Hurricanes in the US and Caribbean, flooding in Bangladesh, mudslides in Sierra Leone – it seems every time we turn the TV on something else is being battered or washed away, leaving people homeless and prone to malnutrition and disease.
In addition, in the global migration crisis, we’ve seen the largest mass movement of peoples since WW2, and it hasn’t let up – the Rohingya Muslims are the latest friendless group fleeing persecution, this time from Myanmar (former Burma) and their sheer numbers have taken aid agencies by surprise.
Catastrophic natural events and mass movement of peoples can perhaps be said to be twin signs of an earth dangerously out of balance with itself as we move through the second decade of the 21st Century.
But in another sense it’s an old, old story.
Today one of the set readings was the story of the Exodus from Egypt of God’s people under Moses (Exodus 14:19-end). Bible historians think that the Exodus took place around 1400 BC.
Why is it an important story?
Because it is THE story of the Old Testament that shows Yahweh to be Israel’s God and the one who heard their cry for freedom.
God cares about suffering, and it leads him to action.
From a later Christian point of view, The Exodus points us forwards in time to Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and it prefigures baptism for us, as the Israelites pass through the water to their longed for salvation.
But on a pure story level, it is difficult to beat – the nasty tyrant, Pharaoh; the cries of the desperate; their miraculous escape through the Red Sea; the destruction of oppression.
There are so many themes, which touch on life in the 21st Century here – wind and waves, tyrants and deserts – and slavery.
Until fairly recently I thought we didn’t have slavery in this country.
It’s true that slavery as a national institution was abolished by Parliament in 1833, but modern slavery, sadly, although underground socially, is alive and well in Britain and across the world.
Danielle Strickland is a Canadian Salvation Army Officer working in LA. with women caught in the sex trade. She writes: ‘Slavery is a tricky business. It is estimated that there are more slaves in our world today than in all the years of the transatlantic slave trade put together – 48 million is the popular estimate. Many of them don’t even know they are slaves. I know several women who believe that the pimps and rapists who control their lives “love” them and help them’ (Ultimate Exodus, p. 9).
In August the National Crime Agency reported in The Telegraph that modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is much more prevalent than previously thought with cases affecting ‘every large town and city in the country’.
One intelligent estimate was that there were, for example, over 300 brothels in one borough in SW London alone.
I live near a large town – everyone lives reasonably near a large town – it’s where we go for shopping and transport. So modern slavery exists on our very own doorstep, in fact.
Where is God for the millions of often very young girls who are traded for sex across the world by powerful owners who want to exploit them for profit?
Do their cries reach God’s ears, like the cries of the Israelites in Exodus? And what does God do about it?
Julia Immonen pondered this very question as she prepared to actually do something about it herself. Julia is a young Finnish Christian woman who five years ago, with four crew, beat the Guinness World Record for the fastest female crew to row the Atlantic.
Her cause was raising awareness of modern human trafficking, especially the sex trade.
At a press conference about the planning of the London 2012 Games, she had the chance to ask a British Politician about the scale of the problem in the UK and this is what happened.
Apparently it’s common that with the large influx of people into a host city, comes an automatic rise in girls and women being trafficked – she asked the Minister what the government would be doing to minimise this.
He gave a smooth official answer (treating it as an issue of security) but later admitted to her on the quiet that they would be unable to do much as the scale of the problem was so huge it would take too many resources. She writes ‘I can’t accept that this the very best from my government. I can’t accept that we should give up and ignore the buying and selling of girls and boys’ (Row for Freedom, p. 37).
So where is God is all these natural disasters and stories of human slavery? Do the hungry and the hurting reject God because, with so much suffering, is it likely that God even exists?
On the island of Turks and Caicos the locals sought shelter from Hurricane Irma this week in their local church, but the roof was destroyed and they fled elsewhere.
A woman was filmed for the news, squatting in front of her demolished wooden house, her comment to camera was not, I can’t believe in a God who allows so much suffering, but simply: ‘It gonna take something to rebuild, but with the help of God, we will’.
Where is God in natural disasters?
Where is God in the harrowing slavery across so many of our towns and cities?
Does he care?
The Exodus shows us a God that does care, who hears the cries of his people as they groan in slavery, a God who sends somebody to do something about it, under his powerful guidance (in this case, Moses).
Moses of course reacts in a similar way to us when we want God to do something about a desperate situation, but find ourselves instead being the answer to our own prayer.
Have you ever had that experience when you say ‘where are you God? Why aren’t you doing something, God?’
Why aren’t you doing something about world hunger?
Why aren’t you doing something about the floods?
Why aren’t you doing anything about human trafficking?
…and he answers with that most awkward of divine answers: ‘Why aren’t you?’
Moses discovered that God cares. God hears. He hears the cries of the desperate, but he asks Moses to step up too.
Danielle Strickland has discovered this in her work amongst women caught in prostitution. She is stepping up to do something about it because she recognises that God cares.
Julia Immonen has discovered this as she continues to raise awareness through sport, of the horror of human trafficking.
The Exodus is probably the mightiest display of the power of God that we can read about, short of the Creation story.
The pillar of cloud and the angel of God that moved to protect the Israelites, things awesome and mysterious – the wind that blew so strong it parted the waves on both sides, the catastrophic engulfing of the Egyptians as their chariot wheels caught in the sea bed and the returning waves sunk them all.
This pillar of cloud that gave light to the Israelites by night, and the description of the angel are probably just ways to illustrate that it was actually just God who personally went with them and delivered them there in the desert and at the mouth of the Red Sea.
This glorious powerful God is the God who cares. This is the good news of the Exodus story.
God sees suffering and he hears the cries of the desperate. His compassion causes him to act. And sometimes, graciously, he just might ask us to join in.
(Sermon given for Trinity 14, Year A: September 17, 2017 at St Mary’s Whitchurch on Thames).