Sermon for Evening Prayer on Saturday 15th June 2014, after the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, AGM
Exodus 34:1-10, Mark 1:1-13

After the AGM. A new beginning. A new deal. Moses had broken the tablets written by God – ‘tables of stone, written by the finger of God’ [Ex. 31:18]. He broke them when Aaron made the Golden Calf and got the Israelites to worship the Golden Calf rather than the One True God. They broke their covenant with God, so Moses broke the tablets containing the words of the covenant [Ex. 32:19].

And then Moses met the Lord, who came down in the pillar of cloud, and begged The Lord to forgive the Israelites and renew His covenant. The God of Israel was not a vengeful god; the Lord forgave His chosen people and renewed the covenant, giving Moses two new replacement tablets of stone on which the Lord had written: various commandments, (more than just the 10 Commandments), all designed to make for decent humane living.

The Israelites experienced God in the most direct way. God, JHWH, revealed Himself to His prophet Moses and He told Moses what He wanted His people to do.

In those days, scripture, holy writing, was supposed to be, literally, the word of the Lord. Even today, Moslem people believe that their scripture, the Quran, is the result of direct divine inspiration.

By the time Jesus came along, the Commandments had been copied, written down many times, and the Jews all knew what the commandments of God were. God had made an agreement with the Israelites, through their representative, through Moses. It was written down: it was a written contract.

With John the Baptist, people were renewed in their Jewish religion by ritual washing, being baptised in the River Jordan. There was no contract-making, nothing written except the original Jewish Bible, containing the words of the covenant between God and Abraham – renewed between God and Moses.

The covenant, the understanding, the link between God and his chosen people, was expressed to be by water and the Spirit. When Jesus presented Himself for baptism, God appeared. God spoke, not just to a prophet, but to anyone who was listening. ‘Thou art my beloved Son’ …[Mark 1:11]. And this began Jesus’ adult mission on earth, those three momentous years which changed the world.

We should perhaps pause at that point, since this is the Prayer Book Society at worship, and observe in a respectful way the fact that, whereas the Lord’s covenant with Israel through Abraham and through Moses was a matter of words. Jesus came in water and spirit [John 3:5] – and then above all, in the flesh, as a man. It wasn’t a question what was written or the detail of what was said, but of who He was that made a difference; so although we set great store by having the right words, the best words, to express the most important things in life, our relationship with God – and we find those words in the Book of Common Prayer – we must draw a respectful distinction between that situation and Moses and Abraham’s tablets of stone.

That covenant, that contract, those words written under the finger of God, were not replicated when Jesus came to be baptised by John the Baptist. Indeed I would suggest that there has been quite a lot of harm done by the idea that Scripture is literally written down by God. I think we can take some comfort from the fact that the Book of Common Prayer was clearly the work of human hands, indeed human hands informed by a lot of prayer, and by the response of the Holy Spirit to that prayer.

But albeit with the benefit of prayer, the book was written by a man, by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in the middle of the 1500s. Cranmer based it on existing liturgy, usually in Latin, so he wasn’t making it up. Instead he was using the best bits that had evolved over the hundreds of years beforehand.

I started out by mentioning new beginnings, new years. This, the week of Pentecost, Whit week, is the beginning of the Christian year, the beginning of the Church year. Last Sunday was Whitsunday, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit: mysterious flames, the disciples speaking in tongues. Although they were recognised as being just ordinary bods from Galilee, what they said was understood by everyone, irrespective what country each person listening came from.

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit.

God appearing in the pillar of fire or out of the burning bush to Moses: the father, the creator.

God the Son – ‘Thou art my beloved Son’

and last weekend, God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. ‘The wind wills where it listeth’ [John 3:8].

None of this will translate literally, either as a matter of language or as a matter of metaphysics.

It’s difficult for us to believe in the sort of God who dealt with the Israelites, taking a very personal interest in what they did and responding to very basic prayers – ‘Save us from the Egyptians!’ ‘Save us from the Ammonites and the Amalekites. Give us victory in battle.’

It’s very difficult for us to believe in that kind of God. Easier for us to believe in God incarnate, in Jesus Christ. He was clearly a historical figure.

It may be easier, today, to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit. All of us, however unspiritual, surely have had those moments when something has happened, or a thought has popped into your brain, which you can’t really account for, but which nevertheless suddenly helps you to make sense of a difficult situation.

Obviously those sort of feelings don’t just pop up at will every time we pray. But it does seem to me that it would be worthwhile to carry on looking out for them. I suppose our take on that, as PBS members, is that on listening out for the ‘still, small voice of calm’, we feel that we may find it more easily using Cranmer’s words than in some twenty-first century banality.

Wherever you are going to find it – that still, small voice of calm, the voice of the Spirit – it is worth looking out for.

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