Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/FmvzwN5KBB4.
Pentecost 6C 2016
2Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Did you notice the theme about Exodus running through our readings? They are all what you might describe as indirect references, but they are there very strongly. Elijah and Elisha go on a journey as Elijah is preparing to be carried up to heaven. When they arrive at the Jordan, Elisha still with Elijah even though Elijah has tried to leave him behind multiple times, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water and “it was parted to the one side and the other, until the two of them crossed on dry land”. What does that remind you of? Well yes, it is the Red or Reed Sea parting for the Israelites as they run away from Pharaoh. There is a second resonance produced by the idea of striking the water, which is that of Moses at Rephidim striking the rock and bringing forth water for the people to drink. Moses called the rock Massah and Meribah because the Israelites tested the Lord on their Exodus journey.
Then we get the reference to “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”, a kind of reverse image because the chariots and horsemen of the Exodus are Egypt’s, and these that carry Elijah away are Israel’s, or in fact God’s!
The end of Psalm 77 also has that reference to the waters being divided and to God making a path for his people, and leading them on their journey.
The Exodus of the Israelites is the story of the journey of God’s people away from enslavement, into the freedom of the promised land, just like the refugees of today fleeing war and terror. However, just like the modern refugees it is not the story of an uneventful journey, the Israelites find it very difficult. And the Israelites complain bitterly, hence the reference to Massah and Meribah, which mean “test” and “quarrel”. The Exodus is, however, the defining moment for the Jewish people and even when they are exiled in Babylon, their rhetoric is still about the Exodus- the journey from slavery to freedom is what made and indeed makes, the Israelites even today.
Luke’s gospel is definitely echoing this exodus story as well. Jesus in Luke 9:51 is setting out on his journey towards his own Exodus. The word is not used in the verses we read today, but in verse 31 of this chapter, at the transfiguration, it says that Moses and Elijah, these two great heroes that have figured in the other texts, were talking of Jesus “departure”. That is, in the Greek, Jesus’ EXODUS. So here, when it says that he set his face towards Jerusalem because the time drew near for him to be “taken up”, it is referencing the exodus again, particularly as what happens to Elijah, is that he is “taken up”. I think that as we read the gospel we miss so many of the things that would have been immediately apparent to the original hearers, steeped as they were in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is Moses and Elijah rolled into one, and then God himself at the same time.
So why is this idea of Exodus important? What relevance does it have for us today? Well, to answer that, let’s have a closer look at the beginning of Jesus’ journey.
It is very interesting that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” isn’t it? I always read that and imagine Jesus gritting his teeth. It is, of course the beginning of the end. Jesus knows, I think, that he is heading towards death. Luke certainly knows and references that, but he had hindsight! However, Jerusalem means far more than just death. Jerusalem is the centre. Up until now Jesus has been on the margins, the threshold, and now he is going to the centre. In fact he continues to wander about, it takes him ten chapters in Luke’s narrative to get there, but it is the goal for him. Jerusalem in the centre of all kinds of things, commerce and culture, education and law, but most particularly Jerusalem is the temple with its temple cult. Jerusalem is the place of sacrifice, Jerusalem is the place where the holiest of holies exists with the great curtain separating it from the people. Jesus is on his way to put an end to sacrifice, by his own sacrificial death. Jesus is on his way to end the separation between God and God’s people, forever.
And while this journey has an important end point, which is the re-creation of the system, with a new access for human beings, to God, through the cross, the journey itself is important. Jesus is a pilgrim and the walk towards, is as important as the arrival, in many ways. Every step that the pilgrim takes is a step into God’s presence, and God’s will for the pilgrim’s life. And the Jewish people had known this. After the Exodus, pilgrimage was enshrined into their law as a way of understanding the significance of ‘journey towards’. On the journey, that Jesus and his disciples now undertake, there are many significant encounters. Jesus and indeed the disciples, will heal, teach and prophesy and we are going to look at that a bit more next week. However, it is by no means plain sailing, and that is evidenced right at the start.
Jesus and his disciples go into a Samaritan village but, we are told, “they did not receive him”. And we are given the reason-“because his face was set towards Jerusalem”. Now, I think that this is another reference to Jerusalem as the centre of religious access to God. The Samaritans believed that one should worship God on another mountain. Remember the question from the woman at the well? And they are rejecting this Jewish exclusiveness. The disciples, continue this conflict by wanting to call down fire on the infidels but Jesus’ response is to rebuke them. These Samaritans are not yet ready to receive Jesus, but they are still God’s beloved. Next week we will look at Jesus’ view on rejection.
Then follows, in Luke’s narration, three chreia, or ‘brief saying or action making a point, attributed to some specified person.” They are quite difficult for us to grasp, not as to their content but as to Jesus’ response. The first two are used here by Luke to make a comment about discipleship at the beginning of their journey. Jesus is telling them that it is going to be a hard road, with no place to call home. He is also saying that some people are among the dead and the disciples have to choose to be among the living. This is not about honouring a deceased person but simply about the focus of the journey. The third chriea, which is unique to Luke, is a response to the call to discipleship, which Jesus then answers. This would be disciple is torn between his desire to follow and his ties to his old life. Jesus responds by using a well known saying about being single minded. This is a difficult journey, Jesus is telling them and you need complete conviction to accomplish it. You must have a sense of urgency. On this journey there is going to be trouble and rejection but the journey is in itself part of being in the Kingdom of God. It is a journey into freedom just as the Exodus was.
And freedom is Paul’s great theme of Galatians, isn’t it? “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This is another Exodus image- the slavery of the Israelites was the plight from which God, through Moses, set them free. And whether or not the readers of the letter to the Galatians were Jews, to be enslaved was a perennial fear of people in Paul’s world. And you know it is still a fear for many people in our world. Slavery is not dead, it is just hidden from the sight of the First World. But Paul here is not referring to the enslavement of one person to another but the enslavement of each of us to the things that would control our lives. The enslavement to lust, or addiction, or even to consumerism, or judgementalism is the kind of thing of which Paul speaks. The antidote to slavery, the form that freedom takes, is that of love. If we love others we are no longer enslaved by the things that surround us, or even of our own bodies. We can have freedom from the constraints of the flesh. We can have freedom from getting and doing. Paul makes a list of the works of the flesh, and while they sound quite extreme when listed there all together when you examine them they are things that all of us battle with at some level or another. Paul then makes a list of the things that characterise a free person, living in God’s love as they journey. If we walk with Christ on his difficult road we are freed, by love, to be people of joy, peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. “If you live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “you will not live by the flesh,” which is a much better translation than we have here from the NRSV.
Our Exodus is a journey away from the slavery of our own self centred nature, towards the goal of freedom. This is a journey, a pilgrimage that we make in the company of one another and that we engage in as a church family. And just as for the individual, if we, as a church, fail to recognise that we are on a journey, we are headed for death. So let me ask you, a few questions. Where are you headed? Are you walking with Jesus as a disciple on his road towards Jerusalem? Are you walking towards the complete freedom of unconditional love? Are you prepared to leave behind you those things that hold you back? And for us as a church- where are we headed? What does the journey for us look like? How can we be people of the Kingdom of God? And like Elijah, how are we going to pass on the mantle to the prophets that are coming after us?
Are we people, who transformed by the Holy Spirit are able to live by the Spirit of truth who leads us into true love?