IN 2019, I took part in the Journey of Hope, a six-month training programme in
‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’reconcilerstogether.com
At the time I was working part-time as Coordinator of the Open Table Network [OTN], a growing partnership of communities across England & Wales which welcome and affirm people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, & Asexual (LGBTQIA) + our families, friends & anyone who wants to belong in an accepting, loving community.
The Journey of Hope helped me to develop my resilience and resourcefulness as I stepped up to working full-time in this role in 2020, registered it as a charity in 2021, supported unprecedented growth in 2022, and became Director of the charity in October 2023.
In the same week that I began as Director, I attended a Community of Practice for past participants of the Journey of Hope at Coventry Cathedral. The speaker was Jer Swigart, Executive Director of Global Immersion, an international programme for the formation of peacemakers and reconciling leaders. He took us on a deep dive into the story of the revelation of God’s name and the call of the prophet Moses from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, to help us identify what makes our hearts ache, as Moses’ heart did for God’s chosen people, the exiled Israelites.
Jer gave us permission to share and adapt this reflection, so I did. I tried it out in a church in south Liverpool in late October as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher then adapted it to form a workshop as part of a weekend retreat for LGBTQ+ Christians at St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre in north Wales on the first weekend in November. It is this version that I share below:
What is your image of God?
Some people think of God as a really old man, like this…
God the Father,
Cima da Conegliano,
Sometimes God appears like a dove, like in the story of the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John…
Baptism of Christ,
Some people thing God lives in the clouds, and the Bible tells a story of God leading people through the desert like a pillar of cloud…
Moses and the Pillar of Cloud,
Lucas Cranach the Elder & Studio,
…and sometimes God is seen as fire, like the ‘tongues, as of fire’ that appeared over the heads of the followers of Jesus fifty days after his death, on the feast of Pentecost [Acts 2:3].
Choirstall woodcarving of the Pentecost, with tongues of fire descending upon the apostles, detail, 1508-1519, at Notre-Dame d’Amiens.
God also appears as fire in the story Moses, as recorded in the book of Exodus.
Moses and the Burning Bush,
Dierick Bouts the Elder,
The revelation of God’s name and the call of Moses [3:1-15, 4:1-5], is an example of how, just when we think we have God figured out, God can overturn our expectations once again.
In Moses, God takes an inarticulate, excuse-riddled murderer and turns him into one of the greatest leaders of the Hebrew people, who becomes a prophet in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faith traditions.
Usually, when this story comes up in the cycle of readings set for us by the national churches in our lectionary, we also hear from Paul, who has a life-changing story to rival that of Moses. Writing to the Romans, Paul gives us an upside-down recipe for living in Christ. He writes:
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’Romans 12:21
We also hear how, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus predicts his death, and reminds us of one of the greatest, and most difficult, paradoxes of Christianity: to save your life you must first lose it [Matthew 16:25].
In these readings, God is revealed as a God of surprises, yet as we hear in the Psalms:
‘Even before a word is on my tongue,Psalm 139:4
O Lord, you know it completely.’
God knows us better than we know ourselves, and calls us to be the best we can be with God’s, and each other’s, help. So there is truly nothing we can say or do which is a surprise to God.
Yet we can often find ourselves surprised by the limitless and inexplicable nature of God’s love. As we rejoice to stand together on this holy ground today, let’s ask God to surprise us again. I pray that each one of us may receive the light to know God better, or perhaps for the first time, and to know ourselves, and each other, as God sees us.
So, I invite you to take a deep dive with me into the story of Moses, to see how surprising it really is, and how that might help us see how God might continue to surprise us.
Previously, in the book of Exodus…
At the start of the book, the Israelites [the descendants of Jacob] are prospering in Egypt. As you may recall from the book of Genesis, Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and Joseph becomes the Prime Minister of Pharaoh, the king! Joseph sees God’s vision for his family, to preserve their lives, and the lives of their descendants, as God’s chosen people [Jacob’s 12 children become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel]. So Joseph brings them to Egypt to save them from a famine.
But in Exodus Chapter 1 we learn that, after Joseph’s generation has died, a new king arises ‘to whom Joseph meant nothing’ [Exodus 1:8]. He persecutes the Israelites because
‘they have become far too numerous… and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies’.Exodus 1:10
Do these words of fear and blame sound familiar? They could easily be spoken by a politician in this country, or anywhere in our world today.
The new king forces the Israelites into hard labour, and commands that their baby boys be killed by throwing them into the Nile river.
In Exodus chapter 2, the baby we now know as Moses is born. His mother puts him in a basket in the river. The daughter of the new king finds the baby and adopts him as her own child. She names him Moses, which sounds like the Hebrew phrase ‘to draw out’, because she ‘drew him out of the water’ [Exodus 2:10].
Moses grows up in the Egyptian royal household. It’s not clear whether he knows he was born as an Israelite, but it becomes clear that he feels protective of his people. As an adult, he goes to see where the Israelites are still doing hard labour. When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he kills the Egyptian and hides the body. The next day, Moses tries to break up a fight between two Israelites. When one says, ‘Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses realises his murder has been discovered. Pharaoh tries to kill him, so he flees to Midian, in what is now Saudi Arabia. He helps a shepherd, who is so pleased with him that he allows Moses to marry his daughter.
After the new king of Egypt, Moses’s adopted grandfather, dies, God hears the Israelites’ ‘cry for help because of their slavery’ [Exodus 2:23], and remembers the covenant with their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looks on the Israelites and is concerned about them.
This is where we come in, with our reading from Exodus chapter 3. Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock at Horeb, also called ‘the mountain of God’, where later he will receive the ten commandments. Moses sees a bush filled with flames, yet not consumed by them. When Moses goes to see what’s happening, he hears God call his name from within the bush. Moses replies ‘Here I am’. God says:
‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’Exodus 3:5
Moses hides his face because he is afraid.
God tells Moses how God’s heart aches for ‘the misery of my people in Egypt’ [Exodus 3:7]. God calls Moses to rescue them from their oppressors, to draw God’s chosen people out of Egypt.
Moses says, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ [Exodus 3:11]. God does not answer.
God says ‘I will be with you’. [Exodus 3:12] So Moses is not being asked to do this under his own strength or status.
Moses doubts that the Israelites will believe him, and asks what he should say if they ask him God’s name.
God says ‘I am who I am’ [Exodus 3:14]. The Hebrew text can also be translated as ‘I will be who I will be’. So God reassures Moses of God’s faithful and eternal presence.
God calls Moses to tell God’s people how God has watched over them in their misery, and calls Moses to lead them to the promised land. God predicts that they will listen to Moses, that they will go to Pharaoh, and ask him to let them go.
Moses still doubts that the Israelites will believe him. Again, God doesn’t answer. Instead, God asks: ‘What is that in your hand?’ [Exodus 4:2]. Moses is holding his shepherd’s staff. God takes what Moses has, however humble, transforms it and uses it to help Moses lead his people. The transformation of the staff may represent the changing state of God’s people, from flourishing in Egypt under Joseph, through being thrown down and dejected, to restoration and liberty in the promised land.
Even Moses’ name is prophetic: Moses sounds like the Hebrew for ‘to draw out’ – God calls Moses to draw his people out of oppression and into freedom.
Moses’ behaviour shows how his heart aches for the Israelites, and suggests how God would call him, though he doesn’t always care for that ache wisely. His passion for justice for his blood relations leads him to kill one of the race who has saved and adopted him. Then he tries to break up a fight between two of ‘his people’, but flees when he learns his crime is discovered.
Yet Moses’ people are also God’s people, and God’s heart aches for them too. Moses, who has been adopted by the house of the Pharaoh, is able to use that position to help save the people who gave him life.
So I invite you to consider, what makes your heart ache?
There may be many things, great or small – the wars between Israel and Palestine, Ukraine and Russia; the cost-of-living crisis; climate change; gun and knife crime; cruelty to children; animal welfare; homelessness; to name just a few.
Sometimes there may feel like so many things that we want to switch off the news, stop the world and get off for a while, or an ache so large that we want to run away, as Moses did.
But Moses discovers that God shares his heartache for his people, and calls him to be part of God’s plan. God does not answer his doubts directly, but reassures Moses that God would be with him, and can use and transform even the humblest of offerings and tools to serve God’s plan.
As the story of Moses shows us, God does not call the prepared, but prepared those who are called. Later on, in Exodus chapter 4, God says to Moses: ’Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say’ [Exodus 4:12]. He also lets Moses know he’s not alone, by providing provided an assistant, Aaron, his brother.
Like Moses, when we are called:
• God equips us. (Exodus 4:2-12)
• God speaks for us (Exodus 4:11-12)
• God provides the help we need. (Exodus 4:14-17)
So, I wonder, is there one heartache that moves you deeply, so much so that it may feel like your heart burns within you, like the disciples on the Emmaus road:
They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’Luke 24:32
The kind of heartache I’m talking about is not one that overwhelms us, just as the fire didn’t consume the bush, but one through which God might speak to us, as God spoke to Moses. The kind where responding to it is life-giving, joyful, fulfilling. As theologian Frederick Buechner wrote:
‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC by Frederick Buechner
It may not be something we’re called to do, it may be something we’re called to be, or to express in how we live. In his book Discovering Your Personal Vocation, the Jesuit priest Herbert Alphonso writes that our call from God, our vocation, is ‘the unique God-given meaning in a person’s life’. Even among people who are called to formal ministry in the church, each one will have their own unique way of fulfilling that call.
You may be thinking, it’s too late for me – but Bible scholars think Moses may have been around 40 when he fled Egypt, and around 80 when God called him to return. Never say never – God may yet surprise us!
So I invite you to consider:
- What is your ache?
- When did you first awaken to the ache?
- What are the tools that are already in your hands?
- What causes you to lose sight of your ache?
- What happens to you when you do?
- What helps you to reawaken and remain aware of your ache?