When Moses encountered the Burning Bush in Exodus Moses was faced with a traumatic situation. His past was now to be reconfigured in light of a new, profoundly life-altering experience. The unexpectedness of the burning-bush was exactly what Moses needed to call him to a deeper, more whole-self, a renewed identity and call or vocation.
Moses was clearly aware of the Hebrew people’s oppression when he fled for his life out of Egypt and yet his initial (violent) response we might consider an over-response. He killed the Egyptian attacking the hebrew-worker, his rage got the better of him, compounded by undoubtedly many earlier thrashings now familiar to any oppressed people. In a way, Moses’ outburst is quite understandable. While he was raised in the lap of the the Empire’s finest, he knew where he came from, he knew his roots, and he knew of the suffering of his people. When he finally had a chance to show whose side he was really on, he over-reacted and in his over-reaction minimized his effects. So, as with any of us, when our egos get the better of us Moses tucked tail and ran. Moses as a hero is disappointing.
And then Moses is confronted on his road of flight with an inexplicable bush caught on fire by the holy presence of the unknown and unnameable. What was about to happen to Moses, his new emerging vocation of prophetic proportions, would take that rage and desire for justice implanted deep with Moses and redeem it for the purposes of God. For the people still caught by the empire’s claws, they constantly cried out to God. If Moses’ action was an over-reaction, the rest of the Hebrew people’s action is one of a collective lament. These are the laments that God hears and that ultimately “ignite” God in the form of a bush.
In both Moses and the people we have differing responses to troubling oppression, both are used in the greater narrative to show how God brings about the people’s freedom through such vessels. But it is God who is the great community organizer, the greater general of what Quakers latter called “the Lamb’s War.” Freedom would be ascertained, but the way that it was going to happened would be a further challenge to the psyche of the Children of Israel.
The passover flight into the desert, the wading in the water, and the education of unlearning in the wilderness (outside the empire and lost in the wilderness, questions like “what are we to eat, what are we to drink, how are we to survive and where are we to go?” become deeply unsettling), the crafting of the calf, the broken covenant, and the falling of their hero in an unmarked grave, is not exactly what the Israelites had in mind when they offered up their first laments. This is symbolized in the narrative by the countless questions and complaints of the people — “why couldn’t we just die by the huge pots of meat in egypt?”
They Wanted God but the way God came was frustrating, confusing, even disappointing to their own ways of comprehending. Did they just not understand?
It seems to me its deeper than not simply understanding. Can you imagine making those initial prayers for deliverance (and remember, when they made those initial prayers there was no Exodus narrative yet to rely on!) and what they might have had in mind for what “deliverance” looked like in Egypt. To see the story unfold the people are clearly disappointed with the way God appeared to them. This much is true of Moses. It takes quite awhile for Moses to wrap his head around what it is that God was asking him to do. If my mom had been his mom, he would have heard “you could write a book with all the excuses you’re giving me…” There’s something really disappointing about a deep prayer for help only to be answered by a smoldering bush and a divine spirit who basically says “it’s none of your business, just do what you’re told.”
Christmas as Disappointment_
And speaking of disappointing moments in biblical history, let’s reflect for a moment on the Christmas story. The disappointments in the story are countless: from the scandalous features of Jesus’ own lineage, to the sex workers who are Jesus’ great great grandmothers, the teenage unmarried pregnancy, the immigrants on the run from the law, the poverty that surrounds these two unmarried and expectant parents…
“God, this is your idea of an answer to us in our deepest hour of need?”
“Are these your ideas of saints?”
I can’t help but think that all of this, even the birth of Jesus in a stinky old manger is a major disappointment to our modern sensibilities. Talk about divine let downs. It’s as if God were authoring this story in our post-economic crash society. Why is God the producer of a b-film?
There’s nothing glorifying, potentially commodifying, or even on par with a spectacle in this story. At one level, It’s basically a story of some rural uneducated blue-collar working folks who get pregnant and are on the run from the law. It’s hard to build a billion dollar industry on that. If this was the story there is no way on earth we’d be making thousands of “holiday” movies every year. Because this story is just really too disappointing and seemingly meaningless.
Isn’t this how we receive it? With that same look we have on our face when we get yet another pair of socks for Christmas. Isn’t this disappointment, at least at some unconscious level, how we think about Christmas? Just like the Hebrews on their way out of Egypt, we say, “can’t we go back,” “can’t we have a do over on this, because the version you’re giving us here just isn’t really working for us,” “why didn’t you look at the Christmas list of the things I really wanted?”
The human condition is one in which we’re always tempted to hire Charlton Heston to play the lead role for Moses. We have to sell this story somehow. We have to make it into something we want or we’re just not going to be happy.
When I say that the first Christmas is disappointing what I mean is that, by our impulses and our activities during the “Christmas holiday” we show that the Christmas story has very little or any meaningful content for our lives to day. In fact, it looks as if we’ve had to author an alternative story, to make it more interesting.
And don’t you think that the event of a new moses figure, now aimed at universal freedom from the principalities and power, be enough for us to rewrite our lives, our values, our culture? How did we get to a point where we had to re-create a story that detracts at best, and maligns at worst, the original Christmas story?
Today Christmas is so much about blow-up dolls, black friday’s, and credit cards, long anxious shopping lines filled with “Christmas Spirit” and of course also arming a cart filled with it’s own version of the “Christmas Spirit.” To me at least, it seems that all of this reflects our deep disappointment in the Christmas story.
Inside and outside the church, I think we don’t really know what it looks like to tell, let alone live into, the Christmas story without somehow attaching it to shopping and commodification.
At the end of Mark 13, Jesus says repeatedly “Be Awake.” The coming of God calls for wakefulness because you can bet that when God comes it’s not going to register with the dominant practices and stories of the time and it will confound even the faithful. It will be like the Hebrew people crying in Egypt, it will be like Moses and the burning bush, it will be like the red sea, and the manna in the wilderness. It will be like a baby wrapped in clothe laying in a feeding trough.