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MOVING ON Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Matthew 16:13-20

In our world today many people are on the move. International migration has been made easier and there are more reasons for people to move from one part of the world to another. Cheaper and more abundant travel make it easier. All sorts of reasons make moving from one country to another more desirable. There are positive reasons like job opportunities, education or greater freedom, as well as negative reasons like war, disease or poverty. According to UK government statistics 10 years ago about as many came in as left the UK: around 300 thousand. Nowadays it’s a very different picture, but I understand from experts that migration is good for worldwide economy whereas a country which closes its borders does not prosper. Migration enriches communities economically, culturally and spiritually.

Moses in Egypt
Migration makes up a number of Bible stories. The stories of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt may be familiar to many people. Famine had forced Joseph’s family to migrate from Canaan and for awhile they did well. The reading we heard just now tells the story of how things changed in a bad way for the Israelites. But even whilst things were turning against them another story begins. This is the story of how Moses led his people out of slavery to freedom. Moses in his baby basket in the bulrushes is a favourite Bible scene, though I’m not sure how many parents would really want to leave their precious little life floating on a river! When you are up against it, though, you may have to be clever and outwit your opponents and think of ways to survive. Because it would make a long reading, the part which explains why Moses was left in a floating basket, has been left out of today’s reading. The Egyptians felt threatened by the growing strength of the Israelites. So they began a regime of repression. They subjected the Israelites to forced labour and tried to control the birth-rate of male babies. Fear can make humans do the cruelest things. But the midwives of the immigrant community were wily souls who had more respect for life than the pharaoh. When his first tactic failed, pharaoh ordered any citizen to drown Israelite male babies in the Nile. When Moses was born his mother left him to the mercy of the river, but gave him the best possible chances of survival: she floated him in a basket, made sure he was watched by his older sister, and placed her baby near the usual bathing place of the princess. The rest, as they say, is history.

Founder Figure
Moses became the founding figure of God’s people: the one whom God used to lead his people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness. Through Moses the 10 Commandments were given and the children of Israel were prepared to enter the Promised Land. When Matthew came to put his gospel together, he sometimes showed how he saw Jesus as the new Moses. Through Jesus God’s new people are led from the slavery of sin, through the waters of baptism, to a new freedom in Christ. As we make our pilgrimage through the life of faith, we learn how to live entering the promise of eternal life. Matthew tells the story of how Peter came to be an important founding figure in the Christian Church. There are different opinions about whether it was Peter’s person (later seen as the first Pope) or his faith upon which God built his Church. Arguments about that can miss an important point, though.

Who is Jesus for you?
The point that can be missed is the question that Jesus asked the disciples: “who do you say I am?” In a way, it the question that Matthew wants everyone to ask as they hear or read his gospel. Jesus came one day to a place where he needed to get his followers to have a deeper understanding of who he was. He started off with an easier question: “who do people say I am?” In other words, he asked them what public opinion was about him. They gave various answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. People thought of him as the next great figure that God had sent to teach and lead his people. There is no doubting that Jesus had created quite an impression on the public.
Now Jesus takes things a step further: “That’s all very well, but now let me ask you what you actually think of me!” Perhaps there was a silent pause, some disciples looked down, some shuffled their feet or cleared their throats. The teacher asks the class a difficult question and everyone is thinking hard. Suddenly a hand shoots up: it is Peter. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” We don’t know whether it literally happened in a flash of inspiration, or whether this is Matthew’s way of making it a memorable scene, but it’s an absolutely vital point. Jesus is not just another prophet, but he is a completely new way through whom God is working. He is the one through whom people, and not just the Israelites, will be able to find freedom, wholeness, a completely new way of life, a new way to find God.

Past, present and future
Winston Churchill said that “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future”. He was speaking about national affairs. What he meant was that some people love to hark back to the good old days when things were far better than when the rot set in. They are of the opinion that if only we could get back to the way things were, society would be much better. Their offspring, though, retaliate by rubbishing the past. Nothings is any good unless it’s up-to-date and ‘with it’. These two groups spend so much time attacking each other that there’s no energy left for planning for the future. It’s much better to recognise what can be learnt from the past, good or bad, what is worth valuing in the present, and using all of that to move forward into a better future.

Moses and his people and Peter were both able to keep the future in mind. The Israelite midwives believed in the future good of their people by refusing to kill the babies they brought into this world. Peter was aware of the old prophets, but caught a glimpse of the future when he declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God: the God who holds past, present and future in his hands. Moses, his people and Peter lived in the present, with a sense of history and in the light of the future. They were aware
that life does not stand still, that we are all migrants through time.

Pilgrimage as spiritual migration
Moses and the children of Israel have become a symbol of pilgrimage in the spiritual life. They began the adventure of migration, leaving behind a place that was no longer friendly to their life, and moving forward to new places and times that God was preparing them for. Their way was not easy: it began with surviving the waters of the Red Sea, just as Moses’ life had been risked in the baby basket on the Nile. They would look back with nostalgia on the nice things about their life in Egypt, forgetting too easily what slavery was really like. They would suffer great hardships in the wilderness and be tempted to give up, but they had to keep moving on.

Peter’s flash of inspiration about who Jesus was would be followed by the shock of Jesus’ suffering and death. Peter had to move or migrate from an easy belief in his Lord and Master, to realising that salvation only comes through sacrifice. Jesus would have to pass through the deep waters of death on the cross before he could lead all his followers to new life in the resurrection.

Baptism is like birth: it is only through pain and sacrifice that the joy of new life emerges. Baptism itself as a ceremony is joyful and a celebration. But truly living the life of the baptised means that we give our lives over to God: it is only through sacrifice that we will inherit the full benefits of baptism. Preparing to migrate, to start a new life in another place is exciting as well as daunting. New opportunities lie before those who are moving home or country. But it will not always be plain sailing. The important thing is always to live the present in the light of the future. This is true in many ways: if you are a parent with a young child; if you are someone emigrating. But most deeply of all, this is true of the Christian life. We are “pilgrims through this barren land” and our prayer, hope and hymn is that God will “guide us with his powerful hand.”

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith