Like so many other things in our society, shoes have become a big business – there are so many styles of shoes, so many colours of shoes, such a broad price range for shoes. And even more than big business, like almost everything else in our culture, shoes have become a part of the way we define ourselves. The fact that there are so many shoe options means that you almost have to define yourself by your shoes – you have to make some choice about which shoes fit with who you are.
Do you wear comfortable black shoes that can be worn with multiple outfits – shoes that project “steady” and “sensible?” Do you regularly wear a good pair of running shoes – proclaiming your interest in fitness and your seriousness about health? This week on Twitter a philosophy professor I follow from Calvin College took a picture of his new Vans, and I thought, well maybe you’re a little old for skate-boarding shoes, but then again maybe not. Who am I to say?
And then I remembered that I’m really not one to speak, because a few weeks ago when I needed a new pair of shoes, I went for these ones. I sent this picture of my shoes to my mom – I knew she’d be impressed – and of she responded by asking what Becky thought about this. I’ve joked with a few people that since I couldn’t afford a new car for a mid-life crisis, I went with orange shoes – or maybe I’m just trying to keep up with Reuben’s orange shoes.
Needless to say in all of this, I don’t suspect that Moses or his wife Zipporah, or his father-in-law Jethro spent as much time thinking about shoes or talking about shoes or shopping for shoes as we do. Perhaps there was someone in the extended household or in the local community who was a competent leather-worker, who made the simple sandals that they would have worn. There were no local Aldos or Payless or Browns with a whole range of possible footwear. From ancient Midian to the modern west there is a world of difference – not only in terms of footwear of course, but yes in terms footwear.
Now even though there is this vast gap between that culture and our own, we can discern at least one small area of overlap between them. Many of us have grown up in households where you were expected to take off your shoes when you came inside. That was certainly the case in the Dutch, immigrant household where I grew up. And it’s also the case in traditional Korean or Japanese culture, and in a number of other European cultures – in these cultures you just wouldn’t wear shoes in the house.
So based on our own experiences, we can at least get our heads around the idea that ancient Medianites didn’t want dust and dirt and animal dung tracked into their homes and onto the mats where they ate and slept – so they removed their shoes when entering a home. If you visited family or friends in that ancient culture, it was a simple matter of respect to take off your sandals upon entering their house. You honoured them and their home by removing your shoes.
All of which gives us some appreciation for God’s command to Moses in that ancient Midianite or Israelite context: “Take off your sandals, Moses, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” If taking off our shoes can be seen as a sign of respect for neighbours and friends in their homes, then it isn’t much of a stretch to see Moses’ taking of his sandals as a sign of respect for God. When God draws near to Moses, there must be an intentional response – a physical action – a bodily posture – that gives expression to the honour and esteem in which God is held. That intentional response, that physical action, is the removal of sandals from the feet.
Here there are also ideas of purity and purification since in the taking off of shoes there is a sense that anything unclean or unholy finally has no place in the presence of God. Take off your sandals, Moses. Show respect and honour toward God, Moses. Remember that everything impure must finally be burned away. Moses, take off your sandals…
Now all of this makes a great deal of sense in explaining what is going on here. But this explanation also doesn’t exhaust all of the possible meanings for Moses’ taking off his sandals. Theologians and philosophers and biblical interpreters have offered all kinds of different explanations of why Moses takes off his shoes. And this morning I want to push a little to suggest another element here.
Which brings us back to our shoes. Which brings us back to the reality that our shoes, like so many other things today, are part of the identity we are creating for ourselves. Of all the generations in human history, we are no doubt the one most preoccupied with creating an identity for ourselves – most preoccupied with micro-managing our image and sense of ourselves. With our clothes and with our homes and with our cars and with our Facebook posts and with the neighbourhood we live in and with our music collection and with our activities – out of all of these elements we create a sense of self – we craft an idea and image of the person we are. And even our shoes are part of the identity we are constructing:
Are your shoes sensible and serious?
Are your shoes athletic and health conscious?
Are your shoes hip and cool – youthful.
Are your shoes colourful and interesting and unpredictable.
Shoes, like almost everything else today, are part of the identity we try to project and create.
And here’s the thing. At the burning bush, in the presence of God, we are told – take off your shoes. Throw your shoes aside. Don’t even think about them. Within this framework, the invitation to take off our shoes is an invitation to let go of this self-preoccupation. To let go of this all-encompassing attempt to generate a sense of self. To let go of this effort to craft the image we want others to see. Let go of it all – take off your shoes – and simply be in the presence of the one who created you – the God of the universe. Nothing is more important to who you are, than the fact that you have your life and your being and your identity through the God of covenant and creation. Stop trying to create that identity yourself for just a moment – be free to receive your self and your identity from God. Rest in God.
So this morning at the burning bush, yes, we take off our shoes in an expression of respect and honour toward a holy and powerful God. But at the burning bush we also throw off our shoes and throw off our preoccupation with crafting a particular image of ourselves. And in precisely this context God reveals himself. As we stand before God in this way, God tells us his name. “I am who I am.”
I am the God of life, and I have life in myself.
I am the great Being, and I have being in myself.
I do not change or develop – I am who I am, always.
I do not need anyone or anything for my life and being and wisdom.
I am who I am. God reveals his glory. We take off our shoes.
Now at the risk of causing whiplash, we are going to put the brakes on this whole thing for a moment. And I want to ask – but when do we put our shoes back on? Or let’s put the question this way:
Does Moses go back to his regular life?
Does Moses walk away from this holy space of encounter with God?
Does Moses return to the sheep or other tasks in service to God?
In fact the narrative says nothing about Moses putting his sandals back on. It just says that Moses went back to Jethro, his father-in-law – and the story carries on from there. But presumably there was a moment when Moses stooped down, grabbed his sandals, and slipped them back on his feet – or at least carried them back with him, to put them on later. And presumably for us, also, there is a moment when we move on from this dynamic encounter with “I am who I am” – a moment when we put our shoes back on.
What I’d like us to see this morning is that there are really two decisive moments in this story – and in order to understand both who God is and the nature of our relationship with God – we have to have both of these moments.
There is that first element. We take off our shoes – in honour and respect toward God – to put a pause on our self-preoccupation and self-creation. We take off our shoes to stand in silent awe before the God who is. I am who I am.
But there is a second element – when we put our shoes back on. When we return to our daily lives having heard the call of God. When we return to our lives understanding that we must discover the God who is at work in the world. And I’m not just making this up because it happens to fit with what I want to say.
In fact there is a second way of understanding the name with which God identifies himself. There is that first meaning – I am who I am – self-contained in glory and power and being. But there is a second sense of this name – which is this: I will be who I will be. Put on your shoes. Go back to your life – and just watch and see that I will be who I will be.
Why has God encountered Moses in the first place? Why is there a burning bush in the first place?
The reason is given in the verses immediately prior to our passage for today, where we read: “During those many days the king of Egypt died and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”
The only reason Moses has encountered God. The only reason for this meeting on holy ground – the only reason for this bush that burns but is not consumed – the only reason for this command to take off shoes in acknowledgment of God’s glory – the only reason for all of this, is because God has heard the cry of his people – and because God has determined to help them and save them and bless them.
In this context the name of God can be understood not in terms of I am who I am, but in terms of “I will be who I will be.”
And this is simply another way of saying that Moses will only discover who God is as he observes God’s work of saving and helping and blessing his people, who are enslaved. God cannot be known simply as an abstract God out there and up there. God cannot simply be known as a holy God, self-contained in his glory and being. God cannot be known merely through a glorious encounter before his holiness and otherness – a burning bush. I will be who I will be – you will see who I will be for my people.
In other words, God can only be known as you put your sandals back on, as you put your shoes back on, and as you go to discover what God is doing. As you watch what God is doing in the world. As you participate in what God is doing.
This name of God comes into its fullness in the person of Jesus – I will be who I will be.
I will be with you.
I will walk the dusty countryside with you.
I will call you to live a truly human life.
I will suffer with you.
I will die with you.
God says, I will be who I will be – and you can only know God as you get on with following Jesus – putting on your shoes and going with him to the places he goes.
He goes to the hungry, and provides nourishment.
He goes to the enemy, and offers forgiveness.
He goes to the angry and offers his peace.
He goes to the battered and gives security.
He goes to the sinner and offers a new way.
He goes to those in the darkness and provides light.
I am who I am. The God of glory and power. Self-sustaining in being. Take off your shoes in a display of honour and respect. Take off your shoes, abandoning your attempts to create yourself. Take off your shoes and worship me.
I will be who I will be. Put your shoes back on, and come see who I will be. Put your shoes back on and let them take you to where I am in the world. Put your shoes back on an walk the way with Jesus – in him I will be who I will be, and I am who I am.