13th Sunday after Pentecost
How do your prayers usually begin? Chances are there is a phrase, a title, an address that is more natural to you than all the others. I begin with “Loving God” about nine out of ten times—which undoubtedly says as much about my needs as it does about God’s character. All the other adjectives are left fighting for space in my remaining prayers: gracious, merciful, living, everlasting, and perhaps least of all, holy. These days, holy is a word reserved for the covers of Bibles, or to pair with the occasional expletive; holy is a word with far less popular appeal than love. And yet, holy is a word with deep roots in our faith—used consistently across the church’s history and throughout Scripture. So why has it all but dropped it from my/our language for God?
Perhaps this has something to do with a collective distaste for a judgmental, wrathful God. In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith describes the current shift toward “a cosmic, benevolent spirit who never judges. The appeal is easy to understand. A loving spirit who wants to bless everyone is certainly preferable to a ‘Marquis de God,’ who is cruel and sadistic, ready to send a person into eternal torment for having the wrong doctrine.”
Back in seminary, a professor read us one tongue-in-cheek take on this trend called the “Hymns of the Lukewarm Church.” Sample titles from the imaginary hymnal include:
• A Comfy Mattress Is Our God
• Above Average is Thy Faithfulness
• Be Thou My Hobby
• Oh, How I Like Jesus
• Pillow of Ages, Fluffed for Me
• I Surrender Some
• I’m Fairly Certain That My Redeemer Lives
• Blest Be the Tie That Doesn’t Cramp My Style
• and instead of “Holy, Holy, Holy”…Special, Special, Special
In truth, these hymn spoofs come closer to many contemporary beliefs about God than the real songs do—songs with language like: Mighty Fortress, Rock of Ages, Surrender All?!? That all sounds like a jealous God, a holy God, a God who shows up as fire from heaven, the one (come to think of it) from today’s Scripture reading about Moses and the burning bush.
In the text, Moses is herding his father-in-law’s flock, and not his own flock, because Moses is on the lam. Moses is on the lam because in a fit of anger, he killed someone. Long before Moses carried those 10 Commandments down the mountain, he’d already broken a big one. That’s the back story. Now to this week’s lectionary text: Moses the fugitive herdsman, walks up a mountain. Suddenly, a nearby bush is aflame, but unconsumed. He steps closer. A voice sounds, “Moses!” He replies, “Here I am.” The voice responds, “Take off your shoes—you’re on holy ground.” Holy because God is present. Holy because God is holy. And what is the character of God’s holiness? What does a holy God do?
1. A holy God hates injustice, hates oppression, and hates sin: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.”
2. A holy God works to undo wrong: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
3. A holy God puts humanity to holy work: “So come, [Moses,] I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
At this news, Moses’ “Here I am” turns to “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses doesn’t say it, but can’t you hear in his question, “After what I’ve done?” I AM WHO I AM is the answer God gives. What I’m calling you to do isn’t about who you are (or aren’t)—it’s about who I AM. And who I AM is Holy. So take off your shoes and buckle your seatbelt, Moses, because we’ve got some holy work to do.
How good, and hopeful, and indeed loving is this Holy God. How far this vision exceeds the one our watered-down words unwittingly cast. As preachers, we may be tempted to proclaim a comfy-mattress of a God to fill those empty pew cushions, but we run the risk of starving the spirits and souls of those in our care. Because as recent events have painfully reminded us—the need is great, here and now, for a holy God who has something to say about suffering and injustice. And the need is likewise great for communities of people who are ready to join God in the holy work of dismantling the systems and sin that allow injustice and hatred to flourish.
Our world would have little use for this story if God had said, “Don’t worry about it Pharaoh. I see how you’re treating those Hebrews. Sure, they’re suffering, but don’t sweat it. Those pyramids aren’t going to build themselves!” Neither would there be much hope for humanity if God had said, “Yeah, I know you killed that guy, Moses. But you were angry. I get it, no problem. I don’t have any better plans for you anyway, so just keep up the sinning.”
No, Moses’ encounter with our holy God led to wholeness…for Hebrew slaves and for him. As they would be rescued from slavery under Pharaoh, Moses was rescued from slavery to his old ways and choices and sin, freed to live into a new holiness, a new wholeness that imbued his life with direction, purpose, and deeply meaningful work.
And so it is that “Holy God” and “Loving God” are one in the same. God is Love because God is Holy; God is Holy because God is Love. God longs for holiness for us because God longs for love for us. And as it was for Moses, so will it be for us—when we encounter our Holy God, the transformation and wholeness will not be for ourselves alone—but for those who most need this world transformed, and for those who most need to be made whole.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Every common bush is afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes.” May God give us the grace to be those who see. And having seen, may God give us the grace to take off, shake off, our shoes because this is holy ground. And barefoot and awestruck may we be forgiven, made whole, renewed in purpose, faithful in action, and fervent in prayers that begin with the words, “Holy God…”