Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 September 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 24 and Matthew 9.1-8
Last weekend I was interviewed by the BBC about the possibility of incense being banned under new legislation on illegal highs. Scientists in Israel have isolated a chemical in frankincense which stimulates euphoria in laboratory mice. Now I know why I have managed to stay cheerful for so long!
Well, the use of incense in our worship has survived protestant prejudice and I dare say it will outlast what is little more than a storm in a thurible.
Incense is a symbol of honour, of prayer and of sacrifice. It represents the smell of the sacrifice rising up to God. So there is a link with our reading from Exodus.
We are all, I’m sure glad that one ceremony mentioned in it – the sprinkling of blood over altar and congregation – did not make it into regular Jewish or Christian worship. This is the only instance of it in the whole Old Testament. Imagine what the health and safety people would make of it. Think of the dry-cleaning bills.
The story of the people of Israel which has brought them from Egypt to Sinai reaches its climax in the establishment of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
The scene shifts abruptly from mountain to plain and back again. This is because we have here two different traditions combined by the final editor.
So, in the first scene, Moses, Aaron and his sons are invited to meet God on the mountain. But before that can happen, we are told of the ceremonial sealing of the covenant between God and the people assembled at the foot of the mountain.
Moses proclaims to them the words and ordinances given by the Lord: the Ten Commandments and the book of the covenant. The people respond: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
Next morning, he builds an altar and sets up twelve pillars, one for each tribe. Young men are sent to offer sacrifices. Then comes the ceremony of sprinkling which seals the covenant. Moses takes half the blood from the sacrifices and throws it on the altar. He reads the book of the covenant again, to make sure they know what they are committing themselves to. Once more the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient”. Then Moses throws the remaining blood over them, saying, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
He consecrates them as the Lord’s holy people. The blood of the holy offering, the blood which makes life possible, makes them holy to the Lord. It expresses the bond of will and obedience between the Lord and Israel: it creates solidarity between the parties to the covenant.
The ‘book of the covenant’ will serve as a written deposit of the commands given by God to Moses.
The altar will stand as a reminder of the gracious presence of God with his people. It represents the gracious presence and response of God; a memorial and witness to God’s commitment to his people and theirs to God and each other.
This ceremony constitutes Israel as a people unlike any other; one not based on blood, language or territory but only by hearing God’s word. Its resolve to “hear” acknowledges that Israel is not self-made, self-invented, or autonomous, but is formed by God to do his will. Israel begins a new life of obedience, signified by sacrifice, the book and the blood of the covenant.
Then, just as abruptly as it turned from it, the story turns back to God’s invitation at the beginning of our passage. Moses, Aaron and his sons and representatives of the people ascend the mountain: “and they saw the God of Israel.” As usual, the Bible avoids describing the appearance of God directly. It says only that God is “like” something. It gives a glimpse of the glory that surrounds him: “something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.”
It was believed that no one could see God and live but “God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” The relationship God has with his people is seen in the fact that these “chief men” remain unscathed in spite of having been so close to the awesome holiness of God, but also share a meal.
Then God calls Moses up higher to receive the tablets of stone, “with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” Leaving Aaron and even Joshua behind, Moses disappears into the cloud which signifies the mysterious being and presence of God – what an English medieval mystic would call the “Cloud of Unknowing.”
Anyone familiar with Christian worship will recognize echoes of these events.
- So, at mass today and in this service, we have heard the word of God read and explained to us.
- We have responded in our profession of faith in the creed.
- If we think back to Easter, we recall being sprinkled with baptismal water to remind us of our own baptism; our entry into the new covenant.
- At mass, like the elders on the mountain, we have shared in the sacrificial communion meal.
- We have the sacred ministry of the Church – not to act as a buffer between us and God’s holiness, but in our Lord Jesus Christ in whom God has drawn near to, to aid us in drawing near to God.
- The altar of the Christ’s sacrifice and his sacramental presence in the tabernacle remind us of God’s abiding love for us.
- His words in scripture call us back day by day to that loving obedience which should be our response to the love of God.
And there is something more for us to reflect on in this passage. Why did the unknown editor place these two traditions side by side? What did he mean to say to Israel and what does he say to us?
This combination holds together in a permanent tension different aspects of faith which remain true and vital for us.
On the one hand there is the sense of God’s presence, of “God with us.” This is represented in the imagery of this church by the central panels of the incarnation and the passion of Christ in the humanity he has chosen to share with us. It is represented too by God’s use of his creation in the sacramental life of the Church: by the altar and the tabernacle.
But the danger is our tendency to make the God who is with us into a sort of household deity; there to make us feel comfortable. We remake God in our own image, rather than allowing ourselves to be remade in God’s. That is why we need that sense of the wholly other, the awesome holiness, the inexhaustible unknown of God, which Moses’ mountain-top experience represents.
So, on the other hand, God is the transcendent, all holy one of the mountain: completely other – high and lifted up – wreathed in the cloud of mystery. So above the high altar, we have the Christ in Majesty, the Pantocrator – the ruler and judge of all. He cannot be seen or even described other than by analogy. God is “like” something in creation, but he cannot be defined totally by anything created. God’s meaning can never be exhausted. Whatever we say of him is always inadequate, always falls short.
The worship of this church witnesses to that majesty and otherness. But there is risk here too. Heavenly liturgy in a beautiful building with glorious music, gorgeous vestments and ordered ceremonial can be simply another way of keeping God safely at a distance. If he is in his heaven, out there somewhere, he is less likely to bother us here on earth.
So worship ceases to be either the adoration of God or the transformation of the worshippers. The Christian life is drained of its passion for holiness. It loses any sense of sharing in God’s love of his creatures, however unlovable and unloving they may be. The moral demands of our faith are reduced to a judgmental and joyless moralism; that “hardness of heart” of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel.
But the incarnation teaches us that God has made himself one of us. So the sacramental aspect of our religion is vital – not as an escape from reality but as an immersion in a deeper reality which teaches us to recognize God’s presence in the world, in our Christian brothers and sisters, in our fellow-human beings.
The contemplative dimension of our worship takes us up the mountain not to escape from the reality of the plain, but to be able to see it more clearly in the light of God: to see it with God’s eyes.