A Lenten retreat

Text of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Bramley, Leeds

Sunday 23 February 2020 (last before Lent)

Bible text: Exodus 24:12-18


Moses was exhausted.  At his wits’ end. Stressed out. Dare I say, knackered?  Let’s just recall what he had achieved in the last year or so, bearing in mind what psychologists tell us are some of the main causes of stress.

First of all, this elderly man had faced up to a near eastern despot; bringing plagues on the country by God’s power using nothing more than a miraculous staff (and constant prayer).  Facing up to bullies causes stress – check!

Then, at the Exodus, he led at least a million refugees out of the country by night, through the sea and into the desert, again with nothing more than the miraculous staff and prayer.  The responsibilities of leadership cause stress – check!

Once safely out of Egypt their problems hadn’t stopped. Surprise, surprise, there  not enough food and water for a million people in the desert. Moses had to face up to a rebellion against his leadership as a result.  Being unable to access life’s basic needs causes stress – check! But once again the miraculous staff – and constant prayer – had come in handy.

If that wasn’t enough, he had directed a battle against a hostile tribe, again using that trusty old staff and constant prayer, though this time he was so weak his assistants had to hold his arms up. Warfare causes long term stress – check!

He had already been up the mountain in Sinai once, to receive the Ten Commandments and lots of other regulations, amounting to four pages of closely printed text in our Bibles.  But it seems he had to memorise them all at first, because only now is he summoned up the mountain a second time to fetch the written tablets of the Law.  While physical and mental exercise are recommended for older people, that was going too far!  Over-exertion causes stress – check!

If all that wasn’t enough, somewhere along the way we are told he had separated from his wife, and a while later his father-in-law comes along to have a word in his ear about it.  Relationship breakdown causes stress – check!

Finally, until recently he had been acting as judge for the whole people of Israel.  Fortunately he had been persuaded by his father-in-law to delegate most of that workload to other people (see, even in-laws can be worth listening to at times!) But that had taken its toll.  Sorting out disputes causes stress – check!  How many stress factors is that so far?  I make it at least seven.  It was most definitely time for a break.

So, God calls Moses up the mountain a second time.  On this occasion Joshua, who would eventually take over from Moses, comes with him.  The instruction from God is clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there”.  I emphasise that word “wait”.  We are told that the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain: the word is the same that John uses when he writes that the Word of God “came and dwelt among us” in Jesus.  But this was only base camp: the two of them spent seven days there, not yet going into the full presence of God, but waiting.  I believe this was Moses’s retreat, and God wanted him to de-stress before calling him to the next phase of his ministry.

This is a good time to think about retreats, as many people do make a retreat in Lent.  They are not necessarily about abstinence or physical discomfort, although  Moses presumably fasted through this time and slept out in the open.  Most retreat centres these days offer good food and a comfortable bed, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it may be just what you need.  Ideally, though, the retreat is about renewing your relationship with God, so that you can re-enter the world and its problems with renewed energy, understanding and vision. So what might Moses have got out of his seven-day retreat at Mount Sinai Base Camp?

Firstly, he had time to think.  Retreats are not holidays.  They are not about pleasure seeking. They may well be about relaxing, and certainly having time and space away from distractions to think clearly.  We are told that Moses was a very humble man, and reluctant to speak (which is why Aaron had to go with him to meet Pharaoh). He had spent a long time in the desert alone as a shepherd.  In the language of today, he was probably an introvert, someone who finds their strength in solitude. More than most people he needed to get far from the madding crowd.  After all the stresses of leading Israel out of Egypt he needed time alone with God -and with himself.

Next, he had the opportunity to let go.  Retreats are not about “getting things done”, or even “sorting out problems”.  Rather, a retreat should be about leaving the cares of the world behind, to de-stress by handing over all your problems to God.  When Linda and I were on the Scargill community, many guests who came to us from busy lives would say they ‘left their cares at the cattle grid’, starting to relax as they came up the drive and into the calmness of our community.

Then, he had time for more reflective prayer.   All the praying he had done these last months was intercessory – for his people’s freedom, for their physical needs to be met, for victory in battle, for justice in the courtroom.  Now he desperately needed the other sort of prayer – meditation, contemplation, enjoying God’s presence.  A balanced prayer life includes both – meditation to take us out of the world and into God, and intercession to face outward to the world and bring its needs to God.  But on retreat, the emphasis is on the first.

‘Letting go’ is also about letting others take the strain.  “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them”.  No-one is indispensable. Retreats can be about taking time out of daily life, handing over responsibility, letting other people answer the phone and look after the children while you are away – “me time” as well as “God time”.

Once someone on retreat has let go of their cares, relaxed and started to focus on God, then comes the opportunity to hear God’s word.  For Moses of course, that was quite literal – at the end of the seven day retreat began another, longer, tougher one – forty days on the mountain top alone with God, but the first week of retreat was essential so that he could be ready to hear God speak.

For most of us that will be through worship, the Bible, other reading, or perhaps pastoral conversations with a retreat leader or chaplain. But always be open to hearing God speak in a more audible way, or by dreams or visions. It does happen.

The retreat is also a place of discernment. At the end of a retreat, ideally there should be a call – a renewed sense of vocation, of having a place in God’s kingdom.  Moses went back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, and also with detailed instructions about the building of the tabernacle, the place of worship.  In his forty day solo retreat he had come to understand more deeply the nature of God and the way that he should be worshipped, and had that message to pass on to others.

So as we approach Lent, starting this Wednesday, here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can I make time for a retreat during Lent? Not necessarily a full week in a recognised retreat centre, but perhaps a quiet day away by myself to spend in relaxation and prayer?   Or even just a good long walk, if the weather lets up?
  • What are the things that are causing me stress at present? Can I manage to lay them aside for a while?  Is there someone I could talk to about them who could help me de-stress? Maybe a family member, as with Moses and his father-in-law, or a friend such as Joshua, or a health professional?
  • What are the things that distract me from prayer? Certain people, places, foods, devices?  Can I lay them aside for a while – give them up for Lent?
  • Does my prayer life need a better balance? More intercession, more Bible reading, or more meditation? What would help with that?

Whatever your answers to these questions – and we are all different – be assured that if you turn aside to look for God, you will find him.  Few of us will have as stressful a life as Moses – or Jesus – but just as they found God in the solitude, so can we.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 8 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

8 March. Wisdom chapters 16-19

These four chapters concluding the book are all about the Plagues of Eqypt and the beginning of the Exodus.  The story is re-told in vivid poetic language as the writer imagines what it was like for the Egyptians to feel God’s displeasure and suffer the many effects of the plagues, while the people of Israel were unaffected.  Indeed they were particularly blessed: protected from the venom of snakes by the bronze serpent on a pole (later understood as representing the healing power of Christ); protected from the destroying angel (here identified as the Word of God, 18:15, again a name for Christ); given a pillar of fire to lead them while the Egyptians had been terrified by darkness; and fed manna and quail in the desert while the Egyptians went hungry.

Interestingly, the writer imagines not so much physical suffering as psychological trauma, as they become terrified of the darkness by day, and mourn for their firstborn sons and the drowned army.  When disaster strikes and the natural reaction is fear, he says, it quickly becomes apparent who is trusting in God (and can therefore face these things calmly) and who does not (and quickly panics when their means of psychological support is taken away) – “Fear is nothing other than the abandonment of reason; the less you rely within yourself on these, the more alarming it is not to know the cause of your suffering” (17:11-12).

Of course nothing is so clear-cut in real life: some people with strong faith in God may still be of a nervous disposition, and vice-versa.  But one of the themes running through the Bible, and this book in particular, is that God is the rock, the fortress, the solid and dependable support in all circumstan

The Bible in a Year – 16 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.

 

They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.

 

Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.

 

Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.

 

Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.

 

So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

The Bible in a Year – 11 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

11 July. Psalms 78-79

Psalm 78 is one of the longest, and yet mostly covers a single theme: the re-telling, as found in so many places in the Hebrew scriptures, of the story of the Exodus. Once again the stories of the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea and God’s miraculous provision of food and water in the desert are recounted with pride, as the truth that has to be passed from generation to generation.

 

But this is no mere tale of national glory. Within this story is the dark side, bits of history that most writers would leave out.  How the Israelites failed to keep the covenant with God (10), rebelled against him and tested him by demanding food (17-18), made a token repentance but in their hearts flattered God and lied to him (36). And that was only in the desert.  Things were no better after the conquest of the promised land, when God was so angry with the people of Israel that “he abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt among mortals” (60).  And to understand that we have to realise that the Psalms were written in Judah at a time when the two halves of the nation had split, so that the remainder of Israel was seen as at best an estranged brother, at worst an enemy.  And the psalm ends with a clear statement that God “did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but he chose the tribe of Judah … he shoes his servant David” (67,70).

 

So what seems at first like an honest account of the failings of the writer’s ancestors is in fact more of a criticism of “them” – the other tribes – by the one – Judah. The fact is, of course, that God was just as displeased with Judah as with the rest, and they all ended up being taken into captivity.  It is always a temptation to think that one has the moral high ground over one’s rivals, but to quote an English saying, “pride comes before a fall”, or the Biblical original “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 10 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

10 July. Psalms 74-77

These psalms are part of the block from 73-83 attributed to Asaph (which may have meant the worship leader, or the choral singers). The first three (74-76) are communal songs, whereas the last (77) is a personal one.

 

But 74 and 76 share a common structure.  At first the singer(s) is/are in despair at their situation: in one, the Temple has been severely damaged by an enemy raid, the round of Temple worship has had to cease and nor is there anyone who can prophecy; in the other, the individual is experiencing what has been called “the dark night of the soul” when all attempts at prayer seem only to find a darkness, an absence of God.

 

But in both cases, the remedy is to remember what God has done in the past. In the first, God is remembered by the community for his work of creation: defeating chaos, making the sun and stars, the earth and its animals.  In the last, the individual recalls the Exodus, that defining moment when God achieved the impossible and saved the descendants of Jacob by leading them out of Egypt through the waters.

 

It is all too easy, when depression sets in because of external pressure or internal turmoil, to feel there is no way out.  But for those who trust in God, remembering what he has done in the past either in our own lives or in the lives of other people, now or in the past, can be the beginning of a turning back to the light.

The Bible in a Year – 20 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 May. Jeremiah chapters 23-25

As the day of exile draws nearer, Jeremiah’s words become still more urgent.  The forthcoming fate of the people is spelt out more clearly, and in chapter 23 Jeremiah singles out the ‘prophets’ for particular condemnation, for they take their own ideas and dreams and tell them out in the name of the Lord.  That is clearly ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ – breaking one of the ten commandments.  But more than that, it is leading people astray by giving them false hopes of peace and not giving God’s true message of punishment which is what he has given to Jeremiah.

 

In chapter 24 the story jumps forward to after the exile has happened, and a difference is made clear: the people who are taken into exile (generally speaking, the educated classes and skilled workmen), although they are not guiltless, will be allowed to return (or rather, their descendants will, after 70 years), but the king, priests, and so-called prophets who are more guilty than the ordinary people will not – they were killed and not taken alive.

 

Confusingly, chapter 25 then jumps back in time to the beginning of Jeremiah’s prophecies, when the captivity is first predicted, and seventy years given as its length.  That was much longer even than the forty years of the Israelites’  ‘exile’ from Egypt before they were given the land of Canaan, and suggests that the sins of idolatry, greed and so on in Jehoiachin’s time were worse than among the people of the Exodus.

The Bible in a Year – 30/31 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30/31 January. Exodus chapters 36-40

I’m combining two days readings into one here. These last five chapters of the book are mostly a record in great detail of the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle.  It’s easy to get lost in the detail, and although there is no doubt a lot of symbolism in the way it was constructed, I am not going to try and understand it all.  But taking the making of the tabernacle as a whole, three things occur to me.

 

Firstly, the image one might have, from the world today, of hundreds of thousands of refugees in a semi-arid country is that of hopeless people sitting in tents provided by aid agencies, with nothing to do.   In fact, those who have had the privilege to work in such camps tell of the way in which the people work together to make the most of their situation. If you want inspiring refugee stories, try the UNHCR website. Under God’s leadership through Moses and Aaron, the Israelites managed to pull together to build a large place of worship at the heart of their ‘tent city’.

 

Secondly, the amount of wealth shown here is simply stunning.  The outer shell of the tent is leather (for waterproofing) but inside all is gold and other metals, coloured textiles and acacia wood.  Some of this they would have brought with them out of Egypt, some they may have gained by trading (for they seem to have brought large flocks of animals with them). But the main thing to note is that all the people gave sacrificially to the construction of the tabernacle – whatever precious objects they had, were offered to the community as a whole for its place of worship and meeting.  Too often I come across church communities where members of the church expect all the money for their projects to come from outside, whereas in fact God expects his people, then as now, to show their love for him in generous giving – “all things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you” is part of the liturgy, but also needs to be an attitude for life.

 

Thirdly, when all was finished there was a grand opening.  The lamps were lit, incense burned, sacrifices made, no doubt there was much singing as well, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (as it did the Temple in Isaiah’s day).  You can feel the excitement of the people as they awaited this climax of their giving and hard work, and the reward for it is to experience the very presence of God, in a way that few people ever have.  Thus ends the book of Exodus, which (if the timings are to be taken literally) covers just the first year of what was to be a generation-long trek in the wilderness.  But throughout that time, we are told, the presence of God would be with them and lead them on from one stage to the next.

 

The Bible in a Year – 29 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

29 January. Exodus chapters 33-35

At the end of what may have been many years in the desert at or around the holy mountain of Horeb/Sinai, Moses is now told that his people have to move on.  The land of Canaan will be given to Abraham’s descendants, as God had always promised, but not to this generation, whose place in salvation history had been to accomplish the Exodus and receive the law, a task that had been beset by many difficulties and setbacks.  For now on the people of Israel would have to journey without God’s visible presence for a long time.

 

The first lesson for us here is that we cannot expect to continue one particular form of relationship with God indefinitely. In church today we marked the festival of Candlemas, which celebrates the dedication of Jesus in the Temple but also marks the end of the long Christmas/Epiphany season with its teaching about God’s light and revelation in Jesus, and starts to look forward to the ‘darker’ days of self denial in Lent.

 

The second lesson is that our experiences and our work are not for ourselves and contemporaries only, but for the future generations. The people of Israel in Moses’ time gave sacrificially of their jewellery and golden ornaments to make the tabernacle, and accepted the covenant of God’s law, even though it meant their life would have to be poorer and bound by the rules of the covenant, but from this the patterns of God-centred living and worship would be formed that would pass down the generations to come.

The Bible in a Year – 28 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

28 January. Exodus chapters 30-32

This reading starts with the end of the account of Moses and Joshua up on the mountain for forty days (i.e. a long time) receiving the Law. At the end of this narrative, before they are given the carved tablets of the law (which incidentally were written on both sides, not one side as usually depicted) is a reiteration of the commandment to obey the Sabbath, perhaps the most defining mark of Judaism to this day. Why did God repeat the Sabbath commandment at this point, and not the others? He must have thought it in some way the most important.  There is a perpetual tendency in all of us, however committed to a particular religion, to “backslide” – to let the busyness of everyday life get in the way of a relationship with God. I’m as prone to that as anyone. But if we can observe the Sabbath, which for Christians is usually interpreted as meeting with our fellow believers at least one a week for prayer and teaching, then there is less chance of slipping away from the faith altogether.

 

Meanwhile down in the camp the people performed sacrifices, and in the absence of Moses and despite the “first and greatest” commandment only to worship the invisible God already being given, they quickly turned to the idolatrous worship of a home-made golden calf.  Aaron’s pitiful excuse – “I threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf” – is like the desperate lie of a 3-year-old caught with chocolate in his hand. How slow we all are to acknowledge our sins! Moses’ reaction, apart from destroying the idol and scattering the gold dust on the water to prevent it being re-used, was to ask those who are truly “on the Lord’s side” to murder members of their own families who had participated in the ritual, presumably to prove that they truly did love God more than their families.  Yet another reminder that their culture was so different to ours, although Jesus did also controversially say that we should love God so much that by comparison our love for our families should be as hate.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 January. Exodus chapters 28-29

These chapters, with their extremely detailed instructions for vestments and the manner of sacrifice, seem at first sight irrelevant to us today in an age when no religious groups practice animal sacrifice.  What we can perhaps take from it is that the priest (in the widest sense of any religious leader) needs to be set apart in order to represent people before God in prayer. The provision of jewelled robes for him, and the names of the tribes of Israel engraved on the gemstones, show how important this representative function is.  People today who have no connection with the church will still ask Christian friends, especially those who are ministers in the church, to pray for them.