Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28
I wanted to start this morning by sharing a little bit more with you about the events at our sister church Hill Top United Methodist Church this week. I got news of the fire around two hours after it started and since I live nearby I headed up to see if there was anything I could do. As it turned out there wasn’t anything to do – the firefighters and police had things well in hand – so I spent some time talking with the people who were there. When I got there the fire was under control and the firefighters were checking to be sure there were no hidden hot-spots in the roof and pouring on lots of water.
Even so it was gut-wrenching to watch. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you speechless.
While all this was going on, some of the firefighters entered the church and brought out things they knew the people would want to save. I saw them bring out the pulpit, the Lord’s table, the big painting of Jesus, the cross, the flags, and if I’m not mistaken they got the old photographs that were hanging in the vestibule. They treated everything with great respect and care. Pastor Sue speaks the truth when she said what a fantastic job they did.
I spoke briefly with one of the members of the church council, had a quick word with Pastor Sue, and spoke with a few people nearby. It was during these conversations that I learned how the fire started. I would ask you, as we pray for this situation, remember the roofers and their families in your prayers as well – they must be absolutely devastated.
On the positive side is the outpouring of love and support and prayers coming in from everywhere. We’ve heard the good news that Hill Top’s building has been declared structurally sound, with the exception of the very peak (which can be repaired), so rebuilding is possible – and it seems to be in the heart of the people to do it. And that’s great news!
So I’ve been thinking about all these things for the past few days – thoughts coming to mind throughout the day as I work – and I’ve been reminded of the words of my old pastor who said, “whenever you think of someone, pray for them.” That’s a good rule of thumb for times like this.
One of the other things that kept coming to mind this week was: it seems like everyday reality has been rough lately. What I mean is: there are times when reality can be sweet, like when you’re holding a newborn baby, or when you’re sitting on your porch with friends on a summer night. Life can be sweet and reality can be good. But lately it seems like we’ve been facing a lot of harsh realities, one after another after another. On a global level, we pray for people like Pastor Deb’s daughter Grace ministering in Bethlehem, who lives daily with the harsh reality that bombs might fall from the sky today. We pray for Christians around the world who face homelessness and even death because they refuse to give up their faith. Here in the States we’ve been faced with many harsh realities, from children at our southern borders to – for people of my generation – the death of Robin Williams, which hit home for us in ways we never expected. In our personal lives too we have relatives and friends who are facing the harsh reality of cancer or other serious illness. And now we need to deal with the harsh reality that Hill Top’s congregation will be without a place for the church to call home for a long time to come.
Every time one of these harsh realities hits it stops us in our tracks, it takes our breath away. And we know our lives are never going to be the same again from that point on. We can’t deny it – even though we may be tempted to try – and we can’t turn the clock back. Life just doesn’t come with an “Undo” button.
Dealing with harsh realities is tough. Dealing with harsh realities is also something God specializes in.
Both of our scripture readings for today show God dealing with harsh realities. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is dealing with the harsh reality of his mission on earth: he has been sent here specifically for the purpose of paying the price for human sin. And he is facing into the harsh reality of the cross.
In the reading from Exodus, God is dealing with the harsh reality that his people are suffering as slaves in Egypt. God decides to send Moses to Pharaoh as his messenger, and a leader who will lead the Israelites out to a new land.
When God tells him all this, Moses answers, “who am I? Why should Pharaoh listen to me?” Because Moses is no longer welcome in the Egyptian court, and besides, he feels unequal to the task.
I think many of us, when we are faced with harsh realities, react much the same way. We ask: “Who am I? Who am I to take this on?” We feel unequal to the task.
God’s answer to us is the same answer he gave Moses: “I will be with you.”
Moses replies to this with a question whose meaning is, essentially, “who are you? Who shall I say sent me?”
So God introduces himself: “I AM” – in the Hebrew, “Yahweh” or “I am who I am.”
“I AM” is God’s name, but it also tells us God’s nature, which is to be. We’ve been talking so far about harsh realities. God is the ultimate reality. God is many things – God is holy, God is mighty, God is powerful… but most importantly, God IS. Full stop.
God tells Moses to tell the people: “I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus comments on this in Matt 22:32 when he says, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Just as God is the God of Jacob you could also say He is the “God of Nicholas and the God of Robert and the God of Michael…” and so on.
Scripture gives us many names for God and for Jesus. And at times like these – times when harsh realities crowd into our lives – it’s good to remind ourselves of the names of God. It’s like the old saying says, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”
Some of the names for God in the Old Testament include:
- El Shaddai – God Almighty
- El Elyon – God Most High
- Adonai – Lord
- Elohim – God the Creator (in Genesis ch 1 – interestingly, a plural word!)
- Elah – Awesome One
- Ha’kadosh – the Holy One
- Melek ha’kavod – King of Glory
Names for Jesus include:
- Son of God
- Word of Life
- Wonderful Counselor
- Prince of Peace
…and most importantly at times like this…
- **Immanuel – God with us**
Jesus calls himself:
- The bread of life
- The light of the world
- The gate for the sheep
- The resurrection and the life
- The true vine
- The good shepherd
The message of our passages from both Matthew and Exodus is that God sees our sufferings. God sees our harsh realities. And he does more than just observe them, God enters into our suffering with us. God is not ‘watching us from a distance’ like the old song says. God is right there with us, closer than a brother.
All these things that God is – almighty, creator, awesome, holy, saviour, prince of peace – all of that – is with us, in our corner. He is Immanuel, God with us, through the harsh times, in the middle of it all.
Psalm 30:5 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
And in Psalm 126 the psalmist prays this prayer:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negev.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
God promises “those who sow in tears will reap in joy”. “Like the watercourses in the Negev” – dry river-beds that, when it rains, the desert itself begins to bloom.
One of the comments posted on Facebook this week under the photo of Hill Top said: “there’s no telling what revival God has planned!” I think there’s a word from God in that.
God was with the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. He was there to set them free and he led them through the wilderness and the desert to bring them to the promised land.
Jesus was with us when he lived on earth, and then died for our sins to set us free and open the door to God’s eternal kingdom.
And God is with us now, through all the trials we face. God, whose name is “I AM” – who is the ultimate reality – is with us. Praise God!
Let us encourage each other with this truth in the days ahead. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, August 31 2014