Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 13 September 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 14: 19-31 (The deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea)
• Psalm 114
• Epistle: Romans 14: 1-12 (Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling. Why do you judge your brother or sister? We will all stand before God’s judgement seat)
• Gospel: Matthew 18: 21-35 (How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister? 7 times? No, 70 times 7)
It is not often that we get lessons which summarize themselves so easily in three linked words, but that we have just now.
The three words are Faith, Forbearance and Forgiveness, in that order.
• First, faith. They were a column of civilians, the fit and the unfit, men and women, the aged and the children, all encumbered with their baggage and flocks.
Then there was the Egyptian army, mounted in chariots and burning with hatred and desire for revenge against those who had humiliated one of the most powerful empires of the world.
So the pursuit started, like an ancient blitzkrieg. In this situation anyone might have panicked, some ready to surrender, others to commit suicide, others to flee in some other direction and abandon the weaker members of the community. Some would fight and many were ready to despair.
Moses also was non-plussed at least. Disoriented, confused, and facing a long and probably cruel death himself.
And yet within this crisis, the Lord spoke forth, giving Moses instructions and steadying the people. At a point of possible disintegration, the people rallied.
Instead of panic, there was calm. Instead of impulse, there was discipline. Where nerve might have failed, courage was restored. The line was steadied and order prevailed.
The voice of Moses recovered its authority and the people were ready to listen. They had seen the plagues of Egypt and they had been delivered by the Passover.
This was a situation where faith was restored. Not so much belief in an idea, and we all know of ideas which seem to command an almost religious adherence. Rather confidence that the Lord would indeed deliver them in this place and from this threat.
No matter what the odds, God could better them. No matter what the technology or organization, He would overrule them.
And so a simple trust and an uncomplicated confidence took hold and the people were ready to follow Moses’ instructions.
For some who may scoff at such things as being the over-enthusiastic imaginations of later scribes, perhaps I could also point to the deliverance of the defeated British army at Dunkirk, in 1940, and in 1914, the angels of Mons who covered the British retreat in Belgium. And no doubt there were other such occasions.
• Then there is forbearance. In the youth of the church when its people were trying to work out their faith in practical terms, there were all sorts of arguments and disputes.
One of them was about eating meat. This was not a case for or against vegetarianism, but about eating meat being sold cheaply having been used in a temple cult and offered as a sacrifice.
For some, to eat the meat was to acquiesce in or even take part in at some remove, the pagan temple cults. And so they would not eat meat of any kind, no matter what its source.
For others the temple gods were false and the rites of worship were invalid. That being so, there was no power or authority in the meat and could eat it with an uncompromised conscience.
For them all the idols were fraudulent: they are “the work of human hands; they have mouths and speak not, eyes have they and see not, they have ears and hear not, noses have they and smell not.” (Psalm 115: 5-6).
Isaiah’s scorn for idols is withering – 44: 12-17 as he describes how a tree is felled and one half is used to carve an idol to worship, while the other half is used to cook the craftsman’s lunch.
For Paul, it was a matter of love and forbearance, and allowing those who were sensitive to thrive in their faith while others who were more robust to stand in the face of challenges.
The important thing was not to judge in an area that did not affect the gospel of salvation or the central tenets of the Christian life arising from it.
• Then there is Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Peter’s question was reasonable enough. What were the limits of forgiveness?
And Jesus’ answer was revolutionary: there aren’t any, especially when the issue is personal. Last week we were looking at the same question, as it applied to the church as a fellowship.
But Jesus’ answer to Peter was about personal forgiveness. And forgiveness is one of our most powerful weapons, for it disarms the offender and strips him or her of their power over us.
We are no longer to be defined in our lives – or is it crippled – by the viciousness of others. We are given the means of rising above it and where the personal faith to forgive is frail then this is an area in which God will indeed hear our prayers for the strength to forgive.
This does not mean that crime should remain unaddressed. More, it is that even in the face of grievous personal offense, we are still able to overcome it and rise above it.
I started by speaking of three themes arising from our lessons, and unusually they give us three linked words: faith, forbearance and forgiveness.
They may not come to us easily, but as we present ourselves in the sight of the Lord, He also will hear our plea and speedily meet us.