Fred Schepsi’s film The Devil’s Playground tells the story of his own growing up, through a Catholic boarding school, and of his own struggle to find faith. At one very poignant moment, the boy of 12 or 13 years, torn between all the emotions and passions of his emerging manhood and the dictates of his church, talks with his counsellor about whether he has a vocation from God. Just then he runs out to the middle of the school oval, and in real desperation he calls out to the night sky: ‘Hey God, are you there?’
The boy expresses in brute simplicity the nagging question of our age: Is there anybody there? Is there anyone who hears? Is there anybody who knows what we feel and what we fear? Or are we alone, abandoned in the universe, left to our fate?
The story of Moses and the bush burning offers an answer to these questions: a listening God.
The descendants of Jacob were in bondage in Egypt, working all day in the river deltas to make mud bricks. But one of their number is not there. He is in the desert fringes, minding sheep, when he has a vision of God speaking to him. ‘Moses, go to my people and tell them: I have heard their cries. Tell them I know what it’s like for them. I can feel their pain. And tell them that I’m coming to deliver them. Yes, and Moses when you tell them this, I will be there with you.’ (The text of the story is found in Exodus chapters 3 & 4.You can read the story here. Just type in the reference, Exodus 3.
This is a story the Hebrew people told again and again because it shows them who God is and who they are. They are the people of this listening God, a God who hears the cry of oppressed people. They are not alone in their pain. There is somebody there.
The theologian Paul Tillich once observed that the first duty of love is to listen. Isaiah 50 verse 4 speaks of a teacher who has first learned to listen:
‘The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens me – wakens my ear to listen to those he has taught.’
The person who has learned something of God also learns to listen to others.
The idea of the listening God, who knows with an intimate, personal engagement the pain of the people, is a confronting and demanding idea for Moses. In many ways, we can imagine, Moses was a broken man. Trained to be a leader, no-one will follow him. In his past there is violence, disappointment, perhaps deep bitterness. Here he is minding sheep in the desert, left to his memories and regrets. Yet this encounter of unspeakable holiness brushes aside all these things, or rather it gathers them into something much more whole. Notice that Moses’ encounter with God, his sense of call or vocation and his healing from the past are all wrapped in together.
The message Moses is to bring requires a change in the way the people (and we) think of God. Moses is sent to tell them that their God has heard them and knows intimately their anguish. To hear this message, they have to think again about what God is like. At best, God was for them the God of their ancestors: God of the land they no longer have; God of the past. God was far away, distant, unknowing, uninvolved.
Theologians have for many centuries debated the question of whether God can feel, or whether God can be affected and thus change, as a result of what happens in the world we know. In one important sense God cannot change. God is eternally faithful to who God is. But in another sense this story invites us to see a living God, a God able to respond, to act, to change, even to ‘come down’ and help. William Placher has very helpfully described the biblical revelation as ‘narratives of a vulnerable God’—that’s the title of his excellent book. The title alone is terrific!
To think of God in this way presents a real challenge, and a choice. The familiar world, even the world we may hate because of our troubles and pain, is not necessarily so. Change is possible. Things could be different. We could be different. Hope is not a guarantee, but it is an invitation to enter into a constructive, working, and sometimes joyful relationship with what might be. The listening God, and people who have learned to hear and teach in this ‘listening’ way, open up this possibility that things could be different. People who hope find themselves confronted with an invitation to live into a different world.
Another fascinating thing about this invitation is that it is not only the people who sit on the brink of change and new opportunities. God too is open to a new order, a new way of being with us. This is the meaning of that peculiar answer God gives to Moses, when he asks to know God’s name (Ex. 3. 13 & 14). The expression often translated ‘I am who I am’ has also a sense of promise within it. Perhaps we might express it: I am who I am and I will be who I will be.
God is free and open to those who will enter into the promised freedom. So for Moses this encounter with God is, even there and then, the beginning of the ‘exodus’, the journey out of bondage and into a new situation. Both God and Moses are making a new beginning. It is already a taste of freedom and with this taste hope begins to rise up within.
This story suggests that we may find ourselves provoked and invited into an ongoing relationship, a living conversation with the listening God.