Tag Archives: Exodus

Standing on Holy Ground


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 observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know 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 come, 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 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.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. Exodus 3:1-15.

I found this reading in the Daily Office for today.  The passage begins with Moses engaged in an everyday sort of task.  He’s tending to his father-in-law’s flock; he’s working.  Moses has not set out on a spiritual journey, he hasn’t gone into the desert to retreat and encounter the Infinite.  Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.

We should also note that Moses is pretty much homeless when this remarkable event happens.  Although an Israelite child, he was adopted by the Egyptians and lived among them until he killed an Egyptian overseer.  He runs away from the wrath of Pharoah into the land of Midian.  And as we know from the balance of the story, Moses will spend the bulk of his life wandering.  (It’s a bit ironic that he ends up finding a homeland for his people, but not for himself.)  In fact, Moses offers a revealing glimpse into himself when he says, “I have been an alien living in a foreign land.”  Gen. 2:22.  I think lots of folks feel that way, constantly looking for a home.

As Moses encounters this burning bush, YHWH tells him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  The removal of one’s sandals not only signifies that one has arrived at a sacred space, but also (within many cultures) suggests that one has entered a home.  Therefore Moses, the wanderer, finds his home with the Lord.

Two questions from this passage echo into each of our lives, and will shape the course of our faith.  The first is the question Moses asks of the Lord:  “Who am I?”  Moses wants to know his own authority to preach truth to power, and it’s a question most of us have faced at one time or another.  Who am I to be God’s voice in this troubled world?  Who am I to speak out against something that’s wrong?

We should find the second question equally troubling, and equally determinative for us.  Moses asks the Lord (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of our ancestors), “Who are you?”  Moses wants to know exactly what he’s going to tell people about who he met in the burning bush.  He wants to understand the Almighty; he wants to know God’s name.

The answer Moses heard, “I AM WHO I AM,” probably didn’t leave him completely satisfied.  The name “I AM” obviously conjures up so many of Jesus’ “I am” statements (the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, etc).  In this case, however, we might find particular encouragement in Jesus’ assurance:  “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

Many of us still hear the reverberations of these two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As we begin to answer them, I think we may find the story of Moses even more rich.  Once Moses begins to understand the answers (a rudimentary and incomplete understanding) God immediately sends him on a mission.  In Moses’ case, the mission involves confronting Pharoah and leading the people into Israel as God saves His people.  In our case, that mission may be completely different.  But only through that journey, which will last for the rest of his life, will Moses come to more fully understand who God is and who Moses is.

The journey leads him to a deeper understanding of YHWH, which leads him to a deeper understanding of himself, which leads him further along the journey.  I believe that’s part of the reason why the Exodus became the overarching narrative of the Jewish people, and why it remains so important today.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Out Into the Wilderness

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  Mark 1:9-13.

This portion of the reading from this week’s Lectionary  illustrates two important ideas relevant to our Lenten discussions.  The first is the principle of resistance.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from heaven announces that he is the beloved son of God.  There’s a Greek phrase that Mark uses throughout his Gospel, kai euthos.  It’s most often translated as “immediately” or “just then.”  Mark reports that immediately after this wonderful moment, right after this transcendent announcement, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

It seems an odd thing:  Jesus has just been consecrated to his vocation as the Messiah, the savior, and immediately He’s sent to the desert to face temptation.  We get a sense of the loneliness of Jesus’ situation, an isolation illustrated by the notion of “the wilderness.”  (In this sense, Jesus will share the Genesis experience of being “cast out” with us, will share in the Exodus experience of wandering in the wilderness.)  The phrase “the wilderness” connotes chaos, fear and a landscape where death and sin become a real possibility.

I think many of us have shared that experience:  just when we think things are going well, when we’ve decided to turn a corner on our relationship with God, we are thrust into that wilderness.  As Michael Corleone famously observed, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

As we work through our Lenten disciplines, attempting to find our way through the wilderness, we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter this “resistance” to change.  Sometimes, we may find that our Ancient Enemy views this as an opportune time drag us down again.  Sometimes, we may provide our own resistance, or even find resistance from our friends or our families.  And then, we may confront one of the greatest lies Satan tells us:  “Things are never going to change.  This is just too hard.  Life wasn’t so bad before.”

Even while he was in the wilderness with the “wild beasts”, Mark reports that the angels waited on Jesus.  Now, the angels acted as the messengers of God.  I think Mark is trying to tell us that even in that wilderness of spiritual desolation, God will not leave us alone.  Somehow, someway, God will speak words of comfort, courage and peace.  Learning to listen for them when we are ravaged by our terrors, that’s the tricky part.

Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as having been “tempted by Satan”.  As usual, Mark doesn’t provide many of the particulars here.  Both Matthew and Luke offer more detail about the specific temptations Christ suffered.  We do know one thing about Satan, however.  Jesus said that Satan “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  John 8:44.  In this teaching, Jesus illustrates for us something important about the very nature of sin.

I believe that most sin, if not all sin, originates with a lie.  The German people could not have burned 6 million Jews without first deceiving themselves into the belief that the Jews were less than human.  We Americans could not have participated in the brutality of slave labor and the  slave trade without first believing that the Africans were “chattel”, that they were animals.  Or maybe we persuade ourselves that we haven’t had that much to drink, and we’ll have just one more glass of wine before driving home.  Sin generally originates in a lie, because deception is the currency of sin.

In my law practice, I’ve handled a number of cases of embezzlement.  In almost every case, the employee has convinced themselves that their employer has taken advantage of them somehow, and they’re merely recovering what the employer should have given them. I think I understand these folks because if I have a superpower, it’s my ability to deceive myself and rationalize.  And when I stray “out into the wilderness”, I find that deception is the native language of sin.

If we begin to view sin as separation from God, rather than simply doing something naughty, we start to see the subtle danger here.  Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life.  Of course, the Father of Lies must separate us from the Truth. Using this Lent as an opportunity for genuine reconciliation, therefore, requires that our self-examination must be firmly rooted in the unyielding truth.  As we approach Jesus, the closer we come, the further we move away from Our Ancient Enemy.

C.S. Lewis once observed “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” God always seeks our union with Him; Satan always seeks to divide us from God and his children.  I pray we use this season of Lent to reflect on those things which operate to come between us from the Almighty, and to take a few steps back towards our real home.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis