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 Bible in a Year – 14 September

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

14 September. 1 Chronicles chapter 6

This chapter focuses solely on the descendants of Levi, who were the temple priests and servants. Levi was great-grandfather to, among others, the three siblings Aaron, Moses and Miriam, whose exploits make up much of the book of Exodus.

Unlike the genealogies of other tribes, this chapter also lists the various towns and villages “and their pasture lands” which were to belong to the Levites.  Why the pasture lands? Because the sacrificial system meant that large numbers of cattle and sheep were needed, and it would be the duty of those Levites who were not required for service in the Temple itself to do the necessary farming.

There is also a particular mention of those families who “ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem; and they performed their service in due order” (6:32). Along with sacrifice, the Tabernacle/Temple required songs of praise to be sung.    This twin emphasis on sacrifice and praise was to be at the heart of Jewish life for centuries.

The sacrifices have gone, but the praise continues, and the two are conflated; Hebrews 13:15 refers to Christians “offering a sacrifice of praise”.  Taking time to worship God, and to let him develop in us spiritual gifts (words of prayer or prophecy, musical talent, or indeed the visual arts) in doing so is a kind of sacrifice or our self-interest, but one that reaps great rewards.

The Bible in a Year – 14 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.

14 July. Psalms 90-96

Psalm 90 is unlike most of the others.  For a start, it is described in the heading as a prayer rather than a song, and attributed to Moses rather than to David or one of his contemporaries. Presumably by their time (several hundred years after Moses) it had been handed down orally before being written down and set to music.   Also, it seems quite different in its theme, more in line with the “wisdom books” of the Bible such as Ecclesiastes.   If Moses did compose it himself, it may have been at the end of his long life, looking back on the generations he had seen born and die in Egypt and then in the wilderness.


He considers how even a long human life – 70 or 80 years – is a mere moment in God’s eyes, as fleeting as dust, and “a thousand years are as a day”.  In fact, if God is eternal, the creator of time itself, then there is no difference to God between the nanosecond lifespan of the most unstable atom, and the several-billion-year existence of a star.


What matters, says Moses, is not quantity of life but quality.  The life of 80 years may be “all toil and trouble” (v.10), but more important is that we ask God to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v.14).  He is concerned more for the next generation (v.16) than his own.


Psalm 91 is about God’s protection, and includes the image of God guarding us under his wings. Surely that should be “her wings” –  it is the mother bird who protects her young, as I saw only recently with this 2-week-old-chick.  Even so, it is hard to have faith that “Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you” (v.9-10), as experience shows that people of faith suffer no less than others.  Even Jesus, when he was tempted by the Devil to put into practice verses 11-12 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”, he sent the Devil packing with a retort that we must not put God to the test. God’s protection is not to be treated link a cloak of invisibility or some other super-power, but rather about him not letting anything destroy what really matters – faith itself.


Psalm 94 has a similar theme, that true wisdom takes the long view that faith and obedience are a better way of achieving long-term justice and peace than going along with short-sighted fools in violence and short-term gain.  But Psalms 92, 93, and 95 are joyful songs of praise.  In fact Psalm 95, known from its opening word as the “Venite” (“come!”) is still said or sung at morning prayer every day in the Anglican tradition.


The Bible in a Year. 10 March

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

10 March. Deuteronomy chapters 32-24

There are two ‘songs’ or poems here, attributed to Moses (although since Moses is referred to in the third person in one of them, we may question the authorship!)


The second is easier to deal with since it is a song of blessing. As we saw earlier with Isaac and Jacob blessing their sons at the end of their lives, it is natural for old people to want to see their descendants prosper, to feel that their life has not been in vain if the next generations are doing well for themselves. But for Moses it is more than this, as his life’s calling was to bring the whole Israelite people, all twelve tribes, to this point of being about to cross the Jordan and claim the Promised Land.  Everything depended on them  being obedient to the teaching he had received and passed on.


That is why the first song reads as it does, lurching backwards and forwards between a vision of God as loving parent, and of the same God as vengeful and jealous.  For Moses understood the relationship that God had already showed, and would continue to show, to his people.  If they honoured and worshipped him, all would be well and they would prosper. There was no reason not to do so. But whether through human nature, or the influence of other cultures, or the Devil’s temptation – take it as you will – they would constantly turn away from this loving God, who would then both be angry with them (as any parent is angry with a rebellious child) and protective of them in taking vengeance on those who have led them astray.


So as Moses climbs the mountain, at the incredible age of 120, to glimpse the promised land before he dies, he has the bittersweet experience of knowing that God would always love and be with his people, but that the people would not always love their God.


And so ends the first part of the Bible.  The Law, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses.  The foundation for all that follows, the scriptures that Jews, Christians and Muslims all acknowledge.  Blessed be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As it was in the beginning, as now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.


The Bible in a Year – 3 March

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

3 March. Deuteronomy chapters 11-13

I get the impression that Moses, as he gave the series of long speeches that make up most of Deuteronomy, was getting more and more worked up.  He frequently repeats sections of the speech, and lays it on with more and more verbal force.  I imagine his preaching style as more like that of an African pentecostal pastor, or Southern Baptist minister, than an English vicar.   But there is a real concern behind it of the people he is addressing because he knows he will not go with them.


To change the metaphor, he is in the position of a father whose son or daughter is about to emigrate, maybe going abroad to study or work. Until quite recently with the advent of cheap flights, such a move would mean they would not see each other for maybe several years, if at all.    The parent is naturally anxious to pass on his worldy wisdom to his offspring.  Unfortunately, a young man hearing his father laying down the law like this is likely to say “yes Dad” outwardly while inwardly thinking “no, I’m going to have a good time and do as I like”.  We only see the wisdom in our parents’ strictures when we have got several more years experience of life under our belt.  And maybe that is how the young generation of Israelites, who had not experienced the Exodus for themselves, saw Moses – old Dad telling young people how to live. A natural tension, as old as human life, but always poignant when they know they will not meet again.


In all this, Moses has three particular concerns for his young charges as they make their own way in life.  They can be summed up as – “live virtuously, follow our religion not anyone else’s”, and (this is the one you might not expect) “make a distinction between eating meat as food, and a ritual slaughter for sacrifice”.  The first of these is a universal principle, the second a natural human tendency (whatever religion you follow, you want your children to share it), and young people leaving home have to decide how much of their parent’s ethical values and religions heritage they will take on board.  The third is another of those cultural principles that does not translate easily to modern British society, where meat is only seen as food (or to be shunned altogether if you are vegetarian).  But perhaps a wider principle is that on the one hand we all need to eat, to make enough money to live, to provide for our families, but there should be a place in our lives for sacrifice in its widest sense, whether of time spent volunteering, money given to church and charity, or setting aside a space in our lives for worship.


OK, I don’t have children myself. But if I did (and many of my contemporaries have offspring at university or beyond now) I would say to them, “live for others as well as yourself; find a form of religion that suits you but does not cut you off from your family; and find a balance between work, play and worship”.

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 – 26 January

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

26 January. Exodus chapters 25-27

After Moses receives the law, and reads it to the people, their next task is to build the Tabernacle (a portable place of worship for this nomadic people). The instructions are detailed, and many of its elements were perpetuated in the later Temple of Jerusalem and can be seen in Jewish or Christian places of worship to this day.  The Ark which contained the book of the law, and symbolically the presence of God, is still the focus of the synagogues; and an altar (or communion table) the focus of most churches, where the sacrifice of Jesus rather than of sheep and oxen is remembered.


Some churches retain the pattern of outer court, holy place and “holy of holies” in the division of the building into nave, chancel and sanctuary with its fixed altar, while others consider that Jesus intended to abolish this pattern, and their buildings are a simple space where people can gather informally for prayer, singing and preaching with a portable table for the communion.  Neither is “wrong” and the two different approaches represent the tension in worship between God as the ‘holy other’ and God as living among us as our Father and friend.  What Moses’ Tabernacle does remind us, though, is that we are a “pilgrim people” and the building should never be an end in itself, or the people resistant to change.  God calls us to journey with him both literally, and in our life of faith. As Richard Giles titled his much-read book on church architecture, we should always be “re-pitching the tent”.

The Bible in a Year – 25 January

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

25 January. Exodus chapters 22-24

Parts of the Torah becomes very detailed, and some of its laws seem obvious and still good sense while others seem obscure to us in a different culture, but all are derived from the principles of the Ten Commandments. I will highlight just one, Chapter 22 verse 21 which is so important that it is repeated at 23:9: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” At the present time following the election of Donald Trump in the USA, and the many controversial right-wing policies he is starting to implement (not least strict immigration rules and a strengthened border with Mexico) it would be good for the American people to remember this verse, for all they (even “native” Americans if you go back far enough) were immigrants once.  Britain is the same – we all trace our ancestries to one or more waves of incomers, be they economic migrants, refugees or invading armies. There is no such thing as a “pure race,” and no such thing as one tribe that owns the land while others have no rights in it. As it says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”.


In chapter 24 we see Moses and the seventy elders going up the mountain where they actually see God.  That is something exceptional in the Bible, for while God often speaks or sends angels (messengers), few people are allowed to see him in visible form directly. But it is important that they see that Moses is receiving the commandments from God and not just making them up.  After that, Moses spends 40 days on the mountain to receive the detailed laws that followed. The 40 is of course symbolic of “a long time”, like Jesus’ 40 days of temptation or Paul’s 40-day retreat in the desert after his conversion.   A long retreat (time alone with God) is still prescribed for those about to be ordained or at a point of crisis in their lives, so that they can be without all distractions to receive spiritual guidance for the task in hand.

The Bible in a Year – 24 January

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

24 January. Exodus chapters 19-21


In chapter 20 we have the giving of the Ten Commandments.  These simple but far-reaching principles, from which the rest of the Torah derives, are still well known today (in name, if not in detail) even by those who practice neither Judaism nor Christianity.  Most people if asked to recite them will first think of the “thou shalt nots” – no murder, adultery, theft, lying or covetousness. Keeping these is the basis of civil society. If we can trust our neighbours not to kill us, take our partners or goods, to tell the truth and not to be envious of our possessions (or we of theirs) then we can live in peace with them, and any differences between us can be accommodated.


But before these five commandments about dealing with other people come the five that are about our dealings with God and our families. To acknowledge there is one God, recognise that he is transcendent and cannot be reduced to an image, to worship no-one and nothing else, to give ourselves and our servants a day off a week, and respect parents (throughout our lives – this commandment is not aimed at children!) will help us live in a prayerful and considerate way so that the second set of rules will be easier to keep.


As the illustration above shows, Moses was said to have his face veiled when receiving the commandments and passing them on to the Israelites. One reason may have been to emphasise that these laws were not of his own devising but of divine origin.