The Rev. Frank
Note: A PowerPoint Presentation
showing artwork accompanied this sermon.
On Fire for God
The Gospel reading for this morning is the prologue to Johnís Gospel. These 18 verses are all about Godís presence. The same Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who was present in creation has become most fully present in the world through the second person of the Trinity becoming flesh in the person of Jesus. God, who had always been present throughout the whole creation was becoming most fully present in one place and time.
The concept that God is at once both everywhere and also more fully present in one place was not a new idea. First century Jewish religious life centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple itself was a place apart, holy ground set aside for worshipping the one, true God. Zones of increasing purity, each holier than the one before divided the areas of the Temple. Their was the court of the Gentiles and on in layers of holiness working inward to the Holy of Holies, the epicenter of holiness on earth. Going in to the Holy of Holies was for priests alone and then only to fulfill God-ordained services. Going into the Holy of Holies was done with fear and trembling as God could strike dead any undeserving priest who ventured in to this most sacred spot.
Priests wrapped a cord around their waist before venturing in to the Holy of Holies so that if being in Godís presence consumed them with fire, their fellow priests could pull the dead body out without having to enter the sacred sanctuary. To experience Godís presence so completely was to take your life in your own hands. The Jews, who knew God to be present throughout the earth, considered the Holy of Holies to be the most sacred spot on earth. God was more fully present there than anywhere as it was the place where God came all the way to earth.
There are two other scriptural examples of God being so fully present at one place and time, which I think help illumine our Gospel reading for this morning. The first is Godís friend Moses and the second is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Moses was on the run from Egypt after murdering an Egyptian for killing a Hebrew slave. In the wilderness, Moses met Jethro, a priest of Midian, and married Jethroís daughter Zippora. He tended Jethroís flocks and it was one day, while working as a shepherd that Moses saw a sight that changed his life. Rather than continuing with the flocks, Moses turned aside from the task at hand to see a bush ablaze with fire, yet not consumed. When God saw that Moses turned from his work to check out the burning bush, God spoke to Moses, telling him to take off his shoes for he was on holy ground.
God then called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. God said that he had not been blend to the oppression of the Hebrews and he would act through Moses to deliver them.
God, who was present in the whole world, came all the way down to earth in one particular place and time in fullness in order to act in history. The bush, which caught Moses eye that day in the wilderness, fully experienced Godís presence and was set afire by God and yet God comes to bring life, not to consume it, so though the bush blazed brightly, the fire did not consume it.
Gregory, the fourth century Bishop of Nyssa, seems to have been the first to connect the idea of Moses and the burning bush to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Gregory wrote in his On the Birth of Christ that as the bush was in flames, but not consumed, so Mary had God present inside her and was not consumed. Mary is herself like the burning bush. God is fully present and yet she is unharmed.
A tradition developed in art from the imagery Gregory offered. Mary is sometimes portrayed in or as the burning bush. The oldest work is an icon at St. Catherineís Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai which offered a highly stylized version of the flames and surrounded Mary with a host of Old Testament scenes. Later art centered on Mary in the midst of the flaming bush or as herself set afire but not consumed.
This tradition in writing and art is working with the very thing the prologue to Johnís Gospel is conveying, the idea that God has taken such an interest in us that sometimes God comes all the way down to earth. But unlike the notion that Godís immanent presence is somehow confined to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, this tradition shows God being fully present to a couple of ordinary people, Moses and Mary.
There is no tradition in art showing Jesus as the burning bush, though Jesus was himself the most complete example of God coming all the way to earth to be fully present in one time and place. God did not consume the humanity of Jesus with the fire of the divine that was also fully present in Jesus. John describes it as, ďThe Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.Ē John speaks of Jesus as the Word, the essence of who God is and how God has acted through all time. That Word which is before the whole creation was is made flesh in Jesus.
God could no longer be seen as a distant figure off in the heavens disinterested and unaware of human pain and suffering. God who was present throughout the whole world to everyone, whether they were aware of Godís presence or not was now fully known on earth through Jesus. As John puts it, ďThe true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.Ē
We donít experience Godís presence the same way all the time. To fully experience God all the time would not only make us of no earthly value, it may well consume us. So, God is more fully known in some times and places than in others. Godís presence may be fully felt in a church, or great cathedral, but also in a grove of redwoods or a waterfall. We live in what Archbishop William Temple called a ďSacramental Universe.Ē Sacraments are something in the here and now which conveys Godís presence, such as the bread and wine of communion conveying Godís presence.
God is not limited in ways to get our attention. For Moses it was a burning bush, for Mary it was a visit from an angel. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning spoke of the sacramental universe through some oft-quoted lines,
Earthís crammed with
As Browning notes everything in the world is potentially sacramental as anything may be used to convey Godís presence. While God has the potential to reveal Godís own self in anything, God is not equally present in all places and times and through all things. The key to feeling Godís presence is the one found both in the story of Moses and the burning bush and Mary and the annunciation. Moses and Mary were both receptive to Godís presence. As Browning wrote, only the one who sees takes off their shoes, realizing they are on holy ground.
John tells us that God has come in fullness into the world in Jesus. Each of us has received grace upon grace from his fullness. Grace is Godís gift of undeserved love. Each of us has already received that grace in abundance from God. All we have to do is open the eyes of our hearts to see the ways in which God has already touched our lives.
God is still opening eyes and making Godís own presence felt among us common folk of earth. God may be known to you in the word, or in the bread and wine, or through something even more common place. Open the eyes of your heart to see God acting in the world and prepare to have your heart set on fire by Godís presence.
 This sermon, while not quoting her work directly, relies heavily on insight gained from reading Ellen F. Davisí book, Getting Involved with God (Cowley, 2001) in which she describes Gregory of Nyssa connecting the revelation of Moses and the burning bush to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526