Exodus 18-2:10, Matthew 16:13-20

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

“What is God like?” we might sometimes wonder to ourselves, especially when the world changes so unexpectedly. “What is God like? …and how would God have us be?”

A few weeks ago, I mentioned one of my favourite authors Rowan Williams thinking about this question. His advice was to steer away from definitions and descriptions and concepts. His advice was, instead, to tell stories. Only a whole story could begin to give us insight into God.

The people of Israel told stories, around campfires, in family groups, eventually writing them down. What is God like? One word is all that is needed. Exodus, the reply would have been. Let’s tell that story again. The story of the Exodus. There is no better way of shedding light on what God is like. The story of a people enslaved, a people, by God, set free.

And, so, we begin this Sunday our dipping into this story, the story of the Exodus, the one story, if one was to be allowed, which tells of who God is in the faith of the people Israel, the faith in which Jesus lived his life. The word “exodus” means “journey out of”. “Ex” means out, exit, for example, “od” means journey. Exodus, a journey out of slavery. The story meant so much that, in the written version, the telling of it is interrupted with instructions for a liturgy to remember it, the liturgy for the Passover.

Joseph’s family, at the end of the story of Genesis were settled in Egypt, thriving, growing in numbers, until the Egyptians felt threatened by them. The king Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph, decided to oppress the Israelite people with forced labour and to have their first born sons killed. It was into this situation that a baby boy was born to a man and a woman from the house of Levi.

When his mother could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.  The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him.(Exodus 2:3-6)

And she named him Moses because she “drew him out” of the water.

God does not appear in the first two chapters of the story. God appears in the third chapter when the people in slavery cry out and God sees and hears the pain of the people, and God knows their suffering and comes down to deliver the people and lead them out – through Moses – whose name, remember, means “to draw out”.

The story Exodus tells of this journey out, this longing of God to set free, the story of the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, the setbacks, the grumbling in the difficult conditions of wilderness, the giving of the manna and the quails, the instructions given on the mountain top for living well, the journey to the Promised Land.

This journey out was not easy and in the midst of this book we see what we do when waiting for God is too hard. The story of the Golden Calf shows that we easily tire of waiting for God; we turn instead to worship gods of our own making. The people of Israel made a calf of gold when Moses took too long talking with God on the mountain. And they worshipped that instead. This story Exodus indeed tells the story of God and the story of human nature all woven in together.

The worship of other gods was one with which Jesus was not unfamiliar. Our reading from the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is set at Caesarea Philippi, about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi had a history as a place of worship of gods. A Baal centre of worship became known as Paneas when the god Pan was worshipped there in a famous grotto and spring. The Roman Herod the Great had the place renamed Caesarea Philippi, after he built there a temple to Caesar Augustus. This place had strong associations with Jewish and pagan nationalistic and religious rituals. The worship of other gods. What better place for Jesus to ask his question, the question about his identity.

 ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’

This is the turning point of the gospel story. It is a story written for the Jewish context and so allusions are often given to the Old Testament stories. The story of Jesus’ birth is told in Matthew’s gospel, his baptism, his teaching on mountains is told in five sections, reminiscent of the five books of the Torah. It is unmistakable that Jesus is being portrayed as a new Moses in this gospel. And then, in the scene at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus turns to face the journey to Jerusalem. But before he goes he needs that motley band of disciples who have accompanied him to begin to understand. Who he is. And who they are as well.

‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’

Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

‘But who do you say that I am?’

Peter, who we know will leap out bravely into the unknown, speaks words in which he probably only just glimpses an understanding…

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 1613-16)

Peter sensed in Jesus something about his closeness to God, his living as the one who called God ‘Abba’, his teaching and healing and spending time with them all coming from Jesus’ knowing God in a way that was different from any other religious person they had known. This ‘Son of Man’ is a human being unlike even the prophets of long ago. This Jesus is somehow about God breaking in, the living God whose very nature is Exodus, who leads the people from any sort of slavery to a freedom that only God knows … breaking in. The only word that was available in the language of Peter’s faith, the only word that seemed to be close to all this was “Messiah”.

Peter then gets more than he bargained for. He thought he was exploring Jesus’ identity. But he found that in doing that he was given his own. After the revelation of his identity, this new Moses, this Messiah, Jesus, then blessed, named and commissioned Peter.

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:17-19)

Only God could have opened Peter’s eyes to who Jesus was. We can only wonder what it was like for Jesus to hear the friend he knew to be so impulsive, so flawed, name him so. We do know that Jesus blesses him and points out to him that this insight is God-given. And it is on the one, however flawed, however impulsive, who sees and names, identifies Jesus, that his church will be built. Jesus names Peter, gives him his identity as the Rock, the foundation of the church that Jesus will build. A church that Jesus, here, is promising will never be prevailed against. A church in which Jesus’ presence, nurtures us in living as he did, as the ones who call God ‘Abba’. A church in which Jesus’ presence nurtures our teaching and healing and spending time with one another as the “Son of Man” did when he walked the earth. A church that, at its best, accompanies all who enters its doors across time and space, as Jesus accompanied all who would follow him. A church that whatever it faces, will, as Jesus said to Peter, never be prevailed against. For Jesus is the Son of the God of Exodus. Exodus. Journey out of.

We would love to journey out of this time, wouldn’t we? We would love to think that all the effort we have put in to isolating and hand sanitising and even not singing when we love to sing, all the little things we have done will soon lead us through. We would love to know the vaccine is on its way and that will bring this to an end. The story of Exodus tells us that this “journeying out” can be long and difficult and that we human beings will struggle terribly with it at times.

“What is God like?” we might sometimes wonder to ourselves, especially when the world changes so unexpectedly. “What is God like? …and how would God have us be?”

God is like the story of Exodus, the scriptures tell us, and we … we are church. A place and people where the story is told. A place where our grumbling and our worshipping of other gods is forgiven. A place where we are fed with manna from heaven, the bread of life. A place and people named and commissioned and blessed by Jesus who lived so closely to this God of Exodus that he trusted him even with the greatest exodus, the greatest “journeying out”, the giving of his life.

We are the church. A place and people in whose company we might dare to hear Jesus saying, “Who do you say that I am?” … and in pondering our answer we might, to our surprise, hear Jesus speaking our names.