Casting Off the Dead Things Before the Living God
Reflecting on the First Sunday after Christmas: Three Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 72
Old Testament: Exodus 3:1-5
Epistle: Hebrews 11:23-31
O God of ancient blessing, your servant Mary pondered in her heart the treasured words spoken about her Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Prepare our hearts to receive his Spirit, that our tongues may confess him Lord. Amen.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ (Exodus 3:1-5).
And as to the shoes, let him who is about to touch the holy land which the feet of God hath trodden, put them off, as Moses did upon the mount, that he may bring there nothing dead; nothing to come between humanity and God (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45.19)
As Moses stands in the presence of God on Mount Horeb, he is commanded to take off his shoes for the place on which he stands is holy. In the ancient Near East, the custom of taking off one’s sandals was a sign of respect. But in our quote above, Gregory turns our minds to the moral implications of what it means to stand in the presence of the holy. For Gregory, Moses’ shoes signify those unholy things that stand between God and human beings. If any of us is to stand in the presence of the holy, we too must be holy. St. Augustine picks up on the same theme as well in Exodus 3.
What are the shoes? Well, what are the shoes we wear? Leather from dead animals. The hides of dead animals are what we protect our feet with. So what are we being ordered to do? To give up dead works. This is symbolically what he instructs Moses to do in his honor, when the Lord says to him, “Take off your shoes. For the place you are standing in is holy ground.” There's no holier ground than the church of God is there? So as we stand let us take off our shoes, let us give up dead works (Sermon 101.7).
The story of Moses and the burning bush is one of calling. Moses is being called by God, and the people are being called too—out of their bondage to a place of freedom where they will live as God’s people. The foundation of the divine law is the holiness of God, which God’s people are to reflect in their lives. It is no accident that holiness is connected to the call; for the call cannot be fulfilled without throwing off what is dead within us, that which keeps us away from the holy presence of God, that which interferes with the charge we have been given to keep.
Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness will be the result of their lack of trust in God; their lack of holiness. In refusing to cast off the dead things, God’s people often found themselves at odds with the living God on their way to the Promised Land.
Holiness is not an option; it is but another name for the image of God reflected in God’s people. The Bible says that without holiness, no one can see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). It is also the case that without holiness no one can see the Lord reflected in the Lord’s people.
PRAYER: O Holy One, heavenly angels spoke to earthly shepherds and eternity entered time in the child of Bethlehem. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our temporal lives be caught up in the eternal in that same child, that we might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
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