Sermon for Evensong – Sunday March 18th, 2017
‘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