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Saturday, November 20, 2004

Remove your sandals

I wrote this post in a hurry this past weekend. Consequently it read awkwardly in parts and needed elaboration in others. So before submitting it to the Christian Carnival, I decided to update it.

In the account of Moses and the Burning Bush, there is an interesting instruction from God that is often taken for granted.

"Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground."

I used to think that God was saying "This place is holy ground, therefore do not soil it with your dirty sandals."

However, I find it increasingly difficult to imagine Moses taking off his sandals, tiptoeing to the bottom of the mountain, leaving his sandals there and then coming back up the mountain. Or perhaps he took off his sandals and held onto them. It is possible, but still it seemed improbable. However, if he merely took off his sandals, the sandals would still be touching holy ground. It would be no different whether the sandals were on his feet or not - it would still defile holy ground. It seems to me that God was probably not worried so much about the dirty sandals.

It seems more likely that God's emphasis was somewhere else. In order to understand my point, let's consider for what purpose people wore sandals. People usually use sandals to protect their feet from dirt and grime, and also to ease travel on foot. So, as I was thinking perhaps one idea is that since this is holy ground, so symbolically Moses had to remove the sandals to indicate that this place will not defile him.So he had no use for the sandals. The fact that the place is holy is because of the Presence of God. Hence the idea is that when God is present, He cleanses.

This is an important contrast to the typical human response. We tend to shrink away from the presence of God because we feel unclean, blemished and guilty. We are uncomfortable with the idea of a holy God because we feel the holy condemns us. Yet, God assures us that His holiness cleanses us from our sin.

Another possible idea of removing the sandals in the presence of the holy God is that God desires us to stay in His presence. Perhaps the idea is that without the sandals it would be more difficult to run away from God. God who desires our fellowship and company, wants us to stay awhile in His presence.

Again, this goes against our instinct. People typically prefer to shun the shining light of His presence. For instance, Martin Luther cried, "Love God? Love God? Sometimes I hate him!" Luther felt the burning shame of guilt of his own sinfulness when exposed by the holiness of God. Adam and Eve hid from God, but God sought their companionship. When God's light shine upon our lives, he exposes the darkness. We may prefer to hide, to shrink away, but God desires our presence, and seeks fellowship with us, warts, sins and all. He seeks to fill us with His grace and mercy, and to cleanse us from our sin (1 John 1 tells how he does this through fellowship with the Father, with the Son, and through the Spirit, with each other).

A final thought about removing the sandals in the presence of God could be the idea that God wants us to be bare before Him. By standing on holy ground unprotected by the soles of the sandals, Moses' bare feet would be touching holy ground. God wants to reach out to the core of our being. Sinners might typically think that they are not good enough to touch holy ground.

Where I went to elementary school there was a good-sized population of Muslim children. One of the periods in the classes the Christian children would attend bible class, the Muslim students, Islamic classes and those who were neither Muslim nor Christian, language or cultural classes. I remember when the Muslim children returned from their classes they were holding a "holy book" and they were made a point to us "infidels" that we were not allowed to touch their holy book for it would defile the book. They called us "unclean infidels." On the one hand, it reinforced the idea of the Holy One, and the need for God's followers to be perfect even as He is perfect, but on the other hand, it reinforced the misconception that we would defile God's holiness if we come as we are.

That is the typical human response - humans tend to consider themselves unholy, unclean defiled, and unworthy to come near to God. In order to come to God, we want to have undergone some form of discipline, purification or cleansing, so that we are better than we now are. Perhaps it might be argued that the Old Testament teaches exactly this: that God is holy, and sinners, deviants, and uncleanness defiles the holy. In order to enter into the presence of God, we must either go through extensive ritual cleansing, or go through the intermediary of holy and separated people such as priests and Levites. If the Old Testament teaches this aspect of God's holiness, then no one in the Old Testament would be able to come before Him. Yet, the Old Testament is also full of narratives of people who were after God's own heart, and who were friends of God, and yet who were no more holier than the worse sinner. They were all common, impetuous sinners like the best, or worse, of us.

And here in the story of Burning Bush, God reinforces the idea that He is seeking our friendship, our fellowship, and we do not need to wait till we are better, more qualified, or less sinful. We can come right now, remove our sandals and stand there naked before Him. Yes, God wants us to come as we are. I like what Julie Fidler says in her blog, "Come as you are, not as you think you should be" (I can't find it now in her newly designed page, but I am sure I saw it in her page before!). God invites us to come and bare ourselves before Him. We can tell it like it is. We can come as we are. He invites us to bare our souls (soles?) before Him. We can drop our guards, remove our masks and come before Him and be assured that we are accepted fully. His holiness cleanses us, makes us whole so we can fellowship with Him again and He accepts us as we are, right now.

What a loving, gracious, merciful God!