Psalm 77 is a very ancient retelling of the Exodus story of the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It's so ancient, in fact, that it may pre-date the version in the Book of Exodus itself. The congregation in the Temple or the synagogue recalls to mind the mighty deeds of the Lord when he rescued his people and displayed his incomparable power by rolling back the sea to enable them to walk across on dry land. Even the Egyptians with their powerful and ancient civilisation could not fail to be impressed.
The reference to Jacob and Joseph reminds us of the central actors in the earlier story of Israel's descent into Egypt to escape from a time of famine and take advantage of Joseph's status as Pharaoh's grand vizier. Now the Psalm charts the journey of their descendants as they made good their escape.
Last week's lectionary readings told us that God was not in the earthquake, wind and fire which passed outside the cave where Elijah was hiding on Mount Horeb, but here the Psalmist contradicts that idea. The lightning bolts were God's arrows. The crash of his thunder was in the whirlwind. And the earth trembled and shook as he passed through the Red Sea ahead of his people. And yet, in all the storm and noise God's footprints were unseen. He led his flock to safety, but the only visible signs of his leadership were the two charismatic figures at the head of the column, Moses and Aaron, constantly reassuring the people that there was no need to be afraid.
What was it in the end which saved the people of Israel? Some people think that they really escaped through the Sea of Reeds - a marshy area where the chariot wheels of the Egyptian army became bogged down, preventing them from following the fleeing Israelites - and not through the Red Sea proper. And yet the language of the Psalm conjures up a vivid and terrifying picture, not unlike a tsunami, where the sea retreats during an earthquake only to come crashing back down again on the unsuspecting onlookers. Is that what happened to the Egyptians? Were they pursuing the Israelites along the seashore when suddenly the tide went out and the sea disappeared? Did the Israelites have time to scramble onto higher ground, leaving the Egyptians in their chariots to drown when the sea returned?
Was God at work in the unfolding catastrophe, or was he a still, small voice weeping for the victims even as he was gladdened by the Israelite's escape to freedom? Is he the voice of reason pleading calmly for tolerance and unity in the din of modern day discord ?
Paul reminds his readers that, as Christians, we are called to share in the freedom of the people of Israel. However, he also reminds them that freedom from slavery in Egypt turned out to be a mixed blessing. Instead of using their freedom as an opportunity to let spirituality flourish and shape their future direction, the newly freed slaves soon turned out to have very narrow, unspiritual horizons and were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. They had to be given the Law to keep them in order whereas, says Paul, for spiritually minded people the Law can really be summed up in one simple command, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Paul's churches seems to have had considerable problems - when unspiritual attitudes were allowed to dominate, Paul warned, it could lead to fornication, indecency, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, quarrels, contentious tempers, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, jealousies, drinking bouts, orgies and the like. Sadly, if we look at what went wrong in the early Church we can see examples of all these things - and before the ink was even dry in the Bible.
The Galatian church, in particular, had problems with sorcery - which seems to have appealed to some of its members, as well as to an early church leader mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus. The church at Corinth had problems with fornication, indecency and heavy drinking sessions - even at the Eucharist. Paul had repeatedly to warn his church members that living by faith rather than law was not an excuse for debauchery. There were constant debates about idol worship and how far Christians needed to keep away from it at a time when pagan temples were also the local slaughter houses supplying most of the butchers' shops in any Roman town. And the letters of John show how much dissension and bitterness there was in some early Christian congregations. We might think ourselves very fortunate, then, if our only real problems were things like contentious tempers, dissensions and party intrigues. Paul's experience demonstrates that it could easily be a lot worse!
But, of course, it could be better. Paul also reminds us that a Spirit-filled church will produce a harvest of very different things - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Paul says we don't need a law to deal with these things for they are the true marks of freedom. But, in order to be able to enjoy them, we have to be prepared to crucify our old nature with all its passions and let the Spirit direct our new life in Christ.
If we're talking about geography, then the journey to Jerusalem doesn't lie through Samaria. But, from a spiritual perspective, it's clear that Luke felt Jesus did need to go through Samaria, and reach out to the people there, as part of his missionary journey to the Cross. Perhaps he wanted to show that Jesus' ministry is for all people - whatever their faith, or culture or race. Even so, he recounts that Jesus was sometimes rejected. James and John wanted to call down a bit of thunder and lightning to put the frighteners on one ungrateful bunch of people, but Luke says only that Jesus rebuked them and they went on to a place where they were made welcome instead. People are always free to accept or reject the spirituality which Jesus offers. That is the nature of true freedom.
In any case, following Jesus is never easy and it's not everyone's cup of tea. It can mean having nowhere to stay at night. It can mean having to miss your own father's funeral in order to go somewhere else and announce that the kingdom of God has arrived. These are pretty extreme ideas and the Church has pretty much rejected them. Only a very few, totally committed souls, have been prepared to go to these lengths.
However, it's perhaps easier to take on board the proverb with which this section of the Gospel ends. 'No one who sets their hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.' In other words, it's impossible to plough in a straight line if you keep looking over your shoulder and, by extension, it's impossible to do what's right for the future if we are continually focusing on what might have been, or what used to be in the dim and distant past.
This proverb reminds me of some of the excuses people make for crashing their car. One person wrote, 'I drove out of my drive into the path of a bus, which was five minutes early.' Another wrote, 'In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telegraph pole.' Yet another, 'I collided with a stationary lorry coming the other way.' And how about, 'An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and then vanished'? The truth is that the only way to get safely to where we need to be is to resolutely focus on the road ahead.