Saturday, December 01, 2018

Sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 9th September 2018

One of the more challenging aspects of preaching at Evensong is the way that Old and New Testaments sometimes seem to offer us such very different pictures of God as they recount the story of God’s dealings with humanity, so that it’s quite hard to know what to do with them.
So tonight we are confronted in Exodus with a God who seems capricious, deeply partisan, maybe even rather egotistical as events are mapped out.
It’s impossible not to ask what harm it would have done if, instead of ramping up Pharoah’s resistance, God had instead worked to SOFTEN his heart.
OK, so the Exodus story would have lacked a bit of drama without the plagues, the Passover, the crossing for the Red Sea – but THINK of all the lives that might have been saved, the fear and grief avoided….

Yet we are told explicity (in verse 4 of our first reading) that God chose to harden Pharoah’s so arrange events that Pharoah flew in the face of wise and compassionate leadership with the dubious justification that, in effect, all this would be good for God’s image.
“I will harden Pharoah’s heart and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharoah and his army and the Egpytians will know that I am the Lord...”

In other words – that’ll show them.

Arguably, of course, this says little about the true nature of God and a great deal about the mindset of God’s people, guilty then as now of sometime forming God in their own image. That’s a danger we can all fall prey to once in a while, I suspect. The Israelites really needed to confirm their own status as Very Important People, and aspired to this by confirming THEIR God at the top of the tree.
That’s a version of salvation history that’s not easy for us to deal with...particularly this picture of a deity who is actively out for his own glory…

It’s hard to imagine how our prayers would run tonight – or at any other time – if this remained our key understanding of God.
We’d offer a lot of humilty, blended with at best anxiety, at worst dread, fear, trembling.
Would we even choose to approach God at all? Or be tempted to stay far away...
Who knows how he might be feeling? Those first-born Egyptian infants, after all, had done nothing to provoke his wrath...the soldiers of Pharoah’s army were only obeying orders...It would seem foolish to engage with this unpredictable character, but if needs must, then the keynote must surely be GREAT respect but absolutely NO affection.

And of course, it is absolutely true that we should never sit lightly to our relationship with the One in whom all things hold together, but we are given a very different picture of God as we enter the world of the New Testament and hear what Jesus has to say about his heavenly Father.
Yes this IS the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Jesus leaves us in no doubt about that- but we meet him in a new way, not only, and supremely, in the person of his Son – but also in the way the Son relates to the Father.

While we always need to remember that the status of a father in a 1st century Palestinian household was very different from the casual friendliness of “dear old Dad” today, with a clear sense of paternalistic authority held as of right...nonetheless the idea that WE, you and I, are invited into that kind of “Father/child” relationship with GOD is, frankly, mind-blowing.
Remember, Moses and those who came after him were given such an abiding sense of God’s holiness that they weren’t even allowed to pronounce his name...the point of the Hebrew letters that we repeat as “Yaweh” was that they were unpronouncable, - because God’s name is unsayable.
And now – suddenly – Jesus is inviting us to make a relationship with a heavenly Father and is focussing on what one commentator has called the “essential kindness of God”.

And, actually, that essential kindness is the thing to cling to no matter what.
When you pray say “Our Father”...
And so the prayer unfolds, in all its blessed familiarity.
Words we may have said at bedtime every day of our lives.
Words we sing and say together in this place day after day after day.
Countless times.
Countless voices saying “Father..” “Father” “Father”….
– and we’re in danger of failing to notice what it really says to us.
We pray with the confidence that God will supply our daily needs.
We pray with the assurance that if we come to God conscious of our sin and brokenness, and ask for forgiveness – we WILL be forgiven.
We pray, knowing that God is interested in what we are saying...that he cares about US and not simply about the “glory of his name”.

This is worlds away from the picture of God that the Exodus passage painted.
Yes God is awesome, amazing, beyond all that we can aspire to...BUT nonetheless
God wants us to know ourselves as members of God’s family….As Jesus invites us to call God “Father” he invites us, too, to rediscover our place in creation...We are made, as the catechism puts it, to know, love and serve God here on earth so that we may finally be happy with him in heaven.
WE exist “for the glory of his name” - but in glorifying God we both celebrate and receive God’s gift of Love that is lavished on creation.

Of course we must always remember that “Our Father” is “in heaven”. Forget the slippers, and the cosiness of a family hearth.
We are invited into intimacy but balance that with reverence. We are wonderfully welcome to approach (there is something so hugely appealing about that vision of going into a secret place, having “time out” alone with the God who knows us through and through and loves us all the same) but while we are invited to come close, this is never, ever cosy.
God remains GOD...Hallowed, holy, revered…

Once again, our tapestry of Christ in glory helps me out.
Remember Jesus tells us that to see him is to see the Father. All God’s power and glory present in Christ, true God and true man.
So – look up and see him – awesome, beyond our reach and our understanding.
But notice, too, the human being standing between Christ’s feet.
Dwarfed. Insignificant. But held there safely.
Prayers spoken there will be heard.
Sins taken there will be forgiven.
And God who keeps watch over Israel, will keep watch over us too – and deliver us from evil, no matter how parlous the times may sometimes seem.

So – PRAY. Pray this prayer that reminds us of who we are and who God is.
Of how to live in relationship with God and of what that relationship can mean in our lives and our world.
Pray confident in God’s grace and his abiding love, which Jesus both shows and tells us.

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