Sermon preached for Trinity Sunday for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Three years ago, I was invited to a conference for new pastors, held at a camp center about forty-five minutes from Asheville, nearish to Montreat. About a week before we left, along with the usual details about speakers and paperwork, we got an email with an unusual PS:
Bring a flashlight. The walk back to the cabins gets dark in a few spots.
This same conference, the year before, had been held in a conference center in Indiana, where the housing was more like a hotel, with a nice paved sidewalk running along the edge of the parking lot on the way to the event center. I’d been expecting something similar.
Instead, this place was like a real camp. We stayed in cabins about a 20 minutes walk from the dining hall—a 20 minutes walk that wound through woods, across a lake, and up a mountain. Given that the conference lasted until at least nine or ten most nights—yes, it got dark.
The first morning, I was a bit miffed. I hadn’t really prepared for a twice-daily hike. But then I walked back, late at night, and all my irritation melted.
About halfway down the path, after the woods but before the lake, the walk opened up into a huge grassy field. I think it had some volleyball nets or something in it, but I can’t really remember, because almost immediately, I found myself looking up.
Into a sky splattered with stars.
You know that feeling. That first glimpse of the night sky away from the city, clear of light pollution. The sky is so, so, so vast, and you are so, so, so small. And you stand amazed. I know I am not the first to feel the greatness of God in the night sky, to feel the hugeness and infiniteness and mystery of the divine creator looking up at God’s most far-flung handiwork.
I forget, living here, just how many stars there are, and how the swoop of them can feel almost dizzying. Most nights a little knot of us would collect there on the field, our heads thrown back like turkeys in the rain, staring up. You couldn’t walk by and not feel swallowed up by that black, spangled sky.
I took a few photos with my cell phone, but all they captured was darkness. Another pastor had a big professional camera, and his photos captured more, the green and purple glints of the milky way, the billions and billions of tiny pinpricks of stars, the brighter spots of planets. Still, no camera could completely record the majesty of those skies. They riveted us, gathered us, compelled us to stand there, gaping, late into the night. Somehow, I even think they healed us, a little.
I had an art classmate once who considered himself agnostic. “I’d be totally atheist,” he said, “except for the stars. I know all the science, the astronomy, and all the psychology of why they affect us the way they do. I keep thinking one day I’ll be able to squash the mystery out and be done. But every time I stand under a really big night sky, I end up believing in spite of myself. Believing that there’s something. I don’t call it anything. I definitely don’t call it God. But something. It annoys me, but I can’t help it. So I’m atheist during the day, and agnostic at night.”
My classmate’s exhibition featured a series of paintings of various places he had lived, done in the style of Van Gogh’s starry night. I loved them.
Creation has always opened humanity to the wonder of God. It is no surprise that the most ancient gods were gods of thunder, ocean, fire, night. No surprise that our ancient Hebrew forebears spoke of God who flung the stars into the sky, and placed his throne in the heavens. Even today, people who would never step foot into a building with pews and a steeple will connect with God on mountaintops and beaches. And people who dutifully sit in a pew every Sunday will tell you they never really felt like they met God until they sat outside under the vast skies.
Nature is our first and widest window into our God.
And so it really is no surprise that the first time Moses meets his God, it is out in the wilderness, far away from the bright lights of Pharoah’s court, just him and his father-in-laws sheep out in the desert and the mountains.
Moses was not searching for God. He was not seeking to embark on a course of theological study. And yet he saw something amazing, and he was drawn to it.
A bush, burning. Not itself so extraordinary in a dry climate. But a bush, burning, but not consumed. Burned, but not burnt up. A perpetual, living, glowing fire. Like a star, set down at his feet.
And, as Moses soon discovers, this is a fire with a voice. When God sees that Moses is coming towards the burning bush, God calls to him by name, and tells him to take off his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground. This scrubby patch of desert dirt and sand, made holy by the fire of God’s presence.
It is quite an introduction, this first time God says hello to Moses. “I am the God of your father,” God says, “of all your ancestors, all those stories you’ve heard and wondered about. I’m the god of your past. And I hear my people crying out from slavery in Egypt—I see their pain. I am the god of your present. And I will send you to free them, to bring them to me. I am the god of your future.”
Moses is amazed, but he manages to ask a single question: “what is your name?”
And God answers, I AM WHO I AM. One taut sentence. God cannot be dismantled or parsed further. God simply IS.
Our best translations can’t really express the name of God. I AM is a clumsy try. The name God shares is four Hebrew consonants, that do not really make a word together. Sometimes we pronounce it Yahweh, or even Jehovah. The Hebrews would never do that. When they are reading aloud and come across the divine name, they substitute in the word Adonai, which means Lord.
God is such a mystery, so beyond us, so impossible, so far from human comprehension and science and language, that even God’s name is barely graspable.
God is mystery and paradox, a fire that burns but doesn’t consume, that can be felt but not touched.
Today the church celebrates Trinity Sunday, which marks the culmination of a journey we began back at the end of November, on the first Sunday of Advent. Over the last seven months, we’ve worked through God’s promises to save God’s people, through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, and, just last week, through the Spirit’s power descending on Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is here to remind us that this isn’t a three-act play, or a baton race with three kinds of god taking turns, but all one God, one God in three persons, one God working together to be with us to the end.
It is tempting to try to explain how that works. Today, all I can tell you is that it is a mystery, as impossible and real as a flaming bush that isn’t burned up, as beautiful and incomprehensible as a starry sky, as easy to feel and as hard to grasp as flame itself.
Human beings cannot fully comprehend all God is. We can only see God in bits and pieces. When I stood in that field in North Carolina, I felt like I could see the whole universe, but actually, I could only glimpse the teeniest, shallowest slice of it. But that slice was more than enough for me. I know I only know the teeniest, shallowest slice of the great I AM. But it is enough for me.
John Calvin, whose pursuit of God birthed the Presbyterian tradition in the 1500s, acknowledged that creation can tell us much about God. After all, as the psalms say, the heavens are telling the glory of God. But nature itself, he said, is not enough. As beautiful as stars and oceans and sunsets are, they are only one window into God. They tell us part of who God is, but God is always more.
It’s like sitting around a dying campfire, Calvin said, and seeing the sparks scattered around the ground. They do not give light or heat unless they are raked together into a fire. And so it is our work as humans to draw the sparks together, to make a pattern out of what we see of God’s glory and work, into something that gives heat, light, and life.
“Fallen human beings,” writes scholar David C. Steinmetz, “see scattered sparks of truth, momentary flashes of illumination, and blurred pages from the book of nature. When sinners try to construct out of these fragments a natural theology that points to the true God, they succeed only in assembling a picture of what Calvin called an idol, a deity who is not really God but only a cheap substitute for the real thing.”
If we truly want to know God more deeply, nature alone isn’t enough. My artist friend who stood under the stars acknowledged the possibility that there was something—something holy in the world. I wonder what he might have learned by reading the stories of God in scripture, or by talking to people of faith with the same awed curiosity instead of dismissing what they had to say out of hand. Nature gives us a window into God—but to truly know God, we must fling open every window we have, and look in eagerly.
I have known God in the quiet rise of the first star at dusk. I have known Christ in the nurse holding a patient’s hand so they do not feel alone. I have known the Spirit in a line of music that grabs hold of my heart and will not let me go. We have so many ways to see God. You don’t have to go to a desert to find a burning bush, or a seminary to find a giant book, or even a camping trip to find a starry sky. Look almost anywhere, and God is there.
It turns out just about everywhere is holy ground. The whole world is ablaze with God’s presence, burning but not consumed.
And so we stand amazed at all God is, and we give endless thanks. Amen.