Do you remember the story of Moses and the Burning Bush? (You’ll find it in Exodus 3.15). It comes at a fascinating turn in the story of Israel, a hinge point between the early patriarchs, their tribal identity and divine encounters and the time when – after the long years in Egypt – Israel re-accesses this heritage and builds a nation.
The Hebrew of the narrative is full of continuous presents and interweaves different words for God, giving the feel that it is interweaving various oral accounts of a story that must have been told and re-told over many years before it was committed to writing.
In older traditions God is called “Elohim” – it’s a plural form, perhaps Canaanite in origin, from a time when gods plural were worshipped. By now it is being used as if it was a singular – Israel has become “monotheist” – but a new name for God is also being adopted, perhaps from the desert tribes: Yahweh. Moses wants to know the meaning of this new name, but God is not to be so easily co-opted: he is told that it means “I am becoming who I am becoming” or just “I am who I am”. The name is an enigma, and it will remain too holy in the Israelite tradition to normally speak out or write in full in its proper form (hence the substitute “Jehovah” which keeps the same consonants but alters the vowels).
The burning bush symbolises this same duality or contradiction between revelation and holy hiddenness, presence and weirdness. This is the same God of the ancestors, but he also has a new name that is not to be named. He is going to get involved, but cannot be approached too closely or presumed upon.
This conundrum of God’s presence/absence knownness/otherness persists: in the Temple’s empty sanctuary, in the irruptions of the prophetic tradition, and in the revelation of Christ too, with his enigmatic virgin birth, with the enjoined secrecy of his messianic mission, with the recognised and not-recognised, touchable but untouchable nature of the resurrection, and the Spirit that blows where it wills.
So we too are often confronted with the question, “Is this that?” Is the God of our ancestors the God some are seeing here now? How do we hold together mystery & revelation, tradition & renewal; whether in styles of worship, understandings of mission or structures of church.
I want to suggest that the two sides of these questions are also the touchstones that will help us answer them. When we can see worship or aspects of church life that have both a sense of something coming to us fresh in the present, but which are also deeply rooted in the past; and when we have a sense of something being made clear to us and guiding us, but of something that is also greater than us and mysterious to us, then we can be emboldened to say, “This is our God. This is the God of our ancestors and also the God of today and tomorrow. And we will both take off our shoes to tread on its holy ground, and be given our mission and our voice to take its fiery inspiration to others.
This combination is something we look for, mutatis mutandis, outside the church as well. To take three slightly tendentious examples: we are celebrating the 90th birthday of her Majesty the Queen and we see both day-to-day duty and fulfilling of a historic role, but also and especially in her Christmas messages a deep and often hidden faith which underpins it, shining through at the critical times. Take either away and her reign would be the less. Or to leave the sublime for the at least rumbustious, Louis van Gaal has struggled as manager of Manchester United and may be on the way out, but in the Cup Final yesterday he and his team just managed to hold together not just their impeccable organisation on the pitch which delivers them massive possession, but a spark of passion too when it looked like they might lose, and a heroic run by their captain that gave them a goal. Palace on the other hand had passion in spades and delivered a super substitute fairytale goal, but weren’t boringly consistent enough in the end to keep the Reds out.
And one last example: are you as frustrated as I am at how the campaign running up to the European referendum has been going? We have the two elements I am looking for: facts, and passion we might say. But the facts seem so often to be like half-bricks, reduced in size to make them easier to throw at the enemy. And the passion doesn’t actually connect with them, but turns into accusations and if it’s not careful will become abuse. Thank you to those who do try to deliver both, held together despite their difference. I hope we will see more.
But we must go back to our ecclesiastical agenda. History records that one Nakdimon Ben Gurion was the Jewish official in charge of the water supply to the Temple in New Testament times. Now there’s a routine job for you, literally plumbed in to the establishment. I wonder if he was our Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling Council, who broke ranks and came out by night to see a new thing, to see if this was that? The man who later spoke up for Jesus in the Council? The man who would eventually help Joseph of Arimathea anoint the body of our Lord?
I wonder how the water of our baptism and the Spirit of God will move us and the church officials of today, give them their mission, and give them their voice, as we too seek to find the vibrancy that comes when the givenness of tradition is shot through like silk with renewal, when the revelation of God alive and with us now still meets us with a mystery that tells us we are on holy ground?