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16th October 2022

God’s Never Ending Story: Thriller

Passage: Exodus 3;1-12


So, against incredibly high odds, Moses got his people out of Egypt. Some years ago, the Cubs acted out this story in a Church Parade and I remember telling you how, at rehearsal, the escaping slaves ran down the aisle, followed by the pursuing Egyptian soldiers-just as the Bible said. But at about the third row from the back the soldiers caught up with the slaves and a glorious fight broke out on the carpet. Akela and I had to separate them more than once before they accepted that in the Bible, the soldiers did not actually catch the slaves.
Of course, this was partly about little boys loving any chance of a good fight- it is what little boys do. But I think it was also that they could not get their heads round so implausible a story. In their world (and ours) a rabble of slaves; all initiative and organisation beaten out of them; worn down by years of relentless work and little food would have stood no chance at all against a highly trained army of professional soldiers. No way could they have escaped.

But this is, is it not, the nature of “Thrillers?” They show a scenario where the characters are on a cliff edge, surrounded by death and destruction on all sides, with no possible escape. We sit on the edge of our seats (or hide behind the sofa) terrified of what is going to happen next.

As with the Old Testament stories of previous weeks, there is stuff in this one we find hard to understand. Like, did it actually happen? Was there such a man as Moses getting a slave race out of Egypt? Did it take ten terrible plagues to force Pharoah finally to let them go? Did the sea really open to let the slaves through and then come rushing back to drown the soldiers? And if so, what is this saying about God? The story states that God deliberately hardened Pharoah’s heart so that he refused to set the slaves free, only for God then to inflict plagues on the Egyptians because Pharoah’s heart was hard: ecological catastrophes, animals dying en masse, the deaths of every firstborn child in Egyptian households, mass slaughter of soldiers in the sea? OK, Pharoah was cruel and unjust in the extreme but do two wrongs ever make a right? Is an equally cruel and ruthless God the kind of God we need?

There is evidence in historical and archaeological records that Moses existed and that something like this story did take place. Plus, the story has been preserved in the annual Jewish celebration of Passover: for thousands of years Jewish families have gathered for a sacred meal in which the story is recited and parts of it re-enacted. But I have to say that, whilst the Passover ritual evokes the bitterness of slavery, the celebration of freedom and the greatness of God in enabling that freedom, it does not gloat over the slaughter of the enemy.

We know for ourselves now that a brutal totalitarian regime ruled by a dictator focussed solely on power, will inevitably generate both ecological disaster and the suffering of innocent children. Mentioning no names, we don’t have to look far to see this happening right now and no-one is holding God responsible. Many people at different times and of different faiths have proclaimed a God of terrible cruelty and vengeance. But, as followers of Jesus Christ, we do not have to accept or worship such a God. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Back to the concept of a Thriller: here we have an apparently hopeless situation. A people, not originally native to Egypt, had become enslaved. They had no property, no rights and, as slavery was common in those days, no-one was going to stand up for them. Moses is told by God that he is the one to set the slaves free, but he is not convinced. He spends several more chapters arguing with God that Pharoah has a large army of soldiers and a powerful nation of people who look on him as their god. They will believe anything he says and do anything he tells them. The slaves are doomed.

So, if even the appointed freedom-fighter could see no way out, how did it happen? We desperately need to know because we too face evil in abundance. We too are losing hope for our nation and our world in the face of the news headlines. We may be losing hope for our church as well….

That awesome account of the call of Moses: the burning bush in the desert. The voice of God speaking. The realisation that Moses is standing on holy ground- it is spine-tingling.
But I was thinking of where Moses, personally was, in his life at that moment. Although born a Jew, he had been rescued from death as a baby by an Egyptian princess who had raised him as an Egyptian prince. Only in adult life did he learn who he really was, and can you imagine the inner turmoil of learning that you are not a member of the royal family but one of the slaves whom you have considered little less than animals?
Still trying to deal with this, he sees an Egyptian slave master beating up a slave and, fired with rage and frustration, Moses lashes out at the Egyptian and kills him. But his crime has been witnessed, and Moses goes on the run. He is now an asylum seeker in a desert community, working for a farmer, just waiting for the hand on his shoulder to arrest him.
Life does not get much worse than that. Moses is on a cliff edge of his own- how is he ever going to get his life back together? His people are on a cliff edge seeing no hope of freedom. Yet he is told that he is standing on “holy ground.”

It is funny, isn’t it, how we imagine “holy ground” as being somewhere safe, serene, uplifted above all trouble and terror? But maybe it is not. Maybe places of fear and despair might become for any one of us “holy ground” where we hear the voice of God and are promised the power and the presence of God?
I never thought of it like that before. My own tendency, when confronted with painful or frightening situations is first to panic and then to wallow in self-pity- why me? Does not God like me anymore? Now, I wonder if the panic and the self-pity are the “shoes” I need to remove in order to stand on the holy ground into which God is calling me? And whether maybe the panic and the self-pity are my defence against something God needs me to do but I am not sure I can cope? I doubt that I am unique in this. Maybe you need to consider these possibilities too.

But the thing about thrillers is that if they end happily (and they do not always), the rescue comes from a totally unexpected source. A route they had not noticed; a hero they had not expected; a power they had never acknowledged. And maybe without that “cliff edge” they would never have noticed the route or recognised the hero or acknowledged the greater power? The cliff edge was indeed the holy ground.

Over and over again this happens in the Bible and never more powerfully than when Jesus Christ was crucified, his disciples totally let him down, only to collapse into despair and guilt so dark that they could see no place ahead but hell. Yet even this was holy ground: God taking on the full might of evil in their place, bringing them to witness resurrection and to receive the Holy Spirit. It was not all plain sailing for them, any more than it was for Moses. There were plenty more cliff edges to come. But having found themselves on holy ground that once, they knew that there would always be on holy ground because God would never leave them.

They had seen the will of God for the world: that evil should not gain the upper hand; that peace with justice should flourish; that pain should be healed and hunger fed. There was no way they could ever pretend again that religion was a purely personal matter. It was just that now, as St John promised, the light of Christ would shine in the dark places, making them holy and that to those in that darkness who believed, he would give power to become children of God, heirs of God’s kingdom, God’s champions for the world.

I invited you earlier to name before God those things which were frightening you right now. Take a moment again then to name your fears to God and to ask if you might be standing on holy ground, hearing a call and receiving a power.