and support to Moses: I AM has spoken.

Peter on the other hand, having just declared who Jesus is, having named him as the Messiah, immediately tries to thwart the mission. Peter, who has the ultimate deep, personal, relationship with God, right in front of him, still fails to really grasp what it means. Peter suffers from that human deficiency of trying to confine God and God’s mission into our own little definable space. Jesus is here; Jesus is great; and I don’t want this to end. I want to carry on travelling this road with him; hearing his stories; seeing his miracles; sharing in this glory. But never really understanding that more must happen; that Jesus is moving forward to fulfil God’s plan. Jesus’ rebuke is harsh, and it is uncompromising: stop thinking only in human terms: this is bigger than that; you cannot confine God’s plan to your immediate comfort and experience – this mission is for all humanity.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, from a safe distance in time and geography, we can look at Peter and smile, and shake our heads. Yes, Peter is great, he reminds us of our own foolishness; we can identify with him and we can learn from his mistakes. But there’s rather more to it than that. Jesus doesn’t stop at the foolishness of Peter, who speaks first and thinks later (not that we ever do that!). Jesus rather tells each of the disciples that their own souls could be in jeopardy: stop thinking in human terms alone; stop thinking in worldly terms; this world is not the end; this world is only a beginning: life is one thing, but your soul is something else altogether!

Moses knew he needed more than just the message, he needed to be able to answer when people challenged him; he trusted that this astonishing manifestation in the desert really was God; really was the first sign of deliverance for the people caught in slavery and misery. He was privileged to know God by name, to be invited into a deeper relationship with him, and thus was able to communicate God’s message of hope to desperate people; a vision of a land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Peter was caught up in the moment, and still on the journey. God knew his heart was good, even if he shot his mouth off occasionally! And we all know that, eventually, Peter would be ready to take up his own cross; to speak out not to save his own life, but to save the souls of those who needed God’s word. We all have days of dark and light: days when we reject God, and days when we feel filled by God’s Spirit. We are blessed by the knowledge that God has, throughout the history of humanity, been able to work and use people, just as they are; on good days and bad; in darkness and light. I AM is the same in our generation, as in Moses’ generation. Seeking only good for the people; seeking to help us to live not only for this fragile earthly life, but for the life of the world to come. So when we step out onto Holy Ground, when we encounter God who seeks a deep, personal, loving relationship with us, we can now know that others have trod this path before us, and other still will follow on: God is with us; I AM is as unchangeable today as all those generations ago.

Some of us may feel like Peter, that we get it wrong, despite our best intentions. Some of us may feel like Moses, not up to what God call us. Some of us may feel quite different. Whoever we are, and however feel, God wants to encourage us, just as he encouraged Moses and Peter. So, let us pause for a moment’s quiet, and in that quiet be still. I AM is God.

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