There are many stories out there of people who have made a ‘leap of faith’ in some way, physically or metaphorically. The illustration I use in this sermon was something that happened to me relatively early on in my Christian life. Looking back on it now it seems pretty stupid of me to have put myself in that position – to be half way up a mountain, ill equipped and unprepared – but such is the impetuosity of youth. But, aren’t there always occasions where we set off with the best of intentions, however naïvely, only to find ourselves stuck in some way (rhetorical question)? The description of my leap in this sermon doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in describing how perilous a position I was in at the time or the actual physicality of the leap into the footprints of the unknown ice climber (which involved me having to turn 90° in the air so as to land my feet precisely in the footprints I was aiming for), nor does it include any detail of the arduous and still perilous climb to the summit in which I used my fists as ice axes by plunging them into the snow and hauling myself up by them, step by frozen step. And that is so often the way. It’s easy to focus on a singular moment where we felt God’s presence or experienced what we believed to be His direct intervention in some way, yet, we forget that life is a daily struggle and that after that ‘moment’ there is still the rest of the journey, which is filled with more moments of His saving grace but we’re so overawed by the glory of the past that we stop looking forward.
Exodus 19:1-11; 1 Peter 2:1-10
We may not realise it but each of us has to make a considerable number of choices in our daily lives. That’s what decisions are, aren’t they, choices between one and the other, this and that. How often has someone said to you, “Have you decided what you’re going to do about such and such a thing?” When we get up in the morning we’re faced with various decisions to make. What socks should we wear? What colour shirt or blouse today? Which cereal shall we indulge ourselves in? We make all kinds of choices on a regular basis without even realising that we’re doing it. Sometimes we find ourselves faced with really big decisions to make. Even on occasion choices of life or death. And that’s what I felt that I faced one winters morning in the Lake District, half way up the face of Red Screes.
Both the lads and I had been invited by my Father and Step-Mother to go and stay with them at their house in Ambleside. It was typical picture postcard weather, snow on the ground, icy cold, but beautiful clear blue sunny skies. And I had a hankering to go exploring and felt the desire to conquer a decent sized peak on my own. I had all the gear, proper stiff soled walking boots, gaiters, warm trousers, layers of clothing, rucksack, and most importantly sandwiches, a thermos of hot coffee and paramount above all else, Kendal Mint Cake.
The day of my expedition I rose before the sun was up and set off in the direction of Kirkstone Pass having planned my route the day before. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the very dramatic landscape of that particular area of the Lakes, but there are really only two ways to climb Red Screes. The acceptable tourist route is to ascend up the long tail of the mountain that begins almost in Ambleside itself. This is a gradual and undemanding route that takes you up to the summit. My philosophy in hill walking is to put the hard work in to begin with and get the serious climbing done straight away, then one can enjoy a gentle stroll back down to civilisation feeling well pleased with ones accomplishments. Forget the easy route, I like a bit of a challenge. So I’d decided to go straight up the side from the top of Kirkstone Pass. Have you ever noticed how a hillside or mountainside looks much easier from the bottom? It’s only when you get half way up that you realise the hidden nature of the climb. My trusty companion, my four legged friend Lucy, my dog, had been up to the top and back again about a dozen times by the time I was only a quarter of the way up. Really encouraging! And I hadn’t taken into account that the snow had completely obliterated any sign of the route up the side of the mountain that was described in Wainwright’s guide book. Another slight oversight on my part was the treachery of the surface that I was climbing. If you’ve ever tried to walk on the surface of a scree you’ll know it’s very difficult because the surface keeps sliding away from you. When it snows, the moisture is trapped in the spaces between the stones of the scree. Then as it freezes the surface becomes like glass. The higher up I got the worse it became and I didn’t have an ice axe. Eventually the inevitable happened, I got stuck. I came to a point where it seemed that I couldn’t go forward and the way back down was very treacherous.
As you’ll know, retracing your steps going down a mountain is much, much harder than going up. What with the icy surface, the awkwardness of the climb and the steepness of the mountainside, I knew that trying to get back down was extremely dangerous, and not really an option. But the way forward seemed just as tricky. I found myself perched on a small outcrop of rock and earth with what seemed like an almost sheer drop below me. Above me, the way was equally as steep and covered with snow and ice. There was nothing for me to grip or hold onto, and without an ice axe I stood no chance. The only way forward was to jump into a vertical gully, a chimney if you like, that ran straight up for about twenty or thirty yards. It was filled with snow and I could clearly see that someone had ice climbed up it by the deep footprints left in the snow. The way onwards and upwards looked pretty difficult, the route was unclear, further perils unknown, but it could be done, and with faith the summit could be reached. The choice that I was faced with was should I try and navigate my way back down, which was very uncertain and I knew there was a very high chance that I wouldn’t be able to keep my footing, which would lead to an undignified and uncontrolled descent of the mountainside, probably resulting in serious injury to my person if not death. Or should I take a leap of faith and jump the 6 feet or so into the footprints of the other climber and follow them upwards.
Someone once said that, “There is never an act of faith without risk.” Let me tell you I don’t think that I have ever prayed as earnestly as I did that day. The fact that I’m standing here today will tell you that God must have heard my prayer. The jump, my leap of faith, was successful and I continued on my way up to the top, but I was never so relieved to reach the summit, I can tell you. The choice that I had faced was whether or not to put my faith in my own limited abilities to get back down, or in God and trust that he would, almost literally, carry me to safety.
In our Old Testament reading this evening, the Israelites faced a similar choice. Should they put their trust in Yahweh, the God who had brought them out of slavery and bondage and carried them to safety. Or, should they just do their own thing, worship who they felt like and carry on regardless. It’s very easy to miss the flag that indicates this choice that they had to make. But it comes in verse 5, where it says, “Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people.” That tiny two letter word is such a small word but it has great significance for the Israelites and subsequently, for us too.
The expectation of Yahweh, the Israelite god, is one of voluntary response from the Nation of Israel. He doesn’t force these people to serve him, like say, a conquering king might do. For the Nation of Israel it’s a choice that they must make either to accept or reject the covenant. It isn’t a choice between obedience and disobedience but rather the means of an appropriate response to what he has done for them, if they choose to make it. If they do choose to make a response to what Yahweh has done for them, then they must pay careful attention to his instruction concerning what is expected of them, and then to abide by the terms of the covenant.
Well, what did God do for the Israelites? Between escaping from Egypt and reaching this point at Mount Sinai, you’d think God hadn’t done anything at all by the way the people kept on moaning. They complained on the shores of the Red Sea when they feared for their lives as they saw the Egyptian king and his army bearing down on them. But God rescued them from their enemies. Then they complained again when Moses led them into the desert and they camped at a place called Marah where the water was too bitter to drink. So God purified the water so that it became fit to drink. Then they really started to moan in earnest when they crossed the desert of Sin and they had nothing to eat. But again the Lord looked after them and fed them with quail and manna. Finally, they complained when they arrived at Rephidim because again, they had no water to drink. And once again, God provided them with a miracle and produced water for them to drink.
So here they stand on their own outcrop of rock trying to decide whether they should go their own way and rely on their own limited skills for survival in the desert, or make a leap of faith and accept the covenant that God is offering them.
The big question that springs to mind from this is, “Why would God choose them?” After all, they’re not exactly the most saintly of people. The answer is one of the most vital and central doctrines of the whole Bible, that of election. My dictionary of theology defines election as, “God’s free choice of individuals and groups.” In other words it’s his grace.
Throughout the Old Testament the nation of Israel is referred to as the chosen people of God. They weren’t chosen because they were better than anybody else but because it was God’s grace that chose them in their weakness. In Deuteronomy we’re told, “Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you; for you were the least of all the peoples.” In choosing Israel God revealed his saving grace which he could not do by choosing some great and peaceful people.
What we can learn from the story of the exodus is that God’s choice bears no relation to moral or spiritual worth. The consequence of the divine election is that the nation of Israel is pledged to give God service and loyalty. That is, they are called to reflect the character of God and to do his will. Not only in the life of the nation, but also in service to the world. They had a mission to the nations, to tell the world about God. But only if they chose to accept the covenant. It’s their free response to his grace. Our passage tells us that they accepted the covenant and chose God’s way. The New Testament, however, tells us that they failed in their mission. Jesus said. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” We are the heirs of election. The inheritors. You and me.
The Old Testament view of election, God’s free choice – his grace – is that in Moses’s day God first delivered Israel and then she responded in gratitude by committing herself in the covenant in willing faith and obedience to God. The same pattern is followed in the New Testament. The grace of God, however, is first manifested in Christ, and supremely in his death. Again, there’s a call for a response in faith and obedience from those who are saved. But it is a choice that we must make. It is our free response to his grace. Each and every one of us finds ourselves on a rocky outcrop faced with a choice that we must make. Then, we are obliged to live the life of Christ, to reflect the character and will of God. To “come as living stones” and let ourselves (our choice again), “be used in building the spiritual temple,” as Peter puts it.
What I hope you’ll take away with you tonight is this. That God gives us the freedom of choice. We can choose to respond to his saving grace in Jesus Christ. But the freedom of choice doesn’t stop there. As in our everyday lives where we are confronted with choices to make, so in our spiritual lives we are as well. When we face temptation there is always the choice as to whether or not we sin. We can’t say that there was no choice in the matter, or that the devil made us do it. We don’t have to do it. We must take responsibility for our actions. The way onwards and upwards for each of us may be a perilous climb at times, the route unclear, what perils lie ahead we don’t know. But with faith we can all reach the summit.
Let me finish by telling you a poignant little story about a general of the Persian army who always gave his condemned prisoners a choice, the firing squad or the black door. Most chose the firing squad. The prisoners were never told what was on the other side of the door. Few ever chose the unknown of the black door. When asked what was on the other side of the black door, the general answered, “Freedom, and I’ve known only a few men brave enough to take it.”
From silken self, O captain, free
Thy soldier, who would follow thee:
From love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
From all that dims thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.