When I was a sophomore in university, I had the privilege of traveling for a semester in the Middle East. We started in Egypt, which was a packed two weeks of visiting monuments, pyramids, and holy sites. It was humbling to stand by these ancient structures, realizing that Moses and even Jesus probably saw the very same things – still standing today! We closed our time in Egypt by journeying into the wilderness, viewing first-hand the rocky desert that the Israelites wandered in for forty years.
At the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, we visited the location of the burning bush. Tourists and pilgrims can view the bush today, now quite large. What fascinated me was not the intellectual debate of whether this was, indeed, the actual bush that Moses saw; rather, what caught my attention was the placement of a fire extinguisher directly under the bush.
A sight some might find funny left a powerful mental image in my mind: the burning bush and a fire extinguisher.
If God were to appear in the burning bush again, we are prepared to extinguish the first sign of the miraculous. Do I really believe God can still do impossible things? Or do I shy away from the discomfort of the unexplainable?
Are we happy to invest in cross-cultural life, but get stressed when God takes things in His own hands?
I remember my first Christmas on the mission field. It was almost a year after I had arrived in Indonesia, and so many unexpected things had happened during those first months in the slum community where I lived and served. A devastating fire and ongoing eviction and demolition of houses made it a tenuous time. And yet somehow, I still believed I was where God wanted me: that God was up to something in this particular slum community and was inviting me to be a part of it.
We had a Christmas party with children who had lost their homes in the fire only two months earlier. Telling the nativity story and getting children to wear simple costumes and take part in the drama was a highlight of the day. In years to come, we would repeat this tradition many times. Now eleven Christmases later, I continue to be overwhelmed with gratitude that God invites us to take part in His story. While many parts of the journey have been unexpected and even painful, the Lord is always faithful.
Christmas is a time when the Church celebrates the miraculous. A young virgin gives birth to a baby through the work of the Holy Spirit and a profound move of God. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, it was her burning bush moment. God was announcing the seemingly impossible to her and inviting her to be a part of it. Just as God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be God’s messenger, so Gabriel spoke God’s words to Mary.
And aren’t we glad that Mary obeyed? That she opened her heart and laid aside her five-year-plan for her life and accepted the move of God that would change history? Mary did not beg for someone else to be picked (as Moses had at the burning bush) or list off the reasons why she was inadequate for the task of mothering the Immanuel child. She simply answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38 NRSV).
My prayer for us is that we, too, would answer God’s invitations with a simple: “Here I am, Lord.” May we not pick up the fire extinguishers to put out what God is starting to do in and around us, but let us open ourselves to the reality that God is still at work in this world, and inviting us to be a part of it.
In this Advent and Christmas season, may we look for Jesus in unexpected places, finding Immanuel with us and sharing the good news of his coming with those we meet.