2020 has been a year of encountering God in unexpected ways. Today, we kick of our new sermon series – “Encountering God” – looking at the many stories of people encountering God in the Bible and what came out of those encounters.
Which character’s encounter with God in the Bible comes to your mind first? I want to invite you to type your answers in the Q&A.
One unexpected way we have been encountering God is attending church online. It is a struggle for most of us – the space and the atmosphere in church is very different from wherever we may be at when we join online. There may be more distractions around us, and the online format is certainly less engaging – because we are not physically there – literally not physically present. It requires a lot more from us to stay focused and engaged.
We are currently making preparations to return to having service physically at One Commonwealth – and we target to have our 18th anniversary service on 11 October to be the first service “home.” This isn’t something that is simple – we will need to find ways to make the service engaging both for those physically present, as well as those who are joining us online. So there will be some changes in the month of September. We will be changing platforms from Microsoft Teams to Youtube Live. We will first move the production of the service and the “live” elements back to One Commonwealth so that we can iron out the issues before we welcome folks back to church.
Because there is a lot going on, for the next couple of weeks, we would be reusing the worship recorded previously while we work on finding ways to worship God given the restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic. How does worship without singing look like? Can we find ways to create the space where we can encounter God – whether we are physically at 1 Commonwealth or joining online from home? How do we encounter God anew? What is required of us to encounter God in the new normal? These are questions we are thinking about – and the worship team has come up with many innovative ideas. Because we are all different, I am sure some of these ideas will work for some of us, and some will not. We hope that in trying different things, we will find ways to help you encounter God.
Back to my question – Which character’s encounter with God in the Bible comes to your mind first?
The one encounter in the Bible that comes to my mind first is Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3.
Today, I am not to do my usual practice of reading the text – I want to ask you instead what details do you remember of the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush? Type your answers in the Q&A.
Moses encounter with God at the burning bush is one many of us would be familiar with – you may have done a bible study on Exodus, you may have heard a sermon preached on the burning bush, or you may have watched the Prince of Egypt, the animated movie that tells the story of Moses. However, we must realise how the story is told, how it is interpreted, influences how we understand the story. And what we details we remember – whether they are accurate or not – reveals how we understand the story.
What details do I remember?
I remember Moses having to take off his sandals, because it is holy ground. I remember the bush that was burning but not consumed by the flames. I remember God calling Moses by name, and Moses responding “Here I am.” I remember Moses asking God “who shall I say sent me?” and God answered, “I AM THAT I AM.” I remember Moses kept saying “not me, find someone else. I am not good enough, not articulate enough, I stutter…”
I remembered these details because I connected with them. I didn’t wear shoes during my ordination – because I believed that the ordination had special meaning for me – that I was standing on holy ground, being called into ministry.
Let’s look at what some of you remembered about the Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.
I wondered if these details resonated with you because something you have experienced connects with that detail. I don’t think any of us would have encountered God through a burning bush, but many of us would have “burning bush” moments. And I think you may have these encounters with God without even realising they are burning bush moments because we may have been led to believe that burning bushes are miraculous events, and our mundane, almost ordinary experiences do not match up to Moses’ experience of the burning bush.
Burning bush moments are moments you encountered God inviting you do take action – and there is one thing we often miss – take action not just for yourself, but for someone else.
What do you think was going through Moses mind during the whole encounter?
I think one likely feeling is fear. Not fear as in being afraid – but fear as in fear of God – in awe, in reverence. The kind of fear that recognises God is God – when we stand in the vastness of creation and realise we are so small, yet so connected with God.
Another is likely feeling is unworthiness. Moses said to God “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Even after witnessing the miracles of his staff transforming into a snake, and the transformation of his skin when he put his hand into his cloak, he continued to tell God – “not me, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Even when God tells him “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” Moses replied ““O my Lord, please send someone else.”
Have you felt somehow you are not good enough for God? Yet, all over the Bible God uses flawed people, many who thought they were not good enough.
Moses had good reason to feel unworthy. At this point in time, Moses was a fugitive. Moses killed an Egyptian who beat one of the Israelite slaves and hid him in the sand. He realised that somehow people knew of this and he fled from Egypt and the Pharaoh to Midian. There was blood on his hands.
None of us are perfect – we have made our fair share of mistakes. Our mistakes are probably not as grave as murder, but we would have hurt and harmed someone nevertheless. But God still calls Moses to lead God’s people out of oppression in Egypt. God calls Moses to liberate the Israelites even though Moses considered himself unworthy and not good enough.
Do you have any burning bush experience? Maybe you would like to share it in the Q&A
There may be occasions in your life you feel called to act. And that act may be big or it may be small – it can be a call to ministry, or it can be a call to speak up for someone being unfairly treated or bullied. And we often argue with that voice – no I am not the one. Send someone else. I am not courageous, smart, good, ___ enough. (fill in the blanks) In my experience, these calls are invitations.
– and we often resist these calls. God invites us to put our hands and feet to the work of Shalom, the work of redemption, the work of liberation the work of restoration, the work of justice. But we give all sorts of reasons, all sorts of excuses. It would not be easy – that’s not what God promised. God says “I will be with you.”
My experience of the burning bush – 2007 – I had been leading Living Water, the support group for men wanting to reconcile their faith and sexuality, for coming to 3 years. I had seen how many of them started on that journey of embracing themselves, and healing, and a thought occurred to me one day – “If this is the result of me putting in 3 hours a week to run this group, what if I dedicated my life to this?”
It was a nudge from God. “I have heard the cries of my people. Indeed, I know their suffering”
My first response was “no, not me.” Send someone else. Like Gary. I am not the right person. I am not the holy holy goody two shoes. I named the support group Living Water because I identified with the Samaritan woman by the well – because I have had numerous boyfriends then, and the man I was with wasn’t my boyfriend.
But the call was insistent – in the next couple of months, the passage from John 4 about the Samaritan woman by the well kept popping up. Someone preached on it on Sunday. We covered it during bible study in cell group. It was as if God was saying to me what God said to Moses – Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak”
Was I not leading the support group? Was God not with me and guiding me to figure out how to do this? And that was the beginning of my journey.
That is why it was no coincidence to me that on the Sunday of my ordination, the lectionary passage was Exodus 3 – Moses encounter with God at the burning bush. That was 9 years ago on 28th August 2011.
It is also the lectionary reading this Sunday. I had forgotten about the anniversary – until my friend KB Tan, my junior college classmate, reposted on the photo he took at my ordination on Facebook. Yet another nudge from God.
This is not the only story I have of burning bush experiences. Many others have said “Here I am” when they experienced God calling them to do some transformative work.
I remember the panel we had for Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2015, and the courage the participants had to share vulnerably and honestly about their lives. In their way, they replied “Here I am,” even though they were worried, anxious, and not sure what would be the fallout from sharing so publicly. We even decided not to put the video up because some of the participants were not ready. But immediately after the panel, they knew the impact of their sharing and how it could help other transgender folks to feel that they are not alone, and how it enable many cisgender folks to understand transgender folks and the issues they face better.
I was told they were ok with putting it up the video publicly on our website.
That, to me was a burning bush moment. I am not sure if they felt the same way. But I know a burning bush when I see one.
Before we make it all about us – we must remember – there is a pattern to these burning bush moments – they are not just about us as individuals, or a personal relationship with God, but connected to the restoration, redemption, reconciliation, liberation, healing of others. God’s transformative work in us is not just the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of others. We have to careful not to make it all about “me.” God didn’t speak to Moses to give Moses a chance to redeem himself from the murder he committed. God spoke to Moses to liberate the Israelites from oppression.
When we talk about spiritual growth – the growth isn’t just for our own sake. When we develop a deeper relationship with God, it isn’t for just ourselves. The idea of a personal faith is a very modern one. Our faith is connected to each other. That is why we have gather as a community of faith.
I also must caution you here – While burning bush experiences are of God, don’t mistake them for God. Too often when we experience these moments, we want to repeat this experience again. When we do this, we have made these experiences an idol. These experiences are not ends in and of themselves. They are not experiences to be sought after but instead, they come from God’s call to us.
So when you have a burning bush experience – pay attention to it. It is an invitation to trust God to be with you as you are invited to act as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
And for those who have not experienced something you think may be a burning bush experience – that is not because you are less worthy. It may have happened to you but you didn’t consider it a burning bush experience. Or it may have not happened to you yet. Or you may not need these experiences to draw you into God’s redemptive work of creation.
These moments are not experiences we can seek out – these moments happen when they happen.
When you hear that voice calling your name, may you answer “Here I am” and know that God will be with you.