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Overcoming your enemies

Salvation comes in many ways

Sermon at St Stephen’s Stanley, September 13th 2020

What does salvation look like? We have two stories in our bible readings today. From the Book of the Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea which part miraculously to let them through, and then the waters close in on the pursuing Egyptian chariots, to their destruction. And from Jesus the parable of the unforgiving servant. Today I want to talk about stories and their meanings, and about salvation. Let’s take the parting of the Red Sea first. What do you make of it?

It starts with the guardian angel taking up a place behind the Israelites to protect them from the pursuing Egyptian chariots, and the pillar of cloud that’s leading them also going behind, and lighting up the dark night. And it continues with God directing Moses to part the sea, and it happens.

If you went to Sunday school as a child, you probably heard and read this story, and most likely you accepted it without question, as children accept and enjoy many stories that include fantastic events. And if you’re now an adult you may still accept and understand the story as it’s written, because God can do great things.

But for many of us there comes a time when the understanding we had as a child can no longer sustain our faith. We ask questions, and we want, we need, to search for a new understanding, otherwise our faith is in danger of fading away along with our childhood. And hopefully with some help we discover, or re-discover, the meaning that lies behind the story.

In the story of the Exodus, the cloud signifies the presence of God – God who cannot be seen or held onto, any more than you can hold onto a cloud. Later in the story when Moses goes up on the mountain to speak with God, God comes down on the mountain in the form of a cloud. And in the life of Jesus too, in an echo of the Exodus story, God’s presence and blessing takes the form of a voice from a cloud, at Jesus’ baptism and again on the mountain of the Transfiguration.

So the Exodus story of the angel and the cloud coming between the Israelites and the Egyptians, preventing the destruction of the Israelites, is a way of saying that God was with them; the Israelites were not attacked and killed, and the writers of the story interpreted this as divine protection. God did not abandon them, his saving presence was with them.

We come to the parting of the Red Sea. We’ve all seen it in movies, whether it was Charleton Heston or the cartoon Prince of Egypt. Moses holds his staff, stretches out his arms, and the sea divides, forming a wall on either side. It makes great cinema, a great story, great drama. People have all kinds of theories about what really happened. Was it a ‘Reed Sea’, rather than the Red Sea, a swampy area that the Israelites could cross on foot but the Egyptian chariots got bogged down? Or was it a tsunami? Some people claim that an extremely mighty wind can indeed blow back the waves in the Red Sea. Seems extremely unlikely to me. But the story preserves a tradition that the Israelites were able to walk through the sea, while the Egyptian chariots couldn’t follow.

As you know I’m a historian, and a few years ago I came across the diary of an officer in Napoleon’s army. Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, and this officer went with him. After defeating the Egyptian army, Napoleon went sightseeing, as you do in Egypt. After seeing the pyramids, he wanted to see a place called the Wells of Moses, just the other side of an arm of the Red Sea up at the top end. Riding on horses, Napoleon and his officers discovered that the sea here was so shallow that they could ride across for a mile or two, making their journey 5 or 10 miles shorter. But on the return journey the tide was coming in. The legend later said that Napoleon almost drowned. The officer’s diary says that’s not true, but the water came up to the horses’ bellies, and it could have been very tricky. Chariots certainly wouldn’t have made it through the water. Is this what happened in the days of Moses, and later got exaggerated in the telling? Maybe, who knows.

‘Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.’ So said the 19th century Danish theologian Kierkegaard. In our own lives we can think of things that have happened, and looking back, we can see God’s hand at work, even in events that seem to have natural causes. Maybe it’s the same with this story. It may have been a natural event that saved the Israelites, as natural as the turn of the tide. But in their salvation they saw God at work, God’s presence with them, saving them from destruction. The story became not just a retelling of old history, but a story with a meaning, meaning that gave it power. That 3000 year old story is still the foundational story telling Jews and Christians and the whole world that God saves.

What about the Egyptians? Are they just the cartoon bad guys? ‘The Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea… and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore’, it says in the story. Is that just deserts for their brutal treatment of the Israelites, forcing them into hard labour as slaves? Did the Egyptians deserve it? What happens next in the story is that Moses’ big sister Miriam – remember, the little girl who persuaded Pharaoh’s daughter to adopt the baby in the bulrushes as her own son; the baby who turned out to be Moses – his sister takes a tambourine and starts singing and dancing, praising God who has destroyed the Egyptians. ‘Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!’ she sings. When you and your tribe are threatened with destruction and miraculously saved, of course you want to rejoice!

There’s a fine line between rejoicing at your own escape from danger or death, and rejoicing over the death of your enemies. Does God rejoice over anyone’s death? There’s a Rabinic tradition that says when the angels in heaven looked down and saw the Egyptians drowned in the sea, they started rejoicing, singing and dancing with Miriam. But God stopped them, saying ‘The Egyptians are my children too.’

That brings us to Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant. In that story, if we pay attention to the lord’s, that is God’s, final punishment, we are missing the point. The purpose of the story is to encourage us to forgive. The wicked servant refuses to forgive a small debt, even after he himself has been forgiven an enormous debt. Jesus taught us to pray ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’, or, as another translation says, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ If we saw that those who sin against us, those who wish us harm are also God’s children, we would not rejoice in their downfall. Jesus taught a different way of overcoming your enemies – by forgiveness; by love.

Here’s another story. A friend passed on to me the story of Daryl Davies, an African American musician who contacted a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in his state, asking to interview him – not saying he was black, but saying he wanted to meet and talk. The meeting took place, and after the initial shock, they talked, Daryl being very respectful, but seeking an answer to this question: How can you hate me when you know nothing about me, just for the colour of my skin? Strangely, there was enough mutual interest that they agreed to meet again, and over a period of time and several meetings the KKK leader’s attitude started to change. After a while he gave up his membership of the KKK, saying he just couldn’t maintain those racist views. Daryl contacted other KKK leaders, and things followed the same pattern. And today there is no Ku Klux Klan in that state. Daryl gets a lot of criticism for engaging with the KKK, but as he says, ‘How many people have you persuaded to come out of the Klan?’ It’s an amazing story, a very powerful witness to a different way to overcome your enemies.

Salvation comes in many ways. In a cloud, in the turn of the tide, and in forgiveness. The salvation that Jesus brings is a different way of overcoming our enemies. As St Paul writes to the Romans ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’