Preached at Evensong on Trinity Sunday 2016 at Guildford Cathedral
Psalm 73; Exodus 3.1-15; John 3.1-17
Psalm 73; Exodus 3.1-15; John 3.1-17
‘The angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush’ (Exodus 3.2)
A couple of weeks ago the pictures coming from Fort McMurray in Canada were terrifying in the extreme. Much like wild fires we have seen in Australia, the fire advanced at extraordinary speed, destructive and all consuming. The pictures of the aftermath of the fire are devastating: homes and livelihoods destroyed and a barren and ashen landscape of twisted metal and charcoal trees, barely hinting at what was there before.
Fire is dangerous. The phrase ‘you’re playing with fire’ serves as a warning of highly unpleasant consequences. The fiery pit is a very vision of hell itself, both smouldering and flames flaring up and licking: ‘unquenchable flames’ as it is described in one place (Mark 9.43b).
Fire is used as an analogy of God: destructive, all-consuming, purging, as in Deuteronomy, ‘For the LORD your God is a devouring fire’ (Deuteronomy 4.24). This purging, refining and cleansing is not always destructive: in some places wild or controlled fires regenerate flora and fauna. The discovery of processes of refining metals in fire was one of the great advances in human ingenuity. The prophet Malachi speaks of God his people ‘like gold and silver’ in a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3.3)
So what of Trinity Sunday in all of this? Is there a clunky analogy to be made between fire and the Holy Trinity? Could one link the so-called fire triangle and the Trinity: fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen; Father, Son and Lighter Spirit? It would break down into contrivance and heresy. So no!
So what might the fire in this evening’s first lesson point, and draw, us to?
What becomes clear is that as Moses gazed at that fire, he gazed at an intense mystery. There have been explanations ranging from Moses being under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, to a particular plant that, ‘excretes such a vast amount of volatiles that lighting a match near the flowers and seedpods causes the plant to be enveloped by flame. This flame quickly extinguishes without injury to the plant’. But no one suggests that Moses was lighting up a match or anything else that could have caused a plant to burst into flame.
We have surely to treat this as a theophany, a manifestation of the divine presence.
The burning bush grabbed Moses’ attention, ‘I must turn aside’ he said, ‘and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up’ (Exodus 3.3). Of course his head was turned by what he saw. With his head turned, and his attention held, he heard the God’s Word more clearly. The book of Deuteronomy puts it like this, ‘Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of the words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared his covenant, which he charged you to observe.’ (Deuteronomy 4.12).
Words without form, without a body to speak them, are as strange as fire that burns without consuming. The fire that Moses saw was entirely like fire and entirely unlike fire. And yet this fire didn’t destroy, didn’t consume and didn’t purge. It was a fire that called: it called Moses, it literally turned his head.
The fire that does not consume is something that can disappear without trace. It is wholly elusive, and yet absolutely real. This is where Abrahamic theology is distinguishable from, say, Indian religions, in their view of the sacred flame. As Elijah discovered, the LORD is not in the wind the, earthquake or the fire, but in a sound sheer silence (1 Kings 19.11-12).
The burning bush tells us about the ineffability of God: God beyond any description that words can give. In biblical terms this is against idolatry, which is thinking that words or images can define, trap or constrain God. So, for example, Deuteronomy reflects on the way in which the fire of the burning bush cautions us against idolatry, ‘Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the form of male and female’ (Deuteronomy 4.15, 16).
Of course later when Moses came down from the mountain to bring the law later in Exodus, that is precisely what the Israelites had done, they had, with Aaron’s the priest’s connivance, created a golden calf which they worshipped. Concocting our own transitory ideas of God is constructing golden claves if we don’t pay attention to what we can’t say of God.
The doctrine of the Trinity guards us against saying too much of God, and not enough. It tells us that we can, and must, speak of God, yet with care. It is like a trellis, up which grows our understanding of the intense, burning, mystery of God, not subject to the whims and changes of our preferences.
As Christians we do claim to see God in an image, but one not made with human hands, and that is in the face of Jesus Christ, who, the letter to the Colossians tells us, is, ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). And indeed Moses’ encounter with God is not wholly without words. Moses is told he stands on holy ground and that the God who speaks is the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3.5, 6). And then God reveals God’s name, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3.14).
Jesus shows us the ways of the Eternal God in the parables of the Kingdom, in his incarnation, death and resurrection, in healing and forgiving: the Trinity is implicit and revealed in Christ Jesus who is totally at one with the Father in the power of the Spirit.
So we now know God’s name and we see his face in Jesus Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit catches our attention to remove our sandals before the mystery of God. Indeed the fire of the Holy Spirit invites us into share the very life of God, in the saving Name of Jesus Christ who shows us the Father and leads us, human and frail as we are, into the divine life. St Paul calls it in the Greek being en Christo, in Christ.
May we be like flames dancing out of the inner life of the very heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be a source of blessing, peace and burning love for the whole creation.
© Andrew Bishop 2016