Exodus 17

'When Moses’ hands grew tired Aaron and Hur held his hands up’ Exodus 17:12

‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit;  it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.’

Those were the words of the great philosopher Rocky Balboa. The Rocky films—if you haven’t seen them—began in 1976, and the first image you see is of Jesus, looking down on the boxing ring in the Resurrection Athletic Center. Sylvester Stallone, the write and the actor who played Rocky, said: ‘Jesus was over him and he was going to be the fella that would live through the example of Christ […] the boxing is symbolism of the constant fight.’ The movies—and there are six of them—give a really clear example of what we learn in today’s first reading. That the journey of faith is a battle and that winning is seen not so much in how many amazing victories we have but in our ability to keep moving forward, to keep persevering in the faith. Last week we picked up our studies in the Book of Exodus. Last year we had the great rescue which is depicted in every Exodus film ever made. This year, we’re on a journey with God’s people to the promised land. Along the way we’re finding that the Jewish people are learning hard lessons which are just as applicable and necessary for us to learn. Last week we saw the need to trust God. This week we are going to see—along with the Israelites—the need to pray and to keep on praying.

Our reading today opens with more bad news: ‘The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites.’ Sometimes people imagine that being a Christian is easy, that if you turn over your life to Jesus it will be as smooth as silk. All I can say is that people who think that have never tried being a actual Christian. Following God is hard work. walking the way of one who was attacked, spat on, and finally murdered, isn’t all a bed of roses. It wasn’t for Jesus and it won’t be for us. The Exodus people haven’t long had some great news—that God is going to provide food for them—they haven’t long turned back and trusted the Lord, and the next challenge comes round the corner. This is how it is in the life of faith. God gives us a reason to trust Him and then something comes along which tests that trust. For the Israelites it is a violent attack for Jesus, in our Gospel reading, following hot on his amazing experience at His baptism, is a spiritual attack of temptation. This is the pattern: reason to trust followed by a test of trust and we saw it first in Exodus. We’re told later in the Bible—in Deuteronomy 25—a little more about this attack: ‘Moses says: ’When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind’. Again a pattern of how the enemy always works, he attacks at the weakest point. For the Jewish people the enemy attacked at their rear of the group, where the weakest folk were, lagging behind the rest. The enemy knows there is no point attacking where we are strongest, no, he is canny and he first identifies our weakest point. In your spiritual life where is your weakest point? Identify that, and you will know where the attack will come and you can be prepared. How do we prepare? First, make sure we’re following behind Jesus. Second, pray. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.’ Now a quick lesson in Hebrew, the Jewish language—and by the way, this is pretty much the only thing I know in Hebrew, so don’t be too impressed! The name ‘Joshua’ is the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Jesus’. It’s the same name and it means ‘God saves’. Just as Joshua goes and fights on the people’s behalf so Jesus fights on our behalf. He is our champion we do not fight alone. If we’re following Jesus we will face opposition—whether physical or spiritual, whether violence or temptation—but Jesus will take the battle to the enemy on our behalf. We do not fight alone. So what’s our job? To pray. 

‘Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.’ Now, what you need to know to understand this scene is that holding up your hands is the Jewish way of praying. You see me do it during our services. When I pray on behalf of the people at the Collect and most importantly during the Eucharistic prayer, you see me hold up my hands. I’m praying how the Jewish people prayed. I’m praying how Moses prayed on that day. Now you can see what is going on. When Moses prayed his arms were up, and the Israelites were winning. When Moses stopped praying his arms came down, and the Israelites stopped winning. Not unlike a boxer actually with his arms up he is in fighting. With his arms down he is certain to loose! I’m sure you can see the point, then, of this amazing, true, and powerful story. Battles come but prayer wins battles. If we’re not praying we won’t win and we should not be surprised. How much then, as a church as well as individuals, do we need to review our prayer life. Christian life is at a low ebb in this country. Numbers are down and continuing to fall. Christian beliefs on birth, sex, marriage, work, family life and death are being eroded like never before. Finances in our church—like the rest of the Church—are difficult. We’re under attack. Just like God’s people in our Exodus reading. Just like Jesus in our Gospel reading. So are we praying? If we’re not we’re bound to lose, individually, and as a church. Prayer wins battles, and battles are all around us.

Let me take you back to Rocky one more time. Because the truth about Rocky is that even though he’s got heart and guts, and determination, he doesn’t win alone. In his corner, he’s got Mickey his trainer, he’s got Pauley his best friend and of course, he’s got his girlfriend and later wife, Adrian. He does not fight alone, behind him he’s got his friends backing him up and without them Rocky would loose! Moses has this too, notice: ‘When Moses’ hands grew tired […] Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekites.’ On his own Joshua would loose. On his own Moses would loose. Only together—as the people of God, using the gifts God has given them—can God’s people win their battles. Joshua and his army would trust God and fight. Moses and his associates would trust God and pray and God would do the rest. Sisters and brothers, we cannot win our battles on our own. To pray without ceasing is tiring. To pray every day, week in, week out, when discouragements and temptations come can be spiritually exhausting. We must pray, like Moses. However, like Moses, we will become exhausted and only with the help of other Christians will we be able to keep going. Following Jesus is not just an individual thing! Joshua couldn’t have succeeded without Moses, and Moses couldn’t have prevailed without the help of Aaron and Hur. To succeed in following Jesus—both individually and as a church—we must we simply must be praying. Certainly, not everyone can be Moses or Joshua but all Christians can be like Aaron and Hur, and support their brothers and sisters with constant prayer. Bishop Philip this week encouraged all of us, saying: ‘We begin and end with prayer because prayer changes things, prayer moves the tectonic plates, prayer opens us up to the glory of God. If we pray all things are possible.’

Friends, like Rocky and Joshua before him we are in a fight for ourselves and for each other. The bad news is if we don’t start fighting we will loose; the good news is we can fight from the privacy of our own homes and for the comfort of our pews for, unlike Rocky and Joshua but like Moses, we are called to fight this battle in prayer. And we know that if we pray God will do the rest. Amen (from Fr Mike).