Please see today’s Parish Communion Service below or (if you prefer) listen to or read John Barber’s sermon and Dan Day Robinson’s prayers below. Please don’t forget to use the Donate button at the bottom of the page if you would like to do so. Thank you so much to everyone who made this such a special service this morning.
Please hear John Barber’s sermon here:
For many years since first coming to faith I found much of the Old Testament complicated, difficult to understand, out-dated and even troubling. With the exceptions of the Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah and maybe one or two other books, I mostly ignored the rest of this large library of Scripture and its long genealogies, strange rituals and accounts of what can look like ethnic cleansing by today’s standards.
I also found the Old Testament sometimes described a distant God and even a vengeful one, standing in marked contrast to the grace-filled, salvation-bearing Son of God of the New Testament.
A few years ago, I decided that my understanding of the Old vs the New Testament was woeful and that I should remedy that imbalance. Since then I’ve probably spent 90% of my time when reading and studying the Bible on those first 39 books – yes, it has been and is often hard work, but the rewards in understanding the complex plot leading to the life of Jesus and its meaning have been great.
So I am here to argue today that we cannot ignore the Old Testament, but instead that probing its riches can yield incomparable insights, ones that really enhance our understanding of the New Testament and its themes and make a difference to our lives today.
Jesus himself was clear about the importance he placed on the Old Testament. As recorded in Matthew Chapter 5, he said ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or prophets [by which he meant what we call the Old Testament]; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’
Our reading today from the second half of Exodus 14 starts a little abruptly, so some context is needed. For the Israelites, the dramatic Red Sea crossing was the culmination of 430 years of exile as slaves in Egypt. God had seen their misery and instructed their leader Moses to press Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Eventually Pharaoh grudgingly agreed. God then guided them on their journey towards the Promised Land, using a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so – importantly – he never left them on their own. He led them by a route which meant that, after Pharaoh had changed his mind about letting them go, on one side they were pursued by the Egyptian Army and on the other faced the barrier of the Red Sea ahead, so had no way out.
In a disastrous situation, the Israelites questioned both God’s intentions and Moses’ leadership, even saying that it would have been better never to have left their Egyptian enslavement. What was Moses’ response? To tell the people simply to ‘stand firm,’ or in other words to do nothing while waiting for God’s deliverance. What was God’s response? To tell Moses to lead the people forward into the sea, after he made the seemingly pointless gesture of lifting his staff and stretching out his hand over the sea.
This brings us up to date with our passage today. Miraculously the Red Sea was driven back, the Israelites were able to cross over and, in response to Moses’ raising his staff a second time, the waters of the sea returned to normal and engulfed Pharaoh’s army.
Is this just a story of legend, one ultimately better left overlooked or even ignored as we deem the Old Testament irrelevant?
Jesus himself took it seriously, as did many contributors to both Testaments. For them the Red Sea crossing took on huge significance spiritually and metaphorically. As one example, during what we call the Transfiguration, as recorded in Luke Chapter 9, Jesus was seen to speak with two men, Moses and Elijah, about his coming ‘departure’ and what he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Correctly we would interpret ‘departure’ as his death and resurrection, with all of their ultimate force in saving us – yet, fascinatingly, the Greek word he used for departure is ‘exodus,’ making the connection with the Red Sea crossing direct and tangible.
So, in that spirit, what parallels can we draw between this crucial Old Testament story and New Testament truths in which we place our trust?
First and foremost, it’s all about God. All the Israelites had to do was ‘stand firm,’ or rather to do nothing in the face of overwhelming opposition. Their deliverance was exclusively a saving act of God and him alone. Similarly, Jesus’ death on the cross was a conclusive, once for all, sovereign act of God, to which no human alive then or since made any contribution. How willing are we to stand back and let God show his power, instead of trying to resolve every problem ourselves?
Second, it’s all about grace. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, it was before God had given Moses the Ten Commandments, so they had no knowledge of his best ways for them to live and thrive. They therefore ticked no boxes, fulfilled no obligations and paid no debts to earn this reward of freedom from bondage. Similarly, when we receive God’s gift of salvation as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice, it is an entirely free gift, one we’ve done nothing to earn nor merit.
Third, it’s about crossing over from death to life. There seems little doubt that, if the Red Sea had not parted, the trapped Israelites would have been slaughtered (or, at best captured and returned to slavery) and their story would have ended then and there. Similarly, through what Jesus achieved on the cross we can pass safely from death to eternal life.
Maybe these parallels are interesting intellectually, but do they move us or speak into whatever challenges or doubts we are facing at the moment? Perhaps Covid-19 and all it has wrought makes us feel as if there is a horrible enemy pursuing us. Or are we dealing with broken relationships, negative patterns of behaviour we just can’t shake, the painful process of our bodies slowly wearing out, or maybe private battles with addictions?
If so, do we really think the historic power and protection of God have any relevance for us today in contending with the opposing forces that seem to pursue us?
My wife Nicky and I recently had an intense conversation with close friends facing a big decision. At one point the husband wondered what he might look back on from his deathbed, in his final, waning hours of this life, and regret not having done. This led me to think about what my own answer to that question would be, at this point in life. On reflection it would be that, as quite a conservative person by nature, I hadn’t taken enough risks – whether emotionally, in sport, in business or in particular spiritually and in speaking publicly or with friends about matters of faith.
So do we each today need to take a risk and choose to cross our own versions of the Red Sea, following God wherever he might be urging us to go or even to leave behind? Are you ready to trust him as Moses did, even from a place that seems a dead end?
This challenge might be about moving from death to life. Are we each confident that we have already received eternal life, or do we need to ask God, through Jesus, to help us receive that reassurance now? Are we ready to let him deal with our failures and the ways we have fallen short, placing them at the cross and accepting his totally free gift of forgiveness?
Or maybe we want to ask him afresh to journey with us through our problems and fears?
It can be hard to leave our comfort zones, even when we recognise that staying in them is harmful – remember that the Israelites, when challenged by events, actually wanted to return to slavery, to go back to the known rather than walk through the unknown and uncertain.
As I look back, a time that took me most out of my comfort zone was when, at age 37, I was living in Los Angeles, with my wife of one year and our just born son, and suddenly was without a secure job. For five years up to that point I had worked at a start up business I had co-founded, which had been tough – I had lost a lot of confidence as well as seen my savings progressively erode. Having worked in investment banking in my 20s, I decided I needed to seek stability back in that world, despite having chosen to leave it for good reasons.
After some time of searching, I had been offered a job at a major firm, my successor at the start up had been hired and I was due to come off its payroll imminently. As a bolt from the blue my prospective new employer suddenly changed its mind and withdrew its offer. I had no idea how I was going to support my wife and son until new work could be found; in shock I cried out to God for help.
Remarkably, two hours later I had a call from someone I knew in London, asking if there was any way I could take on a consulting role at his business for a few months, which – needless to say – I accepted. It was an unstable time – we couldn’t rent a house, because we didn’t know where my search for longer-term work would take us, so we house-sat whenever possible for friends away on holiday and otherwise based ourselves at Nicky’s parents in Scotland to save on costs.
During my entrepreneurial days I had often felt like a square peg in a round hole, so we also took a real step back to think and pray hard about where I would really fit. I realised – after the fact – that I had unwisely tried to rush back into the known, seemingly safe world of investment banking and wouldn’t have been happy there over the long term.
For months we had to continue trusting God that the right solution would be found in his timing, with by that stage the wonderful news, but also added pressure, that a second child was on the way. Eventually, on the same day, I was offered jobs in both Boston and London and we had to decide which would be best and where we should settle. A little while after that decision was made, with God’s extraordinary timing we moved into our own house in London, just two weeks before our second son was born. Looking back over the 24 years since then, I have felt more like a round peg in a round hole – in all aspects of life – than at any other time in my life.
I talked at the beginning about how the God of the Old Testament can seem remote and capricious, but we can now see that actually he knew exactly what he was doing with the Israelites for their good. Thanks to Jesus and all he accomplished at the cross, we can now also see more fully the true, loving character of the God of both the New and Old Testaments – can we trust him all the more now to open a path through whatever challenges we might be facing today?
In a moment of quiet now as we close, let’s each be honest with God about those things that we want to leave behind, or about a better place we want to reach, and ask him for his help to do so.
19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ex 14:19–31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Dan Day Robinson’s prayers follows:
Let us pray to the Father through is Son, who suffered on the cross for the World’s redemption.
Lord, bless all those who lead the Churches’ worship in the preaching of the word so that through your Holy Spirit we may be drawn close to you. By the Saviours passion on the Cross we are reminded that Christ died for us. Help us to remember His teachings and listen to His word. Lord, help us to bring your Majesty into our lives, so that we can walk in the ways of Christ, with Him alongside us, holding our hands like Children.
Lord in your Mercy
Gracious Father. We hear this week that a million of our species in this world are at risk of extinction. We know that we abuse your gifts and plunder your creation. Help us to work to save our planet, which you as the Creator of the Universe gave into our management. Give our leaders, especially our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth and all her ministers and all in authority, guidance and wisdom to conserve our world and its resources so that we may follow in the path you intend for us. Help them to guide us through the disputes and disagreements which plague the world.
Lord in your Mercy
Lord, we pray for our local community. For the Itchen Valley and all who live here. We thank you for our friends and neighbours. Help us all to convey the Good News and by the power of your Holy Spirit bring us yet more peace and happiness among everyone who lives here. Take away the mean gossip and replace it with kindness. Help us to cross the virtual Red Sea under your protection. Take away the bile and replace it with sweetness. Give us the strength to face challenges and work together to make our Valley an even better place.
Lord in your Mercy
Our Father, we pray for all the ailing and sick in our community. We know that your love towards us is infinite. We ask you to cover all those who are in ill-health or dying to feel the soothing balm of Your presence and ease their pain and discomfort. By your Holy Spirit bring faith to those who suffer and peace to those in death. We pet for those in our Parish, or who are known to us, who are suffering at the moment – may thay know your comfort at this time. We pray for Sue Glasspool and family and friends of Jim as they mourn his loss. We also pray for Charlie Bullen who has been ill in hospital.
Lord in your Mercy
God of love, we know that in Christ all Christians, living or dead, are bound together by a mystical bond. Through Christ we confirm our hope, love and absolute trust in You in one body together. Help us to use our gifts to serve and to lead with mercy and cheerfulness so that everyone can see your light shining within us.
Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ