How might you respond if you came across a burning bush? Would you think it a random occurrence or a divine encounter? The question is a little unfair as we know the biblical story well. Years of Sunday School flannel graphs and children’s Bibles have etched this divine meeting in our memories. The image of a bush “on fire yet not burning up” (Exodus 3:2) is immediately recognizable; we know it to be a divine manifestation. The burning bush contains God’s presence and voice.
Of course, Moses did not have this understanding. For Moses, this divine manifestation takes place during an ordinary day. Moses is simply guiding his flock as he normally does. It is safe to assume that he had led the flock to this very location numerous times, all without anything miraculous taking place. For Moses, the sight of the burning bush occurs on a day, and a journey, like so many before. Yet on this day, surrounded by the ordinary, God makes his presence known.
This divine encounter testifies to the possibility of recognizing God’s presence in the ordinary spaces of our lives. Such an encounter is not solely reserved for Moses; it is available to us all. We may doubt that we will ever come across a burning bush, but the truth is, God manifests God’s presence in our lives. On ordinary days, during ordinary tasks, God makes God’s presence known. The account of Moses and the burning bush highlights three truths to remember.
1. God Comes to Us
One of the most important elements of this account is the fact that God takes the initiative. Even though Moses journeys to this mountain, as he had done so many times before, it is God who acts first. Moses does not journey in search for God’s presence; it is God who comes down and approaches Moses.
Exodus records: “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush” (3:1). In this ordinary place, amid an ordinary routine, without any previous expectation, God places a unique manifestation of his presence before Moses.
Of course, Moses could have moved on. He could have seen the burning bush and decided that an investigation was not worth his effort. To his credit, Moses recognizes that something extraordinary is taking place. “I will go over and see this strange sight — why the bush does not burn up,” he says (v. 1). Still, at this point, he has no thoughts of a divine encounter. Moses is only concerned with looking at something strange and wonderous. It is God who makes God’s presence known.
Could it be that God comes to us amid our daily routines? Scripture highlights how God often reveals God’s self within the ordinary and the commonplace. For many, the idea of God coming to them, speaking to them, is far beyond imagination.
Such experiences, it is mistakenly believed, are reserved for the holy and set-apart. Yet the burning bush holds before us the truth that God enters our world. Our lives are lived in the context of God’s presence. God’s presence is discovered in our daily lives. It matters not who we are or where we are, God declares God’s presence in our midst.
2. God Calls to Us
In this wonderful account, God is not merely present; God calls out to Moses. As Moses goes over to spy on the miraculous sight, God calls out from the burning bush. Moses hears himself addressed; “Moses, Moses” (v. 4), God calls. By calling out to him by name, God reveals an intimate knowledge of Moses’ life. God knows who Moses is, his temperaments, his faults, and his fears.
In calling out to us, God calls Moses to himself. God does not wish to stand on the side-lines of our lives, a mere passive observer of our days. God wants to be known. God’s presence is to be experienced in the intricate corners of our days. God calls us into a fellowship, a relationship, asking us to join our lives with God’s own.
Standing before the burning bush, Moses does not yet have a full picture of the divine calling. He does not yet know to what God is calling him. Yet this unknowingness does not deny the truth that God calls out to him.
The task for Moses, at this point, is simply to accept God’s presence; to dare to believe that God is reaching out. Similarly, we might not know the ins and outs of God’s calling upon our own lives. We may have questions as to what God is asking of us. Yet because God is present, we can be sure that God is calling.
3. God Sends Us
God does not display divine power simply for Moses’ entertainment. God sends him into the world with a divine mission. Moses is called to be an agent of redemption; to bear witness to God’s presence and power.
God declares to Moses: “So now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (3:10). God has a divine plan for which Moses plays an important part. Moses’ entire encounter with this burning bush leads up to this act of sending.
It is here where we tend to separate ourselves from this account. It is here where we mistakenly assert that there was something special about Moses that made him fit for a divine call. Thus, we assume that such a sending could not occur to people as ordinary as ourselves. This is simply not true.
Moses’ life is unmistakeably ordinary. He tends sheep for his father-in-law. His previous experience of royalty (which did not end well) has long passed. Even Moses’ own response to the Lord affirms this: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring out the Israelites” (3:11). Even Moses did not consider himself anything special!
We may not be asked to engage in the liberation of an entire nation, but God does call us to ministry. God invites us into a life, which serves as a testimony to God’s grace and love in this world. This sending can seem daunting. It certainly did for Moses.
Moses initially resists God’s call. He argues with God, coming up with reason upon reason for why the Lord is wrong in sending him. Finally, after he exhausts all excuses, Moses flatly requests that the Lord send someone else (4:13).
Yet despite all his questions and concerns, God’s response is simple: “I will be with you” (3:12). God does not send Moses on this epic adventure by himself — God journeys with him.
The burning bush reveals God’s presence, a presence that journeys with us throughout our lives. God is present this day, the next day, and the day after that. The constancy of God’s presence is promised to us through all the ups and the downs of life. God never sends us out alone. God is with us and goes before us.
What Does This Mean?
The burning bush is a place of divine encounter. It is a time of calling, and ultimately, it is a place of sending. Moses leaves that mountain and follows in the way God has called. He does so, probably, with a sense of nervousness, with a little bit of fear, and maybe with a whole lot of questions. But in the end, he accepts the call and steps out in faith.
What if we lived our lives in the same way? What if we looked upon the normal places of our lives as the very places where God comes to us? What if we dared to believe that in the most regular and routine of moments, God’s voice calls us to God’s self, and sends us out in ministry?
The burning bush, as miraculous as it is, declares the wonder of God’s presence in the midst of the ordinary. The biblical account is about God meeting an ordinary person on an ordinary day. If we can be open to this possibility in our lives, and wilfully follow in the way that the Lord leads us, then who knows what divine wonders we may encounter.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.