Text: Exodus 17:8-16
We stand, as it were, at a mid-point between two vast continents. Behind us lies the immense unalterable past, with its pleasures and regrets. In front of us looms the equally vast future, with all its hopes and fears. The question for the people of God as they move forward into this unexplored and largely unknown new territory is this: Can God be trusted? All we have is his promise, and sometimes that promise seems to hang by the slenderest of threads.
This was the problem facing the Israelites in the days of Moses. The Lord had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and had promised that he would bring them to their own land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But can he be trusted to guide them? How are they expected to know where to go? Ex 13 tells us that the Lord guided them by means of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Yes, but Can God be trusted to provide for them? Where are they supposed to find food and drink in a desert? Exodus 16 & 17a, tells how the Lord gave them manna and quails, and water from a rock.
Now comes the next challenge. God has guided and provided. But will he protect them? They find themselves under attack from the Amalekites. Joshua is delegated to organising a fighting unit to repel the enemy. Moses, on the other hand, takes up his position on top of a hill. He raises his hands, and the Israelites prevail. He grows tired and his hands drop, and the Amalekites gain the upper hand. Moses is given a stone to sit on. Aaron and Hur position themselves on either side to support his hands, and the battle is won.
The people of God learned a vital lesson that day. When Moses lifted up his hands to the throne of the Lord, God gave victory to his people. God didn’t want them to forget this lesson, and so he caused an altar to be built to commemorate the event. The name of the altar was ‘the Lord is my banner’, “for hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD,” v16. The Lord also sure that a written record was kept of the events of that day, and so it is that the account has been handed down to us, as an encouragement to God’s people in all ages.
1. Fight as if everything depended on you
When the Amalekites attacked, Moses might have thought, “We can leave this to God. He can defeat the enemy by himself; he doesn’t need our help.” But no: Moses said to Joshua (v9), “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites.” Of course God could have done the job himself. But his usual method is not to fight for us, but with us us.
Need I remind you that ours is a spiritual battle? Jn 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight…But my kingdom is from another place.”
Eph 6:12 ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’
I remember in my early days as a Christian being very struck by some words of Bishop Ryle: ‘I fear much for many professing Christians. I see no sign of fighting in them, much less of victory. They never strike one stroke on the side of Christ. They are at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin. – I warn you, this is not Christianity. This is not the way to heaven.’
But to be a true Christian is to be a soldier. Chances are that when you were baptised, no sooner had you been signed with the sign of the Cross, than you were given the following charge, ‘Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.’ That was the moment you put your armour on, and you will not take it off again until you take your last breath. ‘In heaven we shall appear, not in armour, but in robes of glory. But here our arms are to be worn night and day. We must walk, work, sleep in them, or else we are not true soldiers of Christ.’ (Gurnall)
2. Pray as if everything depended on God
There’s Moses, perched on top of a hill. In his hands is his staff, symbol of God’s power. He lifts his hands towards heaven. While his hands are raised towards the throne of God, Joshua and his fighters prevail. Whenever his hands fall, ground is lost to the Amalekites.
Restraining prayer, we cease to fight,
Prayer keeps the Christian’s armour bright,
And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees.
While Moses stood with arms spread wide,
Success was found on Israel’s side;
But when through weariness they failed,
That moment Amalek prevailed. (Cowper)
No surprise that when Paul describes the Christian warfare, and the various parts of the Christian armour, he immediately goes on to underline the importance of prayer. Eph 6 – ‘Put on the full armor of God, with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.’
The fact is, of course, that prayer itself is a kind of battle. Moses seems to have had more of a struggle than Joshua. At any rate, it was Moses the prayer who grew weary, rather than Joshua the fighter. Prayer is opposed by our bodies, which relax into lethargy and plead the excuse of tiredness. Prayer is opposed by our minds, which entertain any number of ainless thoughts and trivial imaginings rather than steadily focus on the things of God. Prayer is opposed with raging fierceness by the devil, who would prefer the Christian do anything – study the Bible, preach, evangelise – rather than pray.
But pray we must, for prayer is God’s chosen means of carrying on his work in the world. Don’t ask me to explain it: prayer is a profound mystery. But it’s also very simple. Certainly, everything that I’ve learned about prayer over the past few years can be summed up in one word: ‘Ask’. I learned this from James, who says, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God.’ I learned it from my Saviour, who said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’
We stand, as it were, at a mid-point between the past and the future. And every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a link between what God has achieved already, and what he will accomplish in the future. For we remember the Lord’s death (the past) until he comes (the future). Can God be trusted to give his people victory? Yes, because Jesus has won the victory over sin, the world and the devil. Can God be trusted to give his people victory? Yes, because Jesus will return, not as a lamb to the slaughter, but as King of kings and Lord of lords. What better motivation can we have, to fight as if everything depended on us, and to pray as if everything depended on God. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory.