The Holy, Approachable God

June 16, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Exodus 13.1-15, John 3.1-17 at Mattins on Sunday 16th June 2019, Trinity Sunday

Strolling back to the Cathedral through the Outer Close, minding my own business – my business including a mission to Keep Britain Tidy – something suddenly caught my eye. Nesting at the foot of one of the younger lime trees lining the path lay a mysterious, small, yellow object, perhaps worth putting in the bin.

On stooping down, I was surprised to discover that the litter was in fact a painted stone, the yellow belonging to the yellow and black strips of a bee, complete with wings and a friendly smile. I believe you can see it on our Twitter feed – an interesting case, then, of the birds and the bees!

As finding painted bee-stones under lime trees is not a common occurrence for me, I showed it to my PA Olivia on returning to the office. She looked up the hashtag handle stuck on a label on the back, which revealed a Facebook campaign to highlight 100 years of Learning Disability Nursing [https://www1.chester.ac.uk/news/rock-painting-spreads-love-and-celebrates-100-years-learning-disability-nursing]. It began at the University of Chester, where there’s a Batchelor of Nursing degree in this field.

Evidently, some of these stones have travelled from Chester as far as Cardiff, Birmingham and Holland. I like to think of my bee flying down the M40 corridor, stopping off at Cherwell Valley services to pollinate a pebble or two, though less romantically it might have got there because our local university has joined the campaign.

I thought you’d like this story, but it’s also a useful one for our purposes today. Because it starts with something out of the ordinary provoking curiosity and attention. Moses was going about his business, doing some work for his father-in-law, finding his flock somewhere to graze beyond the wilderness. And he comes to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, or the Great Mountain, also known as Mount Sinai.

As readers of this story, it’s hard to come to Mount Horeb without thinking of the giving of the Law to Moses, and it’s hard to think of the wilderness without thinking of the 40 years of wandering that the Israelites will face; but all this lies in the future. For now, Moses is just going about his ordinary, everyday business, a long way from the drama and danger of Egypt.

But then he sees the bush, a bush burning but not consumed. We are told that this burning is in fact the fiery presence of an angel in the bush, but Moses sees only ‘a great sight’ which attracts his attention, spurs his curiosity and causes him to turn aside to investigate.

This is where the bee helps. The purpose of the brightly painted stone was to attract my attention, but beyond that, it offered a code to draw me into the world of social media. Being a technological Neanderthal, I needed help to crack the code, but most people when turning over that stone and turning smartly to their smart phone would immediately have got the message about Learning Disability Nursing.

The point of the burning bush was to communicate; but why all the mystery? Could God not simply have spoken? No doubt, but would Moses have listened? God wants to communicate, not only speak, and how he communicates is part of the power of what he has to say.

If someone had come up to me with literature to interest me in a nursing course at the University of Chester or had approached me to rate the importance of Learning Disability Nursing as a part of the national welfare provision, I’m not sure I’d have turned aside to engage. But one, small stone did the trick.

A bush burning unconsumed says something about what can be done beyond the ordinary, beyond herding sheep and domestic routine. It says something about the holiness of God. His holy presence is mediated three times over, showing Himself to be utterly beyond the created realm. Yet he can make himself known through the presence of an angel, through a bush not burning and through a voice speaking to Moses.

A holy, transcendent God, making things happen in history, bringing about the extraordinary in the ordinary. All those messages are there in that moment. Moses needs to appreciate this holiness if he is to move forward. He must take off his shoes, be reverent, be aware that the place where he is standing is far from ordinary.

God has a calling to offer Moses, but first he must learn that God is holy and only approachable in holy fear. It’s the same message Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus: ‘the Spirit blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going’. God is holy and therefore cannot ever be boxed in or domesticated.

But that’s not the whole message. Why have a burning bush unless it was for approaching? Why offer a wind if it is not for harnessing? Jesus goes on, having talked about the unpredictability of the wind; ‘so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’. A life abiding in the holiness of God is possible.

Likewise, once God has announced himself to Moses, he invites him not only to approach physically but to share in his deepest concern – to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt.

Trinity Sunday is a great day for putting together these two truths. God is holy and also God holiness can be ours. Day after day in this cathedral at Morning Prayer we pray, ‘kindle in us the fire of your love’, and we dare to believe that this will happen because the God who is Trinity wants to come and dwell with us and for us to dwell in him.

The Dean’s PA challenged me to put into the sermon the card she was giving her father today, which happens also to be Fathers’ Day. She said she would not be giving him a gift because the card said it all:  It reads, ‘Dad, you have loved me ever since I was born, but I have loved you my whole life’.

The reversal of perspectives gives us hope that we can grow into a love which we thought to be beyond us but is meant to be reciprocal. The gospel is that in the Spirit and through Jesus we can love God with a love equal to the love he has for us. It might take us a lifetime and more than a lifetime to be consumed with holy fire, but in this moment we can make a start.

Moses shows us what to do. Take off our shoes and walk towards the fire. This is why we are here at worship. Awed by the architecture. Buffeted by the music. Stretched into the longing of prayer. And afterward impelled to share his holy work in the world.

I do not know what God’s work for you is, but it will fire you. You will feel the wind in your back. You will be surprised at yourself, in what you find yourself saying and doing, in what you come most to wish for. You will certainly grow in love and feel bound to the source of Love, even if this source remains totally Other and unmanageable.

We would have no hope this Trinity Sunday without Jesus having revealed this quality of life to us in person, without the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire; but with, in and through Christ and the Spirit, we have access to God’s holiness and we can walk in holiness. And the challenges we face along the way are chances we are given to grow in grace, to learn that we can love as adoringly as any child of God can ever love.