Sunday, 16 October 2016

The pit and the Presence

(To listen to an audio version of this talk, click the arrow above)

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is one of great stories of the Bible
It is in most of the children’s bibles!
But it is more than a great story

It is one of the key stories in Israel’s memory

Genesis 12.1-11, which you looked at last week, was critical to how the people of God understood their call to be the people of God.
But the event we read about today shaped their understanding of what it means to live as the people of God.

So let’s look at the story.

Abrahams’ descendants have been living in Egypt as a slave people. But God has rescued them and now they are leaving Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, has let them go. But he has changed his mind – a sort of post-Brexit panic when he realises that if he lets the migrants go, nobody will be left to do the dirty work. So he sends his army after them.

And now we come to the odd bit. Because God, in 14.2 commands Moses to turn the people around and rather than walk away to freedom to walk towards the sea.  
Nobody really knows exactly where this sea is. What our bibles translate as Red Sea should be more accurately translated as Sea of Reeds, and because the water level is very different to what it was 3000 years ago, it is possible that this sea is no longer there.
Anyway, Pharaoh follows them with his army, and the people of Israel are trapped. The sea is here – Pharaoh’s army is here – and they are the filling in the sandwich.

The people panic. I guess that is not surprising. They cry out to God in fear.
And then they turn on their leader. It is very predictable.
But Moses answers them:
-          Don’t be afraid
-          Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance of God. And he repeats the word ‘see’. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.
-          Be still and let God fight for you.

On the surface he was calm. But inside he must have been screaming. Because, although we are not told that he cried out to God, in v15 God says to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’ The early commentators make much of this, saying that God hears the cries of our hearts even when they are unspoken.

And then God tells Moses to do something that is even more crazy than leading the Israelites to the edge of the sea. He tells him to order them to walk into the sea. It is suicide.

But the people have nothing to lose. The pillar of cloud that has been leading the people now goes behind the people. It separates them from the Egyptians. Moses raises his staff; overnight a wind blows and the sea separates with a wall of water on either side

The people go into the sea. They cross over on dry land. The Egyptians follow. Their chariots get clogged up in the mud. They panic. Moses again stretches his hand out over the water, and it closes in over the Egyptians.

What is going on here?

1.      God delivers us not by taking away the thing that we fear, but by changing us so that we learn to fear him more.

It is God who makes the situation far worse before it gets better.
God takes his people down into the sea before he brings them deliverance.

God could have simply wiped out the Egyptian army. In 2 Chr 20.17, we are told that Jahaziel uses the same words that Moses spoke to the Israelites, when he says to Jehoshaphat when the Moabites and Ammonites threaten to overwhelm the people of Israel, ‘stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you’. And the Ammonites turn on the Moabites and the Moabites turn on the Ammonites and they wipe each other out. And when Jehoshaphat comes out to meet them in battle he discovers nothing but dead men. God could have done that here.

But God did not wish simply to deliver his people from the Egyptians.
He wanted to change them.
He wanted them to understand that he is bigger than all their fears.

And we are told at the end ‘So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses’ (Ex 14.31).

At the beginning of this story they fear the Egyptians. At the end of the story they know that there is one who is far bigger than the Egyptians or any army, for that matter. And they believe in him.

I don’t know what you fear. I foolishly asked that question in St James when it was there and was told by the year 7 boys that they were frightened of nothing. But assuming you are not year 7 St James boys, I suspect that there are a few things that you do fear. Violence, pain, violence, growing older, being shamed or humiliated, abandonment, death – whether of those we love or of ourselves

What the story of the Red Sea tells us is that God will not necessarily protect us from going through those things.
He may at times take us into those very things that we fear.
But he will work in us and change us so that we come to fear him even more – and when we fear him first, and we believe him, then those other things begin to lose their terror.

2.      God walks with us when we go through the pit

When the people of Israel went down into the water, the pillar of cloud went with them. That pillar represents the presence of God.

You see the God we believe in is the God who comes and stands with us in the pit.
He stood with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace
He was the God who was with Daniel in the den of lions.
And he is the God who became one of us, who lived among us, who experienced the fears that we face, who was subject to violence and pain, who was shamed and humiliated, abandoned and who did go into the pit of death.

I’ve spoken before of Michael facing one of the illnesses that we probably dread. He is paralysed now up to the neck. And he was telling me of the God who is with him and who does 24/7
I have an irrational fear not of death, but of being in the box. And then realising that when I am there, he has been there and he will be there.

Some of you are going through deep pits at the moment. He has taken you down into the sea. The walls are on either side. You are being driven by fear. But I hope this story is an encouragement. Because he stands in between you and the thing that you fear. He is with you.

3.      God uses what brings life to one to bring death to the other

One of the fascinating things about this story is that it teaches that the thing that can bring light to one, brings darkness to the other. The cloud brought light to the Israelites but darkness to the Egyptians.
And the thing that can bring salvation to one brings destruction to the other. The water saved the Israelites but brought destruction to the Egyptians.

It is the reason, Jesus says, why he speaks in parables. Some will hear the stories and understand; others will only hear the stories. They will be life to one, and death to the other.
Paul in 2 Cor 2.15 teaches that the preachers of the gospel to some are the aroma of life, and to others are the stench of death. It is the same gospel – but some will hear the message of how Jesus in his love died for our sins, for our forgiveness in order to bring us into eternal friendship with God, and they will hate it. And others will hear the message and receive it with joy.
And the New Testament teaches that some will look at the cross of Jesus and they will mock. [Early Roman graffito: ‘Alexamenos worships his god’] And others will look at the cross and they will worship.

What I note here, and it is a mystery and a warning to us, is that God saves his people by making their enemies hate them.

It is what God does. In v8 God hardens the heart of Pharoah. In v17 God says, and literally the passage says this, ‘and look, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians’.
God takes the arrogance of a people who assume that they are the master race and that the Israelites are a slave race fit only to serve them, and he takes their desire for their own material comfort – and he allows that sin to grow so that it becomes a blind hatred and desire for revenge. If the Egyptians had shown any compassion for the fleeing Israelites, then they would have not entered the sea and they would not have been destroyed.

It is a pattern we see repeated. It is the person who abuses another, and then begins to blame his or her victim for being the victim, and hates them for being the abused. They become colder and less likely to repent. God hardens their heart. The sin increases and on the day of judgement God’s justice will be shown to be absolutely fair.

There is a great mystery here – but we need to pray that God never hardens our heart. Can I ask you to think very carefully about who it is that you are sinning against, who do you think is there to serve you? And are you beginning to despise or hate them? We need to repent now, to ask God to give us compassion for them, before God hardens our heart.

And the prayer asking God to give us compassion is a prayer that he will always answer.

4.      God brings his people out of the pit

After the cross comes the resurrection.
The people come out of the sea; they see the judgement of God and the destruction of the Egyptians; they fear God, they believe him and they believe Moses (for the time being anyway!). And they praise God (Exodus 15.1-18)

The people of Israel look back to this event as the incident which shows them what it is like to live with God as their God.
And they have come to realise that the God of Abraham will not protect them from the sea, but he will walk with them through the sea. And he will use the sea to change them so that they trusted him more, to bring his right judgement, and to bring glory to his name.
As Ps 66.11-12 says, ‘You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place’.

And for us as people of the New Testament, this event shapes our understanding of what it means to for us to live with God as our God. The writers of the NT look at this incident as an example of God’s guidance for his people (Acts 7.36), an example of faith (Hebrews 11.29) and also as a model for baptism.

1 Cor 10.2 ‘They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’.

The cloud and the sea. The presence of God in the pit. And baptism, particularly when we think of baptism by immersion, is a very clear picture of what it means for us to live as believers. It is the template, the pattern for our everyday Christian life. We go with Jesus into the waters. We meet with him there, we die to ourselves and we come up as new people.



The crossing of the Red Sea spoken of by Joshua in his final speech to the Israelites, when he calls them to serve God faithfully (Joshua 24.6-7)
The Psalmists speak of the event in 7 different Psalms (Ps 66.6; Ps 74.13; Ps 77.19; Ps 78.13; Ps 106.6-12; Ps 114.5; Ps 136.13-15)
David in a song praising God for the way that he rescues his people, declares: ‘Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were laid bare’ (2 Sam 22.16)
The book of Isaiah speaks 7 times of the events of Exodus 14 (Is 10.26; Is 11.15; Is 43.16-19; Is 44.27; Is 50.2; Is 51.10; Is 63.11-13)
The prophet Nahum speaks of how God ‘rebukes the sea and dries it up’. (Nahum 1.4)
And the prophet Ezekiel declares that the future destruction of Egypt will be like its past destruction (Ezekiel 32.15)
And, after the people have returned from exile and Ezra prays in their presence, he addresses God as the one who ‘divided the sea before them …’ and who ‘led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.’ (Neh 9.11-12)
References in the Psalms
Ps 66.6 He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot
Ps 74.13  It was you who split open the sea by your power
Ps 77.19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen
Ps 78.13 ‘He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand up like a wall’
Ps 106.9 ‘He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. (Ps 106.6-12)
Ps 114.5 ‘Why was it, sea, that you fled?’
Ps 136.13 -15 to him who divided the red sea asunder

References in Isaiah
Is 10.26  The Lord Almighty .. will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt’
Is 11.15  The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea; with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates river. He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals’
Is 43.16-19  ‘he who made a way through the sea,  a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, .. and they lay there, never to rise again .. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! .. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Is 44.27 who says to the watery deep, ‘be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
Is 50.2 by a mere rebuke I dry up the sea
Is 51.10  was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great dep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?
Is 63.11-13  where is he who brought them through the sea .. Who divided the waters before them to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths?

References in the NT
Acts 7.36 He led them out having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness
1 Cor 10.2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Heb 11.29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

The crossing the sea motif is repeated:
Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3)

Elijah (and then Elisha) strike the water with his cloak and it divided to the right and left, ‘The valleys of the sea were exposed’ (2 Kings 2.8)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The mercy window

The window at the West end of church is our harvest window. It is the largest West Window of any parish church in the country. It was given by the farmers after a particularly good harvest in 1854. It illustrates this particular incident. You can see the disciples plucking grain, and the Pharisees arguing with Jesus.

Jesus disciples are hungry.

This is not about them having a snack in between meals. This is not like walking along, seeing blackberries, picking them and eating them. It is not natures equivalent of a Freddo bar. They’ve been on the road. They have no regular income. Each day they are dependent on the generosity of others. And today they are hungry.
So they pluck the grain, they rub their hands together and they blow away the husks. Technically they are reaping, threshing and winnowing. And although you could do that on other days, the religious law said that you were not allowed to prepare food on the Sabbath.

And the Pharisees watch them, and they come to Jesus and they challenge him. ‘Your followers are doing what they should not do on the Sabbath’.

Jesus answers and he tells them that they have three problems

1.      They have not got the big picture of the bible

Some people say the bible is a dangerous book. It’s anti-woman and homophobic. Others say that it is a great monument to literature, but it is out of date, and has nothing to say to us.

If that is your view, could I suggest that you read it! Not just individual verses. You can say virtually anything by doing that. Read the New Testament; at least once in your lifetime. And if you struggle with reading, then there are some great youtube versions of the whole of the gospels.

That is what Jesus says to the Pharisees. Twice he asks them, ‘Have you not read?’ (v3, v5)

Their thinking has been shaped by a little bit of bible knowledge. They knew the laws in the bible (284 requirements and 365 prohibitions). They knew that bit well!
But Jesus shows them that there is a bigger picture.

And so he points out times when people break the laws and it is OK.

He reminds them of the occasion when David and his followers are escaping from King Saul. They have nothing to eat. And so they go to the house of God and ask the priests if they have any spare food. Ahimelech the priest realises they are very hungry. He says, ‘The only food we have is the special bread which we have put aside for sacred purposes. But because you are hungry you can eat it’.

That was just on one occasion. But Jesus also reminds them that on every Sabbath the priests need to work in order to prepare the lambs for sacrifice and then for cooking. They, and the word Jesus uses is quite strong, ‘desecrate the day’, but they are completely innocent.

On the first occasion the law is broken because David and his followers are hungry. There is a need. On the second occasion the law is broken because the priests are doing a more important task.

So, says Jesus, ‘Don’t condemn my followers. You have missed the bigger picture. You have not realised that the laws were given for a purpose, and you have not realised that there is something more important than the law.’

2.      They have not got the big picture about Jesus

They thought that Jesus was another Rabbi, another teacher with followers. Yes, he did amazing stuff. His teaching was inspirational. But they hadn’t got the full picture.

And Jesus makes very big claims in our verses.

a)      He says (v6), ‘Something greater than the temple is here’. In other words, I am bigger than the temple – and I am bigger than all the worship of the temple.

Look at this building. Think about its size, its history and the services that have been going on here for over 700 years. 
It was here long before me.
It will be here long after me.
It is so much bigger than me.

But what if I said to you: “I am more important than this building. I am more important than all the activities that go on in this building. This building was built for my glory”?
It is quite a claim. And you would probably, rightly, say ‘Who does he think that he is?’

b)      Jesus says (v8), ‘I am the Lord of the Sabbath’. We are subject to time. There are moments when I wish could go back and do something differently. But I can’t. But Jesus is making an even more outrageous statement. He is saying, ‘I am bigger than all the laws of the bible. I am also bigger than time itself’.

So Jesus is claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, greater than all religious laws.

Please don’t miss the big picture. Jesus is not just one of several inspired religious leaders: Moses, Confucius, Buddha or Mohammed. He claims to be Lord of time. 

Christianity is all about him. Spurgeon, who was a preacher in the C19th, tells the story of the young man who preached a great sermon. He asked an older person whether they liked his sermon. ‘Not much’. ‘Why?’ ‘You didn’t tell me of Jesus.’ ‘But the passage did not speak about Jesus’, he answered. ‘Young man’, came the reply, ‘Think of any town near London. It will have many roads that lead in many directions. But one of them will always lead to London. So with any passage in the Bible. There will always be one route which leads us to Jesus’.

I hope and pray that you find that route. It is not easy. In today’s world it means being very different. Jesus speaks of it being a narrow and difficult path. It begins when we bow before Jesus as the one who is bigger than any law, who is Lord of Time and Lord of our lives.
But if it is difficult, it is worth it – because there is quite simply nothing that is better than getting to know the love that Jesus Christ has for us.
There is no joy that is greater than the joy of knowing him.
There is no deeper peace than the peace that comes from intimacy with him.
And as people who take this road to Jesus we get glimpses of love, joy and peace now. He comes and lives inside us. But one day we will see him and we will know absolute love, joy and peace.

3.      They have not got the big picture about mercy

Jesus quotes from the Old Testament where God says, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (v7).

The Pharisees do not see straight.
They see the disciples break the law: ‘Look’, they say, ‘Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath’. (v2)
They see that so clearly. But they do not see men who are hungry.

We are often like them. We think things have got to be done in a particular way and we are blinded to the needs of others. And when we don’t see straight we condemn the innocent.

One American news commentator wrote this week, ​"In modern American capitalist society [and she could have equally said British], we put so much cultural value on work and effort and individual determination, or the idea that you're in charge of your fate.”
And because of that, many will look at people who are poor, who are hungry, whose lives are chaotic and who are messed up, and think, ‘They’re like that because they haven’t worked hard enough or they’re weak people or they are bad people’.
And we say to them what the Pharisees said to the disciples: ‘Be disciplined. Don’t break the rules. Work harder at keeping them. Be better people’.

But Jesus never did that. He did not come to tell poor people to work harder.
He did not come to tell people who live chaotic lives to pull our socks up, to control our children better, to be more disciplined, to be nicer people or even to look with compassion. He did not come to tell us to make more effort or offer bigger and better sacrifices.

So many people think that Christianity is about being good and about trying harder to be better people. And because of that they think that Christians are either hypocrites or that Christianity is not for them.

But Jesus came to show mercy to people who know they are not good enough, who are unable to pull their socks up, who are at their wits end.
And he came to show mercy to people who are blind, who are like the Pharisees, who see the breaking of the law and who do not see the hunger.
And Christianity is first about people who know that they are sinners coming to Jesus to receive mercy. And then, by the grace of God, we do begin to change.

I don’t know whether this was the intention of the designer, but the image in our window of the disciples picking grain is only part of the picture.

If you look underneath there is the image of Jesus on the cross.

That is what Jesus is all about. He reaches out in love to all people. He gives hope to the poor and hungry. He shatters the pretensions of the rich. He came to die in our place on the cross because our thinking is twisted, because we don’t realise that it is all about him, and because we are blind to the needs of others. He made the one sacrifice, so that all can receive mercy. And because of that sacrifice we are forgiven. And it is only when we have received mercy from God that we can begin to show mercy to others.

And if you look to either side of the image of the disciples, you will see 8 small illustrations. And here we are shown people who are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners and welcoming strangers.

And that is because when we receive that sacrifice – when we realise just how dependent we are on the mercy of God - then we will begin to see the bigger picture. We will look with compassion, we will not condemn the innocent and, by the power of God, we will begin to show mercy.  

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

God opens seriously locked doors (all age talk)

This is one of the great stories that the early Christians loved telling.

(Tell the story with helpers)

James, the brother of John, one of Jesus’ inner three, has been arrested and executed.
Now Peter, the second of the inner three, is arrested and put in prison.

It is a maximum security prison.
It has an iron gate
Outer guard
Inner guard
Lock him not to a wall, not to 1 soldier, but to 2 soldiers
Herod is taking no risks.  He has decided, in order to please the people (Christians were not popular at the time) that Peter is also going to be executed.

Acts 12.5: 'So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him'

I wonder what they were praying?
Peace (certainly Peter has that. He is sleeping!), strength to be courageous (for Peter and for themselves), courage to stand firm.

So what happens next?
Peter is asleep in prison. An angel turns up. He jabs Peter awake, and says, ‘Get up quickly’. The chains fell off. He tells Peter to put on his shoes, belt and coat. He then leads Peter past the inner guard, past the outer guard and they come to the gate. The gate swings open. The angel leads Peter to the end of the street and then disappears.
Peter fully comes to himself. It wasn’t a dream. It was real.
He has to find safe shelter, so he goes to the house where he knows that the church meets.

Acts 12.12, ‘As soon as he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying’.

He knocks on the door.
Rhoda the serving girl comes to answer the door.
‘Who is it?’
She is so excited she rushes back to the people praying.
‘Peter’s at the door.’
‘Peter’s at the door.’
‘Go away Rhoda. We’re praying for him.’
‘He’s at the door.’
‘Rhoda you are mad. It is obviously getting to you.’
‘He really is at the door.’
‘He must have died. She must be seeing his angel.’
‘Come and see.’

Finally, Peter is let in. He tells them what has happened. He asks them to tell James, Jesus brother and now the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and he leaves. He can’t stay in Jerusalem any more.

Prayer is for people who know that they are desperate
The Christians have met to pray for Peter

They don't have the money to buy Peter out.
They don't have the influential contacts – the business or media leaders who can apply pressure so that Peter is released.
They don't have the political or military power to get him out.
They need God to show up big time – or Peter is dead and they are stuffed.

One of the reasons we don’t pray is because we do not realise how helpless we are.
We think that we can sort things out in our own strength.
We assume that because we can get daily bread from Tesco’s we don’t need to pray for daily bread.
We think that the way to fight injustice or falsehood is by political lobbying and not prayer. We think that what is really important for growing the church is having better management, better publicity, better programmes, better welcoming
We think that we will become better Christians if we know more, or screw up our faith more, or try harder
And we treat prayer as an optional extra.

But people only really pray when we realise how desperate we are.
I wonder whether God used the death of James and the arrest of Peter as a way of driving a confident church onto her knees.

When you pray, God intervenes in ways you don’t expect
We see that here.
They don’t expect God to send an angel and miraculously release Peter.
If they had, then they would have believed Rhoda when she told them that Peter was knocking at the front door. They would have told her, ‘Oh by the way Rhoda. We’re expecting Peter to turn up at any minute now’.

And God does intervene – sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

(Testimony from Maaike of how her mother was dramatically healed after prayer)

God opens seriously locked doors
He literally opens prison doors.
One day we are told, when Messiah comes, he will release prisoners.
He will release prisoners from the prisons that other people put them in.
He will release prisoners from the sin and fear of death that holds us captive.

But the door that God wants to open is the door of our ears: not our outer ears, but our inner ears, so that we really do hear the good news of Jesus Christ and put our trust in him.

We might think that praying for someone to be healed is a big prayer.
We might think that praying for God to release a persecuted Christian is a big prayer.
But the really big prayer that we can pray is that someone who is spiritually dead – who is spiritually deaf – will have their ears opened, become spiritually alive, and start to begin to realise the truth of God and to live for Jesus and with Jesus.

And God does that.
By the end of this chapter, Herod – who seemed to have all the power – is dead, Peter has gone from Jerusalem and is beginning to preach to Gentiles, and we are told that ‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish’ (Acts 12.24)