Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 16th October 2016

Nehemiah 8:9-18; John 16:1-11 

Today in Judaism they are celebrating what they call Sukkot, which is the Feast of Booths, of Tabernacles. It began as a celebration of the end of 40 years wandering in the desert after Moses had received the 10 Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai. Last weekend was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Sukkot begins five days afterwards. Leviticus 23:24 reads: ‘On the 15th day of the 7th month, there shall be a feast of tabernacles to God for seven days’, and in Exodus 23 Sukkot had evolved into a celebration of the summer harvest. It was – is – a harvest festival. So this a nice counterpart to our Harvest Festival season.

We have been amazingly fortunate in the Foodbank this year, in that a lot of churches and schools locally have given us their Harvest gifts. For the last two or three weeks it has seemed as though it was a constant Harvest Festival for us. We are for ever filling up the van and unloading all the goodies into the Foodbank warehouse.

We have slightly over 3 metric tons of food in our warehouse, compared with our normal 2 tonnes. We give out – if you’re interested – about 200kgs a week, so on average a tonne lasts us five weeks. So Harvest Festival has been really welcome and has enabled us to get really well stocked up.

We have given some away to the Women’s Refuge in Send, to the pop-up food bank and soup kitchen which the Methodists are operating in Leatherhead (to replace the ‘Pitstop’ that there used to be there), and we have given some food, from some of the church collections, expressly by permission of those churches, to a collection for the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. 

So it’s good to be reminded of the origins of Harvest Festival in Judaism. Harvest Festival in Christianity, in English Christianity, is really a Victorian invention; but it is a nice time, a time of generosity, and it is perhaps a good antidote to all our worries over the consequences of the EU referendum, the crisis in the Health Service, and of course the dreadful foreign outlook, particularly in Syria and Haiti. Nice to be able to celebrate something at least, and Harvest is a very worthwhile celebration.

We can be grateful for God’s creation and for His bounty. We can make sure that we are generous with that bounty. This morning at Mattins I was exploring the ideas of the right and the good. When we say that we are pursuing the good and the right thing to do, what is it that makes that something right or good? In our second lesson today, this evening, we have part of Jesus’ farewell discourse with the disciples, where he is preparing them for his eventual Ascension, when they will not see him any more. 

And this passage in St John’s Gospel introduces us to the idea of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, παρακλητης, which literally means someone who comes and stands alongside you. It then came to mean an advocate, in the sense of a barrister in court, somebody who stood up for you and represented your cause. In some Bibles the word is translated as ‘Advocate’, but in the Book of Common Prayer – look in the Te Deum, for example – (in Morning Prayer) and the Authorised Version of the Bible, the word used is ‘Comforter’. 

I think you can more or less take your pick which is the better translation. The idea is not really a formal court appearance necessarily, but the Holy Spirit supporting us and being alongside us, although Jesus himself has gone, to the Father. This is the end of a Gospel, St John’s Gospel, which perhaps more than any of the others, concentrates on establishing the truth that Jesus was God in human form, God revealing himself to us. In John 20 it says, ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye might have life through his name.’ 

That’s the purpose of John’s Gospel. It is, if you think about it, the ultimate sanction of everything. The reason why we should think about what God’s Commandments are, the reason why certain things are good, and right, and certain things are not, all comes down to the fact that we have faith in Jesus as the Son of God, as God on earth.

God is not the ‘blind watchmaker’. He didn’t just wind up the mechanism, set it going, and disappear. Instead he sent his son, as the ultimate expression of caring for us. It’s too big for us to understand completely, but it is certainly not something that we should ignore, as some people today, unfortunately, do.

It’s not good enough just to bumble along, vaguely doing good and avoiding pain: just having a vaguely ‘nice life’. The beautiful thing is that, if we do have faith, and if we do draw near to the Lord in our prayers, then He still sends His Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, to stand alongside us and support us in everything that we do.

The Comforter is for us, and against the world. ‘He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement.’ The word ‘reprove’ has a meaning which is closer to ‘put to the test’: it’s a sort of general connotation of testing, perhaps testing in court, forensic testing. ‘He will test the world for sin, for righteousness and in judgment.’ The sin which the Advocate will expose will be the sin of faithlessness: ‘because they believe not on me’. The ‘righteousness’ is a shorthand expression. Righteousness, in the context of the New Testament, is the opposite of sin, and they both relate to closeness to God or separation from Him. So somebody who is ‘righteous’ is aligned with God, is close to Him: so the Comforter, the Advocate, will test the world to see how close it is to God. 

In the New English Bible this passage is translated as ‘he will convict them of wrong, by their refusal to believe in me; he will convince them that right is on my side [that’s the righteousness] by showing that I go to the Father when I pass from your sight, and he will convince them of divine judgement by showing that the prince of this world stands condemned.’ ‘The prince of this world’ is a name for the opposite of God, worldly, rather than heavenly, value.

We read these passages at the end of St. John’s Gospel often at funerals. This is the time, perhaps, when people are brought up short and they think more about what ultimate truth there is. I think it would be good if we could realise that this is not just something for special occasions, for Harvest Festivals, say. The Holy Ghost, the Comforter, is there for us, to stand alongside us. All we have to do is to open our hearts in prayer to Him. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come, to guide and support us in everything we do.