Sermon for Evensong
12 after Trinity
Exodus 2:23 – 3:10
God in the everyday . . .
So we gather again, for the first time for a few weeks, and in the meantime we’ve missed quite a chunk of Scripture, not least successive readings from the interestingly titled ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’.
I guess that the title may have escaped our attention, but perhaps it throws some light on the deep roots of our faith. As I trust we are well aware, Judaism at the time of Jesus was far from being monolithic. St Paul, you may remember skilfully uses the significant differences between the sect of the Pharisees and that of the Saducees to deflect attention from himself when they both turn up to accuse him of undermining the faith. Perhaps more difficult for us is the constant use by our own St John of the terms ‘The Jews’ throughout his Gospel. Echoes of the C20 and indeed bad blood between Christendom and the Jewish Diaspora from the middle ages might lead us to wonder if it is antisemitic. Yet, John himself is in some sense Jewish. The actual word John uses is Judeans, suggesting it is more subtle than this, and most scholars tend to the opinion that ‘the Jews’ here are the Pharisees, and perhaps some of their close allies. Certainly it is clear, reading John, you have some coalition of powerful groups, engaged with the Roman puppet Herod, who are troubled that the Jesus movement is destabilising the carefully crafted particular relationship between the Romans and those a coalition of those Jewish groups who had emerged from the Babylonian exile some centuries earlier. Holding on to life s they know it, not open to Life that comes fro above
Back to the Hebrews – the word is one which occurs early in the story of Israel, but disappears later on in the history. Are they a particular perhaps persecuted sect within the Judaism of the time of Jesus? Is Jesus himself ‘a Hebrew’? Well these are speculative questions, but one thing is clear, that the epistle to the Hebrews is quite unlike the Pauline letters, and addresses themes of the old worship of God in the tabernacle and first Temple period. Certainly there is a strong critique of the Second Temple and its cult suggested in its pages – and this comes briefly into view in our reading this evening. And of course this is also very much called into question by Jesus himself, who cleanses the Temple in all four gospels. This is not as Modern ears might have it a ‘critique of religion and religiosity’ That is to read it through lenses appropriated from the world around us.
The new language is of a cleansed Temple and another altar of sacrifice So much of Hebrews is concerned with matters which are strange to our ears, not unlike its closest relative – The Revelation of or from Jesus Christ . . . Perhaps it is both (Never forget that these words are the opening line of The Revelation – the world of early Christianity is not one with which most of us are very familiar, and popular modern notions of the faith are in many ways a world away from these deep roots, perhaps to our very significant loss)
Yet, this weeks reading has perhaps a little less of that strangeness, except the mention of angels, a significant feature of the apocalyptic aspects of the early faith – and ‘an altar of sacrifice, from which those who worship in the tabernacle have no authorisation to eat. Much of the rest speaks of a certain homeliness – of simple exhortations the sort of which we imagine as a moral code for a good life, which if we are not careful we confuse with the faith of the Church in Christ Jesus. the sort of thing that has folk saying, ‘well I live a good life and don’t believe in God, so what’s your problem’ (Of course with so many saying this, one might ask, why is the world in such a stew given that everyone claims to live a good life . . .)
This ordinariness seems almost at odds with the rest of the epistle, and even moreso with regards to our reading from Exodus – of Moses at the burning bush . . . yet I would like to suggest that it is the burning bush which alerts us to the extraordinariness of ‘ordinary life’, which awakes us to the presence of angels and indeed speaks to us deeply of another altar at which we might eat.
It is the Revelation of the strange God of the Scriptures, most fully manifested in Jesus Christ which alerts us to living in a world of which we have little cognisance – that the world is not as we had thought. And we would do well not to flee in incomprehension from these strange texts which call us out of our small lives into something infinitely greater in which we are undoubtedly caught up, did we but see, were it revealed to us . . . and that Revelation comes to us not in the midst of the myriad distractions of life, but in time spent away from these things.
Moses has had to flee from Pharaoh. He has ended up in Midian and there found a wife and is looking after the sheep of his father in law, Jethro. He is in the wilderness. Separated from his people, in a foreign land doing . . . well not doing very much at all really. Alert yes to the threat of lions and wolves and the rest, but largely unoccupied.
It is in this context of withdrawal from the world that he has this Revelation of God, much as John many many years later, is exiled to the Island of Patmos where he receives the Revelation of or from Jesus Christ. And this revelation is Essential to our faith. Apart from the encounter with the living God, we do not even begin in the way of Christ. and the place of encounter is always the Empty space, a space not full of our own beings and doings, our own at times infinite sense of self importance.
Of course one doesn’t have to be tending sheep in the desert, or exiled to an island to know such an encounter, but one does need to be at a loose end, unoccupied, not pre-occupied, not distracted by many things.
Moses we might say has attention to spare, and that indeed is a rare rare gift in our day . . . execially and perhaps most tragically for our children, whose anxious parents will not allow them to find themselves at a loose end but endlessly fill their days and provide ‘gadgets’ that they might not cry out ‘I’m bored!!’
Not one teacher of our faith whose teachings have continued to echo down the centuries would find a problem with boredom, or being unoccupied. For it is only when we have attention to spare that we might perchance allow our gaze to wander and notice a tree, or a branch, or a bud, or a lade of grass, and discover it to be ablaze with the glory of God
And so it is wth how we See Jesus Christ. In our day – we see more and more only the surface. One facet of ‘spiritual matters’ I find almost everywhere is the separation of the person of Jesus of Nazareth from the Christ. We look at ‘Jesus’ and see a carpenters son, or even a fine religious teacher, but we do not see with depth, our eyes skim the surface. And so it is not uncommon for people to speak of, on one hand, Jesus, and on the other The Christ, and fail to see the Anointed one – aflame with the Spirit of the Living God. The true Image of God – ablaze in our midst. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it in ‘Aurora Leigh’ – ‘man, the twofold creature, who apprehends the twofold manner, in and outwardly’
to See truly the nature of our ‘ordinary’ lives – we need to See to behold the one who is in all and through all. It is our meditation upon the person of God in jesus Christ which opens our eyes to the truth of our existence. It causes us not to rush away from awkward and difficult texts – rather to see in them a reflection of our own simple ignorance. and indeed it calls us to see the truth of those around us – but it is only the Love of God with all we have and are, made possible through this apprehension of God in the empty spaces which leads us to a true love of neighbour as ourself
A couple of quotes to close – one from CS Lewis
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
And to close – Barrett Browning
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,
—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God.
‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.
My we not be caught unaware