My wife and I just got back from Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada. My wife and I are “national parks junkies.” Whether here in the U.S., Canada or anywhere else in the world, we love celebrating the natural beauty of God’s creation. The Canadian national parks, like the American ones, are a place where awe is the most common response to the mystery and majesty of God’s creation.
In today’s story Moses is on a mountain. It’s not hard to imagine him gaping at what he sees. But unlike our experience in Canada last week it’s not breath-taking scenery or spectacular glaciers or turquoise-colored water or majestic elk that he sees. On that mountain Moses sees a bush that’s on fire. This is no ordinary bush and it’s no ordinary fire. This bush is not being consumed by the fire.
I love what happens next. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Doesn’t that just sound like a guy thing to do? I can see myself in his position. Here’s something fascinating, some amazing phenomenon of nature that should just leave us speechless…but rather than awe and wonder the guy just wants to know how it works!
Sometimes learning how the universe is put together can deepen our sense of wonder. But sometimes trying to “figure things out” can be a distraction. Trying to explain what’s awesome or mysterious can distract us from just experiencing the mystery, the wonder, the majesty of the incredible universe we live in.
In the life of faith we are constantly tempted toward distractions that shift our attention from what is most important. Moses found himself asking a very human question: How does this thing work? He was missing out on the point of the burning bush, which was to draw his attention to the God who desired to be in relationship with him.
But gently, God nudges Moses toward what’s most important. In this case, God speaks of concern for people who are suffering, working toward deliverance for people who are not free. In a word, Moses hears what God has been doing throughout the course of human history, and that is to reveal what love looks like. Love is about helping others find relief from suffering, freedom from whatever imprisons them in mind, body or spirit. These are not distractions; they are central to what love is about!
But then God says, “And by the way, I want you to make this happen.” Moses is as human as any one of us and his first response is, “What? Me? Are you kidding?” God is teaching Moses about love. Not just the idea of love. Not just the feeling of love. Love in action. Not somebody else’s action. His action. But once again, Moses is distracted by something we all know very well. Moses is distracted from love by fear!
But in today’s readings, Moses is not the only one distracted from love. Peter was distracted from love. After Jesus describes the fate he will suffer, Peter says: God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” To which Jesus replies, Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? Peter expresses concern for his friend Jesus; in fact, it sounds like love to me! He doesn’t want Jesus to suffer. He wants him to be alive and free. Isn’t that what God told Moses that he was supposed to accomplish for his people? Isn’t that what love looks like?
But no, love is not always about preservation or protection. Preservation—or even life itself—can be a distraction to love. In fact, one of the highest forms of love is letting go of control, even to the point of allowing death, in order to make way for new life. As a pastor I see this again and again. When a person is close to death, and maybe even distracted by fear, the presence of loved ones can be a wonderful gift. And when those loved ones say to the person who is dying, “It’s okay for you to go,” that can be the most loving and liberating gift of all. It’s very different from Peter’s response, which on the face of it looks like love for Jesus, but which turns out to be a distraction based on his own fears.
Our relationship with God and one another is all about love. And love is the final word in today’s readings when Jesus tells Peter that God will repay everyone for what has been done. What do you think that means? It’s easy for us to become distracted by our human system of rewards and punishments—if you’re good God will bless you; if you’re bad God will punish you—but is that what Jesus is saying? Is that what we believe?
How does God “repay” anyone? Does not God repay—even God’s enemies–with love? Grace-filled, undeserved…love. For all people. For all creation. When that truth begins to sink in, we may be reminded that every minute of every day, we, like Moses, are in the presence of God. We are standing on holy ground. And maybe occasionally, at our best we are able to set aside our fears and need for control, to set aside distractions and allow ourselves to be overcome with wonder and gratitude at the mystery and majesty of God’s love.