Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday before Advent, 6th November 2016
1 Kings 3:1-15; Romans 8:31-39

King Solomon, as well as having 700 wives, was famous for his wisdom. In his dream he asked the Lord, ‘Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?’

He went on to demonstrate that God had granted his wish, when two women came to him, one claiming that the other had stolen her baby. Who did the baby belong to? This was before DNA testing, of course, and Solomon came up with the gruesome but effective solution that the baby should be cut in two, and each woman given half a baby. The real mother was so horrified that her baby would be killed that she offered that the other woman should have it – and the truth soon came out.

After the Exodus from captivity in Egypt, the twelve tribes of the Israelites settled in Canaan, and from time to time when a threat to their existence arose, a champion, a saviour, was found to lead them to safety. These leaders were called ‘judges’, and this, between 1200 and 1000 BC, was the time of the Judges. The Book of Judges, which records this history, is the seventh book in the Old Testament. 

So from their earliest history, the people of Israel identified their leader as a judge. A key feature of leadership was judicial ability. And when Solomon, great among the kings of Israel, inherited his father David’s kingdom, while he was ‘but a little child, … [who knew] not how to go out or to come in’, he asked God for an ‘understanding heart to judge thy people.’ To judge them: not explicitly to ‘rule’ them, although this was what he meant. A modern translation [NRSV] uses the word ‘govern’ instead of ‘judge’, which rather loses some of the subtlety of this.

For the Jews, the idea of the Law, the interpretation of the Law by scholars, rabbis, and its application in practice to situations in real life by judges, all go to make civilised life possible. Judaism, Biblical Israel, is a theocratic society. God gave the law through the prophets, and by God’s authority the law is interpreted and applied – by judges. Judging is, in the Hebrew Bible, the exercise of government. The New English Bible, which I still like very much as a modern translation, uses the as expression to ‘administer justice’ at one point, as well as the word ‘govern’. For the ancient Israelites, to govern meant to administer justice. And justice is administered by judges.

I couldn’t help thinking of this when I was following the story of the judgement in the High Court this week about whether the government can give notice of leaving the European Union without first obtaining the authority of Parliament. I expect that, if you have been following what the various papers say, you might have read some widely differing views about the judgement, which was to the effect that the government cannot lawfully give notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, without obtaining the consent of Parliament first.

Some newspapers have reacted violently; one even described the judgment as a challenge to Great Britain analogous with the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the judges who made the judgment, who are the Master of the Rolls, the Lord Chief Justice and the most senior Appeal Court judge, have been subjected to some extremely abusive criticism.

The judgement has been appealed to the Supreme Court, and will be heard in the second week in December, I understand. It’s not my place, in a sermon, to go into the merits of the case, save only to mention that the case was not about whether we should leave the EU, but was rather about whether, in carrying out the decision of the referendum to leave, the government could act without getting Parliamentary consent, by using the so-called ‘royal prerogative’ rather than an Act of Parliament. 

I’m sure you will have heard more than enough commentary and analysis, so I won’t add to it. Perhaps, though, you will allow me, as an old retired lawyer, to point out that the appeal, if it is to succeed, will have to show that this extremely distinguished panel, of our most senior judges, made a mistake in law in their judgement. We will soon find out if they did.

But my point, the sermon point, is that as a Christian country, we have been influenced in the development of our constitution by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil’ [Matt 5:17]. We uphold the Rule of Law: ‘Be you ever so high, the Law is above you’ – said first by Dr Thomas Fuller in 1733. 

And the Law, in our country, is made by Parliament, at its deepest, reflecting our Christian heritage. There is perhaps an argument that our common law, the decisions of the judges, have added another source, so that our law is made by Parliament and by judges: rather in the way that in Judaism the law of Moses has been subject to rabbinical interpretation, recorded in the Talmud.

But whatever the sources of our Law, they do not include the monarch. The royal prerogative has been severely limited, since Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Parliament makes the law, and the judges interpret and apply it.

Well, so much for the Law. If our first lesson took us back to the beginning of Jewish history and the Law of Moses, once we hear that uplifting passage from the eighth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ then, in the light of those glorious words, our mundane everyday concerns, about Brexit, or maybe our anxiety about whether Trump will become the President of the USA, all these negatives, are put completely in the shade by the splendid vision we see in St Paul’s letter.

This is a lesson, from the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, which we often have at funerals, in the sadness of losing a loved one, when we might rail at what might look like cruelty on God’s part: why did He allow this sadness to happen? We have to concede that this passage doesn’t answer the so-called ‘problem of evil’: the question why God allows suffering to take place. Why does He allow us to suffer ‘tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword’? We don’t know.

The point, however, is that there is something altogether greater, altogether more important, than whatever we might suffer in our transitory lives. Whatever our trials and tribulations, God has made a greater sacrifice. God has shown that He is on our side. The fact of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a demonstration, a revelation, of our being destined for greater things. ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ We no longer need a champion in our earthly lives, a judge, in the ancient terminology. God is for us. We have Jesus, and Jesus is the ‘Judge eternal, crowned in splendour’.

Steeped in Jewish tradition, St Paul still uses the language of judges, of the courtroom. ‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’ There it is. Being accused, having a charge laid against us. Justifying. Being condemned. But having Christ to speak for us. It’s the language of the law-court.

So perhaps if we are tempted to get hot under the collar at the decision of one of our courts, as Christians we should bear in mind Solomon the wise judge, and above all Jesus the Judge Eternal, before we execrate our judges. Let us pray instead that we also, like Solomon, should be given understanding hearts.

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