A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
25th October 2020
In recent weeks we have had several readings from the Book of Exodus, which tells the story of God’s people, the Jews, being freed by God from slavery in Egypt. Then they go on a wandering journey through wilderness adventures; their goal, reaching a promised land. Along the ways there are highs and lows. There are God’s gifts of food, water, and the Ten Commandments. There are also several incidences of grumbling, including giving up on God, and creating their own god, in the shape of a golden calf, to worship instead.
The stand-out human figure in this forty-chapter-long drama is Moses. It was Moses who confronted Pharaoh; it was Moses who ascended mountains to be with God and bring God’s message to the people; it was Moses who negotiated with God to avoid divine wrath falling too heavily on an often quarrelsome, disobedient people. As the Book of Deuteronomy puts it, ‘never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt … and for the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.’ (34:10-12)
Deuteronomy states this in the past tense because today’s reading from that book tells of his death. Moses never made it to the promised land. It was within sight, but he did not live to see the day they entered the land, putting slavery behind them. Instead, led by God up yet another mountain, he is given a comforting glimpse of what awaits; a final reassurance that his efforts had not been in vain, before he lies down and dies.
This idea of being able to see the promised land that awaits an unhappy people; of being committed to struggling towards it, confident of arrival whilst knowing that you yourself might not make it, has spoken powerfully across the centuries. Here’s a short excerpt from a speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the renowned African American civil rights leader. Campaigning on behalf of a people who themselves had been enslaved in the USA, and who in 1968 were still the victims of a whole host of discriminatory laws, King, the recipient of many a death threat, drew on this this image of Moses on the mountaintop, gazing towards the promised land, saying with confidence that whatever happened to him (to King), their goal would one day be reached:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgVrlx68v-0 1:18 – 2:39 in the video
King made that speech on April 3rd 1968. On April the 4th 1968 he was assassinated, but the journey to the promised land – towards being a nation where all are equal – carries on.
Recently, I heard a really good sermon about the situation the United Reformed Church is in during this time of pandemic. It drew upon the biblical image of ‘exile’. Our exile, from being a flourishing church, at the centre of the nation’s life, happened before Covid 19 came along. Now, however, it seemed that we had been exiled from so much more that was so important to us – singing, shaking hands, sharing tea, coffee and conversation, for example.
I think, though that Exodus is a better image for what we seek than return from exile. The problem with biblical images of exile is that the people get to return to where they were before. Granted, things are never quite the same, but there’s a sense, or hope of return to ‘business as usual’. Instead of focusing upon going back to where we were before, however, I think our current situation is better seen as an exodus journey. We are going through a wilderness, but with the prospect arrival in a promised land. It will be different from what went before, but be a good and in some ways better place for a church to be than the one we occupied before.
What does that promised land look like? In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is asked to sum up what life should be about. The question is expressed in terms of the religious law, understood to have come to Israel through its prophet, Moses: ‘Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?’ (22:34) Jesus’s answer is a pared down one. It carries the minimum amount of baggage for the journey: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (22:37, 39) That’s it!
Now you might wonder, “What’s changed? Were we not doing that before all this pandemic came along? Had we not already agreed that the mission of this congregation was that, ‘St Columba’s United Reformed Church aims to show the love of God as it is known to us in Christ’.” Yes, of course we had, but now we have an opportunity to press forward to a new time and place where that is the explicit measure for where we put our efforts as a congregation; to be a place where people are helped to love God and love their neighbour; where they know God’s love and their neighbour’s love; that’s our promised land.
For the moment, perhaps a long moment, we are pilgrims on a journey. As we look ahead, we need to decide, to make choices, but based on more where we are going, and not so much on what we have left behind.