FIRE THAT DOES NOT CONSUME
EXODUS 2 & 3, PSALM 104 (#10 MATTHEW 16:21-23
September 1, 1996 by Tad Mitsui
When Moses saw a burning bush in the desert, he was already a broken man. His passionate idealism got him into trouble a few times. He even killed a man. He not only became a wanted man, but also was a man of shattered dreams. So he went into exile, got married and settled down into the boring life of a shepherd. The fire of passion was bad news for Moses. But one day he saw another kind of fire on a mountain in the Sinai desert. There was a fire but it was not burning up the bush. He drew near and tried to see this strange phenomenon. And there he met God. And when he came down from the mountain, Moses was a changed man. He rediscovered his idealism – his passionate commitment for his people, and was more determined to pursue his goal. He was more aware of his shortcomings but was more sure of himself knowing that God was with him.
Thanks to the ingenious acts of defiance committed by some women, Moses, though he was a son of slaves, grew up in a palace as a prince. But evidently his birth mother did not allow him to forget his national identity. Inside of his well groomed and elegantly clothed appearance, there was a fire burning. It was a passion for his people. This passionate nationalism could easily be transformed into a consuming hatred towards those people who enslaved his kinsfolk. But he lived in the palace of the oppressors. What a dilemma.
One day, passion had overtaken him. He killed an Egyptian overseer who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He was going to hide his crime. And he could have got away with it; after all he was a prince. But shortly afterwards in a totally unrelated incident, when he tried to intervene in a fight of two Hebrew men, they loudly challenged him by asking if he had guts to kill them also. He realized then that he had no moral authority. The rumour must have spread. The king heard it, too. Moses became a wanted man. He fled Egypt and went into the hills of Sinai desert. There again, his good intentions got him into trouble. He defended some women against local shepherds. He managed to make himself an enemy of the men of the region. His heart was in the right place, but his acts of passion always got him into trouble. But by the end of this episode, Moses was a matured man with exhausted idealism. He married the daughter of a local priest, one of the women he had defended, and had some kids. He had no more patriotic passion. His zeal for good deeds was spent. He now knew better. He would stay away from this dangerous fire. Fire consumes. He retired into a safe life of tending his father-in-law”s sheep.
Moses had had a comfortable life as a prince in the royal household. But his passion ruined this life style. He learned the lesson well. No more passion, no more adventures. They are silly things that destroy quiet lives. This is where most of us end up. We work hard putting in long hours, raise a family and make money to be comfortable. There is no time left to be idealistic. When he reached this stage, Moses was 80 years old, according to the Bible. Even if that meant 40 years old according to our way of counting years, the point is clear. He became a mature man who stopped doing things out of passion.
But that was not the way it was meant to be for Moses. He was chosen to be the leader who would free his people from slavery. He had a mission in his life. But he did not know that until he saw the fire that did not consume a bush. God told him in a vision of the burning bush that there was fire that empowered. There is a fire that nourishes and sustains. A wick does not burn up so long as there is a constant supply of oil. But first God told Moses to honour the ordinary things of life.
When he saw the fire which was not burning up the bush, God told him to take his shoes off. He was standing on holy ground. In other words, God told Moses that what seemed to be only his boring daily life was in fact a holy place. Moses felt that he had to settle into routine life as a punishment for his immaturity after he failed in his adventures. It was silly on his part to be driven by youthful passions. But he was reminded that where he stood was actually holy ground. Much of our daily life is holy. Like Moses, we also have moments of resignation thinking that reality of our life is pretty boring, nothing to write home about. We may think: "I have no time to be like a Mother Teresa." The media do not help us either. They tell us that there are other lives that are more exciting than ours. We should go places. We should look different. We should earn more money. There are adventures out there, but not here. Then God says, " What you are doing is an important thing. It is holy ground where you are. You have to be brave to be a mother. It takes guts to be a teenager and a church going Christian. Being a farmer is not easy; farming is like a high stake gamble. It is a holy ground where you are. Respect what you are doing. Take your shoes off." No leader can lead by escaping reality. Leadership begins with respect for the ”here and now”. Take your shoes off. This recognition of the importance of the ordinary is a fire that does not consume. Any one who does not recognize the holiness of the ordinary fails in the first test of leadership.
Then God told Moses to go back to where he failed. Of course, Moses did not want to hear that. He made all sorts of excuses. "Why me? I failed in the past. Surely there are better persons to do it." He was too tired to remember his long forgotten passion. "I tried and I failed. Saving my people from slavery is a big job. There must be a better person to do it, out there somewhere, but not here. The fire inside of me got me into trouble, and made me a failure. I paid my dues. No more, please." An interesting thing about this dialogue between God and Moses is that God did not go into the subject of Moses” shortcomings. God was silent about his past failures and weaknesses. The only words the Bible records as God”s response to Moses” excuses was, "Go. I will be with you." It was a promise to accompany him.
We often forget that being human means we are limited. No one is perfect. To make mistakes is human. This is why believing that we can achieve perfection is a disease of mind, because we can not attain it. Only God can be perfect. God does not ask us to be perfect. He does, however, ask us to do our best. Excellence is not perfection. It is doing the best we can do. And God always stays with us. We only have to be aware of his presence. That will enpower and sustain us. When I learned to ride a bicycle, my father held on to the seat of my bike, and ran with me as I pedalled. He kept shouting, "Faster, faster." At one point, I realized the voice behind me was receding and began to sound far away. He was no longer holding on to the bike. I was riding the bike by myself. God tells us to "Go on your own, and give your best." He does not promise that we are perfect and we don”t make mistakes. But he promises that he will be with us always.
All of us were born with a mission. Many of us live a normal life, but some of us live differently. But to characterize some life-style as exciting and others as boring is a misunderstanding of our mission. Even those extraordinary persons who become leaders must know the importance of every person”s purpose in life. Otherwise, their inner fire will burn them up no matter how spectacular their lives seem to be. We know so many ruined lives even though they seem rich and famous. Let us take our shoes off. Where we are is holy ground. This is where God is, who nourishes and sustains us constantly. God is like the unlimited supply of oil. A candle will burn out. But our lamp can go on burning so long as there is oil.