The desert is a hollow place, reverberant with the regrets of the past, and as he led his flock through the sparse pastures near the ancient mountain, he felt overcome with desolation. How had he wasted his life, thrown it away because he believed that the pain of his people was too much, and he had a responsibility to do something about it? How did it all go so badly wrong? Surely he had an obligation to use his power and privilege to help them?
But forty years of caring for his father-in-law’s sheep in this lonely backwater of the world had taught him better. How had he ever presumed that his own rash actions would solve the problem, that he could just waltz in and do as he pleased and it would all come right? How dared he imagine that he himself, a pampered prince, was the God-given answer to their need? Somewhere deep inside, he was a broken man. And still his people suffered.
But what was this? He smelt the thin tang of smoke in the air, and heard the crackling, before he turned his head and saw the fire: a small bush ablaze. Such a thing was not unknown in the hot dry air. Following his train of thought, he remembered how his people had sometimes thought of themselves as the Lord’s planting – seeded in Canaan, the land of Promise, then transplanted to the alien soil of Egypt. And now they were in the furnace of affliction, ill-treated as slaves in the very place that had once been their shelter and protection. What could he do? He had already proved himself worthless to help them, how long would it be until they were burned up and burned out by suffering? Would all those promises that God once made to Abraham come to nothing?
He was jolted out of his thoughts by the dawning realisation that something strange was happening here. It was normal for a bush to burn; it was not normal for it to keep on burning, unchanged. Normally it would flare up quickly into flame, and just as quickly burn out and die down. That was the way things worked, just like the quick flare of his anger against the Egyptian overseer that had so quickly burned out into futility. But this bush not only continued to burn with hot, fierce flames, but, when he peered harder, he could see that its leaves remained green. The burning did not consume it. Turning his head to check that his flock were grazing safely (and keeping their distance from the fire), he then walked over towards the bush to take a closer look at this strange thing.
But as he came towards it, a voice spoke from the bush, calling him by name. “Here, I am,” he responded, and realised in that moment that he was referring to far more than his location here near Horeb. He was here, in this place, because of his own failure – failure to achieve either the liberation of his people or even the wealth and honour for himself which he had once taken for granted. He was here because His people, God’s people, were being persecuted, and Pharaoh, if he could, would like to utterly destroy them. He was here because there was nowhere else in the world left for him to be.
“Do not come any closer,” said the voice from the bush, and he was glad to obey. He was suddenly very afraid. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing id Holy Ground.”
He complied, and as he did so, his mind was reeling. This was Holy Ground. He stood in the presence of God. And where was God to be found? In the heart of the burning bush, in the midst of His suffering people. The bush was not consumed because the Lord Himself was present; the people of God endured through slavery and persecution because He was there with them. Moses had abandoned them and fled to preserve himself, but God, Almighty God, the Maker of heaven and earth, had not stood off afar from them. He was there, He suffered with them; dimly Moses sensed that in some way, yet to be revealed, the people of God would endure forever because God would suffer for them.
This was holy ground indeed, the place where God dwelt in the very sorrow of His people. And Moses understood that only God was great enough to stoop so low, to endure so much, to save so completely. But where in His divine purposes could there possibly be room for a man like Moses, who, with the best intentions, had got it so terribly wrong? He waited, listening, and who was there, in the desolation of the desert, to notice that his knees trembled and his face was wet with tears?