This month - June

Sunday 23rd June 2024 - David Matthews

Deliverance

Readings: 1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4 - 11, 32 - 51 and Mark 4: 35 - 41

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Deliverance. It’s an intriguing issue.

This morning, I’d like to think about what we can learn by comparing the two passages we heard just now: the account of David’s slaying of Goliath and the episode from Mark when Jesus calms the stormy waters of the lake.

Before we start with David and Goliath, we need to remember, when reading the Old Testament, that this chronicle of God’s relationship with the Children of Israel is qualified by the New Testament: those writings revealing God’s relationship with humankind, sanctified by the incarnation of his son. Between King David and Jesus, things move on.

The tale of David slaying Goliath is one of those stories that has been sanitized over the years. It will always feature in children’s versions of the Bible. It will be favoured by Sunday School teachers. It is evoked whenever the little man triumphs over the monstrous forces of the state or vested interests; we like it when the underdog gains the ascendancy and to find a Biblical endorsement of our predilections is always nice.

What is often lost in the telling of this story is the brutal context of tribal warfare. The Israelites and the Philistines were fighting for territorial dominance, forging alliances with other neighbouring tribes as necessary. Just surviving as a hill farmer was tough. David – probably still in his teens – was used to defending his father’s flocks from bears and lions; out of necessity, he had learned to be a confident and courageous fighter. When faced with conflict, he could weigh up the odds and know the chances of success; assessing Goliath was no different from the way he took on wild beasts: Goliath was fair game. The verses allocated by the church of England’s lectionary for this reading finish at verse 49 with David, “striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand.” I included the next three verses which have David dragging Goliath’s sword from its sheath and using it to cut off his head. David is perfectly capable of what today we might call ‘gratuitous violence’ as becomes abundantly clear in the next chapter when, to earn Saul’s daughter in marriage, he presents him with the foreskins from one hundred Philistines, whom he and his men have slain for the purpose.

It is hard for a modern reader to believe the father of Jesus was sanctioning the free killing and butchering of the enemies of the Israelites, yet this is what the chroniclers tell us through much of Samuel Books 1 and 2 and Kings. Surely, we ask, asserting that God is on your side, does not mean he necessarily is. Claiming that one’s fight is righteous and for God, just because your army is advancing under an unfurled cross, is a monstrous presumption. And, indeed, history provides us with hundreds of examples of crusaders and other nominally Christian armies (more often than not fighting each other) who have arrogantly assumed God’s protection is there for the asking and then been defeated. Merely invoking the name of Jesus before going into battle does not automatically call down God’s blessing or give divine protection.

However, there is nothing to suggest that David is anything other than sincere in stating that the Lord is protecting him when he takes on Goliath, just as he believes the Lord protects him in the wilderness when he slays the wild beasts. And we can accept that David did indeed deliver the Israelites from the Philistines on that particular day, by averting a pitched battle with much greater loss of life. But the death of Goliath did not erase the threat of further conflict. Violent, tribal conflict continued for a generation. And even if we see David’s minor victory as a milestone in the longer campaign, which saw the children of Israel established, albeit precariously, in their corner of the eastern Mediterranean, has enduring deliverance from danger been achieved? The Jews’ history over the last 2,000 years, right up to the present day, suggests not.

I think we need to take something else away from this story. What David’s actions demonstrated that day, in the valley of Elah, is that courage and supreme confidence in the protection offered by the Lord can overcome huge odds. God’s might is not calculated in human terms. Although David taunts Goliath before doing battle with all the customary threats, he also asserts that the Lord does not save by sword and spear. This is the point. This is what we have to lift from the story, holding it high above the spilled guts and gore of the Israelites’ progress: God’s power is counter intuitive; it does not conform to conventional human ideas of what makes for strength. The description of David unencumbered by conventional armour shows us this. It anticipates the image of his famous descendant, saving humankind while stretched on a cross: deliverance achieved without power, and clinches the fact.

We may be tempted to conclude that whenever we overcome the odds and come out on top, God is behind us, pulling the strings. We may also be inclined to believe that, if we think we are engaged in God’s work, we shall be protected from harm.

There is no such simple equation.

The account of Jesus calming the waters of the lake is beautifully simple and remarkably profound. This is another deliverance story, set in a completely different context to the early years of Israel’s nationhood.

The fear of the disciples, when the weather turns ferocious, is real. These are experienced fishermen but they believe they are seriously at risk of drowning. No doubt they were doing whatever sailors do to lessen the danger, including baling out the water, but terror was taking hold. I can imagine them feeling irritation bound up with anger that Jesus, sleeping soundly in the stern, was not lending a hand when pulling together was their only hope. They wake Jesus but not with a prayer for deliverance so much as a complaint, upbraiding him for his careless attitude, for not working with them.

Jesus’ response is telling. First of all, he assuages their fear by quelling the storm then, when they are in the right frame of mind to listen to him, he tells them they need fear nothing if they have faith.

As simple as that.

It is not clear that the disciples have grasped what Jesus means. That’s not surprising. Things have been pretty scary. Understandably, instead of thinking about faith they dwell on Jesus’ apparent omnipotence. They still associate deliverance with power. Although the disciples are not, as David was, in a battle zone, they are in a hostile natural environment at the mercy of all that the weather can throw at them. And instead of straining every sinew to bring the boat through the storm, this man just holds up his hand and issues a command. Awesome.

This confusion over how Jesus wields authority remained until the very end of his earthly ministry. The image of Jesus as deliverer, by shaking off the shackles of Roman rule, dominated the crowds’ perception just days before his arrest and crucifixion, when he rode into Jerusalem.

But deliverance, Jesus says, comes from faith. And it is not deliverance from physical danger but deliverance from fear. And this, I think, is the heart of the matter.

I think the crucial point about David is not so much his apparent weakness, equipped only with a sling-shot when facing a monster of a man decked out in the most intimidating armour; it is his utter absence of fear. He knows his own ability. He knows he can win this fight. He is utterly sure of himself but he has the humility to recognise that it is confidence in God’s protection which makes him invulnerable. Fear never touches him.

The disciples should have no fear, Jesus tells them, if they believe in him. They are in the boat, crossing to the other side of the lake because this was what he asked them to do. They are about his business. He is with them. Have faith.

But let’s take this one step further because we know that there have been and will be occasions where good Christian people suffer, die or are killed, even when they are clearly doing good work, God’s work beyond doubt. Clearly, obeying God’s call does not make one impervious to danger, either from human agency or natural disaster. (If that were the case, the queue to receive the impregnable armour of baptism would be endless. Faith and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual tussling that ‘having faith’ entails would be swapped for a rubber-stamp of protection.)

The deliverance that Jesus offers is the deliverance of salvation. It is a relationship-thing. To know one is loved by God; to strive to be one with Jesus; to accept that kinship which each of us has been offered, is to experience deliverance irrespective of circumstances. It is to be lifted above fear.

But we are mortal creatures and it is perfectly normal to wish for safety, to seek security and be freed from physical and emotional pain. We want to relish life. We do not want to be haunted by anxieties and be afraid for ourselves and those we love.

And so we find ourselves stretched between the mortal and the eternal, the human and the divine. Only Jesus incorporated that dual nature as a man fully human, fully divine. For us, that complete reconciliation of these two dimensions is unattainable but it is our calling to aspire to it and grappling with the concept of deliverance can help us. For we need to see that true deliverance is not an escape from physical danger so much as the ability to disregard it. We may pray routinely to be ‘delivered from evil’ but we also know that faith in Jesus has already worked this. Faith trumps fear. But if we are left experiencing regret or sadness or pain these human emotions can be borne; the turmoil and turbulence can be stilled because we have already received the ultimate deliverance. We are loved by an eternal God who knows our human nature.

By way of post-script, I wonder if nurturing this fear-quelling faith is going to be increasingly important in the years ahead as global instability threatens to swamp the boat. The winds are picking up and the waters are rising. And it’s hard to not to see the image of desperate refugees taking to small boats to cross the channel as profoundly symbolic. There are, without doubt, some immensely troubling and challenging times ahead. But if, in all our endeavours, we let Jesus take his place, standing in the bow and not asleep in the stern, we know the journey to the other side will be straight.

And we shall have done our bit, through faith not fear, if we strive to deliver from evil all men, women and children of every creed and colour. Amen.


Jacob & Joseph 9 – 02/06/24

Readings:- Genesis 45 :1-15 & 1 Peter 4:1-11

 

Is there a moment in your life when the clock just seemed to stop? A moment that you remember so clearly that it could have been yesterday? 

 

Perhaps a moment that changed history. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 for example, or that September day in 2001 when terrorists hijacked commercial aeroplanes and flew them into the World Trade Centre. 

 

Or perhaps it would be something more personal like the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one.  We all have such moments.  

 

I wonder what Joseph’s would have been.  Would it have been, I wonder, the moment that he had happened to see 10 of his brothers standing in the queue to buy grain? Since that moment Joseph had struggled, big time, with his emotions.  


You’ll remember that he had accused them of being spies, arrested Simeon, and sent the others home saying that only if they brought him Benjamin would he believe that they weren’t lying.  When they got home Jacob had point blank refused, but as we saw last week he eventually acquiesced. 

We also saw last week that when the brothers arrived back in Egypt a second time, they were seriously scared that they would all be locked up for theft, because they’d all found their money still in their sacks. So, the second that they saw Joseph’s steward they took the initiative and told him what had happened. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I received your silver.’ 

Then he brought Simeon out to them and took them into Joseph’s house, made them comfortable and told them that Joseph had ivited them to lunch.

When Joseph arrived the first thing he said was, ‘How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living? 

And then, Genesis says, “as he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, ‘Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?’ And … deeply moved at the sight of him, Joseph hurried out … into his private room and wept there.

That, I suspect, was Joseph’s most special moment

After he had washed his face, the account goes on, he came out and, controlling himself, said, ‘Serve the food.’

But let’s move forward to what we heard in our first reading today. 

 

When Benjamin was found to have Joseph’s silver cup hidden in his sack, and arrested, they all scurried back to Joseph’s palace to plead his innocence. His brother Judah had been the spokesman, and had even asked if he could be enslaved in Benjamin’s place, so as to save his father the grief that he thught might possibly have killed him. 

 

And at that Joseph just snapped, broke down and wept so loudly that even Pharoah got to hear about it. 

‘Come close to me.’ ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!  And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. ‘So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. 

It is possible that at this point Joseph removed his official headwear, but whatever he did, suddenly his brothers recognised him. 20 odd years had passed, he was no longer a teenager, but a highly respected professional adult. 

“Yikes”, they probabaly said to themselves, “now we’re REALLY in for it.” What would Joseph do to get his revenge?

But no.  Joseph realised that enough was enough. He couldn’t take any more, his brothers probabaly couldn’t take any more, but his father certainly wouldn’t be able to take any more.  This was NOT a moment for revenge.

Perhaps I’m repeating some of what we talked about last week, but there is just so much for us to see here. 

Joseph, who had received no spiritual input since he left home at 17, in fact probably quite the reverse, knew exactly what was going on spiritually.

He understood now why his life had taken the twists and turns that it had, why he’d had to endure the pain of separation from his parents and family, the anguish of those years in prison when there seemed to be no hope for him at all,  …

He knew beyond doubt that God had orchestrated the whole thing, and why. 

So he wanted his brothers to understand that too, telling them ‘So then, it was not YOU who sent me here, but GOD.’ 

That poses a HUGE question for us.  If God was orchestrating Joseph’s life, is he orchestrating mine, and yours? Sometimes when I look back, particularly at some of the key moments in my life, if I think about it I can see that God’s hand was at work.

This leads us to an even bigger question, does He have a master plan that includes you and I?

It can be very easy for us to look at what’s going on in the world and say to ourselves, as Peter did in our second reading “The end of all things is near”. “So what’s the point”, we might think, “let’s just make the best of things while we can.” But that’s a whole can of worms that we don’t have time for this morning. 

But I do want to point out something else that Peter said.  Taken out of context it’s a strange statement. “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

He was encouraging those early Christians to put behind them all their high living and to live, as he put it “according to God in regard to the spirit”. This meant not only refraining from what is obviously carnal and sinful, but living in harmony with one another. 

The end of all things is near, he said. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  Offer hospitality to one another …. use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms ….. , so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. 

Joseph and his brothers would now live in harmony.  Their brotherly love would cover the ‘multitude of sins’ that had torn the family apart. That is how we are also called to live.  We are God’s children, brothers and sisters in Christ, called to love one another, regardless. This isn’t just for our own good either. “By this, Jesus said, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It’s an integral part of our Christian witness.

That’s not always easy but I’ll give you a hint.  In our last church we had a man who started to attend.  He was swarthy, he was fat, he was French, he wasn’t approachable, and I had absolutely nothing in common with him whatsoever. I didn’t want to talk to him, or to spend time with him. 

I was spared having to do that because, poor man, he was falsely accused of doing something by one of his neighbours.  Maybe that neighbour felt the same way about him that I did. Anyway, he was sent to prison.

But because he was a member of our church, we started to pray for him, and because I was an elder, I was particularly prompted to pray for him, and a strange thing happened. My feelings towards him begain slowly to change.  I found myself actually looking forward to seeing him again when he came out of prison. When he did, I was really glad to see him and talk to him.

Let me give you a little challenge.  Start to pray regularly for someone, other than someone close to you, or for a country in difficulty, or for an organisation such as a missionary society, and see what happens. 

Jacob and Joseph 10 – 09/06/24

 

Readings  - Genesis 45:16-28  & Romans 12:9-21

 

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been back with Joseph, looking at how he was reunited with his brothers, and last week we witnessed his emotions as he finally embraced his only full brother, Benjamin.

 

We’re beginning to see how God had his hand on all that had been going on, so that’s where we’re going to pick up again this morning.  

I don’t want to labour the point too much, but you’ll remember Joseph telling his brothers “Don’t be distressed and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. …. to preserve for you a remnant on earth (the Israelite nation) and to save your lives by a great deliverance (the Exodus). So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.

It might go without saying, but it is important to understand that while God was ultimately in control of what had been happening, this in no way excused those ten men for what they had done. Their jealousy and conniving had been disgraceful. They were responsible for all the terrible things that happened, and trafficking their teenage brother for cash was simply despicable. They needed both Joseph’s forgiveness and God’s.

I’ll come back to that in just a minute, but first I want to say that Joseph understood God’s providence in his life, that’s important for us too.  Very important. 

It brings us comfort in the face of difficulty and sorrow. If we didn’t believe that God was ultimately in control we would live in constant fear and stress, but we know that whatever we face, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel.

Yes, we are living in a time when one might be forgiven for thinking that the news headlines just couldn’t get any worse, and that the quality of the world leaders has hit an all-time low. But God once asked Isaiah “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?”  The answer is the same today as it was then, there is no-one who can compare with God, no-one is his equal. 

So going back to Joseph.  Surely the biggest lesson that we can learn from him is one of forgiveness. 

When Joseph said “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here”, he wasn’t saying “it doesn’t really matter”. It had been wrong and it did matter, very much.

But when he had tested them earlier on, he had heard them acknowledging to one another their previous sin, and admitting their guilt, thinking that he couldn’t understand what they were saying.  He had seen that they were beginning to display repentant hearts and on that occasion he’d taken himself off and wept in private. 

Then, when he realised that his brothers were deeply humbled, overwhelmed with guilt and confusion, he was concerned that they not carry their grief to excess, because their crimes were not too great to be forgiven by God, or by him either. 

The same is true for us.  If Joe Smith’s sins are not too great to be forgiven by God, then who am I not to forgive him? 

Much later on in the history of the Israelites, when God was talking to Jeremiah about his intention to release them from captivity, despite their having turned away from him and worshiped foreign gods, he said ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’, and he meant exactly what he said. 

That’s what he expects us to do too, and it’s what we see Joseph doing to his brothers, kissing them and weeping over them.  

On the cross Jesus said of his executioners “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Can we, who have been forgiven every debt by God, honestly tell him that we plan to hold on to our grudges and to our grievances against others? We pray every week, perhaps every day, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Someone once said “To return evil for good is devilish, to return good for good is human, but to return good for evil, that’s Christlike”, and that’s our calling.  

But Joseph didn’t just forgive his brothers, he went the extra mile, several extra miles even. 

-       They had driven him as far away from them as they could, but when it was his turn to be in control, he said “Come close to me.” (Gen 45:4)

-       They had been willing to leave him to die of thirst and starvation in a pit, but, as we saw in our first reading, Joseph gave them provisions for the journey back to Canaan. (45:21)

-       They had sent him off as a captive to Egypt on the back of a mangy camel, or quite possibly being dragged along on foot behind the mangy camel, but, he gave them fine Egyptian carts for their journey home. (45:21) 

-       They had torn his clothes from him, but he gave them new clothes to wear. (45:22)

-       They had sold him for money, but he not only gave them all their money back, he gave Benjamin an extra 300 shekels of silver. (45:22)

-       He even gave his brothers wise counsel, knowing them as he did? “Don’t quarrel in the way!” (45:24)

Do you see what happened? He returned their every evil, cruel and merciless act with goodness, kindness and mercy.  Centuries before Paul penned our second reading, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Joseph was a living illustration of that admonition.

 

This may be a picture of the world upside down, but it is also a picture of what the church is called to be.

 

The world says “I’m right, they’re wrong. I’m good, they’re bad.  Therefore I can impose on others my beliefs, my priorities, my culture, my government. But if they try to do that to me, then that’s unacceptable, and it gives me the right to take my revenge.”

If that had been Joseph’s philosophy things would have turned out very differently indeed.  

When Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the mount, and I’ll finish with this, after the beatitudes he said to them “You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. 

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jacob and Joseph 11 – 09/06/24. 

Readings - Genesis 46:1-7 and 28-29  & Psalm 103: 1 - 13

 

Last week we saw how Pharaoh had been so excited when he heard that Joseph’s brothers had come to see him.  I loved the way he had told Joseph to send them home laden with goodies, and with instructions to return with every man, woman and child in the family, so that he could shower them all with his generosity. Such was his appreciation to Joseph for all that he was doing for him, and for his country. 


You’d have thought that Pharaoh would have been scrimping and saving because he knew that his country had another 5 years of famine to deal with, but he had full faith in Joseph’s ability to manage things, and in Joseph’s God to provide for his needs. 

We’re going to bring our Joseph series to a close today.  I hope that you’ve been enjoying it as much as I have.  It’s only a pity that it has been a bit disjointed.

 

Next week we have David, the week after that it’ll be Songs of Praise and then, in the immortal words of Monty Python, we’re going to “do something completely different” and start looking at one of the epistles. 

 

Last week we saw how the 11 brothers had gone home to Jacob and how they had confessed their lies about Joseph being attacked by a lion all those years ago. They doubtless apologised profusely to their aged father, and tried to sweeten the pill by telling him about Pharaoh’s invitation, and his promise that the best of all Egypt would be theirs.

Poor old Jacob was stunned.  After more than 20 years of believing that Joseph was dead, this news was too much for him to process. He would still be able to remember, all too vividly, the day that he sent his beloved 17 year-old off to see his brothers. Like the father of the prodigal son, he would have waited at watched daily for his return. Unlike the prodigal son he hadn’t returned. Instead, his other sons had returned and presented him with a bloodstained technicolour coat.

 

It's not surprising therefore that it took the old man some time to process the fact that his lost son wasn’t lost, but was now “ruler of all Egypt”. I can imagine him standing bemused and befuddled as he looked at the carts laden with the goodies that Joseph had sent him. Then finally he’d cried out “O.K. I’m convinced! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.

 

So they set out, and on the way Jacob stopped in Beersheba, a place of great significance for his forbears, in order to build an alter and worship. It’s significant that it was then, as he was worshipping, that God reached out to him to reassure him, as we heard in today’s first reading “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” 

 

I will make you into a great nation he had said.  Jacob, who was focused on his immediate situation and needs, probably found that statement somewhat farfetched. But God wasn’t looking at Jacob’s immediate circumstances, he was in the process of fulfilling the promise that he had made to Abraham, many years before, and that he had repeated to Isaac, that his offspring would be “like the dust of the earth” in number.

 

But at this point in time there were only 70 of them. Even so, logistically, the move wouldn’t have been straightforward. Charlotte and I have been helping her sister and brother-in-law prepare to move house.  There are only two of them, and it’s not even their principal residence, but that was difficult enough.

 

Jacob sent Judah, his fourth son, to find out exactly where in Egypt they should go, and he came back with the answer “to Goshen”. Goshen is in the eastern part of the fertile Nile delta, and probably least affected by the drought that was causing the famine. By arranging for his family to settle there, Joseph was continuing to provide for them in the bast way he possibly could. 

 

As soon as he heard that they had arrived, Joseph set off for the family reunion.  Oh, can you just imagine?  Jacob was so emotional that he declared to Joseph “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive.”  He wasn’t just being melodramatic. God had answered his most heart-felt prayer. Now he was satisfied.  

 

When he was introduced to Pharaoh, a short time later, he was asked how old he was. “The years of my pilgrimage,” he replied, “are a hundred and thirty”.  It’s interesting that he described his life as a “pilgrimage”.  He viewed it as a voyage, a journey. He was happy to be in Goshen but he wasn’t there to stay, because he was on his way to “the place of his fathers”. What a wonderful attitude.

But it wasn’t until 17 years later that he blessed his grandsons and then “drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people”.  Joseph was there and his hand did indeed close Jacob’s eyes. He also got permission from Pharaoh to take his body and bury it back in Canaan, as God had promised Jacob.

 

When the head of a family dies, when the funeral and the mourning are over, it is often then that the true family issues, concerns and conflicts come to the surface - the tensions, the grievances, the wounds, the unresolved arguments.  It won’t surprise us, therefore, to learn that those ten half-brothers were no exception. Was this going to be the moment that Joseph had been waiting for to wreak his revenge? After all, now that Jacob was gone, there was nothing to stop him.

They came up with a plan and forged a letter, purportedly written by Jacob before he died, telling Joseph NOT to do that. But their fears were unfounded. Indeed, Joseph was quite upset that after 17 years of his unstinting protection and generosity, they would feel that way. 

 

But for whatever reason, the brothers did not feel forgiven. Are we the same? The Bible tells us over and over again that God has forgiven us. But do we feel forgiven? Or do we secretly dread the day when we will stand at the Pearly Gate and have to answer all Saint Peter’s embarrassing questions?

 

Quite aside from the fact that there is no biblical basis for such a scenario, we have to understand that as David put it so beautifully in Psalm 103, our second reading, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” 

 

And as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews put it “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

So let me finish up by continuing to read our Psalm, because we’ve only heard the first half of it. 

As a father has compassion on his children, we heard, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, it goes on, he remembers that we are dust.


The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.


But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.

 

The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

 

Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, my soul. 

Deliverance - 23rd June 2024 - David Matthews

Readings: 1Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 32-51 and Mark 4:35-41

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Deliverance. It’s an intriguing issue.

This morning, I’d like to think about what we can learn by comparing the two passages we heard just now: the account of David’s slaying of Goliath and the episode from Mark when Jesus calms the stormy waters of the lake.

Before we start with David and Goliath, we need to remember, when reading the Old Testament, that this chronicle of God’s relationship with the Children of Israel is qualified by the New Testament: those writings revealing God’s relationship with humankind, sanctified by the incarnation of his son. Between King David and Jesus, things move on.

The tale of David slaying Goliath is one of those stories that has been sanitized over the years. It will always feature in children’s versions of the Bible. It will be favoured by Sunday School teachers. It is evoked whenever the little man triumphs over the monstrous forces of the state or vested interests; we like it when the underdog gains the ascendancy and to find a Biblical endorsement of our predilections is always nice.

What is often lost in the telling of this story is the brutal context of tribal warfare. The Israelities and the Philistines were fighting for territorial dominance, forging alliances with other neighbouring tribes as necessary. Just surviving as a hill farmer was tough. David – probably still in his teens – was used to defending his father’s flocks from bears and lions; out of necessity, he had learned to be a confident and courageous fighter. When faced with conflict, he could weigh up the odds and know the chances of success; assessing Goliath was no different from the way he took on wild beasts: Goliath was fair game. The verses allocated by the church of England’s lectionary for this reading finish at verse 49 with David, “striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand.” I included the next three verses which have David dragging Goliath’s sword from its sheath and using it to cut off his head. David is perfectly capable of what today we might call ‘gratuitous violence’ as becomes abundantly clear in the next chapter when, to earn Saul’s daughter in marriage, he presents him with the foreskins from one hundred Philistines, whom he and his men have slain for the purpose.

It is hard for a modern reader to believe the father of Jesus was sanctioning the free killing and butchering of the enemies of the Israelites, yet this is what the chroniclers tell us through much of Samuel Books 1 and 2 and Kings. Surely, we ask, asserting that God is on your side, does not mean he necessarily is. Claiming that one’s fight is righteous and for God, just because your army is advancing under an unfurled cross, is a monstrous presumption. And, indeed, history provides us with hundreds of examples of crusaders and other nominally Christian armies (more often than not fighting each other) who have arrogantly assumed God’s protection is there for the asking and then been defeated. Merely invoking the name of Jesus before going into battle does not automatically call down God’s blessing or give divine protection. 

However, there is nothing to suggest that David is anything other than sincere in stating that the Lord is protecting him when he takes on Goliath, just as he believes the Lord protects him in the wilderness when he slays the wild beasts. And we can accept that David did indeed deliver the Israelites from the Philistines on that particular day, by averting a pitched battle with much greater loss of life. But the death of Goliath did not erase the threat of further conflict. Violent, tribal conflict continued for a generation. And even if we see David’s minor victory as a milestone in the longer campaign, which saw the children of Israel established, albeit precariously, in their corner of the eastern mediterranean, has enduring deliverance from danger been achieved? The Jews’ history over the last 2,000 years, right up to the present day, suggests not. 

I think we need to take something else away from this story. What David’s actions demonstrated that day, in the valley of Elah, is that courage and supreme confidence in the protection offered by the Lord can overcome huge odds. God’s might is not calculated in human terms. Although David taunts Goliath before doing battle with all the customary threats, he also asserts that the Lord does not save by sword and spear. This is the point. This is what we have to lift from the story, holding it high above the spilled guts and gore of the Israelites’ progress: God’s power is counter intuitive; it does not conform to conventional human ideas of what makes for strength. The description of David unencumbered by conventional armour shows us this. It anticipates the image of his famous descendant, saving humankind while stretched on a cross: deliverance achieved without power, and clinches the fact.

We may be tempted to conclude that whenever we overcome the odds and come out on top, God is behind us, pulling the strings. We may also be inclined to believe that, if we think we are engaged in God’s work, we shall be protected from harm. 

There is no such simple equation.

The account of Jesus calming the waters of the lake is beautifully simple and remarkably profound. This is another deliverance story, set in a completely different context to the early years of Israel’s nationhood.

The fear of the disciples, when the weather turns ferocious, is real. These are experienced fishermen but they believe they are seriously at risk of drowning. No doubt they were doing whatever sailors do to lessen the danger, including baling out the water, but terror was taking hold. I can imagine them feeling irritation bound up with anger that Jesus, sleeping soundly in the stern, was not lending a hand when pulling together was their only hope. They wake Jesus but not with a prayer for deliverance so much as a complaint, upbraiding him for his careless attitude, for not working with them. 

Jesus’ response is telling. First of all, he assuages their fear by quelling the storm then, when they are in the right frame of mind to listen to him, he tells them they need fear nothing if they have faith. 

As simple as that.

It is not clear that the disciples have grasped what Jesus means. That’s not surprising. Things have been pretty scarey. Understandably, instead of thinking about faith they dwell on Jesus’ apparent omnipotence. They still associate deliverance with power. Although the disciples are not, as David was, in a battle zone, they are in a hostile natural environment at the mercy of all that the weather can throw at them. And instead of straining every sinew to bring the boat through the storm, this man just holds up his hand and issues a command. Awesome. 

This confusion over how Jesus wields authority remained until the very end of his earthly ministry. The image of Jesus as deliverer, by shaking off the shackles of Roman rule, dominated the crowds’ perception just days before his arrest and crucifixion, when he rode into Jerusalem.

But deliverance, Jesus says, comes from faith. And it is not deliverance from physical danger but deliverance from fear. And this, I think, is the heart of the matter.

I think the crucial point about David is not so much his apparent weakness, equipped only with a sling-shot when facing a monster of a man decked out in the most intimidating armour; it is his utter absence of fear. He knows his own ability. He knows he can win this fight. He is utterly sure of himself but he has the humility to recognise that it is confidence in God’s protection which makes him invulnerable. Fear never touches him.

The disciples should have no fear, Jesus tells them, if they believe in him. They are in the boat, crossing to the other side of the lake because this was what he asked them to do. They are about his business. He is with them. Have faith.

But let’s take this one step further because we know that there have been and will be occasions where good Christian people suffer, die or are killed, even when they are clearly doing good work, God’s work beyond doubt. Clearly, obeying God’s call does not make one impervious to danger, either from human agency or natural disaster. (If that were the case, the queue to receive the impregnable armour of baptism would be endless. Faith and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual tussling that ‘having faith’ entails would be swapped for a rubber-stamp of protection.) 

The deliverance that Jesus offers is the deliverance of salvation. It is a relationship-thing. To know one is loved by God; to strive to be one with Jesus; to accept that kinship which each of us has been offered, is to experience deliverance irrespective of circumstances. It is to be lifted above fear.

But we are mortal creatures and it is perfectly normal to wish for safety, to seek security and be freed from physical and emotional pain. We want to relish life. We do not want to be haunted by anxieties and be afraid for ourselves and those we love.

And so we find ourselves stretched between the mortal and the eternal, the human and the divine. Only Jesus incorporated that dual nature as a man fully human, fully divine. For us, that complete reconciliation of these two dimensions is unattainable but it is our calling to aspire to it and grappling with the concept of deliverance can help us. For we need to see that true deliverance is not an escape from physical danger so much as the ability to disregard it. We may pray routinely to be ‘delivered from evil’ but we also know that faith in Jesus has already worked this. Faith trumps fear. But if we are left experiencing regret or sadness or pain these human emotions can be borne; the turmoil and turbulence can be stilled because we have already received the ultimate deliverance. We are loved by an eternal God who knows our human nature.

By way of post-script, I wonder if nurturing this fear-quelling faith is going to be increasingly important in the years ahead as global instability threatens to swamp the boat. The winds are picking up and the waters are rising. And it’s hard to not to see the image of desperate refugees taking to small boats to cross the channel as profoundly symbolic. There are, without doubt, some immensely troubling and challenging times ahead. But if, in all our endeavours, we let Jesus take his place, standing in the bow and not asleep in the stern, we know the journey to the other side will be straight. 

And we shall have done our bit, through faith not fear, if we strive to deliver from evil all men, women and children of every creed and colour. Amen.