Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 March 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 3.1-15; John 12.27-36a
In the Gospel at Mass today we heard the voice of God saying to the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him.”
At This Evensong, we have heard two more passages in which God speaks:
The first was to Moses, from out of the burning bush. There we have the beginning of his calling to lead God’s chosen people out from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. It will be a long and arduous calling: the people will often be far from grateful to either God or Moses; and Moses will have his complaints about God, too. And at the end of it all, he will only get to see the Promised Land from a distance.
The second is to Jesus, in response to his prayer: ‘Now is my soul troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”’
It is what we know as Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Just before this some Greek pilgrims have approached Philip saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John sees this incident as signalling that Jesus’ “hour” has now come: the hour of which Jesus had said: “I when I am lifted up will all draw all people to himself.”
The opening of our passage with its “Father, save me from this hour,” has an echo of Gethsemane. But, typically of John, for whom Jesus is always the one in control of events, even of his passion, there is no prolonged agony in the garden. Almost as soon as the prayer is uttered, it is put aside.
In response to his “Father, glorify your name,” we hear the voice from heaven, “…I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
Jesus’ prayer that God’s name be glorified is that the fullness of God, his holiness, mercy and love, be revealed. This revelation will be through the death and resurrection of Jesus – his being “lifted up,” which shows forth the nature and wonder of God. God has glorified his name in the whole life and ministry of Jesus. He will glorify it in the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. As Jesus embraces his fate, the Father, whose voice we hear, looks back at what is already accomplished, and forward to all that will be.
The focus now turns to the crowd and what all this means for them. There is a sense not of hostility but of incomprehension. Like the perplexed Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman at the well, they struggle to figure out what is being said and what it means; a situation most of us can sympathize with when reading St. John.
Who are the crowd? We have seen the Greeks, representatives of the world- now we have Jews who quote the law: “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. So, together we have the people of every time and place.
Jesus’ first response is good news for them. They had not understood the voice that came from heaven, but he tells them it is for their sake and not his. What has just happened: his passage from fear to an awareness of the Father – is to be possible for others. However daunting the world, however fearsome the powers of evil might be, Christ will be with them. As the Letter to the hebrews says, we have a high priest who is able to sympathise with us in our weakness.
He goes on: “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”
The cross will be the judgement of the ruler of this world, the personification of evil. Satanic darkness will be clearly seen for what it is: seeking to snuff out the light of love, goodness and truth. But just as we will hear at Mass next Sunday of Jesus resisting the blandishments and temptations of the devil – before his ministry begins – so, as it comes to a close he will refuse to swerve from his loving obedience to the will of the Father, to whose glory he lives and dies. Throughout his confrontation with the power of darkness Jesus remains centred on God, and so is able to overcome it: the darkness cannot overcome the light of the world; the power of evil cannot ultimately overcome that of love.
The Jesus gives an all-embracing invitation: “And I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself.” To people everywhere Jesus offers a strengthening vision. We need not be paralyzed by the forces of darkness but drawn – along with others – towards the one who has been lifted – not only on the cross but to heaven.
“He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” We are reminded that Christ only goes to glory through accepting death not avoiding it. It is to this that the crowd objects. They think only of a splendid and undying Messiah; a super version of earthly kings and emperors.
While the invitation is so broad and generous, there is also an urgency about it: “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” Then you will “not know where you are going.” At one level, Jesus is referring to the immediate situation of the crowd with himself, but John clearly intends this to be a warning against complacency addressed to all: “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
So if God is speaking to us this evening from the burning bush of word and sacrament, what might we expect him to say in the light of tonight’s readings?
Let’s begin with Moses. Notice that he has not gone out into the desert, as others would do in later centuries, in search of God or to find himself or spiritual enlightenment. He is simply doing his day job: looking after his father-in-law’s sheep. God does not reserve speaking to us to times when we are on holy ground, in church or at prayer. He is just as likely to address us in the midst of our daily life.
Nor is Moses called to the pursuit of some private spiritual bliss but to lead God’s people. Later, at Mount Sinai, he will go up to be with God, not to escape from the responsibilities of his call, but in order to receive the law which will guide and shape the common life of that people in love of God and neighbour.
Then we come to Jesus. He says to the crowd, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” It has come for their comfort and encouragement – and it comes for ours too. But it has also come as a call to them and to us to become children of light; to take part in the struggle against the darkness of this world; a darkness which we are being made painfully aware has also invaded the life of the Church.
We should not think that God does not speak to us in church or at prayer. Think of the experience of the disciples who have gone up on the mountain with Jesus to pray: hearing the divine voice and its command to listen to Jesus. Remember the call of Isaiah which we heard at Mass a few Sundays ago; a call heard in the temple. Hearing the voice of God in church or in the world are not mutually exclusive. The listening we do in worship and prayer, even if it is not the immediate setting of our calling, serves to heighten our spiritual awareness, to sensitize us to the voice and presence of God. It makes us more likely to notice turn aside to the burning bushes we encounter in ordinary life – which then often turns out to be not so ordinary after all. It prepares us to hear the call of God in and through the people and events with whom we are set. Our times on holy ground should teach us to see all ground as holy. They should teach us to hear with God the cry of his people who suffer in bondage in the Egypts of this world.
The beauty of sacred art and architecture, of music and poetry and biblical story, in a service like this, is given to stretch our imaginations, our minds and our hearts towards God; to open our eyes to the light, to unstop our ears to hear God’s voice. It is by our imagination more than anything else that our minds and hearts are opened towards God and drawn into the drama of redemption. So perhaps the most religiously significant thing we do in our lives is to wonder about God and the story of God’s ways with us.
The tragedy of so much religion is that it substitutes explanation for wonder, reduces mystery to the the mundane, turns poetry into advertising slogans, sacred story into fundamentalist statements, reduces divine love to legalism, sacramental mystery to ritual pedantry, spiritual experience to a private possession, prayer to a self-improvement technique.
Moses could, I suppose, have ignored the burning bush and stuck with the day job. We might do the same. As our local St. Marylebone poet, Elizabeth Barret Browning says, we can all too easily fail to notice that:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Or perhaps in our case, just order a last gin and tonic before Lent.
So let’s use this Lent to listen and to look more attentively.