Readings: Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:13-20
The Burning Bush
In the Old Testament (Exodus 3) is found that superb story of Moses looking after sheep near Mt Horeb when he notices a bush which, although burning, is not consumed. The symbolism is, of course that of the eternal flame - a symbol for God. Moses asks of the presence within the burning bush `What is your name?` In those days the name meant more than it does today. It sought to represent the nature of the person. Moses has been called to free the Israelites from captivity and so he asks, `Who will I say has sent me? What is your name?` He waits with baited breath for the answer - and the answer is the oddest name you have ever heard. The answer given is havah
- the verb `to be`, a word closely associated with the word chavah
`to live`. This word is translated by most as `I am who I am` or `I will be who I will be`. When they ask who has sent you say `I am has sent me` or `I will be has sent you.`
To many this is most peculiar answer. Not a bit of it! It defines the essence of God - that of being, the life force, the essence of life, the substance of life, or however else you want to describe life itself. If I was translating it (and I would remind you that I only gained a conceded pass in Hebrew!), I would translate it as `the Spirit of Life - the being of life`. The Guardian newspaper has a queries column and a few weeks ago someone asked the question, `Why is there something rather than nothing?` It`s the question of being. It`s the question of `I am`.
The theologian who came closest to speaking of God in this way was probably Paul Tillich. He spoke of God as `the ground of our being` - the `depth of our being` vis a vis the shallowness of much of what we know as life. The titles of his books portray what he was on about: `The Courage to Be`, `The New Being`, `Shaking the Foundations`. He suggested that rather than thinking of God as a supernatural person out there, think in terms of depth. `The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God`. God is the ground of our being. In God we live and move and have our being.
What is being maintained here is that God is the Spirit, the very breath, of life. The Hebrew word consists of breath. Inward breath Haaaa Outward breath Vaaaa. HaaaaVaaa. God is the breath of life, the Spirit of life, the ground of our being. One should not be surprised to learn that, for the Hebrews, life began when the baby took its first breath and finished when the person ceased breathing. `What is you name?` asked Moses. `My name is breath, my name is being. I am the Spirit of Life.`
And I don`t know about you, but every now and again I become acutely conscious of being alive. Coming down Red Hill into the sunset one day, I can remember saying aloud `God, its good to be alive!` My sense of being, of conscious awareness, expanded exponentially and there was a sense of gratitude of `being`, when I could so easily not be. It was a burning bush, a burning sunset, moment! To have being is miracle enough. To be conscious of being is a miracle of cosmic proportions. It is to relate to the Spirit of the universe. Every time we are aware of being alive, every time we resonate with life and life resonates with us, we are close to, we know, we become aware of the presence of the one whom we call God - the great I am revealed to Moses in the wilderness. It is like being born again, to be conscious, to be aware of `being` itself, the Spirit of Life, the breath of life, the Eternal Flame.
`To be or not to be`. It really is the question!
To stand in awe of life itself - this is what it means to be alive. This is what it means to worship God.
(with acknowledgements to Bruce Sanguine`s `Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos`)
Who do you say that I am?
I would suggest that these words are deliberately and suggestively chosen. `Who do you say thatI am? ` I love the subtlety of scripture!
And the answer given is, `You are the Christ the Son of the living God.` It was an answer full of significance in the first century. The Hebrews were waiting for a Messiah, an anointed one, a Christ, to liberate them from the oppression of the Romans. The words Messiah, anointed one and Christ all mean the same thing - the long awaited deliverer of the Jewish people. Christ is not the surname of Jesus. It is a description. So is the phrase `Son of the Living God`. It was a Jewish phrase for one called by God for a special task. The phrase had nothing to do with biology. In Caesarea in the first century they lived in expectation of a deliverer, and Peter identifies Jesus as this deliverer.
Someone asked me other day why I speak of Jesus of Nazareth and seldom use the word Christ in relation to Jesus. Simply because `Christ` refers to the longed for Messiah of the Jews at that time. It is of little or no significance in communicating with secular society today. The question `Who do you say I am?`, however, needs to be asked and is of crucial importance - as is the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus remains the pivot of the Christian faith revealing to us, and to our day and generation, the nature of God, the nature of being.
How then do we answer the question today? It is a very different world in which we live today. And one of the very significant differences is that we now know a lot more about the human story. Charles Darwin came upon the scene in 1859 and showed us that `human beings are late comers on this planet and as such are seamlessly connected to all the life forms that preceded us. The universe is a developing reality. It has been and continues to be involved in a sequence of transformations each of which is the basis for the next transformation. This is the basic evolutionary principle.`
How is God involved in all of this?
(1) Some of course deny the evolutionary principle. The book of Genesis says it occurred in six days, and that`s that.
(2) Some say that God uses evolution as a tool but this has real problems in the light of the non directive randomness of evolution.
(3) Others, of which I would be one, see God as the Spirit of Life `non-coercively nudging all life forms in the direction of their fullest potential.` Not for me John 3: 16! John 10:10 is what it is all about! `I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness`. Fullness of life is what Jesus is about and I find fascinating that evolution itself is seen to be still evolving. Sartouris and Margulis have shown that bacteria under threat co-operate rather than compete in the service of ongoing life. It may well be that the evolutionary journey of the universe may best be served today not by `survival of the fittest` but by `survival of the most loving`.
So, in our context, in the context of the 21st century. `Who do you say I am?` My answer would be `You are the one in whom fullness of life resides.` You reveal to us the non coercive Spirit of Life `nudging all forms of life in the direction of their fullest potential.`
Let me conclude this with a story that I was going to save for Easter but decided to give you an exclusive preview. It is the story of the Golden Spruce, the Sitka Spruce that grew on a small island off the coast of Canada. It was one of a kind. Because of a rare gene this particular spruce was a radiant gold. It should not have been able to thrive because it lacked the chlorophyll molecules necessary to convert sunlight into food. But it did thrive, and was regarded by the indigenous people as a sacred tree. Under cover of night, a logger by the name of Grant Hadwin cut down the tree. No one knows why he did it. He disappeared and is believed to be dead. The cutting down of the tree had an enormous impact not only in Canada but throughout the world.
But this is not the end of the story. Cuttings from the golden spruce have spread around the world. The golden spruce has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth`. So far, only dwarf versions of the tree exist but they are alive and well and who knows someday they may one day reach up and attain the full glory of the forerunner.
Who do you say I am? You are the one in whom there is fullness of life.
Our third reading today is Romans 12: 1-8 and needs no explanation except to say that this is the change over point of the letter:
The sin of man, the grace of God, therefore the Christian life.
A magnificent passage starting with the word therefore