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One month ago today, we arrived in Canada. We set out in our rental SUV from Birmingham, Alabama, on August 22, stayed a couple nights along the way in Kentucky and Ohio, and arrived in Buffalo, New York on the afternoon of August 24. There, we met up with Dayle and Gemma in a Denny’s parking lot near the airport, where we transferred all our stuff into the back of Dayle’s minivan, returned the rental to the airport, and were on our way to the U.S-Canadian border, where we would stop for Amelie’s permit and then continue on our way to Toronto, where Amy and Brian welcomed us weary travelers, dog and all, into their home for several days until the moving truck arrived with all our belongings.

Our travels from Birmingham to Toronto took only three days, but the journey to here has been much longer. I began discerning that it was time to find my next call about a year before our moving day. Going back even further, it was seven years ago this fall that we moved from DeLand, Florida to Austin, Texas so that I could be formed for priesthood at Seminary of the Southwest. And it was two years before that when I began discerning a call to ordained ministry. So, in the longer view, the journey through the wilderness of discernment has in fact been at least a nine-year journey. Discernment is ongoing, of course. But these periods of very focused, intentional discernment are liminal spaces, periods of time when we feel are in between what was and what will be. Likewise, wilderness spaces are liminal spaces, places in the landscape in which one feels in between one place and another.

Wilderness places are spaces largely untouched by human activities. When one finds themselves in utter wilderness, there are no set paths, no settlements, no structures. Wilderness in the Old Testament scriptures is usually synonymous with deserts, wastelands, and other desolate spaces, while in the New Testament wilderness is used to refer to uninhabited places.

You may have heard of some people who lived long ago known as the desert fathers and mothers. These were monastics who desired to follow in the footsteps of the ancient prophets of the desert, as well as those of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. They found great inspiration in “Elijah who fled to the wilderness and lay down under a tree to die,” “Ezekiel who stumbled into a death-valley littered with bones… and Isaiah who came to imagine the stark and arid desert as being the very place where one great day the colorful and fecund life of God would break out, unrestrained” (Ian Adams, 16). So, too, did the desert fathers and mothers want to follow Jesus into the wilderness, knowing how “the desert was the place where the Christ’s calling and readiness was sharpened and confirmed,” as in the Gospel account we heard today about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, which prepared him to overcome three moments of temptation.

In today’s reading from Exodus 3, we encounter Moses in a wilderness space. Moses was by birth a Hebrew but was adopted into the Egyptian pharaoh’s household as an infant. When Moses was a young adulthood, he witnessed an Egyptian mistreat a Hebrew slave. In that moment, Moses took up for his fellow Hebrew, striking the Egyptian so hard that it killed the man. Not wanting to face the wrath of the pharaoh, Moses fled to another land, Midian, where he married a local woman Zipphorah, a daughter of Jethro. One day, while keeping watch over Jethro’s flock of animals, he went “beyond the wilderness” to a place near Horeb, which was known as the mountain of God.

Wilderness spaces are in-between spaces, places between one inhabited place in another. Moses went not just in the wilderness, he went “beyond the wilderness,” to an even more remote, sacred place, Mount Horeb. And when Moses was in this very remote place, this is just where God wanted Moses to be. Because when we get outside the places we are used to being, when we don’t know where we are, when we are don’t have a well-worn path to follow, then we have no choice in these unfamiliar, uninhabited places than to depend on God to lead us through it.

And this is just what happened with Moses in this place beyond the usual sheep-herding lands where Moses was used to traversing. Here Moses was out of his comfort zone, away from the distractions of everyday life and routines. And this is just where God needed Moses to be—for this was the best possible place for Moses to be still enough to see God move and quiet enough to hear God speak.

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’

At this point, God tells Moses to remove his shoes, for this wilderness place where God has spoken to him is holy ground.

And now that God had Moses’ attention, God continued to speak with Moses. God needed Moses to know not only that he saw the Hebrew people suffering in slavery in Egypt, but that more than anything he wanted to set them free from all that. And the way God would set them free was to send Moses back to Egypt, to lead the Hebrew people through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey.

When Moses goes out beyond the wilderness, out beyond the places he normally moved around herded the flocks and lived his life, he was more open to sensing that God was with him there. In this holy moment of conversation with God, Moses learns more about who God is as well who God is calling Moses to be.

First, Moses learns that God sees him there in the wilderness, watching the flock—a good analogy for how God sees Moses as someone who will also watch over the flock of God’s people. Second, God reveals that he knows Moses by name—and that he wants Moses to know his divine name, I AM.

Third, God reveals himself through a bush that was burning but not consumed by God’s holy fire—again, an analogy for how God would act, providing a blazing fire to show Moses and the Hebrew people the way, but a blaze that would not consume them.

Fourth, God shows Moses—through appearing and calling to him through the burning bush—that God is with Moses and with God’s people. God reveals himself as I AM—a God who always was, always is, and always will continue to be with us, his dearly loved people.

Now God appearing to Moses through a burning bush may seem, on surface, not a very relatable story for us in 2023. We may wonder whether God does things like this anymore. And some may doubt whether God ever spoke through a burning bush in the first place. But consider this: We still live in the world that God has made. We are among God’s creatures, living amidst God’s creation. Some have called nature the second book of God (after Holy Scripture). Others, including St. Augustine, consider nature the first book of God (because it preceded the writing down of any holy scriptures).

In his book Forest Church: A Field Guide to a Spiritual Connection with Nature, Bruce Stanley writes about how God is revealed in nature in two ways. In the first, we humans initiate the communication by looking for how something we have observed in nature might reveal to us something about God.

In the second way, when God initiates the communication by “sending us a message through nature, we need to be listening in the first place. We need to be, first of all, open to the idea that God might be able to speak to us. Second, we need to be in connection with enough nature to spot the message, not so preoccupied with the human world that we aren’t receptive to anything from the other-than-human world” (46).

Jesus himself was “very comfortable” with seeing the divine communicated through his natural surroundings, as reflected in his parables and other teachings, which are filled with references to flora, fauna, and farming. As Stanley points out, Jesus also “was deeply rooted in scripture and its interpretation… for the same God who speaks to us in nature has revealed much already in the Bible, and the two messages, if authentic, aren’t going to contradict one another. Still, Jesus did not rely only on scripture. His teaching demonstrates a real and deep natural theology, and he often made a point about God or the kingdom not by quoting examples from preexisting texts but by drawing on the natural world around him to make and reveal meaning” (47-8).

When Moses saw the burning bush not consumed by fire, he was aware and open enough to allow God to speak to him in that moment of awe and wonder out beyond his ordinary surroundings. In that sacred encounter in the wilderness, Moses saw God’s light, heard God call him by name, and listened as God revealed the special mission he was calling Moses to undertake. And more than anything, God made it clear to Moses that he saw Moses where he was, that he saw the Hebrews in their suffering, and that he would be with them as Moses led them out of slavery to the promised land.

So, on this Wilderness Sunday, it is right for us to consider how God reveals Godself to us through the book of the natural world and the trajectories of our lives. What do we learn about God in the wilderness places and phases in our lives? What do we learn about ourselves when we allow ourselves to linger in these wilderness times and spaces?

In the end, as Moses experienced that day with the burning bush, encountering God in the wilderness is about allowing ourselves to hear who God is calling each one of us to be. Amen.

The Rev.  Dr. Rebecca L. Bridges, Incumbent

Delivered Sunday, Septemebr 24, 2023