On 23rd August an airplane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin (the leader of the mercenary Wagner group charged with brutality in Ukraine but also across central Africa) crashed killing him and the other 9 passengers onboard. …well actually, the other 6 passengers and the three flight crew who had nothing to do with the Wagner group (the pilot and two cabin crew). Few people will have shed tears at Prigozhin’s death, or indeed been surprised by it. President Putin said he was a Russian hero ‘who had made some wrong decisions.’ Russian news agencies (who pretty well all take their orders from the Kremlin) issued contradictory stories about the crash and what caused it, muddying waters that to all observers are extremely clear: Prigozhin was assassinated. Putin was serving his revenge cold and reasserting his power.
Meanwhile, in the USA, former President Trump had his picture taken. Having told the court that he was the same height and weight as Muhammad Ali in his prime, his mugshot was soon weaponised to raise him millions of dollars whilst he continued his attack upon the rule of law in the democracy he swore to uphold. Anyone who opposes him or who indeed questions him is somehow part of the conspiracy of the ‘deep state’ to rob Americans of the joys of his presidency. So far Trump has trashed the FBI, the Supreme Court, the Republican Party, the reputations of elected senators and officials, the press (‘Fake News’), the medical profession (remember his response to Covid!)…and now he is at war with judges charged with upholding the law of the land.
In Zimbabwe last week, president ‘Crocodile’ Mnangagwa unsurprisingly won an election. Election observers from around the world questioned his abuse of power in restricting the activities of opposition parties, arresting opposition leaders, controlling the media and placing a threatening army presence at polling centres. Some of the criticism was unavoidably muted because the US had to pull its punches – how can you comment effectively when half your own country denies the result of your own election?
What do these things have in common? Power. Power and the abuse of power and (with that) a dismissive attitude towards justice. One commentator, earlier this week made a particularly astute observation about President Putin to the effect that, in the days of the old Soviet Union, the Kremlin at least went through the motions of observing the rule of law. Opponents were taken to court. Their trials may well have been rigged, a sham, but there was some attempt to hide the brutality of the regime. But not now. Putin wants everyone to see that he can do what he wants when he wants. Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe still ‘went through the motions’ of a free and fair election: he wants the illusion of being elected fairly. Trump? Who knows what goes through his mind? Whether he wins or loses in court everything he touches is destroyed or tarnished.
Why this excursion into world politics and the actions of those in power? Well, our Old Testament reading this morning could take us in any number of directions – Moses’ meeting with God at the burning bush is one of the most potent passages in the scriptures after all – but the one thing I’d like to hold before us this morning from the passage is this: God is just. In our passage we were told that God ‘observed the misery of his people in Egypt’. More than this, he ‘heard their cry’. We were told that he ‘knows their sufferings’ – which I suspect carries a greater weight than simply acknowledging them but means that he shares them in some way. And God’s response? His response is to ‘come down’ to deliver his people. He will relieve their oppression and bring his people out of Egypt to live a new life. Putin, Trump, Mnangagwa seem to have created their own idea of what is right or just: they do not wish to be answerable to anything external to their own sense of power. They show us a world without justice: a world subject to the expression of brute force. This is the direction of travel for any number of countries in the world at the moment, strong (usually) men crushing civil life and robbing their people in the process. But it is not a world we can accept. It is not God’s world.
We have grown up with the idea that God is just. But alongside this idea comes a recognition that there is a such a thing as right and wrong and that God is concerned about these things. Justice, what it is and how it is upheld, protected and served forms a huge part of our sacred literature. But the idea that God is just is not something that is immediately obvious or, indeed something that people of faith find easy. For century after century people worshipped gods who had little concern for the affairs of human beings. The thought that the gods of Greece or Rome worried themselves over the oppression of the peoples of the earth -well, it wasn’t a thought at all: individuals might offer a sacrifice or prayer to the gods but really these gods didn’t involve themselves in people’s lives. As for Egypt? … or Assyria or Babylon: the gods of these empires were gods of the status quo. Rulers (who thought they were divine!) at the top of the heap, you and I well and truly at the bottom. This was the way of the world, this was seen as being the ‘god given’ way of the world. Justice – law applicable to everyone without fear or favour – had no firm place in these societies. Justice was what the Pharoah or King said it was.
Our passage is unusual because it shows us a living and active God choosing to get involved in putting the world to rights. God sees something that is wrong: importantly, he sees it as being wrong (he has an opinion about it) …and He acts. This poses any number of difficult questions for us. Modern western society has squeezed God so far out of His world that the idea that He be in any way involved in our lives is hard. The effect is that we have pushed God further and further up into heaven – so far from us that to believe in Him is (to all intents and purposes) meaningless, it makes no difference to how we might live or how we might pray. We also struggle with concepts of right and wrong. We supposedly all have ‘our own truth’ – but we have no idea how my truth might be reconciled with yours, how competing rights or world views might find common ground so that we might live together. Justice seeks out Truth. That may well be extremely hard to uncover but without it we are in the world of Putin, Trump and Manangagwa pretty quickly: a world based on the exercise of power and lies.
If God is a God of justice, then He needs people who will work and pray for justice to be done. This is a hard call. Moses was reluctant. Peter in the Gospel thinks there’s an easier way. There is a cost, a cross to carry. Who’d be a journalist in Russia…or an opposition MP in Zimbabwe? Why do the US judges called to try Trump now need more protection? Why, in this country, have we run down our courts? Why do our junior barristers earn so little? Why does it take so long for cases to be brought to trial? Why are detection rates so low? A living, active and just God is concerned about these things. Those who believe or serve such a God might pray for these things once in a while, indeed they might pray for change in the world where change is needed. What that needs is for us, like God, to see? What that needs is for us, like God, to hear? What that needs is for us, like God, to get involved?
‘The Son of man’, said Jesus, ‘will come and repay everyone for what has been done’. It seems that none of us can escape judgement. But how do you hear that phrase? With excitement…or anxiety? Moses’ excuses were dismissed: His meeting with the God of justice drove him to work for the freedom of His people. Justice requires judgment and that means making judgments between right and wrong. Justice also needs to be done and seen to be done. We have to choose and we have to act in God’s world and we may well make mistakes in doing so, but what we can’t do is do nothing. You’ll know this quote: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.” God needs His people to be on the side of the angels, human progress is not guaranteed unless we work for it so where can you best make a difference this week? How might your pray differently this week for whilst there’s no burning bush here in church we meet with the living God every time we worship: we can’t leave this place unchanged.
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