Previously published in Pulpit Helps, January 2001.
"And he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt" (Ex. 3:2-3).
When Moses was eighty years old, and long mired in the role of a shepherd, dreaming of no such thing, behold God calls, and commands him to go and deliver his people. "The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the bush;" some think this angel was Gabriel, but most agree, and I believe with the greatest probability, that it was Jesus Christ, "the angel of the everlasting covenant." Moses therefore says, "I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned."
It was a strange sight, but it was, brethren, a glorious one; a sight which, I pray God, you and I may behold with faith and comfort; for this bush, and the account of it, was given for our learning, and I will venture to say this is of no private interpretation, but is intended as a standing lesson, as a significant emblem of the Church, and every individual child of God, till time itself shall be no more.
In the first place, this bush is typical of the Church of God in all ages. Why should the great God choose a bush, a little bush of briars and thorns, above any other thing? Because the Church of Christ generally consists of poor creatures: though it is all glorious within, yet it has no beauty without. It is observable, that when the Church came to prosper when Constantine smiled on it, it was soon hugged to death. That great poet, Milton, observes, that when that emperor gave ministers rich vestments, high honors, great livings, and golden pulpits, there was a voice heard from heaven, saying "this day there is poison come into the Church."
I have sometimes said that if any one made an experiment, and left a vast sum of money to be given out only among the Methodists, there would be hundreds and thousands of non-Methodists that would shortly become Methodists. But though "not many mighty men, not many noble are called" (1 Cor. 1:26), yet some are. If any of you are rich here, and are Christians, thank God for it, you ought to be doubly thankful for it; God's people are but like a little bramble bush. When Jesus comes to judgment, millions that have their thousands now, will be damned and burnt to all eternity, and Christ's Church will be rich to all eternity, that is now like a bramble all on fire.
"The bush burned," what is that for? It showed that Christ's Church while in this world, will be a bush burning with fiery trials and afflictions of various kinds. This was a lively emblem of the state of religion, and liberty of Israel at that time: they were busy making brick, and there consequently was burning continually; as though the Lord had said, this bush is burning with fire, as my people are burning with slavery. Ah, but say you, is not that the case of the Church in all ages? Yes, it has been; read your Bibles, and you may instantly see that it is little else than an historical account of a burning bush; and though there might be some periods wherein the Church had rest, yet these periods have been of a short date; and if God's people have "walked in the comforts of the Holy Ghost," it is only like a calm that precedes an earthquake. If you remember, before the last earthquake, it was a fine morning, and who would have thought the earth should shake under them before night? It is so with the Church when they are in a calm, and all seems safe there, then comes a storm: God prepare us for it. This is also the case with individual believers, especially those that God intends to make great use of as prophets in His Church.
My dear hearers, we shall find, if God's Word is true, whether we are born under a despotic power, or a free government, that they that will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution. You have heard of that saying, "Wonder not at the fiery trial wherewith you are to be tried" (1 Pet. 4:12); and God saith, "I have chosen thee," which is applicable to every believer, "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).
But suppose we are not persecuted by the world: is there one Christian but is persecuted by his friends? If there is an Isaac in the family, I warrant there is an Ishmael to mock at him. But if we have no such things as mocking, yet if we are surrounded with afflictions, domestic trials, the loss of dear and near friends, the bad conduct of our children, the dreadful misconduct of those that are dependent upon us-O, there is many a parent here that is a burning bush. The godly man says, I want an eternal inheritance for my son; I want God's blessings for him; this is the poor man's prayer, while the poor deluded youth mocks him. Or, supposing this is not the case, a person may burn with an inward temptation. You have heard of the fiery darts, of the devil, and were you to feel them, I believe you would find them fiery darts indeed! You have great reason to suspect your experience, your having any interest in the love of the Son of God at all, if you never found the fiery darts of the devil. If you have never felt the devil's fiery darts, it is because the devil is sure of you; he has got you into a damnable slumber; may the God of love wake thee before real damnation comes!
My brethren, the time would fail, if I were to mention but a few more of those thousands that the believer burns with, the trials without, and what is still worse, their trials within.
Why, says one, you make God a tyrant. No, but having made ourselves devils incarnate, we are now in a state of preparation, and these various trials are intended by the great God to train us up for heaven. Let us remember that "though the bush burned, it was not consumed." The burning I have been here painting forth to you is not a consuming but a purifying fire. It is true the bush burns, the Christian is persecuted, the Christian is oppressed, the Christian is burned with inward trials, he is "perplexed" at times, he is "cast down," but blessed be God, he is "not destroyed" (2 Cor.4:8-9).
We that are to speak for others, must expect to be tempted in all things like to our brethren. But whether ministers or people burn, the great God, the Angel of the everlasting covenant, spoke to Moses out of the bush. He said, Moses, Moses, My people shall burn in this bush to the end of time, but be not afraid, I will succour them. When they burn, I will burn too. There is a Scripture in which it is not said, "the good will of him that was in the bush," but "the good will of him that dwelt in the bush" (Deut. 33:16).
Amazing! I thought God dwelt in heaven; but as a poor woman who was once in darkness fourteen years, before she was brought out of it said, "God has two homes, one in heaven, the other in the lowest heart." He dwells in the bush. All that are given to Jesus Christ shall come, He will not lose one of them; this is food for the children of God. Come then, O suffering saints, to you the word of this salvation is sent.
If God did not bear with us more than we bear with one another, we should all have been destroyed every day. O poor dear soul, you never will have such sweet words from God as when you are in the bush; our suffering times will be our best times.
I know we had more comfort in Moorfields, on Kennington Common, and especially when the rotten eggs, the cats and dogs were thrown upon me, and my gown was so filled with clods of dirt that I could scarce move it; I have had more comfort in this burning bush than when I have been in ease. I remember when I was preaching at Exeter, a stone came and made my forehead bleed, I found at that very time the word came with double power to a laborer that was gazing at me, who was wounded at the same time by another stone. The lad came to me: "Sire," says he, "the man gave me a wound, but Jesus healed me; I never had my bonds broke till I had my head broke."
Whatever your trials are, let this be your prayer, "Lord, though the bush is burning, let it not be consumed" or rather, let it be thus; "Lord, when the bush is burning, let me not burn lower as the fire does, but let me burn higher and higher. I thank thee my God, for trouble, I thank thee, my God, for putting me into these afflictions one after another. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." And thus you will go on blessing God to all eternity; by and by the bush shall be translated to the paradise of God; no burning bush in heaven, except the fire of love, wonder, and gratitude.
The Lord awaken you that are dead in sin, and though on the precipice of hell, God keep you from tumbling in: and you that are God's burning bushes, God help you stand to keep this coat of arms, to say when you go home, blessed be God, "the bush is burning but not consumed." Amen! Even so, Lord Jesus. Amen!
George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an Anglican minister and evangelist best known for his open-air preaching. It was said that he could be heard unamplified by crowds of 20,000 or more, and that he averaged over 500 sermons per year during his ministry. His preaching in the British American colonies during the 1730s and 40s helped spark the Great Awakening, one of the most profound evangelical movements of history. He continued to preach and serve in Churches in both Britain and the colonies until his death on the last of his visits to America.