I have recently been pondering the story in Exodus 3 of Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush. As the calling of a prophet, it bears similarity to what we find in Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1. There is a shattering encounter with God, followed by the giving of a divine assignment. Unfortunately, what is often missed in these accounts of God's dealings with such larger-than-life characters is the fact that in them, we see God's ways in the life of every believer.
Consider Moses at the burning bush. We see at least three things common to everyone who encounters God. We see God revealing himself in the commonplace of everyday life (Moses was tending sheep when he came upon the bush); we see that such a revelation was personal (the Lord called Moses by name); and we see God drawing Moses to himself across the barrier of his holiness (why Moses removed his sandals).
It is this last observation that intrigues me most. At its root, holiness has to do with difference, or otherness. Things that are sanctified, or made holy, in the Bible are things that have been set apart for a different purpose or use. In the ancient Near East, this idea had no moral connotation. For example, the fertility goddess, Astarte, in Egypt was called Qudshu, that is, "the holy one," and the prostitutes who served at her temple were called "holy ones."
But in the Bible, the difference between God and man is not merely that of two different orders of being. The term "holy," when referring to God, concerns his moral otherness. It describes a difference of moral perfection, of purity, of love between God and man. That is why when God reveals himself to his people, that revelation has a moral content, not simply an intellectual one. We get moral laws from God, not simply philosophy or regulations. There is a difference between right and wrong that is revealed when God makes himself known to his people. Therefore, as one gets to know God, it is our conscience as well as our mind that is challenged. Man's problem with God, no matter how hard he tries to deny it, is moral first - moral, long before it is intellectual.
Take, for example, the reaction to Pat Robertson's horrifying claim that the recent earthquake in Haiti was God's judgment for sin. In addition to excoriating Robertson for such presumption, some have suggested that the tragedy, in fact, proves there is no God.
But such an out-of-hand dismissal of the idea - as hard as it is for us to imagine - betrays how little God's holiness is acknowledged or understood; and not holiness simply, but terrible holiness: the consuming fire of which Moses later speaks in Deuteronomy 4:24, and the author of Hebrews in 12:29.
You see, the problem is not that there was a devastating earthquake, but that we were not all devastated by it. And everyone knows that who finds himself, as Moses did, standing on holy ground and fearing the presence of such a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, who will by no means clear the guilty, to whom sin is an abomination, and whose wrath can flare up in a moment.
I find it interesting that it was after Moses was summoned by name and had taken off his sandals in acknowledgement of God's holiness, that he turned his face away from the sight of the flames in the bush, the embodiment of the presence of God. Moses, in other words, was afraid to look at God when he really understood who was talking to him. Too often, we tend to think that we fear God only when we do not understand him. But in the Bible, the more a man or woman understands God's otherness, his majesty, his terrible purity, the more he fears him, and the more reverence he shows for him.
When a man feels in his soul the burning flame of the divine glory, the spotless holiness of the God who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see - when a man or woman comes face-to-face with that, he or she will never be the same again.
It is no accident, as we are told in 1 John 3:2, that the thing that will finish God's work in us, forever purify and transform us, forever end the possibility of our sinning ever again, is that one day we will see Jesus Christ in his holy glory.
Until then, we ought to give thanks that, by his great mercy, we who are in Christ have also been drawn across the barrier of God's holiness. For as the apostle Paul says, Jesus Christ has become for us "our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).
The Rev. Ron Gonzales is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Walla Walla. He holds master's degrees in biblical studies and divinity and is pursuing a doctorate from Covenant Theological Seminary. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.