This is the text of the message I prepared for the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster service at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 17th September 2017. It was my first service with this people and was also a communion service.
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
I wonder, have you ever crossed a sea? These days most sea crossings are done by air rather than ship, and unless you are in the company of Moses (or you are Jesus) seas are never crossed on foot. In our day sea crossings are not uncommon.
ore important to today’s theme; to those of you who have crossed a sea I ask did you cross that sea under God’s protection and with God’s guidance?
I have crossed many seas. Some of them had the word “sea” in their title, while others were named “ocean”, “strait”, “passage” or “channel”. Whether by ferry or ocean liner, light or heavy aircraft, every crossing of sea which I have made has been done with my feet entirely dry. I hope your experience has been similar.
On every occasion God has protected me, and I have survived every crossing unscathed, undrowned, and unconcerned by the water. Some of the events of my life on the other side of the sea have not been the best, but the crossings themselves have always been successful, with allowances made for airline food poisoning and the occasional rough-sea puke.
When Moses followed God’s direction and lead the Israelites into, across, and out of the Red Sea he was in no doubt that God was at work. The great pillar of cloud and fire which had gone before the massed migration moved to the back of the group, and the angel leading the Israelite army moved to a rear-guard position as the people of Jacob neared the coast. At God’s command and by the agency of Moses’ prophetic action the sea formed a wall on the right and left, leaving a great channel of dry land between these two massive walls. We are told by the writers of Exodus 14 that the good guys walked across the gulf on dry land, but that the chariots of the bad guys got bogged. We are told that once every Israelite was safely across, and after Moses stretched out his hand, the Egyptians were drowned in the returning sea. Every Egyptian died, every Israelite was saved. The moral of the story in perpetuity is that Israel at once saw what the Lord had done and they were awestruck and began to trust God; so therefore, should we who read this story from within the traditions which worship the LORD.
This story can cause concern in the modern day. Back when it was written the vindication of the victims of slavery and maltreatment by the God faithful to the generational promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph made perfect sense. God saved lowly “us” from horrible “them”, and that “they” got what was coming in the drowning thing is only what “they” deserved. Today we might show more compassion, even when we think of the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS or the Boko Haram terrorists in our world. The books of Moses do not address this issue; the issue at hand for the Israelites between the first day of Adam and the last day of Moses is the story of God’s deliverance of Israel by whatever means are necessary.
As our call to worship this morning I read to you from Psalm 114 and the song of worship directed to the God who secured the release of the house of Jacob from a people of strange language as verse Psalm 114:1 puts it. God made these people God’s own, so again the focus is on the saving power of The LORD, the faithful covenant partner of the patriarchs rather than the destructive power of the vindicator of God’s people. Such a God, the God of us, is so awe-inspiring, so awesome, that nature fled before the Israelites because The LORD was with them. This passage speaks as if the presence of God was enough for the Red Sea to withdraw in terror at the mere presence of the Chosen People, let alone the prophetic action of Moses raising his staff. No wonder Jesus says in the gospels that those who believe in the Word Incarnate can order mountains to move – the mountains are terrified of us and will not disobey us because of the One with whom we walk. No wonder Jesus says that the rocks and stones will cry out if the children of God are silenced – the glory of the presence of God is so obvious in the world. Rock turns to water, strength turns to floods of tears (and maybe even wet undies), at the sight of The LORD and the ones The LORD secures in divine covenant. Such is the effect upon creation of observing the presence of God among the people of God when the people are present in one locality.
Such power. Such awesome majesty. Such response to the presence of the people of God, the people amongst whom God is present. I don’t know about you, but to me this speaks of the esteem in which I can hold myself as a man of God and a son of God. I am truly the pinnacle of creation when even seas will shrink and rocks will wet themselves when I come close in the power of God.
But, lest we get too ahead of ourselves as masters and mistresses of this planet where God alone is Master of the Universe, we are met by Paul and his commentary along the theme of great power and great responsibility.
It is not the task of the Christian Church, nor any Christian woman or man within it, to stomp around terrifying Creation. Rather we are told explicitly in scripture and by the arguably first great human teacher of the Christian tradition that as a local church we are to welcome the weak to encourage them. (In your own time, you might like to compare Romans 14:1 with Psalm 114:3-7 and consider what God might be saying about our authority.) Welcome everyone to the household of God as if he or she were a member of God’s own family, and do not quarrel over peripheral matters. We are called to be in the world but not of it, living amidst the world but with our identity in the One who calls us to faith: yet often we live as if we are of the world not in it. How often it seems that Christians engage very nastily over things which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of the world. Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another, [since] it is before their own lord that they stand or fall asks Paul in Romans 14:4-5. Paul asserts that the ones we might put down will be upheld by their master, the one who pushed back the sea and makes water come from rock. For all that glorious assurance I have just spoken of, of how God protects God’s own, do you want to be on the side of the Egyptians or the Assyrians? Paul suggests that if you take a sister or brother to task over trifling things you may well find yourself there. Each woman or man of faith must act according to her or his revelation and conscience, serving God fully and passionately as God is revealed to her or him. Each must live and die, feast or fast, to the Lord’s desire and the Lord’s glory. Each of us is accountable to God, for as the Lord has said every knee shall bow before God and every tongue shall confess God notes Paul in Romans 14:11-12, quoting God’s own words from Isaiah (45:23b). Instead of becoming nasty over trivialities let us set aside all “speaking the truth in love” and instead encourage one another in ever more evident acts and speech of Christlikeness.
But should we really give up “speaking the truth in love”? If the lord of our weaker siblings is also our lord, shouldn’t their conscience match ours? Isn’t it the same revelation, and if so then we can be assured that they are in the wrong because we are in the right. Paul would ask why that is your primary concern. If they are wrong, but in the church, then leave it to The LORD. Think of Matthew 18:33 and the mercy shown but not passed on. What has God not held against you that you are holding against your sister? What great thing has God redeemed you from, yet you feel entitled to belittle your brother over something inconsequential?
Maybe the journey of faithful Christianity is not so much about crossing the sea as it is about seeing the cross. Perhaps the glories of the Red Sea and the other miracles we have witnessed in the presence of the LORD have blinded us, as grace had blinded the unmerciful servant, to the LORD who is the director of all things. Let us not fall into the error of thinking of ourselves as anything more than servants of the one who has called us to Godself, even as we steer clear of the error of forgetting that we are called, chosen and seen as precious by God.