"Moses, take off your shoes! This is holy ground." Moses had already noticed something strange about that place where he met God. A bush, burning brightly, but not consumed, not eaten up by the flames. In that hot, dry desert country bushes were not unknown to burn, but in that arid and parched landscape, on the side of mount Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, such a fire would take only a matter of minutes to reduce the bush to a pile of ashes. Not so this bush that remained unharmed.
Perhaps it was not such a strange place to meet God. Walking in the mountains, the heart of nature, stunning views of hills and valleys below, how many times have we felt somehow closer to God in the beauty of the natural world. Away from the continual stress of everyday tasks and sometimes difficult relationships. Time to reflect, to give thought to the higher things in life perhaps.
And from the bush God gave Moses a task, the saving of His enslaved people, the Hebrews. The task must have seemed impossible. Moses, remember, had first hand experience of Pharoah's regime. Acting with his own power, his own inner resources, Moses must have felt that before long he would be 'burnt out' by the stress and strain of that awesome responsibility. Of course the reason the bush was not burned up was that the energy for that fire did not come from the bush itself, but from the 'Angel of the Lord' inside it. The bush did not rely on its own resources to radiate that heat and light, it would only have lasted a minute if it had. In the same way Moses was able, not only to negotiate and campaign for the freedom of His people, but also cope with their grumbling and all the problems they faced in the wilderness, not through his own resources, but by the power of God working through him.
And because Moses knew himself quite well, and perhaps knew God not quite so well, he argued; "You can't be serious! I can't even speak properly, how am I going to do this?" And God's reply is simply "I shall be with you." and He gives instruction to Moses to bring the people back to this mountain spot to worship God together in freedom. "I shall be with you" to provide the resources, the internal strength that Moses needed.
The people did come back with Moses to the mountain, and at that later meeting God reaffirmed his commitment to his people with a new agreement; "If you obey my voice, and hold fast to my covenant, you of all the nations shall be my very own, for all the world is mine." From this meeting came the ten commandments and the beginning of a lengthy process of establishing 'God's holy law' and developing their forms of worship. They made the special Tent of Meeting, housing the Ark of the Covenant, according to the plan given on the mountain, aiming in their worship, in the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, to 'maintain the service of a model or a reflection of the heavenly realities.
The people tried to live out their covenant with God, sometimes succeeding, often failing. In fact the Bible tells us of a series of covenants made between God and His people, where ultimately man failed to keep up his end of the bargain, fell away from God, to be given a new chance to return.
There was the agreement with the first people, made in God's own image, to look after what God had made, to be stewards of his creation. Then the agreement with Adam and Eve, when they had fallen short of the instructions God had given them, which gave them the conditions for how they would live by toil and suffer. The agreement with Noah after the flood when God promised not to wipe out the human race, and with Abraham, who was to start a new people of God, leaving his home in Ur in search of a new land. Two agreements with Moses, promising a land flowing with milk and honey, and then later establishing the complex laws set down in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And then finally the covenant with King David, ensuring the succession of his crown, and in the same way that Moses first agreement led to the Tent of Meeting, the way was paved for the building by Solomon of the great temple in Jerusalem. Seven covenants, seven chances to become God's holy people, all of which to some extent failed.
But in the letter to the Hebrews we hear of an eighth covenant, the New Covenant, which no longer requires man to fulfil conditions. The death of Jesus on the cross was the seal of this New covenant and it means that God has now unconditionally accepted us if we are prepared to give our failings and imperfections to Christ. If we accept Jesus' God given role as our saviour, then all our human failings, our sin, our weakness can no longer get between us and God. This agreement did not start with; 'If you will do this, if you follow all these laws, if you offer all these sacrifices, then I will be your God and you will be my people.' The new covenant, predicted by Jeremiah, and repeated in today's letter to the Hebrews simply states; "I will be their God and they will be my people." Jeremiah looks forward to a time when God will 'put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts.' And with the presence of Jesus in our hearts that promise is fulfilled. Jesus has become God's Law. Jeremiah goes on to say 'There will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour'. Without God's direct help the process of attempting to 'model and reflect the heavenly realities' had failed time after time. With the new covenant the people will know God for themselves, through God's revelation of himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to todays Gospel reading. The question asked by the Sadducees, the one about the seven husbands. The Sadducees and Pharisees get a bad press in the Gospels, but we know them to have been people who studied hard at the Torah and took their faith journey seriously. Who will be her husband in heaven? They all married her, although none of the marriages bore fruit, none produced the child, so who goes with her in heaven?
The law, Deuteronomy 25 vs 5-6, stated that each brother should take on the wife of the deceased brother, in order that the first man's name should not be wiped out. All the brothers had followed the law, none was able to provide her with the child In the same way, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, all these people led their followers in man's attempt to have a closer relationship with God, but all failed to make the relationship really work, none were good enough. So which of these peoples will take their place in heaven? Which group of people will have that special relationship, symbolised by marriage on earth, with God after the resurrection?
Jesus answered them, reminding them that in Moses encounter with the burning bush God had said 'I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.' implying that all three of these people were still alive, they had already joined the resurrection and been counted 'worthy of a place in the other world'. Relationships in the other world, he says, are not like those in this world, based on dependence, possessiveness and the failings of human relationships. The inhabitants of 'heaven' have become 'as angels', the children of the resurrection They themselves have become part of the 'child' that could not be born in this world, though seven brothers had followed the letter of the law with that in mind. They were all able to share in the resurrection that followed.
It was not only from slavery in Egypt that God called Moses to rescue his people. Through all seven covenants God was trying, not just to get the people out of Egypt, out of their slavery to sin, but actually to draw them in to himself, building a people of power, fit for his kingdom. Just as God's power was visible coming from the burning bush, inspiring Moses in his task, God wanted to plant that power in the hearts of all his people. And with the new covenant, that power is indeed planted in each one of us, through our acceptance of Jesus within us, empowering us and drawing us in to his kingdom.