Curiosity for Divine Things

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

Aug 30, 2020

Exodus 3:1-15

Matthew 16:21-28

About what are you curious? I confess to being more curious about things in the future, things that haven’t happened yet. “What would happen if we did this…..

I learned to be curious about things around me from my son Elliott.

When he was little, I would walk him to and from school each day. It was only about a mile, but with him, it could take a very long time. He was what you’d call a lollygagger. I’d be busy in my head, thinking my future thoughts, and he’d stop me and say “momma, look at this bug.” Then he’d squat down on the ground in a way that my knees could only envy, and point out the smallest little bug and watch it as it journeyed across a leaf.

Or he’d call out, “momma, look! An owl”, and sure enough, hidden in the leaves of a maple tree would be an owl watching us walk by.

I learned to schedule in more time for the walks, at least some mornings each week, so that he had the time to see whatever he needed to see and I didn’t feel a need to rush him on my way to the next thing.

I’m grateful for that little voice calling out “momma, look!” on our walks to school, reminding me to be present to the beauty around me, reminding me to be aware.

I think about him now each day I walk to and from Calvary. I try to have eyes to see, and time to notice, the designs on the victorian houses,

the typeface on a fire station, the people I pass on the street. I’ve discovered you really freak people out in San Francisco when you say hello to them on the street.


What do you observe as you go about your days? How willing are you to be sidetracked when something unexpected occurs?

Moses is often known for looking like Charlton Heston and being a hero. But the text we heard today hasn’t gotten to that Moses quite yet.

Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, after Pharaoh’s daughter pulled him out of the river. He was a Hebrew baby whose mother had entrusted him to God’s care when Pharaoh was murdering all of the Hebrew babies. So he grows up in a life of privilege.  But he murders an Egyptian who is bothering a Hebrew slave, and flees the palace.

Our story picks up not long after he has been taken in by Jethro, and married to one of his daughters.  He’s gone from living in the palace to tending flocks on the hillside. The text tells us he is beyond the wilderness.

He’s 40 miles from the end of nowhere. 

When he sees a bush. Burning. But not burning up. And he thinks,

“hmmm…wonder what’s going on?”

And God speaks to him from the burning bush.

Here’s what I noticed about this story that was pretty familiar to me.  It says that God spoke to Moses “When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see”.

What if Moses hadn’t turned aside to see?

What if Moses hadn’t been curious?

What if Moses had thought, “oh great, a bush is on fire. Better take this other trail and stay away….”

Would God have spoken to him then?

The text makes it sound as if Moses became God’s conversation partner because of his curiosity.

“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.”

Moses had his first opportunity to engage when he stopped and turned aside to see what was going on. The second opportunity was when he heard a voice calling his name. He could have quickly decided that it was the heat or that he heard something funny in the wind. He could have just kept walking.

He could have decided that if, in fact, God were to speak to him, then God certainly would have spoken from a majestic and tall tree. Or he would have picked a beautiful plant. He could have decided that God couldn’t possibly be speaking to him from a lowly piece of shrubbery, and kept on walking.

Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, where if gods were present, it was in the midst of decorations of gold, with great fanfare, and in the midst of the royal court.  But out beyond the wilderness, with his flocks and a bunch of scrub brush, Moses hears his name and he answers, “Here I am.”

This is the Moses I admire. Not the big hero leading the people. But the shepherd, out beyond the wilderness, with enough curiosity to engage the Divine in conversation.

I admire the Moses who can recognize his name when it is being called from the middle of a shrub on fire.

And I am aware that too often I get distracted by the other things I have to do. I speed through from one thing to the next as if I don’t have time to stop and look.  How many times have I not even noticed a burning bush/

This text reminds me to be present in the moment.

So when I hear my name being called from unlikely places, I can find the time to stop and say, “here I am.” Some of you are better at that than I am, no doubt. And I hope we’ll all pause this week, when we’re just doing our ordinary tasks of tending our father in law’s flocks, and be curious about what we see going on around us.  I hope we will trust that God may choose to be present with us in places where we would not expect to find the Divine.

Moses becomes God’s conversation partner because he was willing to take the time, willing to be curious, and willing to trust that God might show up in very unlikely places.

The story we heard this morning from Matthew’s gospel doesn’t give us Peter’s first encounter with the Divine. He fared much better in that story than he does today.

This story marks the beginning of the end—the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  The text tells us, “From that time on….” and it marks the point in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus turns his eyes toward Jerusalem, preparing for the path that lay ahead.

And Jesus begins preparing his disciples for what was to come.

Peter didn’t like what he heard.

“God forbid! That’s the worst plan I’ve ever heard? Hand yourself over to the authorities to be tortured and crucified? We won’t let that happen, Jesus.”

Even though I know the ending to the story, even though I know that Jesus had it all under control, I understand why Peter said what he said.

Because we don’t want the ones we love to suffer. We don’t want them to die.

And so Jesus’ answer to Peter sounds harsh in our ears. “Get behind me Satan!”

“well alright then. Go ahead and suffer. You don’t have to call me ‘Satan’.”

I joke.

When Jesus and Peter were talking, Satan wasn’t the personal name of one person, pictured in red and wearing horns.  The Satan means “the tempter” or “the adversary”.

And perhaps the reason Jesus responds so seriously to Peter’s comments is because he was having the same thoughts himself. Perhaps Peter’s comments were real temptations to Jesus. Get behind me, Tempter.

It is easy not to be tempted by things you didn’t want anyway. If someone tried to tempt me with all the mustard in the world, a trip to a war zone, and a bag of sour candy, I would not be tempted in the least. It would be easy to let those temptations pass. But life, health, not being tortured—that has to be tempting, doesn’t it?

Jesus won’t be tempted.

“Get behind me, tempter. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And that’s our problem, isn’t it? We set our minds on human things.

Remember Moses on the mountain? I invite you to remember Moses as you try to figure out the difference between keeping your mind on human things versus divine things.

Because I don’t think Jesus is saying “heaven is a divine thing and the grocery store is a human thing”.

I think Jesus is saying that if you try to make sense of God with only human ideas and understanding, then God won’t make sense.

It didn’t make sense for a bush to be burning and not consumed.

It didn’t make sense for God to speak to someone out beyond the wilderness while he was tending flocks, who had no power, who was a fugitive.

It didn’t make sense for Jesus to suffer, be tortured, and die on a cross either.

But that’s how God works, in Divine ways, not according to the ways that make sense to humans. I think setting our minds on Divine things is akin to having curiosity, to trusting that there is more to the story than we can imagine and to stop trying to limit what God can do.

Jesus goes on to tell his disciples all sorts of things that if we were define them by “human things” they leave us scratching our heads.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

Maybe we need to approach these words like Moses did with the bush, deciding to turn our heads and ponder something that doesn’t make sense.

Returning to the Moses story, for a minute. After Moses shows his curiosity, his willingness to see things from another perspective, God shares things with him that Moses never would have dreamed up himself.

God informs Moses that he will lead the people. Moses, the fugitive murderer/sheep tender from beyond the wilderness, will go to Pharaoh to speak for God. Moses has two questions. First, why would Pharaoh listen to me? And second, why would the Israelites listen to me?

Those are good questions. One could see why Pharaoh wouldn’t be so interested in hearing from the turncoat, raised in his palace, only to abandon the family business. And I can see why the Israelites wouldn’t listen to him either. They don’t know him. Why would they listen to him when they know their other leaders, they trust their other leaders?

And God’s answers to Moses’ questions.

Sort of. 

To the first question, “who am I to go to Pharaoh?”, God replies, “well, Moses. Not everything is about you. But I will be with you when you go before him.” (That’s a rough translation from the Hebrew.)

And to the second question about who sent Moses to the Israelites, the answer is “I am who I am”. Another way to translate that is “I will be who I will be”—Perhaps a reminder from God that the Divine can’t be contained in human words or human understandings.

Moses could set his mind on human things, if he wanted to. But it wouldn’t solve his dilemma. It wouldn’t make his job as spokesman for God any easier. It might, actually, just get in the way.

Moses, instead, set his mind on divine things, and determined that God must have a plan and that his part in it all was to trust, to accept, and to see what happened.

Once Peter heard his rebuke from Jesus, “get behind me, Satan!”, he had some choices too. He could have quit, and left the band. That would likely have crossed my mind. But there is no indication that Peter leaves. Perhaps he is able to quickly take Jesus’ rebuke to heart and realizes that leaving in his embarrassment would be setting his mind on human things.  Peter reminds us it can be divine work to hear critique, to admit we are wrong, and to change our behavior.

I listened to an interesting TED Talk this week by Kathryn Schulz, titled “On Being Wrong”.

She asked the audience:

How does it feel to be wrong?

And people answered ‘shameful’ or ‘dreadful’. ‘bad’ or ‘embarrassing’.

She observed they’d answered a different question, which is:

How does it feel to realize you’re wrong?

She observed that we’re wrong all the time, but are rarely aware of it, and rarely consider that we might be wrong in the present moment. We look back at our lives and can see our mistakes. We see the errors of other people. It is a particularly human condition and it has me wondering just what I’m wrong about right now.

If we set ourselves on divine things is it any easier to consider we might not have all the right answers?

The disciples hear Jesus’ instructions about cross bearing, life losing, and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. And they may not have “gotten it” right then, in that moment. But they continued on with Jesus toward Jerusalem, and as they journeyed with him through Holy Week, as they encountered the risen Lord, it seems that they continued to think back on what he said, they continued to turn aside to consider something that didn’t make sense in human terms.

The disciples became servant leaders. Many of them found their lives by losing their identities as fishermen and becoming disciples and evangelists. Many of them realized that all they had to give in return for the gift of their life was their life—to offer it up to God as a living sacrifice, and trust that God’s plan was better when defined in “divine things” instead of “human things”.

So, this week, I invite us to spend some time with this text from Matthew’s gospel. Take time to be curious about these strange instructions that don’t fall easy on our ears. I pray that, like Moses, our curiosity will lead us into a conversation with God, will allow us to hear our name when God calls it from unexpected places, and will send us into God’s service, trusting that “I will be who I will be” is leading us into the future.

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