Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Moment of Decision

Exodus 1.8 - 2.10
Romans 12.1-8
Matthew 16.13-20

Today's Old Testament reading from Exodus seems to be a mixture of history and legend. On the one hand it says that the Israelite people were more numerous, or in danger of becoming more numerous, than their Egyptian hosts. On the other hand it says that there were only two Israelite midwives. Even if we take them to be the chief midwives of a nationwide team these two statements simply cannot be reconciled! Two people could not possibly have headed up the vast army of midwives which such a large population would have required, especially in the days before a modern health service.

Against this slightly muddled background, the charming story of Moses being rescued from the bulrushes helps to explain both his name and his origins, as an Egyptian prince of Hebrew descent. The story also explains how God is able to work through human history because human beings work alongside him to ensure that the right thing can happen. If Moses' mother and sister had not used their initiative, even God could not have helped him to survive.

Besides being an example of faithfulness in action, the story is also an example of racial and religious cohesion and tolerance. Pharaoh's reaction to the hard working migrant workers is to see them as a threat, not least because their birth rate is higher than that of the indigenous population, but his daughter refuses to share her father's prejudices. She doesn't see Moses as yet another frightening statistic to be combatted but only as a vulnerable child in need of care.

Sadly, later in his life, Moses would indeed become a threat to her compatriots, first when he killed an overseer for abusing a Hebrew slave and then when he brought the waters of the Red Sea crashing down on the Egyptian army as they pursued the escaping nation of Israel. But, nothwithstanding the way things ultimately turned out, the princess's instinctive reaction was still the right one. We should treat our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters and offer them protection and help when they are in trouble. If her father had taken the same attitude, Moses and his God would never have caused the Egyptians any trouble at all.

When he grew up and fled into exile, Moses underwent a complete makeover. First he tried to change himself, from a prince turned rebel and murderer into a peaceful and obscure shepherd. But then, when he encountered God at the burning bush, he found that what was really necessary was for God to transform him and empower him to undertake his true calling, which was to use his knowledge of the Pharaoh's court to help God liberate the people of Israel from oppression. He had to make himself a living sacrifice, giving up the quiet life which he had craved with his wife and her family in the desert in order to become a prophet and community leader.

Peter's "burning bush" moment came at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus took his disciples away from the frenzied activity of his ministry in Galilee so that he could challenge them to think about all that they had seen and heard. Who did they suppose that he was? Ducking the question by telling him what other people were saying was not what Jesus wanted from them. So it is that Peter was forced to confront the truth, not just about Jesus but also about himself. For if Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed leader of the human race, Peter must be the first shepherd of his flock - the rock around which the new Christian community could establish itself. Like Moses he was challenged to become a community leader.

Each one of us is called, in a similar way, to put our lives, our experience and our gifts at God's disposal. This is the essence of real worship. "To work is to pray."

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