Sermon – An Inch from Destruction
Matthew 16:13-20; Exodus 3:1-15
Farmville Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2023
– Encountering God’s holiness/Finding God’s leading hope in a tough place
Today, we are going to talk about recognizing the people around us. This would have been helpful for those American hikers who were trekking over around Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the holiday castle of the former Queen of England. Over in Great Brittain, “trespassing” is different than in America. There is trespassing, but there are also big swaths of private land that are perfectly legal to roam around on as long as you do it respectfully. You pretty much go where you want. It feels like in America you can get shot for encroaching on private land. Over there, you can just do it. Anyway, this hiking couple ran into two other people hiking one day near the castle. The truly funny thing is that they did not recognize the queen. Queen Elizabeth enjoyed having fun with people, though, and did not let on who she was. Her longtime royal guard was also game to play along. The queen asked the tourists what they had seen in the UK, and they asked her if she had ever met the queen. She replied that she hadn’t, but her fellow hiker (being a royal guard) had met the queen regularly. Apparently, that impressed the American hikers so much that they wanted to get a picture with the guard and asked the queen to take it. How priceless that would have been to have the Queen take a picture OF you rather than WITH you? Thankfully, the guard convinced them to make that swap, so he took the picture of the Queen with the hikers. We certainly hope they met someone back home who helped them to understand who they had met.
The disciples had a somewhat similar moment at Caesarea Philippi, but instead of having to figure out who a stranger was, it was one of their closest friends. At face value, this story is strange and jarring. Jesus had been with his closest disciples for a good while, and they had shared many intimate moments. They were good friends, and we would expect them to know each other, so it is one thing to first hear Jesus ask the disciples who other people think he is. It is another thing to ask them who THEY think he is. He is NOT just looking for public perception. He seems to be fishing for the true, unrevealed answer. He wants to know whether the disciples think like the crowds or whether they know the truth that he is the Christ, the Messiah.
This is a strange story to me in that people all over the place were looking for the Messiah to come. In historical records, it seems like in every generation there is another Messiah character. I would have thought the crowds would have been wondering and talking about it, too, but according to the disciples, the crowds were just wrong. They did not know to whom it was that they were coming. They did not know whose hand fed them or whose mouth taught them or whose spirit comforted them. But, yes, Peter knew.
I have been to this location in Israel. It is a cave at the base of Mount Hermon up in an area that would have been heavily gentile and pagan with plenty of temple ruins. It was said the cave was a pathway to hell, and sulfur in the area gave it an unpleasant smell. That is what makes Jesus’ statement to Peter so meaningful since they were right there at a location that was believed to reach the underworld. Right there in the middle of all that pagan religion and cult practices and confusing mysticism, Jesus finds the truth in Peter’s response. Peter knows who Jesus is, and he is blessed for it. In that inhospitable place, a place associated with evil, Jesus shares who he is.
The one regret I have from visiting that location myself is not dipping my feet in the stream coming from the mountain. It was a tributary of the Jordan river and was a beautiful, clean and clear water. It would have been cold, but it would also have been refreshing to take my shoes off and dip them in God’s water.
I did not think of that as God’s holy ground, but Moses was not sure about holy ground, either. Over four hundred miles away, Mount Sinai dominated that wilderness area in what today is southern Saudi Arabia. That baby who had escaped death in a basket was now a man living as a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro, but Moses is unrecognizable as someone who grew up in Pharoah’s house. He had become disgusted enough with the treatment of the Jews that he killed an Egyptian taskmaster and ran for his life at age 40. Now at 80, he was tending sheep and finding God. Forty years later, his life would come to an end overlooking the land of Canaan. It had been a long time since his baby-in-Pharoah’s-house days. He had a wife and a family. He had no great plans, no great ambitions, no great calling. He was just a shepherd out watching his father-in-law’s herds, so it is very easy to understand how he might not know what to do at all with a bush burning and a voice calling to him from the mountain.
Now, a burning bush was not all that amazing. It was the fact that it kept burning and was not consumed that was notable. The voice was also a dead giveaway that something unusual was going on. To Moses’ credit, he could have run. Many people, if encountering such a sight, would have run. They don’t want their lives upended. They don’t want to worry about new things. They may not be interested in the presence of God. We have no evidence in the story that Moses had ever encountered God before. He does not know who God is until God tells him. No one really knew who God was except through family.
I absolutely love the fact that Moses dared to walk up to that bush with his sandals on. You have probably heard of cultures where you remove your shoes when entering a home. To be honest, the shoe is the dirtiest thing in your home. I recently heard about a study that analyzed household contaminants and found shoes the worst. It is what you are walking through outside that makes your shoes so troubling inside. It was no different in Jesus’ day. Oh, and did I mention that Moses was a shepherd??? Yes, his shoes would have been extra filthy, and yet, he tried to approach that burning God-bush with dirty shoes. We cannot even accuse him of being raised in a barn.
Thankfully, he understood what God was proposing and he removed his shoes, but what if he hadn’t? God would not have permitted Moses to stand there in God’s presence with filth on his feet. The most menial job in an ancient home was the slave who washed the feet of people who came into the home. The shoes came off, but the feet were still pretty dirty, so that lowly creature would have washed the dirtiest part of the body. In that same world, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the last supper to their horror. He was their master, and he was being the lowliest slave and telling them to do likewise.
Moses had a big decision to make. He either had to recognize who it really was burning in that bush, or he had to leave the protection and custom of the dirtiness of the world between them. If he did not recognize who God was, it was going to be his destruction. All that was between him and his utter demise was that inch or so of dirty sandal.
Now, the question is whether we are wearing sandals, too: are we wearing the blindness of the world between us and God’s work, God’s Kingdom? What is preventing us from seeing God’s leading? If you ever want to know where God is most at work, if you ever want to see where God is, it is where there is the most trouble. If you ever want to know where the Spirit is moving, it is where there is unrest, division, conflict, and turmoil. God is not equally invested everywhere – sorry. There is not an equal expression of God’s redeeming power infused into little Tabitha’s spelling test and the terrible divisions in Haiti or Sudan or the devastation of weather catastrophes, or the terrifying happenings through Central and South America driving people to flee gangs and violence, or the utter horror of war, or where community is threatened to be extinguished by the hatred, fear, and prejudice of others. My youngest is reading about the Rwandan genocide right now for school and is stunned by the atrocities we are capable of unleashing on each other. Wherever there have been breaks in the fabric of humanity, though, there is God working for something new. There have been times when the Spirit of God has moved in mighty ways through the streets of Farmville. It may happen, again. If it does, we will know it because the times will be telling. The bush will be burning, but it will be up to us to take the shoes off.
The problem with listening to God is that we really do not want to. In other words, it is easier to leave the shoes on when God comes calling. It is easier to trust in the ways of the world, in human strength, in our familiar things. We are used to the brokenness, even if it is harmful, and no one wants to be that one to stand up against the others seeking idols. Moses was terrified with the mission that God gave him and tried to figure out every excuse, but it was too late for Moses. He has already taken off his shoes in the presence of God. There was no going back. He traded his inch of destruction for a lifetime of service.
Where is God working here in our area right now? Where is the bush burning? To God be the glory. Amen.