Reading: Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:12-35, Exodus 14:19-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on September 17 2017
Geographically speaking, the area where I was born and raised was known as the Wirral peninsular. On one side of the peninsular lay the River Mersey, where you could, as Gerry and the Pacemakers once sang, catch a ‘Ferry across the Mersey’ to Liverpool. On the other side of the peninsular lay the River Dee, and over the other side of that river, the nation of Wales.
The River Dee side of the peninsular held the best beaches. One of the fun things to do there was walk across the sands, at low tide, to visit a bird sanctuary called Hilbre Island, where you could watch seals playing out in the estuary (see photo above.)
In fact when the tide went out it looked as though you could walk across the sands all the way to Wales. You couldn’t because there was a deep fierce channel of water that separated the English from Wales (something historically the Welsh were rather glad about) but when you were walking out on the sand, it looked as though there were just miles of sand stretching in every direction. A beautiful place.
Beautiful, but dangerous. Almost every year people lost their lives through not paying attention to the tide. If you did not know at what hour the tide turned, then it was not safe being out on the sands. Whereas when the tide was out the sands stretched for miles, when the tide turned the whole area became sea.
The frightening thing was how quickly the change from sand to sea took place. Little streams in the sand would become rivers. The rivers overflowed. You could be walking on sandbanks, unable to reach the coast, unaware that the waters were closing in. If you were out on the sand when the tide turned, you were lost.
One can only imagine the dread that the Hebrew people felt as they fled from Pharaohs’ chariots. There lay before them a seemingly impassable body of water. Their only hope was that God would intervene on their behalf. That somehow the tide would turn.
People have a lot of questions these days about the future role of religion in national life. Many churches, our own included, have witnessed a loss of members and support. Others... strangely... to my mind... some that offer a very narrow form of belief... have seen huge growth. It seems that preaching a gospel in which not everybody is welcome in the kingdom of God, where homophobia is accepted and where the female of species is not considered an equal to their male counterpart, has a huge attraction.
From their perspective they are trying to fight against a tide of secularism that they fear is sweeping the old landmarks away... but to me it appears that cultural preservation rather than biblical faith is guiding such agendas. That's not where I'm going with this sermon. God loves them and God loves us, not because of who we are, but in spite of it. Grace is always amazing and if God loves those who differ in their views, then so must we.
It feels in the nation as a whole, to somebody who has lived here for but a couple of decades, that there is more dissent and unhappiness and fear around then when we first moved here. Of course we moved here pre-911. September 11 2001 was the day it was understood that safety can no longer be taken for granted. That security was a questionable concept. That none of us are invulnerable or isolated from the rest of the world.
On that occasion it wasn’t pursuing enemy chariots and threatening soldiers that were swept away, but the lives of ordinary people going about their daily tasks and the many heroic souls who attempted to rescue them. When the tide turns, the waves do not care if their victims are aggressors or innocents.
The reasons behind the growth of terrorism are incredibly complex. Political, economic, geographical, religious, educational, historical. Issues of poverty and injustice and imbalance and history and empire and greed. Trying to isolate any particular aspect, or people group, or religion, or nation and suggesting that ‘this’ alone is to blame is as futile as investigating a single channel flowing through the sand and claiming that it alone caused the tide to turn.
You will notice that the turn of the tide does not lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land but into the wilderness. The destruction of their enemies in the crushing waters leads them not into a place of peace, but one of fear, regret and dependence. The closing verse of the passage we read this morning; verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him and in Moses His servant’.
Surely we can identify with that picture. We feel like we are in the wilderness. There is mistrust. There is fear. The old certainties have been swept away and exactly where our anchor should be placed remains a topic for debate. The tide has turned. Many remain unsure which direction to go to find anything like a Promised Land.
Every passing year brings unpredictable turns of events, both for the church and society. Not only can we not predict the actions of our fellow human beings, nature herself seems happy to remind us of our own frailty and insignificance in the larger scheme of things. Natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, wildfires, climate change related events are on the rise.
Somebody told me I shouldn't talk about things like “climate” from the pulpit because it was being political. Who could have predicted mentioning weather statistics would become a political statement? We feel the changes in the tide in many areas of our lives.
Against this backdrop it is important to remind ourselves that we still have choices. The Hebrew people had a choice. They could stay in Egypt in slavery. Or they could, as a community, follow Moses.
They may well have wondered at the wisdom of their choice when they were faced with the prospect of being destroyed at the water edge by the advancing Egyptian army. Even after their miraculous deliverance, though they saw their enemies, dead and defeated, they knew their journey was far from over. They still faced an uncertain and unpredictable future.
So we have a choice. We can rally together and seek to be a community of God’s people. We can put our trust in God to lead us towards better days. We can choose to build our lives upon faith in Jesus Christ, over and above trust in any other institution.
We can choose, as did the Hebrews, to invest in nurturing the spiritual lives of both our selves and our children in the ways of God’s Kingdom. We choose our priorities. We can say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands on our time that take away our energy to invest in the things of God.
Events such as terrorist attacks and hurricanes in which some lose so much, cause us to question “What is really important?” For a moment people are taken out of the normality of the hectic everyday race we are pursuing. Think about your emotions during a power cut. For a moment the power goes away, the TV has no programs, the phone stops ringing because the connection has no connection. For a moment we realize our dependency. Do we treat it as a wake up call? Or do we just hop back into our routine and in six months time wonder why nothing has changed?
The Christian gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that there is another way to live, a better way, and a higher way! But the rub is, in order to discover it, we have too choose to change. We have to let go of some of the things we are so reliant on. We cannot allow our I-pods and I-phones and I-pads to become our I-dols. We cannot pursue both God and wealth. We cannot keep seeking happiness and joy and fulfillment through every avenue but the love God and expect that somehow God will bless us anyway!
Scary, horrific events force us to examine our choices. As the Hebrews gazed across the Sea at the bodies of their enemies, there was little rejoicing. I remind you again of verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him.’ In moments of crisis you have to choose in whom you place your trust.
I started out talking about the tides that ran on the River Dee between England and Wales. Because of the tidal estuary that lay on the sands between England and Wales, I learned at an early age that you had to take notice of the changing tides. It was not anything you could control. Tides happen!
A best selling book in my home area was the ‘Tide-Tables’ that cataloged the times when the tides would turn. The tables told you how high the tides were likely to be, and all the vital information that would let you know when it was safe to walk out to Hilbre Island and when you needed to stay away from the sands.
God has not left us in the dark. We have “Tide Tables” for life. God’s Word in Scripture. But we have to read it. We have the living presence of Jesus Christ to lead and guide us. But we have to discover the guidance of His Holy Spirit, which only comes through prayer and commitment and opening our hearts to God in worship. We have a community of faith to which we can belong. But we have to make life choices that enable us to be active participants.
The tide is going to keep turning. Sometimes it will flow against us. Sometimes it will carry us along. We can't do anything about that. But we can choose who is going to navigate our lives through the shifting currents of the present day. It was a deputy of Moses, Joshua, who declared “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15.)
Amid the changing tides of opinion, may God's Holy Spirit lead us to make the right choices for ourselves, our family, and our faith community. To Jesus name be the glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.