Every time I read this story, it’s hard for me not to picture that old movie classic The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. This scene gets depicted in it, too, where Moses sees this burning bush, and feels compelled to go and investigate it. Now, in the movie, I am really puzzled as to how Moses managed to see the bush to begin with, since the scene where he finds it looks like the bush is in some kind of cave, and even then he only gets to it after trekking across a montage of rocky desert landscapes.
But this conversation, no matter how we may picture it in our heads, is one of the most world-altering encounters in the Bible. Moses encounters God—not an angel or some emanation of God, but God’s very presence. God is enveloped in the burning bush, speaking out of it to get Moses’ attention, and then telling him something that reveals God’s own heart to us.
“I have heard my people’s cry.”
God sometimes gets portrayed as this impossibly distant deity, acting with calculated coldness to turn the gears of history, responding to prayers in ways that make little sense, and being so holy as to be beyond emotion. But this encounter with Moses shows that none of that is really how God operates. God has a deep, visceral response to the suffering of the Israelites: “indeed I know their sufferings.” God hears their cries, knows their misery, and has been moved to act on their behalf. God, despite being found way out in the wilderness, has been right there with them the whole time.
And God hears the cries of the oppressed throughout the world. God knows the sufferings of people who have been bent over under the weight of injustice, longing to breathe free. It was this certainty that God knew their suffering that held together the faith of slaves in the South and helped shape their story of liberation even to the present day. It was God’s faithfulness to the crushed and downtrodden that gave courage to Central American liberationists seeking freedom from dictators and their death squads. It was the fact that God isn’t an unemotional, detached deity that draws the oppressed close to God, and transforms the suffering of oppressed people into a story of God’s liberating work for them.
And so, hearing the cries of the oppressed in Egypt and moved by the knowledge of what that suffering looks like, God calls Moses.
See, Moses has come through a lot since he was picked up out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter. He’d grown up in the palace, living the life of a high-born Egyptian. He’d been nursed by his mother but at some point, he was probably taken to be taught about governance and ritual. He was part of the royal household, after all. But somehow he knew that he was a Hebrew. And that stuck with him.
So one day, while he was out walking, he saw and Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew. And this injustice, with his own knowledge that he was himself a Hebrew, boiled over as rage in him. As part of Pharaoh’s household he would know the history of how the Egyptians put his fellow Hebrews in chains, how Pharaoh had ordered the deaths of the Hebrew boys, and how so many of the Egyptians went along with this genocidal cruelty. So he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand! And when he realized he’d be found out, he fled. He ran away to the desert, out into the land of Midian near Mount Horeb, where he got married and made a nice little life for himself as a shepherd for his father-in-law. And it was while he was leading his sheep and goats around that he noticed a bush, on fire but not burning up, and it captured his curiosity.
He found God there. And there, God commissioned Moses to be the one who would affect God’s liberation of the Hebrews in Egypt. God would send Moses down to Egypt where he would speak to Pharaoh, the Hebrews would be freed, and God would lead them all up to the Promised Land that God had sworn to Abraham so long ago! Moses would be the first in a long line of people God would use to liberate people under the yoke of oppression, from abolitionists like William Wilberforce to liberationists like Oscar Romero to voices for those on the edges like William Jennings Bryan.
But first, Moses had some questions. In fact, Moses had a lot of questions. He was really sure God was making a mistake sending him. He was not qualified. He didn’t have any connections in the community. He had a speech impediment that would make public speaking impossible. He didn’t even know God’s name if the Hebrews asked! So, one by one, God gave him the answers he needed.
God calls us to be part of this liberating project too. God calls us to hear the cries of our neighbors who are being crushed under the yoke of oppression, whether they are our Black siblings fighting not to be de facto second class citizens; or our rural neighbors being ignored by a culture more concerned with the stock market than rising costs of living outpacing wages; or our immigrant neighbors vilified for seeking a better life for themselves and their family; or our addicted neighbors, blamed for being unable to overcome their demons and criminalized for what they can’t escape. God calls us to be voices that call for liberation, to bring freedom to people and lead them to the Promised Land.
And God hears our concerns about how to go about doing that, because the work of liberation isn’t always so cut-and-dry. Moses, unlike his portrayal in The Ten Commandments, was deeply worried about how God’s plan would happen. He questioned God’s decision to send him, when he couldn’t do public speaking—how was he supposed to even talk to Pharaoh at his court? He wasn’t sure how the Hebrews would react to an outsider suddenly claiming to be their liberator—would it be enough to claim he worshipped the same god? But these concerns weren’t brushed aside. God took the time to answer him, and that says another important thing about God’s work of liberation.
God wants us to be partners, not just servants.
So take the call of God to share the liberating word of hope in the world seriously. Bringing freedom to every person who is under any yoke is the calling of all Christians everywhere, but what that looks like will look different in each context. Wonder how that liberating freedom will look for different marginalized groups. And trust that God is at work in it, because that’s where our hope for real, lasting goodness comes from. If God is at work in the freeing of all people from every kind of oppression, then we can be sure that oppression will end. Because God has heard the cries of the oppressed, and God is even now at work, through us, to liberate the world and lead it to the Promised Land.
Thanks be to God. Amen.