The following is the text from my sermon this evening at Ripon Cathedral. The readings are Exodus 6:2-13 and Romans 5:1-11.
The story is told of the man who was out for a walk on a mountain one day, when a freak gust of wind blew him over the side of the cliff. Fortunately he managed to grab hold of a tree root as he fell, but he was left dangling over almost certain death.
He called up for help, but there was no-one around, so then he looked up to heaven and shouted out “Is there anyone up there? Please help me”.
A voice from heaven answered him “Yes – I will help you, but you have trust me”
The man replied “Oh – thank you God. Yes, I trust you absolutely, with everything I have and all I am”.
God said “Let go of the root”.
The man paused for a moment, then said “Is there anyone else up there?”
This story is a bit like our Old Testament reading today, in that the people of Israel are in a pretty bad way, and crying out to God for help, but when he comes to save them they are unable to recognise and respond to him.
We have to rewind a little bit to get the full story. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to be the founder of a race who will be God’s chosen people, chosen to be blessed and in turn to be a blessing to the entire world, modelling both a true relationship with God and an extraordinary ethical and moral framework for society. Abram (or Abraham) has a miracle son called Isaac in his old age, who in turn has a son called Jacob (later called Israel). Jacob then had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Via a very round-about route, one of the 12 sons – Joseph – ends up as Prime Minister of Egypt, and when a severe famine comes, Jacob and the other 11 sons all move to Egypt (where there is still food), and settle there, with the Pharaoh’s blessing.
So far so good. However at the start of Exodus, the old Pharaoh and the 12 brothers have died, and the new king doesn’t look too kindly on the Israelites, who have multiplied and multiplied. The pharaoh makes them his slaves, and makes them build his towns and cities. Their treatment is harsh, and culminates in an order by the king that every baby boy is to be killed at birth. From the midst of this, God calls out Moses to lead them back to Canaan, where they can be God’s chosen people in the promised land, as we first heard in Genesis 12.
Moses makes a first attempt – Moses goes to Pharoah, to ask him to set the Israelites free. Not only does Pharoah say “no”, he is so cross that he increases the oppression of the Israelites, saying that they have to continue to make as many bricks, but without being supplied with the straw anymore. Understandably, this isn’t seen as an improvement!
In today’s passage, God is commissioning Moses again to go the Israelites and lead them out of captivity. There is incredible sense of force and promise in what God says. He identifies himself as the one who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then goes on to identify himself by name – “my name is Yahweh”. In fact He says this five times in the passage we read. “Yahweh” is the name God used for himself when He first spoke to Moses in the burning bush. In our bibles it’s printed as “the Lord” (in small capital letters), but it is actually His Name – “Yahweh”, like “Bob” or “Sally” or “Angela”. It’s like He is saying “it really is me, and I am going to free you”.
So, Moses comes to give this message to the Israelites – that Yahweh has promised to set them free from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. And what is the response? We see it in verse 9: “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery”. Isn’t that heart-breaking? To be so broken in spirit, that you refuse to even listen to a message of liberation. That hope itself has gone. Of course, as we know God does rescue his people in the end – and what is more this experience of suffering, oppression, and slavery becomes some of founding principles of the constitution of the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are charged to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt” and “remember you were once foreigners in a strange land”, and to treat slaves and foreigners accordingly. Somehow God took the suffering, and turned it into a force for good. The suffering became formational, if you like. Something similar is happening in the Romans passage, where suffering produces endurance, character, and hope, and even becomes something we can boast about. It’s not that the suffering is good, but that it becomes a means of good.
Today we are not enslaved by an Egyptian pharaoh, and made to build bricks out of straw. But, as today’s collect prays, we can still be enslaved by the “chains of sin” and need deliverance from this as much as the Israelites did from Egypt three and a half thousand years ago. These might be chains of addiction or destructive patterns of behaviour. They may be chains of an historic or an ongoing abusive relationship. They may be chains from lies or betrayals, whether by us or to us. They may be chains of body image, wealth, or poverty. Today’s readings don’t promise an end of suffering (if anything the opposite!), but they promise that God hears our cry, that He will take the initiative in delivering us, that we can find peace with him purely and simply by faith – by believing and trusting that Jesus died for us, and rose again. That our suffering can have a purpose, have a point – so much so that we will be able to boast about it!
I don’t know what our friend hanging on the tree root did in the end, but if you are living in oppression, or have no hope, or cannot even listen because of a broken spirit, then please don’t leave this place this evening without asking God for His help. I or any of the Cathedral staff would love to pray with you after the service.
Let’s pray together now.
Father God, Yahweh. Thank you that always hear the cry of the oppressed and the hurting. Thank you that you can turn our suffering into something beautiful, in a way that is beyond our understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you died for us while we were still weak and far from you, and that you have opened the way to perfect peace. Thank you Holy Spirit that you fill us with your passion and peace, and our God within us. Amen.