Sermon from October 27: Nec tamen consumebatur

Nec tamen consumebatur
Reformation Sunday (O. T. 30); October 27, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15

This beautiful “Burning Bush” at the corner of our church building is not what Moses saw, for sure, although such a plant on a Fall afternoon lifts my spirits. I don’t know what Moses did see; he saw something so remarkable that the description we have in Exodus 3 is the best way he could find to describe it.

This wonder called to his attention, and he turned aside from the direction he was going in order to take a look. He found himself on holy ground, and this one moment of turning aside led to his new life’s direction. Perhaps there’s a lesson for you and me right there: if you see something wonderful, that calls you from the path you’ve chosen thus far, there is a danger that God may lead you somewhere different. So best ignore it and continue stubbornly going the way you were.

Today, the last Sunday of October, many Protestants observe as Reformation Sunday, because Martin Luther and others did not stubbornly continue on the path they had chosen, but were called aside by the wonderful work of God. Martin Luther was a priest and professor of Bible, but when God called to him he ignited the fire of the Reformation. We point to October 31, 1517, the Eve of All Saints Day, as the day he set the match to the Roman Catholic establishment, but he had been led that way for a long time before.

We Presbyterians trace our heritage to John Calvin, who was on the path toward becoming a lawyer, when his own convictions led him to turn aside and hear the call of God to reform the Church. Our opening hymn, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal #624) comes from the movement he led, and he may even have written it himself. The words certainly sound like him. And from his reformation in Switzerland to the Church of Scotland and from there to the Presbyterians of Ireland and then to America is our heritage. And so the emblem and motto I’ve chosen to talk about today is the emblem of the Church of Scotland, going back to 1691[1]. It shows the burning bush, and the motto “Nec tamen consumebatur:” “However, it was not consumed.”

There are two things I hope you will take with you today for your faith in Christ. The first is to come into the presence of God; the second is to be the presence of God.

The voice of the Lord said to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What makes ground holy? I mean, dirt is dirt, right? But we have places we consider sacred. If you’ve ever been to San Antonio, you’ve probably visited the Alamo. I remember a sign that told us to keep a respectful silence, because the place was a shrine. What made it a shrine? The deaths of between 150 and 250 defenders in 1836 during the Texas Revolution. The memory of what happened there makes the Alamo holy ground, especially for Texans.

But on Horeb, the mountain of God, there was a plot that the angel told Moses was holy ground. Had something special happened there? Had there been a great battle, where many died? Well, you know what made it holy: the presence of God. Moses saw a great sight, and heard the voice of the angel, and knew he was in the presence of the Lord God. At such a moment, an act of reverence is called for, so he was commanded to remove his sandals.

So I’ll say a little about this space and what happens here. There is nothing about this space, as such, that makes it holy ground. We call this the Holy Table – not the altar; there is no altar in Presbyterian churches – because on it we prepare the Lord’s Supper, not because there is something intrinsically holy about this wood. This room is a “sanctuary” not because something in the floor tile makes it sacred, but because this is the room where the people of God gather for worship and prayer. You know that, but it bears repeating.

But when you come here, I hope you come with an attitude of awe and reverence, with the inclination that you ought to do something akin to removing your sandals, because this is holy ground: not because a sign tells you that this is a shrine, but because here you come into the presence of God. Our time of worship is not merely an emotional setting for you to get fifteen to twenty minutes of teaching; it is a real thing of itself; it is conversation with God. When you say your prayers in your room every morning or evening, it is your personal conversation with God. Here we come together as a people in conversation with God. God speaks to us, especially in the Bible, but also in preaching and in the Sacraments. And we speak to God in prayer and in song.

A woman told me a story about how a predecessor of mine taught her something important about worship. After service she mentioned to him that she didn’t particularly like one of the hymns; he asked her, “Whatever gave you the idea that this was about you?” His rather abrupt question taught her to put the focus in the right place. When people say they don’t like the music, or the way the Scriptures are read, or the structure of the liturgy, they simply show they haven’t yet learned what this is about. They’re not here to come into the presence of God; they’re here so that someone will make them happy.

The bush that burned but was not consumed is the wonder that drew Moses’ attention to the presence of God. We Protestant Christians rely not on wonders or show or splash, but on the Word and Sacraments to draw our attention to God. The burning bush reminds us that we are here to experience God, in all the terror and power of the Creator of the atom and of the galaxies.

But, as the Church of Scotland notes on their website, John Calvin pointed out something else about the bush that burned but was not consumed: it also represents the Church, you and me.[2] The Church is aflame with the Word of God, we burn with the news that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and the Church’s enemies would burn the Church with the fire of Hell. There have been times in history, and there are still places in the world, where the fire is more literal. The Church of Jesus Christ has been cruelly persecuted by those who would suppress the good news that Jesus is Lord. We live in a time when the Enemy’s fire is the fire of apathy. Who cares? What difference does it make to me that Jesus is Lord? I’m content to be my own Lord. Or to let the government be Lord, or my company, or perhaps my daughter’s soccer team.

The Church burns with the Word of God and the Church is burned by the fires of evil and apathy, but the Church is not consumed. Nec tamen consumebatur. “However, it was not consumed.” If we remember that our primary purpose is to be the presence of God in the world, that will have an impact on how we think about ourselves and how we treat one another. I heard a woman say to the Session of her Church, “I have seen God in you.” I think what she meant was that she saw Godliness in the way they behaved, in the way they treated each other and in the way they led their Church in mission in the world.

If we see that our purpose is to be the presence of God in the world, we will get burned. There will be opposition and apathy, both within the Church and in the world around us. But the fire will not consume us, it cannot, because the bush that conveys the presence of God cannot be consumed. The revelation of God’s presence in the world, represented by the burning bush, came to its climax in Jesus of Nazareth, who was burned (figuratively speaking), but not consumed. People followed him not because of the power of his rhetoric or his natural charisma, I believe, but because they recognized in him the presence of God (see Luke 9:1-11, the Gospel for the day). And they killed him, but the Word of God cannot stay dead.

So, to finish where we started: remember the burning bush and what it means. Come to worship, read the Bible, say your prayers in order to come to the presence of God. And be the presence of God for someone. You and I can do that, because we belong to Jesus, who is himself the culmination of the presence of God for the world. Jesus himself was burned, but was not consumed: Nec tamen consumebatur.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about_us/our_structure/church_emblem

[2] In his commentary on Exodus

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