Sermon for Epiphany 3 High Mass Sunday 21 January 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 14.17-20; Revelation 19.6-10; John 2.1-11
“King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.”
Those of you who were at Evensong last Sunday have already heard me preach a sermon on Melchizedek the priest-king, as we had a reading from the Letter to the Hebrews in which he figures strongly in its treatment of the priesthood of Christ. I won’t try the patience of those who were there by repeating it, but if you want to read more about Melchizedek, you can find the sermon on the parish website.
That passage from Genesis is one the three Old Testament “types” or foreshadowings of the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist which are depicted in the panels on the back wall of this church beneath the great Jesse Tree window. (They are a memorial to Berdmore Compton, the second Vicar of this parish. Nowadays, dead Vicars are commemorated with a modest brass plaque by the Lady Altar and in the prayers for the departed on All Souls Day and their year’s minds, which is enough: as “we are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.”)
The passage from Genesis has been chosen for this Sunday to accompany the Gospel passage of the Wedding of Cana with its first of Jesus’ “signs” which “revealed his glory.” Together with the Coming of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ, it makes up the three-fold Epiphany or manifestation of Christ which we celebrate in this season.
Our passage from the Book of Revelation also speaks of a wedding; the “Marriage of the Lamb.” In John’s vision we are given a glimpse of the worship of heaven. The “great multitude,” sings, in response to a voice from the throne of God, “like the sound of many waters and like the sound if mighty thunder peals, crying out, ‘Hallelujah!” For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.” Lovers of Handel’s “Messiah” will recognize where he found the libretto for the Hallelujah Chorus.
If people say to you that our worship here, with its music and incense, lights and vestments is not biblical: tell them to read the Book of Revelation.
All this comes after the dark and terrifying vision of the destruction of Babylon, which represented Rome, and all empires since which have worshipped not the God of justice and peace, love and mercy, but the idols of power and greed, injustice and oppression, wealth and luxury; empires which have enslaved and not freed the children of God.
Then Revelation moves beyond the judgement of Babylon to the positive consequences of that judgement: the establishment of God’s rule and the arrival of the Lamb’s feast.
The link with that Wedding Feast is implied in the vision of Babylon, whose idolatrous crimes are described in Old Testament terms of sexual infidelity, playing the harlot. This reflects the conviction that God’s people had been promised to another, betrothed to their one true God. So, the time of salvation is compared to the joyful celebration of a wedding. Following Jesus himself, in passages like today’s gospel, the early Church saw the coming of the kingdom, as the time at which the Messiah would claim his betrothed , the Church, as his bride.
The Lamb’s “bride has made herself ready”. Her wedding dress has nothing of the obscene extravagance of Babylon’s attire, the ludicrously expensive “designer” purple and scarlet. She is adorned “in fine linen, bright and pure.” This has not cost mountains of this world’s silver and gold; yet in its own way its cost has been even greater for it comes from “the righteous deeds of the saints,” including those whose following in the footsteps of the Lamb took them to death.
That great multitude of the heavenly choir includes those closest to the throne of God: the 24 elders, angelic representatives of the people of God and the four creatures who act on behalf of the whole creation, animal as well as human. These have a fundamental role in the ongoing liturgy of heaven. Directing the attention of creation towards the seat of all true power and the focus of true worship, they “fell down and worshipped God who is seated on the throne with their Amen, Hallelujah!”
The voice which calls from the throne, “Praise our God, ” is addressed to “all his servants , you who fear him…” Fearing God is not to be understood as a cowering in terror, but in the biblical sense of joyful, reverential awe towards the one who is worthy of worship,
And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ This saying that has found its place, as we know, within the Eucharist, which is understood as an anticipation of the banquet of heaven.
The angel tells John: “These are true words of God.” When we gather in our eucharist we do so to hear the “true words of God,” ….” the testimony of Jesus…the spirit of prophecy.” The words of Jesus speak to us of God, of what God has done and of what we are to do. And so, his Mother tells us, as she told the servants at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.”
We pay attention to his words so that we might learn who it is that we are to worship. John falls down at the feet of the angelic messenger to worship him, but is told at once and in no uncertain terms: “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” We human beings have a natural tendency to worship – our problem is that all too often we direct it wrongly; towards power or fame, status or race, wealth or comfort, popularity or success.
We gather to offer our prayers in union with those of the saints that God’s kingdom may come and his will be done, “on earth as it is in heaven” that “the time of trial,” and the seductive wiles of the Evil One may give way to God’s rule over all creation. The fragrant smell of incense, representing the prayers of the saints, contrasts in Revelation with the foul stench of the smoke rising from Babylon, after its judgement; from our pollution of creation or the crematoria of Auschwitz.
Like Melchizedek, we bring forth bread and wine. We bring them for the wedding feast of the Lamb. We bring these things which are both the gifts of God, and the work of human hands; symbols of those things on which we depend for our existence.
We bring these tokens of our life and labour to be offered, blessed, broken and shared; knowing that in the Babylons of this world, in our world, these things are often not treated as gifts for which we must bless God and be thankful, but as our possessions; things to be clutched to ourselves and not shared with others. We have food enough to waste while others go hungry. The wine which gladdens the hearts of those at a wedding feast, we know also destroys the lives of more than those who are addicted to it.
We come, the servants of God “both small and great” as equally empty-handed to receive equally from his hand. We bring bread and wine then not just to receive comfort or strength for ourselves but to share in God’s reordering of creation to its true end.
We bring them to celebrate the Marriage Supper of the Lamb who was slain, to offer worship in union with him who, while others shed blood to take life, pours out his own blood that people might be given life. We come believing that our joy and fulfilment is to be found in the worship and communion of this wedding feast.
However much of this world’s gifts and goods we may succeed in acquiring and keeping for ourselves, it will always, like the wine at Cana, run out. Only the gifts of God which we share as equals, only the giving and receiving of love, will endure; for these are the bread of life and the cup of salvation; in them we find that the best wine has been kept until last.