Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. there the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. then the Lord said, ‘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, and 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.
The wind whistles and rattles across the plain. Harsh and unforgiving, it scours the land, and few things grow. You hear it, and you don’t hear it. It is here, and it is gone. there is a dread chill in the air. Eventually it gets inside you. then one day the cold earth claims you for its own, and holds you fast till you become part of the earth, fused with the rocks and dispersed in the sand.
The little scrubby scraps of vegetation that can survive this climate cling to the same rocks for life. they blossom and flower. they fade. the wind blows over them. they are gone.
It is nearly evening. It goes on. the cycle of the days. the rhythm of the seasons. All the little lives that populate the world. Somewhere a birth. Somewhere else a death. A couple, hiding in the shadows, unite their bodies in a brief ecstasy. And afterwards hold each other tight, knowing that love can conquer. Don’t despise it. Each act of love is a small defiance against the dying light. But somewhere else, there will be a random cruelty. or a child begging for bread.
The dice are loaded. the day finished, its colour sucked into the empty palate of the night. there is no sunset to charm us. the clouds that have hung low all day obscure the sun.
Balanced in the scales we count for nothing. Squalor and misery and fear weigh heavy on our hearts. We brood upon the future; and each night is a daily reminder of looming death. the whole world is descending into inky blackness. What life there is has retreated, burrowing into safety beneath the ground. Soon we will do the same. Soon the creatures of the night will hunt and prowl.
But what of me? What have I achieved? Where am I going?
I have been privileged beyond imagining; brought up by Pharaoh himself, but always an outsider. And now an outcast as well.
I am frightened by the anger inside me. I do things that I don’t want to do. the things I do want to do, I neglect. there is no health in me: only, for so much of the time, a steady simmering rage. Where has it come from? Where will it lead?
I hated the way the Egyptians treated my people. no one deserves to live like that, to be made a slave and yoked to another’s control. It was wrong to let my anger boil over, but when I saw one of my countrymen being beaten and humiliated, I could not stop myself. I killed the man quickly and efficiently.
It was surprising how easy it was. His neck snapped like the branch of a young sapling; and before my eyes, and with- out any actual blood on my hands, his body fell limp to the ground. once he had life. then he didn’t. Life was suddenly very fragile and very cheap. Mine, to dispose of as I chose. I hated myself for that. I hid his body in the sand and ran off. I thought that no one had seen me. But the next day, when I tried to break up a stupid fight between two fellow Hebrews, one of them turned on me, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Are you going to kill me as well?’ then I was afraid. If it is known, then soon Pharaoh will know, and his favour towards me will quickly vanish.
So I fled. I came here to the land of Midian, and because I helped him, Reuel offered me food and rest. I married his daughter Zipporah. they have been good to me. I have here a life – of sorts. And a son, Gershom. But I am still a stranger here. I am still an alien. And my people still groan under the bondage of Pharaoh. they cry out to God, but God doesn’t seem to hear them. And God doesn’t seem to hear me. I know I have failed. But I don’t know how to start again. I know I have led a half-life – half accepted, cushioned by Pharaoh’s favour; and half rejected, a Hebrew underneath. I am an Egyptian, but not an Egyptian. I am a Hebrew, but not a Hebrew. that is me. I don’t fit. So I lashed out in both directions. And I have retreated to this wilderness; this dread half- place, where half-wits and half-castes don’t sully the view.
But today it changed. that is why I am drawing a line in the sand. today, what goes round now goes forward. I still carry the fears and doubts and miseries that make a lifetime. But I am carrying them somewhere. And it is why I am still sitting here in the half-light, half-dark of today’s ending.
I have let the fire go cold. the last few embers throb, intermittent and faint, like the fading pulse of a dying man. But I don’t need the fire any more. I have seen something else today. Also a fire: incandescent and vast like the sky in the morning on a clear day when the sun rises, only contained and luminously bright, in this one place rather than every- where. And by this light I have seen another course through the wilderness and it has changed me; and eventually, in what lies ahead at the end of many journeys – or will it be just one? – a greater light will dawn upon the world.
Now I hear the first sounds of the night-time. I shiver in its chill and unforgiving grasp. An owl hoots. Further afield a mountain cat pounces upon its kill, and the poor creature whose neck is held in that same vice-like grip of death of which I know my own hands are capable cries out.
At first it seemed an apparition – a mirage, like the illusion of water, shimmering on the near horizon of a flat plain on a dry day when the sun is high. But there was no sun today. only clouds and a gathering gloom. Perhaps it was the sound of its crackle and spit that stopped me, and fixed me. or was it the heat? or the stench of sulphur on the air? now all my questions, my excuses, and even my doubts about myself, have been purged and refined. Who am I, that I should do this thing for God? And why doesn’t God send somebody else? And I’ve never been very good with words. there are others better qualified than me. there are people with wisdom and faith and self-control. they are the ones that God should call. they are the ones that God should send.
All these were gone. Answered. I saw ahead of me a burn- ing bush, ablaze with a thrilling intensity, but not consumed. It drew me. It confounded and amazed me. For all too well do I know fiery passions that consume. they ignite inside me, and they have almost devoured me. But this was passion of equal intensity: raging, rousing, its flames licking the sky, its sparks dazzling; but the bush was not burned up. It was illuminated. And so was I. turning aside to that bright illumination, drawn like the face of a flower to the sun, like iron filings to a magnet, like a lover to her beloved, I heard a voice calling me: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And I said, gently, confidently, ‘Here I am.’ And the voice said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are stand- ing is holy ground.’
So I stood there, barefoot before the fire, amazed and heartened by a power that irradiated but did not destroy, and I felt like one reborn. All in a moment, in a twinkling, in a conflagration, I was changed. I know it sounds stupid. Can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born again? Well, perhaps. that is how it felt today. For it was God’s voice speaking to me out of the burning bush. I know it now. I knew it then. Instantly and irrevocably. I turned my face away as the voice said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I have heard the cry of my people. I know their sufferings. I have come to deliver them.’
Then, when all my excuses for not being part of God’s purposes were exhausted, I said, as much in desperation as in hope (there is, after all, always a conflict within me): ‘If the people you are asking me to deliver from bondage say to me, who is it that sent you, and what is his name, how shall I reply?’
God then said to me, ‘I am who I am. Say to the people, I am has sent me.’
Now the darkness thickens. the razor of the wind sharpens. the cold drills into my bones. night arrives.
‘I am has sent me.’
I peer down the tunnel of my own future: the sunsets and tomorrows of a lifetime, and beyond it to a good land, a land where milk and honey flow, even the consoling breasts of a mother whose motherhood was denied and threatened; and beyond it to many other lifetimes, and the many treacheries and failings that will beset this people I am called to save; until there is another, born out of the blazing fire of another revelation, from the depths of someone ordinary like me who is also able to say yes to God; suckled at the breast of such a faithful one, his presence will scatter the darkness, and his light will burn for ever. He is also called ‘I am’. And he is the same. He will not allow his people to be slaves. He will search out the lost. He will care for the lowly. He will turn every stone. His voice will be in the faltering tongue of a nation yet to be born, but as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand upon the shore. He will be brilliant light. He will be salvation. He will be born into the darkness of an unknowing world. He will go down into the night.
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?