Do not harden your heart!

Sermon for Evensong – Sunday March 18th, 2017

Psalm 95
Exodus 7:8-24
Romans 5:12-21

‘Harden not your hearts’

As today is Passion Sunday, it is worth reminding ourselves of some words of Jesus from the cross – ‘Father, forgive them, for they now not what they do’, a saying which is echoed in our confession, ‘we have sinned in ignorance’. The reality is that we have very little idea about anything. The world is complex and subtle far beyond our imaginings. The people we live amongst, even those we think we know well, are profound mysteries to us. Not one of us has the remotest inkling what it is like to be another person, let alone a tree, or a dog, or a stone. We are phenomenally ignorant, which goes some way to explain the state of the world we inhabit – the metaphor ‘bull in a china chop’ always seems appropriate as we consider the Creation and our place in it. Strangely in an age when in a sense human knowledge has expanded hugely, it is as if this has got worse not better. The illusion that ‘we know better nowadays’ is not born out in the world as it is. Modern humans are more out of balance with the Creation than in any age in history. We know very little of what seems to matter to our very existence.

This is why the Scriptures are full of warnings. A very few, like the commandments, are explicit and clear – murdering or committing adultery, lying or failing to rest – live like this and things will turn out bad for you. But most of life is complicated beyond our capacity to comprehend, and so the Scriptures weave their deeper warnings into story – for in a sense that is precisely what we live in, Story. Reading the human story in Scripture teaches us who we are and where we are and how we should then live.

One example of these warnings is ‘beware of those things which ‘look pleasant to the eye’’ – or ‘you are not very good at judging what is good and what is not!, so learn a deeper discrimination’

So Eve ‘seeing that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, took of its fruit and ate’ . . . She saw, she grasped and she would not let go . . . and it did not turn out well

Again there is a moment in the story of Abraham where his herdsmen are falling out with the herdsmen of his nephew Lot and so they separate and Abraham gives Lot the choice of where to go – ‘Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards’ Despite finding himself in a short space of time in a war zone in which he and his family are taken captive and require to be rescued by Abraham, he continues to ‘sojourn in Sodom’ He sees, he grasps, and he won’t let go, and at the last when Sodom is destroyed, Lot’s wife cannot let go of this Dark place and is turned to a pillar of Salt.

Warning – beware of your ability to see well – do not grasp – choose wisely – and learn to let things go . . .

Well this evening’s Old Testament reading carries a serious warning to the one who listens, ‘who listen to the voice of the LORD’ Ps 95:8 What is the story trying to tell us, if we have ears to hear.

Pharaoh is in his own eyes ‘Lord of all he surveys’ – it is all HIs – he Possesses it and that includes the Israelites whom he has enslaved – they are his property. So when Moses and Aaron come before him with a request to ‘let go of the thing he has grasped’ he dismisses them. He will not let go and through the ensuing plagues of which we heard a little, earlier, he grasps tighter and tighter.
As the story tells us – ‘he hardened his heart’ – and Here is a very severe warning here.
If we are alert to the narrative as it goes on, repeatedly we hear ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . .’ It is strange that often people will not let go of something which is harming them – and the greater the harm the more we might hold on . . . it may only be a small thing – a harboured resentment perhaps, but we can all too easily cling to such a thing and its power for evil grows and grows. This is one manifestation of what the scriptures call ‘the demonic’, for all to often such things literally take on a life of their own. They become ‘the desire of our heart’

Indeed we may be able to trace something of it within our own hearts. Bitterness, greed, resentment, deception, a grudge . . . these things which we think we control, have control of us – or to use a much maligned word, Sin reigns . . . and like grasping things – it doesn’t lead us to a good place. We’ll return to Sin in a few moments, but first we need to unpack the Dire warning in the story of Pharaoh which is this

As we follow the narrative through the gradually increasing plagues we read over and over ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ but towards the end there is a terrifying change. First we read that Pharaoh hardened his [own] heart. That is it became conscious for him – to put it in the explicit and terrifyingly accurate vernacular, he says in his heart ‘I’ll be damned if I let them go . . .’

We might say that at this point, what was unconscious, knowing not what he did, became a conscious decision. After the next plague we read ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ In other words there is nothing he can now do to reverse things, his heart is ‘set as stone’ . . . and so to the denouement in Genesis 9:12 – following the plague of boils – ‘But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .’ God gives us the true desire of our heart . . . the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . . Pharaoh will not let go and goes deeper into corruption until it is revealed that that is what he truly wants and seals the wish of Pharaoh’s heart This is one of the most terrifying verses in the Scripture . . .

As Dante sees the souls bound for perdition he sees that they curse God – no longer might they cry for mercy for they are intractably bound to that which they will not let go. It has become for them a consuming passion and leads only to death . . . and the LORD hardens their hearts. Or as CS Lewis puts it – ‘Hell is locked on the inside . . .’

So Pharaoh in all his wealth and power is set before us as a grave warning . . . What is the remedy?

BUT GOD . . . As we read in St Paul’s letter to the Romans – a remedy for Sin has been provided, in that God in Jesus, While we were yet ‘dead in sins and trespasses’ died for us . . . Paul goes on to explain how though through one man, Adam, Sin entered the world, by the death of one Man, Jesus Christ, Grace, forgiveness and righteousness abounded to many. Miracle of miracles – that which brought death to us, Sin, is overturned and Death becomes the Gate of Life . . .

So, then we might say – why worry about the story of Pharaoh? ‘if it all turns out right in the end’? This was what Paul was accused of preaching ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in Sin that Grace may abound? By No Means! How shall we who have died to Sin live any longer in it . . .

This is the clear teaching of Jesus. in John’s gospel, twice Jesus heals and forgives and then warns the person – ‘leave your life of Sin’ – or ‘stop sining or something worse will happen to you . . .’

It is a very false reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – to say that because Jesus died, the overwhelming love of God is revealed – and so sin no longer matters . . . but this is a fools paradise. One moments reflection on the Hell of so much of the world, and perhaps the Hell of our own hearts reveals that this is not so. Sin, like the bull in the China shop, does untold, often irreparable damage. Rather we look to what it cost God in Christ to save us from our Sin, to save us from ourselves and we resolutely set out, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, strengthening, encouraging ud, driving us forward, Comforting us in the true sense – no longer to live in Sin. We do not look back. We let go.

This failure to respond to the Saving Love of God is laid out for us in the Old Testament as well as the new. God in his Love and Mercy for Israel, rescues them from slavery in Egypt. From wretchedness and Hell – and brings them out into the wilderness that there they might learn of Life – rather like young children – having to learn that which leads to life and that which does not. ‘Eat Well!’ ‘Don’t put your hand in the fire!’ ‘Seek the Good everywhere and always,!’ ‘Shun that which is evil . . . ‘but they, although they had been the recipients of such a great Salvation, such a rescue, start to whine and complain and also harden their hearts and so do not enter the promised land . . . St Paul says ‘all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition upon whom the end of the ages has come’

So the psalmist having given glory to God – ‘Come let us sing unto the Lord . . . ‘ goes on

O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’

Today – Hear his voice – harden not your hearts – for God in Christ approaches his Passion – to die for the Sin of the World, to bear its consequences, that Grace may abound.

Let us not neglect so great a salvation – rather let us set our hearts and minds on God’s Goodness revealed, reach out to take hold of THAT – and let go of al that would hinder us



Through the Bible in a Year – May 12

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 2-3; Mark 15; Psalm 18:1-30

Following on from yesterday’s comment, we may not therefore abandon the people of God, for a world which behaves better – for the whole world is complicit in the death of Christ. He comes not to save his own, but for the Salvation of the World, thus the World, in the person of Pilate is also involved. All of humanity.

What kind of faith can say with the centurion ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ To see here in this naked, utterly broken, tortured, dead Jew, the Son of God

Of course we are trained in thinking that somehow Who Jesus is is utterly veiled and hid from our sight at this point. Because it is by the gift of faith that we say the Crucified One is God’s Son, suggests to us that this is hidden . . . and of course it is in a sense – for we are blind. We would rather with many many heretics in the church suggest that the eye of faith sees beyond the mangled flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, to see ‘a deeper truth’, thus revealing our own blindness.

No, the Centurion sees clearly – ‘This is your God’ – the one in whose image we are made.

We flee from this so far and so fast – we sing and speak of Christ glorified and triumphant as if this is not seen clearly at the Cross. As John’s gospel reminds us – Here Is Christ in His Splendour and Glory.

The Cross is not to be reduced to a doctrine of Salvation, or ‘a sign of the love of God’.

No in this dead Jew, nailed to rough timbers of a first century gallows, we see God – Clearly.

It might be well worth asking, how do our churches bear witness to this, for unless we get this, then the Kingdom of God is a closed book to us.

Holy Saturday

There are times in Priestly ministry when its representative character is thrown into starkest relief. When Black and White lose any overlap. Life and Death is the Clear choice.

Today the church observes Holy Saturday. For many of those who note this day it is a day lacking a story. Jesus is dead. Easter is not yet. But that isn’t the fullest story.

‘He descended to the dead’ we recite in the Creed. But this is no passive slumber. No, today Christ is Harrowing Hell. The One who is The Word, the Alpha and the Omega, taking our last words and trashing them. The Living One is The Last Word.

Last week I was called from the slumber of a day off and bidden to follow Christ into a hell, to proclaim Life in the midst of Death. A young man, 20 years old had died by his own hand, and the church called me to step down into the Hell that this was for his family.

On Maundy Thursday I conducted his funeral – a church packed with young people few if any conversant with Christian faith, facing something that had left them utterly numb, facing Death, nothing else. With no other story.

As I waited outside church for the family I was forcibly struck by the contrast of attire. For all these young folk, Black was the only colour on display, from black dresses for the girls, black ties, and a shed load of sunglasses to hide from the fierce late summer antipodean sun. Despite the ‘modern’ predilection for avoiding death, for ‘celebrating a life’, there was no doubt in these young people’s minds, no hope. This was about Death. It was a funeral.

‘Contrast of attire?’ I was privileged to have as many years The Reverend Christine Clarke as my spiritual director. One of the first 12 women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, I learnt far more about Christian faith and life from her than anyone else over the years, by a substantial margin. The Wisest person I have ever known.
When as a callow seminarian I trained with Christine, I asked about the suitability of her funeral robes, white cassock alb and white stole. She said, ‘what else do we have to offer as Christians but the message of the Resurrection’

I have to say it took me a while to learn this, deep down. Then as a Good Protestant, this was way off my radar. I had learned that it was my job ‘to comfort people but not to give false hope’. ‘How can you proclaim resurrection if they weren’t Christian?’ How can you? How can one proclaim Life in the midst of Death?

But I have come to see that that is precisely what we are to do, to be the church, as a priest to represent the church, to follow in the way of Christ and boldly say ‘No’ to the narratives of death.

And so amidst all the black there I was, in white, the contrast all the sharper in the blazing sun.

Several people have asked me for the sermon I preached and I attach the text.

But I ask you to read it on one condition, that if you do so, you will join with me and the people of the church I am privileged to serve, in praying for the soul of a young man named Ross, and also for his family.

I know that for some of my readers this will be way outside your comfort zone, but this is where Christ bids us go. This is Holy Saturday. Christ Harrows Hell. Let us follow him boldly in prayer, for according to The Last Word even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

Today as we gather in this place to remember Ross, to pay our respects, to Grieve and to mourn, to share together in our confusion and pain and loss – we do not do so alone. We are not alone.

We meet in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We gather together as a community of people knowingly or otherwise bearing the image of the God who has created us and given us life, the One who is Community in and of himself, as the Christian faith asserts God is Love. And made as we are in the image of the God who is Love, then our lives are expressions of that Love in which we are made.

Put another way, as the poet John Donne said, ‘not one of us is a Island’, and your presence here today expresses that truth, not one of us is Alone, not one. However much the dark spirit of this present age might whisper to us ‘you have to stand on your own two feet’, ‘you have to be self sufficient’, ‘no one can live your life but you’ the presence of so many here today shows these are lies. If these things were the truth about us, then there would be no-one here today. If these things were true, then there would be no pain, no grief

It is close to impossible to find anything Good to say about the circumstances in which we meet, but perhaps if when we leave this place and go out into the world, we have learnt better to deny that life is about standing on our own two feet. To say ‘No!’ when someone tells us ‘you have to be self sufficient’. To know that leaning on one another bearing one another’s burdens is not an occasional necessity in difficult circumstances, but the very fibre of what it means to be human, that to be alive is to be deeply linked to everyone we meet – to know that we are never alone – to know that we are not self sufficient – to know that we are made to lean on one another – then perhaps Good may yet come out of this

All of our lives are inextricably linked. What is joy if not shared? What is Sorrow if not shared? What is Life if not shared? To be Alive is to be joined one to another, to live in mutual dependence, to need other people, and to be gift to other people – it is the meaning of our lives – that we are created By Love, In Love and For Love. It is the fundamental Truth of our existence – as your presence here today testifies.
And so I say to Ross’s family – you are not alone – you are held in Love. And here briefly I’d like to pay tribute to Ross’s close friends who have not stayed distant but I know have expressed such love and support to Ross’ family these past days – keep it up folks – we will contnue to need each other – it is what our lives are about.

And it is because that is the Truth about us, that our lives are inextricably bound up in each others, that there is so much pain today. Because Love is the foundation of who we are, when that Love is denied, it is as though the world falls apart.

We cannot make sense of what has happened. A young man has taken his own life. Yet Ross was so full of Life – happy, spontaneous, Kind,  the one who gave a running commentary on life and scrapped with his brother in the back of the car on long journeys. None of this makes any sense. He was so alive, he was and Is so joined to so many – his Life was not a life of isolation, no life is. This makes no sense – it is a deep contradiction of Life

None of us know why Ross did what he did – we cannot know and we are not here to judge. Speculation is hopeless and ultimately despairing and we need to turn from that. What has happened has happened, but the very fact that we are all gathered here today is testament that we are refusing to allow this to be the Last word about his life – that it is not the last word about his life. The last word is that Ross Is Loved. And that the pain and the grief and the searing loss we know here today, his family most of all, is a sign of that profound Love. Here on this terrible day, this day that no-one wanted ever to see, in the midst of the darkness and the suffering, the Truth about Ross is revealed in its fulness, He Is Loved. He is Held, He is not Alone, and neither are any of us.

And not even because of who he was, he was loved, he is loved purely because of his very existence. In all the stories that we have heard, in all the words that yet will no doubt be spoken about Ross – no words can in the end describe him, for Love is the meaning of our lives and we cannot express that, we can only know that it is the fundamental truth about each one of us.

We heard a moment or two ago the words of Jesus. To many perhaps these are words we have not heard before. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me’.
In the midst of our Grief and Loss, we hear an invitation. These words of Jesus he speaks to his closest friends the night before he is cruelly put to death. He is telling them, tremendous darkness lies ahead of you – but there is one who holds you in the darkness. Love is the meaning of your life, you are held in Love – Trust in God, trust also in me.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, it is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross for the sake of Love – and Christians live through this each year and we walk on to Easter Sunday, when beyond all human hope, Christ is raised from death. Love has the final Word. He is the Way and the truth and the Life – He is the meaning of our Lives made flesh – He is Love. And Love never fails

We do not have any resources in ourselves to go through these days – No! By the Grace of God who is Love and in whose image we are created, we have resources  amongst ourselves – we have Love for one another –  let us live and lean on that Love.


Through the Bible in a Year – March 12

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 23-24; 1 Cor 8-9; Psalm 89:19-end

“Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up”

Paul here returns to a theme we encountered in Romans 14 – that of not allowing disputation over those things which are not fundamental to our shared life of discipleship, get in the way of that life. Once more it is over the matter of food sacrificed to idols, something which the Law and the Tradition abhors. Paul ‘knows’ that these restrictions are meaningless, but for some, who do not possess ‘knowledge’, they remain abhorrent and a stumbling block.

They are a stumbling block in that those who practise the behaviour, cause those who are not so ‘well informed’ to shun the fellowship of believers – and thus to withdraw from Life itself, which is only to be found in the community of faith, which is the body of Christ.

However morally acceptable before God it might be to eat food sacrificed to idols (which are nothing), it is unacceptable before God to do anything which would repel a fellow believer that they were caused to fall away, that is break from the Life Giving fellowship.

Paul’s concern is for the salvation of his brethren, which his Wisdom tells him is not primarily a matter of right ‘knowledge’, but sacrificial love. So Paul will lay down his Right to eat food sacrificed to idols, indeed he will not even go near it is it would offend his fellow saint for whom Christ died. Similarly he will not use his perfectly justifiable Rights to wages for his work – he is intent on not allowing his opponents to have a reason to judge him and thus themselves fall under condemnation.

What we see here is a revolutionary love for the brethren, that will go without for their sakes. It is part of the outcome of Paul’s way of life, his self discipline for the sake of the brethren. For he knows that if he puts a stumbling block in front of one of the least of the flock, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be thrown into the sea, than face the consequences of his action.

Frankly in the contemporary church with so many issues being screamed about from the highest rooftops, it is sometimes hard to imagine what such a church would look like – but perhaps we ought at least to try and find out?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 2

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 1-3; Romans 10; Psalm 78 vs 1-31

‘Of the best that thou hast given, Earth and Heaven render thee’

First today, we note the Psalm. The neglect of the Psalms in the life of the church is a grievous omission. Nothing perhaps better exemplifies the narcissistic temperament of so much of contemporary Christianity than the neglect of the Psalms – for where else in all sacred scriptures are a people so unremittingly self critical. Where else are we so honest with God, most especially about our own faults than in the Psalms. Their place in the liturgy of God’s people down through the ages, the prayer book by which Christ so thoroughly identified himself with us, must be restored if we are to move more fully into the life that God wishes to offer us – a life free of dissimulation and conceits, a life of Honesty and Truthfulness. The Psalms, in rehearsing our sorry history, do not leave us with the hubristic satisfaction of saying, ‘look how far we have come’!

Viewed in such a light, thus our Salvation is very Great – as the writer to the Hebrews puts it ‘How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?’ A New and Living way opened for us. And at its heart is sacrifice. The Sacrificial system is marked out by the words, the best, the choice, the unblemished. As the various offerings are outlined in the opening chapters of Leviticus, this is a recurrent theme, and indeed later its failure to be heeded is the source of the sharpest denunciation of the prophets. These sacrifices are not propitiatory, they are Sacrifices of Praise – they are not to elicit Salvation, they are in response to it. Those who know they have been forgiven much, love much.

The Psalms keep us reminded of the scope of God’s salvation – all we can do is our reasonable act of worship – to offer our souls and bodies, as living sacrifices, in the pattern of the One who offered up himself.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 9

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 38-39; Acts 15:1-35; Psalm 50

‘Then God answered Job out of the whirlwind . . .’

In the beginning of his travails, Job had sat in silence before God with his three friends for a week – as it were figure of creation groaning in expectation. In this his friends showed empathy for his great suffering and together they showed wisdom in not trying to explain the inexplicable. But the human mind is restless until it finds its rest in its maker and so the disputation begins as his three friends wheel out three of the ‘contemporary’ explanations – none of which is any comfort to Job, who knows that only God knows – yet it is not enough for him in his trouble and so he enters into the disputation. Continue reading “Through the Bible in a Year – February 9”

The few : make this your life’s work, for it is to co-operate with the work of Life in you

‘ In this lifetime, only a few will be saved. Only a few will live a life of self-emptying love. Only a few will endure the humiliation of honesty. Only a few will face the despair of hell and give thanks. Only a few will forgive everyone for everything.’ Fr. Stephen Freeman