Standing on Holy Ground

June 21, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

June 21, 2015


“Standing on Holy Ground”

Exodus 3: 1-6


When our son Ian was in upper grade school and middle school, he was fascinated with famous people and all the places and things associated with them.  When we visited Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis, Ian was enthralled with the house.  “Did Elvis touch this?” he would ask with wondrous amazement in his voice.  “Did Elvis sit here?”  And at the Civil Rights Exhibit at the Lorraine Motel, with awe and enthusiasm, “Did they put Martin Luther King in that bed after he was shot?”


But the time I really saw complete worship in Ian’s eyes was in Chicago, at the United Center, when Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen, and Dennis Rodman.  “Do they touch this door handle when they come into the arena?”  “Is there any chance that they sat in this seat one day?”  You got the sense that if he was certain he had touched a place where they touched – even if a thousand others had touched it since – that he would never wash his hands again!


I’ve always loved traveling with children, because they get it.  The pure amazement and awe in voice and touch indicate an honest appreciation and a sense of holy awareness.  They know when they walk on holy ground.


Today’s “tree story” comes from Exodus 3.  It is commonly known as the story of Moses and the burning bush.  What modern westerners may not realize is that a burning bush in the dessert 3 or 4 thousand years ago would have been a normal scene.  With the direct and unrelenting heat of the sun bearing down in the desert, bushes tend to succumb to spontaneous combustion.  This bush was different, Moses noticed.  It did not succumb to the flames.  It continued to be a bush aflame.  And he knew that his life would never be the same again because he was standing on holy ground.


To fully appreciate the story, you have to travel back in time to an ancient world where:

  • Mountaintops were the traditional dwelling places of the divine
  • Fire was a symbol of God’s presence
  • Inextinguishable flames demonstrated God’s holiness
  • Removing sandals from one’s feet indicated honor and reverence

Go with me know to that ancient world and the old, old story of a man who met God in an extraordinary place and found that he was standing on holy ground.


Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”   And he said, “Here I am.”   Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”   He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”   And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.                                                              Exodus 3:1-6


Moses had been in livelier and statelier places. He had sat in majestic courts. He probably had marched in grand parades. And, he definitely stood on royal ground.  All that beauty and majesty did not constitute holy ground, however.  It wasn’t in the beautiful and austere places that Moses met God.
In Pharaoh’s palace there were too many loud cries and too many beckoning hands.  In the silent wilderness there was one solitary voice. When it broke the stillness of the desert, there was no doubt.  Clearly this was the voice of God.  And his utterance transformed the wastelands of Sinai into a sanctuary.  Moses took off his sandals because he was in awe.


These revelations and experiences of holy ground are not confined to the Bible. There are many Christians today who have had similar encounters.

I read about a man’s experience in the wilderness of West Virginia.  He was strolling through a field when he heard the joyous chirping of a robin.  He enjoyed its melodious praise for a while before his eyes caught sight of the bird.  It was perched high in a wild apple tree, and there was an unusually bright object reflecting from its nest.

Soon curiosity overcame caution, and he climbed the tree. From his higher perspective he saw that the reflection had been nothing but a piece of paper ingeniously woven into the robin’s home.  But that was not the end of the matter. Meticulously he removed the paper from the nest and unfolded it.  There before him were the faded remains of a hymnal page!   Printed on the wrinkled sheet were the words: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty; early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee…..”

In the sacredness of that moment the ground over which the robin had built her nest and on which the man stood was transformed into holy ground.

Perhaps you have often thought your life to be ordinary.  Regardless of how mundane your life might seem to be, it is very special.  God has adorned your pathway with many holy milestones.  But you must discover them.

Look carefully at your life.  What appears common at first is really sacred.  You will discover loneliness, for example, to be the stillness which best conducts the voice of God.  You will find the desert places are sanctified with the presence of God.  As you utter your words of commitment to God, you will be thrilled to discover that you are standing on holy ground.


Like Moses, however, we must learn the properties of what constitutes holy ground.  If I traveled to Mt. Sinai and stood on the very same plot of land thought to be where Moses experienced a holy moment, I might or might not experience what he did.  So it is not the literal ground that is holy in and of itself.  This is important.  Sometimes we equate holiness with a physical place.


Doesn’t a place become holy ground because of something more than its location?  Perhaps it is the happy memory of that place that makes it holy.  It could be the people who were there that make a place holy.  And it seems that the Spirit of God is felt in these places – more than other places in our lives.  According to J.S. Exell, these are some of the makings of holy places:

  • a sense of reverence and holiness; a sense of God,
  • joyous memory,
  • friendships nurtured and love expressed,
  • people whose lives are changed.

Most of you have heard me preach long enough to know that I considered my grandma’s kitchen and my grandfather’s wood shop to be holy ground.  I visited their house a few weeks ago.  Since 1952, it has been in our family.  But my mom was ready to release it and let another family make memories there.  I have been back to the house over the years since my childhood – and even years after my grandparents’ deaths.  I always felt that I was walking on holy ground.  The memories, the smells and sights and sounds were all palpable to me.  Holy moments of my life happened there… little and big things that really shaped me into the person I am.


When I stepped into the wood shop, I expected that holy ground experience to wash over me.  But it was not there.  The memories were every bit as present in my mind.  But papa’s spirit was not present.  I walked into the kitchen and I took a deep breath.  Years after Grandma died, I could still smell her cooking in that kitchen.  No longer.  The breads and pies coming out of the oven … the rich coffee smell in the morning…the sound of her teaching me to memorize scripture… they were gone.  Intact in my memory, but not in that room any longer.


And I remembered that holy ground can change as we change.  It is not the location that matters.  It is the people, the memories, and God’s love that make something holy.   It isn’t necessarily magnificent cathedrals where holy ground exists – and yet, it can be.  After visiting dozens of churches in Italy, I will have to say that the one where I was moved the most was a little unassuming church, which is a chapel-like structure where pilgrims kneel on the steps and pray as they take one-step-at-a-time on their knees. It is called the Scala Santa.  I took off my shoes at the door because I knew I was walking on sacred ground.


Yesterday at our Hygiene Pantry, my guess is that there were volunteers and guests who experienced holy ground.  I’ve had that moment of goose bumps on my arms while handing someone two sacks of soap and detergent and diapers.

Last week, two young adults had stopped at our “little library” on the west side of the driveway.  I was pulling into the church drive and saw them there, seeking just the right book to borrow.  I got out of my car and introduced myself.  They excitedly told me of their enthusiasm for the project and how they had some books to donate.  I knew that I was standing on holy ground.


When I hear the committee for the UCC memorial talk about their vision, I hear in their voices a reverence and a memory of those we have loved and lost.  And I realize that it is not about the place or the plan.  It’s about the sacred memory, the love shared, the people, and a sense of God’s presence.


As we look back into the crackling fire of Moses’ burning bush, let us seek out the truth of the story: that holy ground is made holy by memory, love, people, and God.



Resources Used:

“Holy Ground” by Vernon Murray., May 1992

“Working Preacher” Commentary by Dennis Olson

“The Biblical Illustrator” by Biblesoft, Inc.