Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Easter, 10:30am serviceadmin | 22 May 2011
“What mean ye by this service?”
It was the Exodus text that framed our Holy Week reflections. But it extends, I think, into our Eastertide meditations, particularly today. What do we mean by this service of Morning Prayer, I wonder?
So much is set before us in the readings and the canticles, the hymns and the prayers. In the ten-second sound bite culture of our consumer world and day, it must seem to be altogether too much. So I want to try to help you understand a little bit of what we are doing in this service and to see if we can’t begin to appreciate what God is doing for us and with us in this service. It is really all about our life with God in the mercies of Jesus Christ.
St. James, in the epistle reading at Holy Communion for today, exhorts us to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Meekness or humility is about our openness to God’s word. The psalmist notes that “blessed are all they that fear the Lord and walk in his ways” (Ps. 128, vs.1). Fear, of course, means holding God in awe and wonder because God is God, we might say, and far more than we can desire or imagine. In the Scriptural view of things, there is something wonderful about God making himself known to us, about God’s revealing his will and presence to us. Our first lesson this morning from The Book of Exodus reminds us of both. At issue is whether we are open to his word and will and presence.
What stands in the way? Only ourselves, I am afraid, because of what the Collect calls “the unruly wills and affections of sinful men.” Our sinfulness is about our being “a stiff-necked people,” to use Moses’ phrase from Exodus, stubborn in our willfulness. Now consider the first canticle, known as the Venite, psalm 95. It is a call to worship. “O come, let us sing,” it begins, “sing unto the Lord and heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.” Sing to something, to someone – to the Lord! Rejoice in something – “the strength of our salvation.” Something is made known to us by God about God and about God’s will for our humanity; something which counters the “unruly wills and affections” of our hearts even. This is signaled in the line: “harden not your hearts as in the Provocation and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness when your fathers tempted me, proved me and saw my works.” It is a powerful image, indeed, an image from the Exodus. The psalmist elsewhere remarks that “God is provoked every day.” I remember a priest friend exclaiming in frustration about something or other in the life of the Church, “like God,” he would say, “I am provoked every day!” No doubt, there is much about all of us that occasions frustration and dismay.
But the phrase in the Venite captures an aspect of the Exodus. It presents a picture of “the unruly wills and affections” of our sinful humanity in our resistance to God’s will. Today’s Old Testament lesson from Exodus alludes to one feature of that side of our humanity. It is the story of the giving of the Law on the two tablets of stone by God to Moses. But, you will have noticed that, along with a kind of epiphany of God, God’s revealing his presence and his will to Moses in the cloud of his glory, this is the second time that the Law has been given. Why twice? Because Moses broke the first set of tablets of stone on which were carved the Ten Commandments. How come? Is Moses some sort of klutz, clumsy and careless? No. The problem was (is) with our unruly wills and affections.
The background story is this. After the giving of the Law on the two tables of stone the first time, Moses went off on a retreat or a holiday and was absent from the people of Israel. Instead of adhering to the Law, they persuaded Aaron in Moses’ absence to make a golden calf, taking the gold and jewels which they had gotten from the Egyptians on the night of the Passover and melting it down to make a molten calf. Why? To worship the image of a calf? Why a molten calf? The Passover deliverance was God’s will and doing. But they have more than forgotten this. They have repudiated it. They have refused this spiritual insight and truth. What the people of Israel are saying in effect is that the cows and beasts of burden which pulled their carts and wagons with themselves and their property out of Egypt, are really their saviors and deliverers. The logic is a perfect illustration of idolatry, mistaking the created things of this world for the Creator. It is, of course, about clinging to the immediate and the practical at the expense of the spiritual and intellectual which has used the things of this world for a divine purpose. It is, of course, utter folly.
To say the least, Moses wasn’t too happy when he came down from the mountain. He was royally and divinely provoked, you might say, and he took the tablets and smashed them as well as smashing the molten calf. The point is dramatically clear, I think. The golden calf is simply a dead cow. So what are you going to worship? What is worthy of your attention, a dead cow or the living word and will of God objectively before you on tables of stone?
Throughout the Exodus, the people of Israel put God to the test, provoking him. And yet what we see in this lesson is the patient care and forebearance of God. The Law is given a second time in the face of our foolishness. “Behold, I make a covenant,” God says. It is enough, one might think, to awaken our hearts to praise, and to praise the fuller form of that divine covenant with our humanity that is celebrated in one of the greatest canticle of praises ever penned, the Te Deum Laudamus. “We praise thee, O God” and in so doing we discover our good.
In our second lesson we see that even greater covenant. It is the covenant made in the flesh, the covenant of God’s love for our humanity that has overcome all of the ways of sin and death. It is the covenant of Christ’s death and resurrection, a covenant signified in our baptism and in our constant attention to God’s word. Here in 1st Peter, we are recalled to the radical nature of God’s being with us in the humanity of Jesus Christ. “Put to death in the flesh” on the Cross, he was “made alive,” quickened, “in the spirit,” Peter tells us, “in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison,” a reference to the place of departed spirits. It is the one of the Scriptural bases for the Creedal idea of Christ’s descent into Hell. It signals in the strongest way possible, God’s great desire to be reconciled with the whole of his sinful creation. It testifies to the power of the redemption of our humanity by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to the power of the divine word which enlivens those who hear it and receive it. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited, and redeemed his people,” as the canticle, the Benedictus, puts it. For God “hath raised up a mighty salvation for us.”
The liturgy is our service of prayers and praises in which we celebrate the great, good news of human redemption. We find ourselves in the divine story of human redemption, as sinners in need of the saving grace of God proclaimed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words of Scripture echo and re-echo throughout the liturgy. The challenge is to let those words quicken our hearts, making us alive to the power of the Risen Christ.
It may seem to be too much but it is all of the rich muchness of God who alone can “order” our unruly will and affections so that we might learn “to love the thing which [He] commandest, and desire that which [He] doth promise.” Only then shall “our hearts be surely fixed” on God and his word “where true joys are to be found” regardless of “the sundry and manifold changes of the world.” It is the meaning and purpose of this service to place us with God in the power of his living word.
“What mean ye by this service?”
Fr. David Curry
Easter IV, MP, 10:30am, 2011