Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020
Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10 Birth and upbringing of Moses
Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20 Peter’s confession of Christ
Introduction. Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall. On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying. This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers. About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship. Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon. Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall. I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’. ‘Yes’ was her reply. I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman. I did. The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents. Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels. Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.
Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus. It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others. In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.
As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth. Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.
Moses. ‘Call the midwife’. It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live. The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life. They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.
Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people. When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled. Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen. If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river. On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current. Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.
Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.
We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby. Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do. God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans. She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.
So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.
Peter. Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers. Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast. It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death. The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time. They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew. To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role. He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading. Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah? To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was. People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.
Some surprising answers come back. Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded. What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus! Some were saying that he was Elijah. There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6). Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome. Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy. Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.
Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge. In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population? Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock. We must get personal.
Our response. Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet. Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy. This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths. I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.” I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.” Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess. But what about ourselves? Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?” God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom. The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving. Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”