Sermon for High Mass – Sunday next before Lent Sunday 14 February 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11, Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-end; Romans 10: 8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13
‘Jesus answered him, “it is written….”’
Yesterday, we went to Ely, to an exhibition in the cathedral called “In the Beginning was the Word.” It is a collection of examples of how words have been written to give them permanency: calligraphy, printing and lettering cut in stone.
Returning on the train by way of Cambridge, I was reminded of another rail journey from that place. One Friday evening, I found myself seated across from a couple of students heading to London for a night out.
They chattered loudly about their studies in English literature and their fellow-students. It was one of those conversations you can only escape from by getting off the train, and it was non-stop to King’s Cross.
Their conversation came round to one of their fellow-undergraduates: a serious evangelical, she was not the type to spend her Friday evenings clubbing in London. They clearly found her piety irksome but had to admit grudgingly that her knowledge of the scriptures gave her a distinct advantage over them in the study of great swathes of literature.
They had glimpsed the truth that it is impossible to understand Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical Poets, Donne, Hopkins, Eliot and Auden without knowing something of scripture and Christian tradition: its hymns and prayers, imagery and practices.
They had sensed that they were the victims of what the critic and poet Clive James has called “Cultural Amnesia.’ They were part of a society which had begun to forget its roots in Christian civilization.
I have no idea what long-term effect, if any, this glimpse of reality had on my fellow-travellers; but their conversation lodged itself in my memory.
Remembering what has been said and written, what has been done, lies at the heart of Christian life; as it did in the life of Jesus and the Jewish people of which he was a child.
One of the Book of Deuteronomy’s favourite terms is “Remember,” as in, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Those who “remember” what God has done for them will respond with words and deeds of thanksgiving.
The Book of Deuteronomy presents us with a long speech, or series of sermons, by Moses, addressed to the people as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land. Our passage this morning comes after a long series of instructions and laws to order the community’s life in their new home.
It gives instructions for the feast or ceremony of “first fruits.” We would call it a harvest festival. The Israelites are given the liturgical action to perform and the words to accompany it. These words are at the heart of the ritual: spoke by each worshipper; not the priest in this case. The worshipper acknowledges that he is in the land which is God’s gift to them. Then he makes a confession of faith, a creed, which sums up the central themes of the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch):
- The promise to the patriarchs ( the “wandering Aramean” was Jacob);
- The Exodus from Egypt;
- The entrance in the land.
All these are the work of God, not their own achievements. They are even more a gift than the fruits of the earth.
Faithful people did remember, so Paul quotes from Deuteronomy when he writes to the Church in Rome: “The word is very near you, on your lips and I your hearts.”
And in each of his responses to the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy too:
- ‘It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’” And you will remember, or be reminded by the Post-Communion Chant and Prayer, that the verse goes continues, “But by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
- ‘It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”’
- ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’
The Gospel shows us Jesus in a time of trial; in which his obedience to the will of the Father is tested by various blandishments. We see him engaged in a spiritual warfare, a struggle for his soul. This will recur in his ministry and it will be a feature of the life of all Christians.
The gospel shows us how we can resist rather than succumb to these temptations.
In the words of scripture, written, read, recited, repeated, said, sung, pondered on; until they are engraved in our memories, etched “on our lips and in our hearts,” we are given:
Not just clues to understand our culture and literature, our history and civilization, (although the noisy Philistine element in the Church, with its disdain for anything older than last week, neglects this to our common peril};
Not just textual hand grenades to lob at those who disagree with us, (remember, the devil can quote scripture too).
The scriptures give us words with what the Collect calls the “power to save:”
- Words which remind us of our identity as Christians, who we are and what we are called to be;
- Words which help us see the tempter’s lies for what they are;
- Words which strengthen us in our weakness so that we can resist him (when Martin Luther found himself beset by temptation, he would simply say: Baptisatus sum – “I am baptized.” We can all say that: “I am a child of God; I am saved;”
- Words, too, which discomfit the comfortable, which pierce our complacency.
We learn these words in our regular worship and prayers, but they are not just for when we come to Mass or Evensong; or even just for our morning and evening prayers.
We are to pray them constantly, and especially when we are assailed by out besetting sins. We must pray there and then. I we wait until Sunday of Evensong, it will be too late. We will already have fallen. We must use those words of prayer as our defence immediately we glimpse the enemy, for, Paul says, if we confess with our lips that, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in our hearts that “God raised him from the dead,” we “will be saved.”