'the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: 'Let my people go’' Exodus 9:13
Justice and mercy, too often we look round our world today and we see too little of either. Criminals getting away, quite literally, with murder, and yet, on the flip side, when others ask for mercy our 24-hour news and social media sites continue to attack. Justice and mercy are certainly in short supply today. Justice is burned into our bones, and it must be done and seen to be done if there is to be any credibility to our justice system, and any closure for the victims. Young children regularly claim ‘it’s not fair’ when they see small injustices as they play. ‘No justice, no peace’ is a regular chant of those who feel justice has been denied or delayed too long, and we instinctively understand how they feel; especially if we have ever be the subject of an injustice. Justice is part of our make-up because we’re made in the image of God; a God who is the God of Perfect Justice. If we get angry when we see something unjust happen imagine how God must feel when He sees those He created hurting and being hurt.
Over the past few weeks we’ve been studying the book of Exodus and we’ve seen injustice after injustice being piled on the slaves of Egypt. God hears and acts to save His people and to bring justice into a situation where previously it seemed might was right. We could categorise the Exodus story so far as a court room drama: the victims have complained; in Moses a prosecutor has been found; and he has approached the defendant, in this case, Pharaoh and his court. Look with me at verse 13: 'the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’ And if Pharaoh won’t comply? Verse 17: ‘You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now.’ What does God want? Justice! When does He want it? Now! The hailstorm would be a completely just and right action by God! Terrible crimes have been committed and Pharaoh and his court ought to pay the price for what they’ve done. God sees what has happened to His people and He weeps. How could He not, He made each one of those who have been abused, He knit them together in their mothers’ wombs and now they are being terribly exploited. God is right to act! God is right to ensure justice is done! God will not turn a blind eye to the rich and the powerful, He will not let them get away with hurting those He has made. If you yourself have suffered an injustice, if you have been the victim of a crime, a victim of abuse in some way, then know this: God feels your pain. He too is angry at the injustice that you have gone through, and the God of Perfect Justice will ensure, that one day justice is done. In this country we seek justice and we seek to have a justice system that ensures that the victims get it; however, the system is not perfect and too often—far too often—justice is not delivered. However, when it comes to God we should have no such fear. He is perfect and He will ensure justice is done, in eternity if not now, and Pharaoh is finally coming to see that his time is running out. However, justice is a two-edged sword, for if God is a God of Perfect Justice well we need to be wary for perfect justice will be done for all. The times when we’ve lied, hurt others, ignored God or ignored those to whom we should have given help, we too will be judged. Perfect justice means exactly what it says and so while we rightly cheer on God against Pharaoh we need to be mindful that we too will come before the judge who knows all and justice will be done in our case as well. That truth ought to give each of us pause for thought. Not for nothing does our Gospel today (Matthew 3) begin with the words: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ None of us are faultless. All of us have fallen short, and, if perfect justice is to come we must ask, is there hope for any of us?
I’m learning that being a father is difficult. My soon to be four year old, is testing boundaries and despite some people’s expectations that little children are innocent I’m learning fairly quickly that they’re not. There are plenty of times each week when, as her father, I have to bring justice. When Amelie has done something wrong justice must be done, or she won’t grow up to be the amazing person I know she can be. However, I aware that it’s possible to push justice too far. Without justice Amelie will be spoilt; without mercy Amelie will be crushed. I must try to balance justice with mercy; can we expect any less from God? Fortunately, as we find in today’s Exodus reading, the God of Perfect Justice is also the God of Perfect Mercy. Look again at our Old Testament reading and verse 15. God says to Pharaoh: ‘by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.’ By this point we’re on our seventh plague. If God had gone straight for justice well it would have been over and done with, with the death of all the Egyptians in plague one. God hasn’t done that, He has started small, He has given Pharaoh and his court the chance to change, the chance to repent, the chance to avoid the punishment for their wrong doing if only they would turn to Him. God has acted this way because He is not only a God of justice, but also a God of Mercy. God shows that mercy once again in verse 19. Speaking to the Egyptians, God says: ‘Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’ To use the words from our Gospel reading: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ There is still time, says the Lord to the Egyptians, turn now and none of this needs to happen, turn to me, and you will have mercy. Amazingly, some of them do, verse 20: ‘Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside.’ Some turn to the God of Mercy—even at this late stage—and save their livelihoods. There is no need for any of these plagues, they could all stop now, just—says the Lord—‘Let my people go’. It’s actually all there in the name of God in verse 13 the first verse we read: God is called the ‘God of the Hebrews’. Now, understandably, when we hear that name we immediately think of the Jewish people. However, at this time—before the wilderness walk and the establishment of Israel—Hebrew had a more inclusive meaning. ‘Hebrew’ then was a term for all those at the bottom of the pile: this included the Jewish people—those related through Joseph to Abraham—and they may even have been the majority of the slaves, but it was a term applied to more than just those ethnically Jewish. In other words, being the God of the Hebrews was to be the God of all who were marginalised, which in a dictatorship like Egypt were all those alienated from Pharaoh. Anyone could join the Hebrews; no one was excluded. In a glimpse of what the Church would be, the people who made up the group called ‘Hebrews’ was open to anyone who decided to turn to the God of Mercy and plead for help. Now, we aren’t told in verse 20 if the officials joined the Hebrews, though we can easily imagine that when Pharaoh found out they had listened to God they would have quickly lost their jobs, if not worse. Nevertheless, the God of Mercy is open to all who turn to Him. God longs for each one of us to come to Him with our sins and mistakes and find forgiveness and mercy; and, if we do, each one of us will be included in His people. The first time we do this, marks an important turning point, however, if it is the only time this happens, we might find we’re more like Pharaoh than we think. In verse 27 we get an amazing statement from the lips of Pharaoh: ‘Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong’.’ Wow! Is this the conversion of Pharaoh? Only time will tell…and it does, verse 34: ‘When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts […] and he would not let the Israelites go’. Ongoing repentance—a turning to the God of Mercy whenever we fall—that is the sign of a true change of heart. Every Christian knows they continue to fall, and when they do, they know they only have to turn to the God of Perfect Mercy and He will forgive. Too often though we fear that this time our sins are too much; that this time if we bring them to God He will condemn us and expose us. We let fear and shame keep us from confession, keep us from the God of Mercy which only leaves us with a guilty and unsettled conscience. Don’t let the devil, don’t let fear, don’t let shame stop you from turning to the Lord for the first time or the hundred-and-first time. When you know you’ve done something wrong turn straightaway to confession—whether on your own or with the help of a priest—turn to the God of Mercy, tell Him exactly what you’ve done, and let Him enfold you in His arms and give you the mercy which you desperately need! That is what God longs for, His people, whomever they are, whatever their genetic makeup, whatever their past, whatever their sins, to turn to Him and receive mercy. Our God—the God of the Hebrews—is the God of Perfect Justice and will ensure it falls on all who do not repent; but first and foremost He is the God of Perfect Mercy who will welcome anyone home who turns to Him.
So, in the end, it is down to us, as it was down to Pharaoh. Will we rely on ourselves and receive perfect justice, or will we rely on God and receive perfect mercy. Brothers and sisters turn to Him, turn to the God of Hebrews—the One who came amongst us in the person of Jesus, the One who died that we might receive mercy—turn to the God of mercy and in Him you will find peace. Amen (from Fr Mike).