Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 June 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; John 16.5-15
“And the house was filled with smoke.”
Isaiah’s vision, with the Temple filled with smoke and the angelic chorus singing the thrice-holy hymn, sounds just the thing for All Saints, Margaret Street. Someone hearing it read and then witnessing the censing of the altar while the choir sing the Magnificat, or of the bread of Christ’s sacramental presence, might well conclude that our worship is inspired by such passages as this and John’s visions of worship in the heavenly city in the Book of Revelation. And they would be right to do so. Our worship is meant to reflect and share in the worship of heaven: as we sing in the Eucharist: ‘therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we praise and magnify your holy name singing: “Holy, holy, holy…..”’
But if we pay closer attention, we see that there is more to this passage than a justification for bells and smells and glorious music; and there should be more to our worship than just the pursuit of aesthetic experience.
First, there is Isaiah’s reaction to the experience of the divine: “And I said, woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; and yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” No one, the Jews thought, could see the unutterably holy God and live. In the presence of that holiness, Isaiah recognises both his own sin and his involvement in his people’s disobedience and alienation from God.
His confession is met by a dramatic absolution: an angel takes a burning coal from the altar – one so hot that even an angel has to use tongs – and places it on Isaiah’s lips to cleanse them with fire. (Not a technique used in the confessional here.)
After the act comes the word of forgiveness: Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.”
Then confession and absolution are followed by call:
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And call is followed by response: “Here I am; send me!”
We have read that passage on Trinity Sunday. Preachers on this day often speak of worship, not just as a way of avoiding the intellectual complications of trinitarian theology, but because our worship is trinitarian in structure: we worship the Father, through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. We give glory repeatedly to Father, Son and Holy: three persons yet one God. And there is I think another reason for us to read this passage on this day.
Those words, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, and Isaiah’s response, foreshadow another sending, another mission: that of Christ, the Divine Word, who would come to the world in order not just to act as a divine messenger, but as the one who is the Word made flesh, the revelation of God’s being and nature, not simply to provide us with information about God, but to call and draw the world into that communion, that relationship, with God for which it was made. He goes to “the one who sent me;” but he does not return alone, he takes with him the humanity and the creation which he has bound to himself – he takes us and our world.
In the second reading, we are not in the throne room of heaven, but a place equally formative of Christian worship: the upper room. Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the last supper; speaking to reassure them in their fearfulness. He will send them another Advocate: the Spirit of truth who will guide them into all truth; “…for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
In the upper room on Easter Day the risen Lord will breathe his Spirit on the same disciples, by now deeply conscious of their abandonment of their master when his hour had come, as aware of their sin as Isaiah had been, for their part in his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Isaiah will be sent on a disturbing mission to speak to a people who will not understand; ‘Go and say to this people: “Hear and hear but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.”’
Words that Jesus will echo this when he is asked why he speaks to the people in parables.
The Spirit too will speak uncomfortable words to the world: “He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness, and judgement…” For unless and until the world recognises its own insufficiency and its tragic distortion by forces hostile to God, its inability to save itself, it cannot be saved.
There is a temptation for all of us to opt for those bits of scripture which suit us, to look for “comfortable words,” for ideas of God which fit with our way of thinking. We like the idea of a God who is merciful and forgiving – even though we don’t think of ourselves as having that much to forgive; a few minor lapses perhaps, but nothing serious.
A God of awesome holiness, one before whom we can have no such pretensions, is not quite the thing in a world we organise to make ourselves as undisturbed as possible. A God of judgement is alright, so long as he restricts himself to judging those people and institutions of which we don’t approve.
One of the great strengths of using a lectionary, a prescribed set of readings, as we do, is that it does not allow us to do this. We have to listen to the hard and challenging bits as well as the nice and comforting ones. Our domesticated ideas of God and Jesus are constantly challenged by the real thing. Our shabby compromises, our well-honed capacity to “pass by on the other side,” are exposed for what they are.
In worship we encounter the otherness, the mystery, the majesty and holiness of God. True worship is not the projection of our own emotions. We do not come to it to have our feelings stimulated or our longings fulfilled. God is not the celestial chief executive of consumer capitalism and its advertisers who seek to persuade us that all our needs can be satisfied, if only we will buy its latest products.
In the true worship of God, we are challenged to be something more than we have ever been before, to do something not for ourselves but for God and for others; to live lives directed to the other and not to ourselves: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”
We come to worship not for our comfort or self-improvement, but to be drawn into the mission of Jesus Christ, into that movement which took him into the world and then back to heaven.
If we allow ourselves to be drawn into that true worship offered by Jesus Christ in his eternal and self-giving love to the Father, then we will find ourselves called and empowered by his Spirit for our part in his mission; that going into the world to bring it to heaven.
Knowledge of God in the Christian faith is not so much about acquiring information as growing in relationship. Understanding of the Holy Trinity is not found so much in abstract speculation as through the experience of sharing in the Trinitarian mission to which we are called as we were reminded in today’s gospel at Mass, the Great Commission which closes Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
“Here I am; send me!”
And so, now to the one true God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed all honour and worship, love and praise, now and to the ages of ages. Amen.