Sermon for Evensong on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, 19th November 2017

1 Kings 1:15-40, Revelation 1:4-18: see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378029702

One of you asked me recently how the Bible readings get chosen for each service. I explained that there’s a rather wonderful piece of international and inter-denominational Christian co-operation called the Consultation on Common Texts, who are a group of scholars in the USA and Canada who produce what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three year cycle of readings from the Bible, designed to follow the church’s year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost – and Ordinary Time in between. The idea of a lectionary, a set schedule of readings to match the church year, dates from the fourth century. Churches all over the world will be using the same readings each Sunday – and during the week – if they follow the Lectionary: and churches of many denominations all over the world use it. It is close to the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass 1969, so although the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant document, it is almost the same as its Catholic counterpart.

So much for the background. However, the thing is, sometimes the Lectionary throws up some weird combinations. Today is a case in point. This morning – and don’t worry, I’m not using this as a smokescreen for recycling my sermon from Mattins today – this morning, we also had a lesson from the Book of Revelation, preceded by a passage from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel meets a figure very similar to the one among the seven candlesticks which John the Divine, the narrator of Revelation, meets in the passage we heard tonight.

Then there was a vision of heaven from the Book of Revelation; the throne of God, surrounded by elders, and mythical beasts, with lamps burning, lightning flashing, thunder and voices crying out. Tonight we heard the beginning of the Book, where John is first ‘in the spirit’ and has his vision of heaven.

But whereas this morning I felt that both those lessons were ultimately about visions of the future, or of the ultimate future, the ‘end time’, tonight the lesson from the Revelation to John was preceded by this glimpse into the inner workings of King David’s palace in the first Book of Kings, where he sees off a challenge to succeed him, as he was getting old, by one of his older sons, Adonijah, so as to keep his promise to his favourite wife, Bathsheba, that their son Solomon would succeed him. You will remember that the story of King David and Bathsheba didn’t reflect well on David.

He had somehow seen her having a bath – in Jewish and Islamic versions of the story, there are elaborations involving, for example, David going up on the roof to shoot pigeons, and accidentally looking down into Bathsheba’s bathroom, in order to make the circumstances more innocent; but the thing one can’t get away from is that David was very taken with Bathsheba, even though she was married already to a soldier called Uriah. And David contrived to have Uriah sent into battle in the very front line, where indeed he met his death. And so David was able to marry his widow.

But God saw through all this and punished David. He sent the prophet Nathan to remonstrate with him. Nathan told David the heart-breaking story of the rich man who took the poor man’s little pet lamb. 2 Samuel 12:

There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:

But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:

And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.

So David repented and was very contrite; but nevertheless when he and Bathsheba had their first son, he was stricken with illness and died. The story of David has a constant undertone of punishment for the way he had taken Bathsheba away from Uriah.

But what is the theme? Why have the Lectionary compilers linked these passages tonight? I wonder if it is to compare and contrast the goings on in an earthly ruler’s palace, King David sorting out his succession in a way that favours his wife Bathsheba – and perhaps also, again, making up for the disgraceful way in which he had made her his wife in the first place – contrasting that with the majesty of heaven, with the company of heaven in all their glory. No shady goings on there.

I’d have to confess that it’s pure speculation on my part. When it comes down to it, does it matter very much what shenanigans went on 3,000 years ago in the King of Israel’s entourage?

But then I couldn’t help thinking how topical it was after all, as the situation in Zimbabwe involving the end of Robert Mugabe’s reign has been developing. It does seem that he too has been trying to secure the succession, in his case for his much-younger wife.

But, Revelation suggests, (although maybe the precise details of how it works are beyond us, and the pictures in Revelation a bit too fanciful), that there is a solid message, that God is there, the judge eternal. ‘Be you ever so high, the law is above you’, said Lord Denning. He could also have said that God is the great and ultimate law-maker.

Well, having said I wouldn’t recycle any thoughts from my words this morning, I will just touch on the thought, which I think does go for both sets of readings, both scenarios, this morning and tonight, that ultimately we don’t know in any detail what heaven, what our futures, will be like. The prophets, and the Book of Revelation, paint wonderful pictures – but somehow I think we are meant not to dwell too literally on those pictures of heaven and hell.

Maybe the crucial difference in each pair of readings is that, whereas in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people have to keep to their covenant with the Lord, and they get punished if they fail; in the New Testament context, God has demonstrated his love and acceptance of us, even though we’re definitely not good people, by sending Jesus and showing, by his willingness to eat with publicans and sinners, that God’s love is for all, not just for the good ones.

And then again, next week – when you’ll be spared having to listen to me spouting, as I’ll be preaching in the USA – we come to the feast of Christ the King, just before the beginning of Advent. ‘Are you a king?’ asked Pontius Pilate. ‘You say so’, answered Jesus. And the gospel lesson is the great sorting out of the sheep from the goats. Who is saved – and why? It’s in Matthew 25 – and it would be good if you could read it in preparation.

‘… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”’

Now that is really so much more important than shenanigans that went on 3,000 years ago in the King of Israel’s entourage. As a church, at St Mary’s we are embarking on a whole new chapter of engagement with our community. Let us find the hungry and give them food, welcome the strangers – the refugees coming to live here – give clothing to people shivering in the cold. Maybe indeed at some stage we will then have a glimpse of heaven, of the Son of Man in all his glory, with seven stars in his hands and a double-edged sword in his mouth: and I believe that he will welcome us, as we have welcomed him.

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