“Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Every so often we are aware when a burning bush pops up in front of us. Sometimes we have to go check to see if it’s really a burning bush or just a mirage.
Nicodemus was a ‘leader of the Jews’. He was a Pharisee, which was one of the two leading religious parties in Israel. The Pharisees were strict adherents to the Law. The other group, the Sadducees, was a bit more relaxed in observance and, even worse to some minds, they were willing to cooperate with Rome in the effort to keep the peace.
Nicodemus seems to have been more open minded than some Pharisees. He thought that just maybe the rabbi from Nazareth was a burning bush, so he went to see him. However, he was careful and went at night so his visit wouldn’t be seen by his compatriots.
The Pharisee starts the conversation by hedging a bit. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) Jesus doesn’t give him a straight answer. Often God seems to demand that we make our own decisions about faith and our response to the burning bush in front of us.
Jesus’s response, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” confuses Nicodemus. He responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4)
It seems a logical question. Perhaps that is really what happens when we confront a burning bush moment. We are reborn just a little bit. As Jesus explains, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit…The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 5-8)
Burning bushes are like the wind, we don’t know their origin, but we experience them in our lives when we are aware that “Earth is crammed with heaven” (Browning) It can be hard to recognize the bush burning, even when it’s right in front of you, though. Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus goes on to tell him, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?...so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:12-16)
Then Jesus continues, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:17-21)
In the light of our burning bushes, we find that our deeds are exposed. What we see in that light may cause us to realign our priorities so that what we see is holy. Perhaps it starts with looking for the burning bushes in what we do every day. Instead of seeing endless emails as a challenge, perhaps in the light of the burning bush we can see them as opportunities to reach out in love across the internet, with uplifting and friendly responses rather than terse statements. While sitting in traffic, perhaps looking for the burning bushes and considering the humanity of those around us could help us stay calm. When faced with conflict or tragedy, perhaps we look for the burning bushes of hope. Fred Rogers is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
When you look, you can see burning bushes in every situation. You can find God’s presence in all things. Let’s look for them this week.