God's Word on Sunday: God is defined by His faithful presence

  • March 13, 2022

Third Sunday of Lent, March 20 (Year C) Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

After his flight from Egypt, Moses had settled down to a quiet life as a shepherd, but God had other plans for him.

In the midst of a very ordinary day, Moses’ life changed forever — he encountered God in a terrifying apparition. His curiosity was aroused by the sight of a burning bush that was not consumed. Manifestations of the divine were not taken lightly in the ancient world. There was attraction but also incredible danger in the face of so much power.

Moses was commanded to remove his sandals and keep his distance. He was terrified and hid his face as the voice identified itself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moved by the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, God intended to liberate them and lead them to a lush and prosperous land.

Moses was the chosen emissary, but he was not pleased. In answer to his doubts, God promised to be with him and to empower him (in the omitted verses). Moses had an obvious question — who and what are You? But God was having no part of this inquisitiveness and refused to give a name.

To be named implies control and God shakes off any attempt at manipulation. God refused to be identified with human ideas about the divine or to be anchored in a particular place.

God’s answer was simple but enigmatic: “I am who I am.” God just is and that is all we need to know. This should be a warning about building narratives and theological doctrines around God — let God be God.

Moses was also instructed to tell them that the God of his fathers had sent him — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This was how God was to be identified forever — in lieu of a name, God would be identified as the one who was always faithfully present throughout Israel’s history. That is a good way to think of God — as the constant loving and supportive presence in our lives. No names are necessary.

Paul was trying to get his unruly community in Corinth under control and to drive out negative behaviour. He reached back into the Scriptures — what we now call the Old Testament — for instructive examples.

Like most early Christians, he saw Christ and the practices of the Christian community prefigured in the Scriptures. The journey through the seas was baptism, and the manna and water provided in the desert were spiritual food and drink.

He tapped into an ancient legend that the water-bearing rock in Genesis and Numbers followed the Israelites on their journey, but he identified the rock as the presence of Christ.

Despite all these divine favours, however, the Israelites were not immune to spiritual corruption. As a result of their infidelity and rebellion against God, they suffered dreadful consequences. Paul used this as a scare tactic to tell the Corinthians they were headed for the same disaster unless they changed their ways. Making the correct profession of faith does not give one a free pass, for a claimed relationship with God comes with expectations and responsibilities.

The idea that death and suffering is always divine punishment is firmly lodged in human consciousness. Jesus pointed to an incident in which Pilate’s troops butchered some Galileans, and then to a construction accident in which 18 lost their lives.

Jesus pointed out that the victims were no worse morally or spiritually than anyone else. Stuff happens and often innocent people suffer, but it is not necessarily punishment. 

Jesus used the opportunity for a bit of spiritual motivation. He warned that unless the people smartened up and returned to their spiritual ideals that far worse things would happen to them. It was a vague allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD.

This was followed by a parable of the man who planted a fig tree. The tree did not bear fruit and he decided to cut it down. But his gardener pleaded for more time — he would tend to it carefully in an attempt to coax fruit from it. This symbolized divine patience and forbearance.

God gives humanity whatever we need to find our way and remain on the correct path. God is indeed patient and supportive, but even divine forbearance has its limits. God cannot be taken for granted.