I had a ‘burning bush’ experience some years ago. I was at a day retreat in East Berkshire and I went for a walk in the countryside. The path took me alongside paddocks for racehorses and rare breeds of sheep. Each field was manicured with neatly clipped hedges until I rounded a bend, and to my astonishment, was a stretch of ancient hedgerow.
I guess its age was about 200 years, judging by the mature trees and the presence of every species of hedgerow plant that I recognised. Each twig was laden with autumn fruits, which shone in the sunshine as if they had been freshly polished, in every shade of the red spectrum through to purple. By its colour, the hedgerow appeared to be on fire. What added to this impression was the movement of the many gaudy butterflies, and all kinds of bees, wasps, hornets and flies, flickering like flames of fire.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
As I gazed at this wonder of nature, I sensed that I was not alone. Although I did not hear a voice demanding that I remove my shoes, nevertheless there was a voice in my head, that seemed to be engaging me in dialogue. The external landscape had invaded the interior landscape of my mind.
I admit that I had been feeling very unsettled at the time. I had recently retired, and had sensed that God was calling me to serve in a new way. Exactly what, I had difficulty discerning, but the fragile beauty of this rare ancient hedgerow, seemingly on fire, seared my heart, and in my mind I felt was urging me to make a bold change in my life.
That moment condensed a vigorous debate about the damage we were doing to God’s creation and I decided that the politics and theology academic study I was engaged in should take on an ecological dimension. It was the start of a new journey for me, after 40 years in the ‘wilderness’ of England, to where I am standing now.
What had been revealed to Moses was a sacred space, identified as the soil itself, which was holy, and out of which a miraculous bush had grown, nourished by God and from which God spoke. When Moses turned and gazed on the bush, he discovered the miracle of God’s presence, within a fire that blazed but did not consume the bush. When Moses removed his sandals, he accepted the claim that God was making upon him.
God called him to forsake the way of life that had protected him from Egyptian justice. He had killed an Egyptian. As he felt the holy earth between his toes, a connection was made between the fire of the bush and the fire that would be kindled in his heart until he was able to lead his people out of slavery.
Paul engages us in a discussion about what is meant by ‘living sacrifice’[Romans 12.9 – end]. He says that we should not conform passively to this world. As followers of Christ we are called to be holy and we re-affirm this discipleship in our regular worship. It means we are to value hardships and live through them in hope, opening ourselves to God’s love, expressed through Christ, even while experiencing these hardships.
In the West, we live in a culture that inundates us with advertising designed to keep us conformed to this world. The marketing industry spends billions annually on advertising, flooding our screens, newspapers, billboards, and invading our interaction on social media. The American theologian Walter Brueggemann argues that, “…life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to a threat and competitor.” [Sabbath as Resistance, 2014]
So not being conformed to this world is a big demand. The world will fight at every stage, with the power and determination of the Egyptians pursuing Moses and his people as they escaped from slavery. They want us to look the other way rather than glimpse the injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed, and violence that surround us. So it will take transformation, renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter.
Most people care about their potential futures, and the future of their children and grandchildren. But the storm clouds are already here, gathering over parts of the world, as we are witnessing with the scenes of catastrophic flooding in America, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East. In the longer term, scientists expect that a “turbocharged water cycle” fed by global warming will lead to more of these extreme rainfall events that are causing these historic floods. Humans now dominate the planet so heavily that we are pushing wild animals and plants into oblivion. We use more than half of the world’s land for our food, cities, roads and mining; we use more than 40% of the planet’s productive capacity; and we control three-quarters of all fresh water.
The picture is an alarming one but as Brueggemann goes on to say, “God has complete confidence in the fruit-bearing, blessing-generating processes of creation that have been instituted. God exhibits no anxiety about the life-giving capacity of creation. God knows the world will hold, the plants will perform, and the birds and fish and beast of the field will prosper. Humankind will govern the earth in a generative way. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
Why this optimism? Because we have been made in the image of God, we know when to take a Sabbath rest; we know when enough is enough. Brueggemann goes on to say “…the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.” If we are prepared to live out the image of God then, in so doing, we put God first. God has confidence in us to do this, just as he had confidence in Moses to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.
We may try to argue like Moses that we do not have the gifts and skills for the task, but the different gifts we have been given in order to make that happen vary “according to the grace given to us”, as Paul says. This is grace as the transforming power of God, the renewing of our minds, the living offering. “I will be with you,” God says to Moses. This should be sufficient assurance that should lead us into a new way of living and point us toward a good, acceptable, and sustainable future. Yes, we may have to spend sometime in the wilderness but, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Amen.