In October 1958, NASA advertised that they were looking for 7 test pilots to begin a program called Project Mercury. 500 men applied and by January of 1959, NASA shortened the list to just 110. After rigorous physical and psychological tests, the number quickly dropped to 18.
The candidates had to be less than 6-foot-tall, weigh no more than 180 pounds, be under the age of 40, have a bachelor’s degree and ‘had to have flown’ over 1,500 hours in jets. On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced the first 7 astronauts that would help launch the leap to space.
Author Tom Wolfe wrote about these amazing men in his novel “The Right Stuff”. He writes, part of what made these men faithful and strong was their belief in or embracing of God. And while some of the astronauts had weak or inactive faith, their time in space changed everything.
One of the original 7, John Glenn told reporters, “To Look out at earth and see this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible”.
On Christmas Eve in 1968, the astronauts on Apollo 8 all read from the book of Genesis. Later, Buzz Aldrin would be the first astronaut to celebrate communion on Apollo 11. And James Irwin, on Apollo 15, had a personal encounter with Jesus while on the moon and it changed his life so much, when he returned, he became a missionary for Jesus to other nations.
Many of these men admitted to having faith in God but said that only their pilot light was engaged. Yet once they saw God’s universe from a different perspective, it was like they were set on fire for the Lord. A spark from God; set them ablaze again.
I believe the same thing must have happened to Moses.
As you might recall, Moses fled Egypt and went to live in the desert with the Midianites. He married one of the daughters of Reu-el and settled in to become a shepherd. He was 40 when he arrived and had a lot to learn; it was a very different lifestyle.
Scripture doesn’t highlight the details of those years but it does record Moses’ first words about his change of location. He said, “I have become an alien in a foreign land.”
Being a United Methodist pastor, I understand exactly what he is talking about. We are Itinerant (that means we move at the will of God and the Bishop and cabinet). Moving is stressful. It takes a while to settle in, to get to know folks and to feel at home again. But after several years, a regular routine takes shape.
I am sure Moses had had a rough start but after 40 years, the desert probably felt like home to him. He was confident and at peace. At the age of 80, he was no longer the brash, hot-headed, leader he once was. Moses had learned humility, patience and responsibility.
While his priorities had shifted and his work and family took all his time, I think his passion for justice and the things of God were still alive in him. But I am also sure the flame was running much lower.
Singer John Waite began his career in the mid 70’s with a rock group called ‘The Babys’. They had some success with songs like ‘Everytime I think of you’ and ‘Isn’t it time?”
In 1982, Waite released his first solo album. The big hit on that record was called ‘Change’, listen to the chorus;
things ain’t ever gonna change
It doesn’t matter who you are
It’s all the same
What’s in your heart will never change
The Bible says that God looks at the heart and he knows what’s in it. God knew what Moses was capable of and what he needed to get to the place where God could use him. After 40 years in the desert, without one word from God, on an ordinary day, everything would change.
Moses led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Horeb is defined as a barren place or a place of solitude. It may have been were Moses liked to go and pray while he watched the sheep graze.
But on this day, out of the corner of his eye, Moses saw a thorn-bush burst into flame. While this occurred once in a while in the desert, the flames usually turned the bush to ash quickly and then extinguished itself.
But on this occasion, Moses noticed that the bush was burning yet it remained intact. Curiosity got the best of him and he decided to have a look. In this passage, we have Moses thoughts recorded. He thinks, “I will go over and see this strange sight, and see why the bush doesn’t burn up.”
Now, scripture records these happenings, “There, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flames of fire within the bush. Then God called to Moses, from within the bush.
Many scholars have different takes on what is going on. Is it the bush that is on fire or the angel in the bush that is blazing? Is this really a fire or a brilliant light? And finally, is this really an angel or is this God?
Some scholars believe that there is both an angel and God’s presence in that burning bush. We know that an angel of the Lord is also called a messenger. Yet Moses never really claims to see an angel just a burning bush.
Here is my take on this passage; I think Moses saw the burning bush and he recognized that it is a message from God. A theophany is the appearance of God ‘in a form that is visible to humans’. In other words, Moses knows he is seeing a miracle.
That is why Moses reacted the way he did, when God spoke to him. As Moses approached the burning bush, God called out, “Moses, Moses”. God repeats his name, so we understand the urgency and importance of this conversation.
Moses responded, “I am right here”.
Rev. Chuck Swindoll writes, “When Moses saw the burning bush he thought to himself, “How strange that is!” If it had been me, maybe I would have been hearing the theme for ‘The Twilight Zone’ playing in my brain.
Yet, we notice, when God calls out to Moses, Moses quickly responds with “Here I am”. If I were Moses, I imagine that the burning bush would have surprised me but it would have been the ‘talking bush’ that made me feel like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone!
But not Moses; he recognizes this as a miracle and that this unusual incident is of God. He believes that God has a message for him. We can almost hear Moses say, “I am right hear God, speak to me.”
“Don’t come any closer,” God said. In other words, that’s far enough. “And take off your sandals, your standing on Holy Ground”. This was now a sacred place, ‘holy means’ set apart.
To take off one’s shoes, in Jewish culture, is a sign of respect and submission. It is like taking off your hat in worship or in the presence of a lady. It is an outward sign of an inward reverence.
In the Bible, God is described as putting his foot down on the necks of his enemy. We might say, he walked all over them. To throw a shoe at someone is still considered a sign of disrespect. So to surrender and transfer power, Moses took off his shoes and knelt down.
Now, you can go on to read how God describes himself, how he gave Moses a task and then see how Moses reacted. I have preached on that topic before, but here is the thing I want you to remember…This burning bush incident, eventually turned Moses’ tiny flame – back into a roaring fire.
At the burning bush, God revealed his holiness in a way it had never been revealed before. And Moses was so awe struck by the encounter, it radiated in his heart, mind and soul.
Later in his victory song, recorded in Exodus 15:11 Moses would write, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”
That burning bush gave Moses a new perspective.
The same way the astronauts got a new perspective of God’s universe by seeing it from space. And that new perspective turned his flickering light into a roaring flame.
Irish priest Thomas Connellan once wrote, “One person with passion is better than 40 who are merely interested.”
The Hebrew word for ‘flames of fire’ (lavah) is very similar to the word for ‘hearts of fire’ (lev). I think the message from within the burning bush, was a reflection of Moses burning heart within. It just took God’s spark to set Moses in motion again.
I want to end with one final illustration from scripture.
The disciples encountered Jesus walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They had less than 7 miles to talk with him. If they walked a slow 20-minute mile or less, that means they had approximately 2 hours to be with him.
Yet the Bible says they did not recognize him or his power and glory until he broke bread with them. That is when they saw Jesus. But their final words tell us the real story…
One of the disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?”
While there may be nothing we can do to change our own hearts, God can ‘if we let him in’. So, if your pilot light feels low, imagine what Jesus can do if you let him in today.
Your assignment is…to open your hearts, minds and ears ‘to see and hear’ the Lord who is always near. And then, let him set your heart ablaze for His kingdom work.
Now, as we prepare for communion, open yourself also, to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Join me in saying, “Come Holy Spirit.”
Come Holy Spirit! Amen.