Sermon For February 1, 2015 ~ The Season Of Epiphany

Exodus 3:1-6 & Romans 11:33-36

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Sermon #5 “Surprised By The Incomprehensibility”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

My best friend, Mary Kay Totty, who many of you know is a United Methodist preacher in Washington, D.C.  For many years now she has had a practice of taking off her shoes just before preaching.  She does this as both a sign of humility and a tangible way to remember that always, but especially in the moment of attempting to bring to life the Word of God, we stand on holy ground.  Echoing the action God required of Moses at the bush that was burning but was not consumed, my minister friend reminds us all that the God we worship is a Holy One.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Tiffany Studios, Union Congregational Church, Montclair, NJ.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Tiffany Studios, Union Congregational Church, Montclair, NJ.

I am taken by the vision of God’s presence that surprised Moses and surprises us: a bush ablaze but not burnt up.  Yes, a common, everyday, run-of-the-mill plant lit by the ordinary daily-used fire that made life so wonderful and so dangerous at the same time.  And the combination of bush and fire was nothing peculiar, as this was not the first bush to catch fire and it certainly would not be the last.  And yet the conventional moment was transformed to an “Wow!” one by the intentional presence of the divine, with the aim of chastening, yes, but ultimately inspiring and empowering the one for whom this display was made manifest.  In this case, Moses.

I have long been in awe of bushes burning.  As a child living on the outskirts of a small southwestern town, we were inundated by tumbleweeds that rolled across the dry desert plains at the end of the summer and would fill up our front yard, which faced the open wilderness.  These dried bushes would get so high they would top our cement block fence and begin filling up our backyard.  It was a major event when all the neighbors on one Saturday in late August or September would take all the tumbleweeds that had built up and fill our atumbleweedlley with them.  Since our development had uniform cement block fences that lined the alleyway, we would gather in our backyard, hoses in hand, and at one moment the huge pile of tumbleweeds extending several blocks long and piled 6-8 feet high would be lit on fire.  The conflagration was breathtaking and overwhelming, especially to a child.  In seconds the hundreds and hundreds of crisp dry bushes were brightly ablaze and in minutes they were gone, leaving only smoking ashes and charred metal garbage cans here and there.  This was a kind of awe, but not the awe Moses experienced.  His was laced with divine incomprehensibility and holy expectation.

Marc Chagall, 1960. Galerie Art Chrudim: Job Praying

Marc Chagall, 1960. Galerie Art Chrudim:
Job Praying

Our scriptures are rife with instances of the God of creation having to remind the people whom God had formed out of dust exactly who was who and what was what, often in surprising ways.  From the banishment from paradise, to the floodwaters that poured over the face of the earth, to the whirlwind that silenced Job, to the ferocious call of the prophets, to the earthshaking ripping of the temple curtain, to the dramatic reclaiming of creation by God as seen in Revelation, the Holy One has made it clear the rightful order of things and pointedly reinforced precisely who is in charge.

Sometimes this prompting comes with Cecil B. Demille effects, more akin to the fiery furnace of my southwestern alleyway, and sometimes it is smoother, more poetic and inviting.  The passage from Romans read today is one of the more lyrical reminders: “For who has known the mind of God?  Or who has been God’s counselor?  Or who has given a gift to God to receive a gift in return?  For from God and through God and to God area all things.  To God be the glory forever.”

This humbling and empowering call of God, found both in Exodus 3 and Romans 11, is not offered arbitrarily.  In both instances it is in response to a limiting condition that humanity has placed on the work of God in this world.  In Exodus, it is the epic story of the horrific enslavement of the Hebrew children (1).  Slavery being one of the most sickening and ungodly means of constraining God’s children and, by implication, God’s very holy self.  Similarly, in Romans, we read of Paul’s frustration with the rationing of God’s salvation only to those deemed “chosen” by God.  In fact the Gentiles, the non-chosen people, will end up being the focus of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit and the missionary work of the apostles called by God

We human beings don’t do too well when we try to manage the holiness of God.  Far too often when the transcendence of God is talked about and employed by us it is for purposes that are controlling and shaming and hostile to ourselves and others.  In other words, we too often use God’s power for manipulation and degradation.  In contrast, the scriptures we have looked at today reference God’s power and might only to ultimately empower, enhance, and ultimately call and empower the people.  God’s divine incomprehensibility always wraps around holy expectation.

Light playing in St. John The Divine cathedral, NYC, photo by Allen V. Harris

Light playing in St. John The Divine cathedral, NYC, photo by Allen V. Harris

The incomprehensibility of God is surprising to us, again and again although you’d think we’d be ready for it by now!  The moment that we think we have the divine figured out, God says or does something new, astonishing, unpredictable, and frequently earth shattering to remind us we just don’t have God “figured out.”  God is quite comfortable using us, everyday folks.  But we do not have the same luxury toward God.  The sacred, the holy, the divine cannot be put in a box, which is to say God cannot be used for our purposes and we should be loath to hang out with anyone who says they can or by their actions show they think they do!

If our object is to respond to God’s call then this should be freeing.  But this incomprehensibility is far too often frustrating because we have unhealthy intentions of using God’s power for our own personal intentions, limited at best and maniacal at worst!

What we are called to in today’s texts, and everyday, is to simply let the wonder that is the divine, the awe that is God, to wash over us and claim us, renew us, call us, and empower us.  Rather than trying to harness God’s power, like we have the power of the wind, the water, the sun, coal and petroleum in the earth, or the atom, let us let go of our need to control and, like Moses, Paul, Jesus, and so many others, simply respond to the surprising incomprehensible God with a resounding “YES!”  And if we do, we might just surprise God!


(1) For a powerful Meditation that connects this Exodus story with the events related to the shooting of Eric Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, God Hears the Cries of #Ferguson: A Burning Bush and a World on Fire go online to:  Rev. Keith Anderson, Pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church, Ambler, PA and Co-Author of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible