Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday in Lent, 18th February 2018

Exodus 34:1-10, Romans 10:8-13

I confess that sometimes I don’t read things that people give me – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, I don’t read some things properly. You know, all that stuff that keeps on coming. Letters addressed to ‘The Householder’ or worse, to ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. Leaflets; free magazines. And sometimes, I regret to say, things I get given in church.

As some of you will know, I am rather keenly interested in the Bishop’s Lent Challenge 2018: because, I am the lay vice-chair of one of the two charities which the Bishop has chosen to invite us to support this Lent, the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation.

And I did a good deed for the Foundation a few days ago when I delivered the pamphlets about the Lent Challenge to most of the 12 Deaneries in the Guildford Diocese. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, and I drove altogether about 150 miles round the Surrey Hills, up to Ottershaw and Egham and down almost to Farnham.

I was delivering these well-produced pamphlets, telling you all about the Bishop’s chosen charities, and giving you a programme of things to do in order to ‘grow and deepen our faith, and to encourage the faith of our family and others around us.’ That’s what Bishop Andrew has written on the flyleaf.

But, apart from quickly flipping through the pages to see roughly what it’s about, I confess that I really hadn’t read the booklet properly. Now I don’t know whether I’m being very rude and underestimating how faithful and dedicated you all are – I bet I am – but I would venture a guess that at least some of you haven’t really read Bishop Andrew’s booklet either.

And I thought that, at least on the first Sunday in Lent, we could look at Bishop Andrew’s suggestions for Lent together, especially as – at the time I was putting this together last night, at least – I still don’t know when the Lent study groups will be taking place this week. I’m sure all will be revealed soon.

What Bishop Andrew is promoting is that we should look at what he calls the ‘Rhythms of Life’, which he says is what is sometimes called a ‘Rule of Life’. He sums up the rhythms in six words, corresponding with the six weeks, including Holy Week, before Easter Day on 1st April. These are, ‘Read, Learn, Pray, Tell, Serve, Give’. I don’t know about you, but that already sounds a bit intense for me. ‘Rules’ of life put me in mind of monastic vows of silence, sackcloth and ashes and stuff. I’ve never been very good at silent reflection or retreats. When I went on the last St Andrew’s one, to Ladywell Convent outside Godalming, I sneaked in a transistor radio and headphones, because I knew we would all have to retire to our rather uncomfortable and narrow beds at 9pm, ready for hours of silence. But then, I devised a plan of escape. After lights-out at 9, I silently snuck out, hopped into my car, and drove home!

My cats were pleased to see me. I listened to Jazz Record Requests and slept the sleep of the brave. I had set the alarm for an early start, at 6. Imagine my consternation when, after an excellent night’s kip, I awoke and looked out of the window to see – dense fog! Maybe it was divine retribution. Nothing for it – I had to drive very slowly and carefully back to Godalming in the fog. I arrived all right and, after a brief pause in my unused monastic cell – I mean bedroom – I pottered down nonchalantly to breakfast – and no-one was the wiser. Naughty me. I’m just no good at too much silence.

So anyway, let’s look at what Bishop Andrew suggests for Week One of Lent, this week. Strictly speaking, the weeks run Wednesday to Wednesday, as Lent started on Ash Wednesday.

Somewhat oddly, the Bishop says, about each of his six key words for Lent – ‘Read, Learn, Pray, Tell, Serve, Give’, that each one is a ‘rhythm’ of life. This is obviously something that you have to be a bishop to understand. They look like common verbs to me – but what do I know?

The first one is ‘read’. Bishop Andrew says, ‘There is nothing more exciting than watching children open up as they learn to read – sounding out the letters to recognise a word: ‘m-at mat’, ‘d-og dog’ and so on. The opportunities are endless once you can read; and so many doors are closed if you can’t.

‘Reading scripture is about much more than simply being able to turn the squiggles into sounds. It’s about interpreting, taking to heart, understanding, and allowing what we have read to transform our lives. We may be able to read the words of scripture easily enough – but understanding them, and putting them into practice, is a lifetime’s work.’

That leads into being given a Bible passage to read, and think about, in this case not the lessons for today – at least not the ones we had – but the story in the Acts of the Apostles about the apostle Philip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch – the senior Ethiopian government official – on the desert road to Gaza, who was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah – called Esaias in the King James Bible. Philip asked him, ‘Understandest thou what thou readest?’ And he replied, ‘How can I, except some man should guide me?’

That’s obviously a reference to reading, and how just reading by itself may not be particularly enlightening. And then Bishop Andrew puts in a throw-away line. ‘The eunuch may be particularly excited by this book because of the promises to foreigners and eunuchs in Isaiah 56:3-8.’

OK – a quick scramble to look up Isaiah chapter 53. In passing, it’s rather impressive that the poor old eunuch, ploughing through 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah, had to get to chapter 56 until he found the ‘good bit’ which he could feel had him in mind. Here it is:

‘Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.’ In Isaiah, the key thing is that the eunuchs and strangers who are welcome in the house of the Lord ‘keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant’. They play by our rules.

As a mere man, of course I don’t really want to dwell on why eunuchs seem to feature so much in the Bible – I counted 26 references to eunuchs in my Concordance – at least, how on earth did they know they were eunuchs? It must be something like the penchant for castrati in Handel’s day, Senesino and the others. Those of you who aren’t opera lovers may not realise that when you hear the counter-tenor – male – voice, singing at least as high as a mezzo-soprano, you might look for a little weedy figure, but instead, the likes of James Bowman or Michael Chance or Lawrence Zazzo are all big blokes whom you wouldn’t want to bump into on a dark night!

In fact it seems that whatever the state of his undercarriage, the point about the Ethiopian was that he was a leading figure, a man of culture. It isn’t explained why, if he didn’t really understand Isaiah, he ‘had come to Jerusalem for to worship’; but no matter. The key thing was that he was reading about the ‘man of sorrows’ in Isaiah chapter 53. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities’. It is a prophecy about the Messiah. Indeed, you can hear in your head that other ‘Messiah’, Handel’s Messiah: the ‘man of sorrows’ is followed by ‘All we like sheep’, a deliciously mischievous chorus.

But back to the reading, to the Bible: the passage in Isaiah about the man of sorrows leads neatly, in Philip the apostle’s expert hands, to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection; that he, Jesus, had been the scapegoat, he had taken on himself the burden of the sins of mankind –

All we like sheep

have turned astray …

But this one in Isaiah was ‘led as a sheep to the slaughter’. It was to be Jesus. Reading this, and having it explained to him, the Ethiopian eunuch suddenly got it. He needed to be baptised, to become a Christian.

So this is the first ‘rhythm’ of Bishop Andrew’s Lent sequence, the first theme, to ‘read’. He suggests that we should read over and over again the passage about the ‘man of sorrows’, Isaiah 53:1-7. He says,

Each day this week, read a verse from Isaiah 53:1-7 slowly. Read it over slowly several times and let the words sink in. Don’t try to work out what they mean. Listen ‘with the ears of your heart’. Is there a word or phrase which stands out? Let this lead you into prayer.’

The ‘ear of your heart’ is a poetic thought. Where does it come from? It is part of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. It says, “Listen carefully… to God’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Maybe there is something in this idea of a Rule of life after all. I certainly do like the idea of listening with ‘the ear of your heart’. That’s reading, by the way. According to Bishop Andrew, anyway.

So, in our reading, in the ‘ear of our heart’, let this be, for us all a blessed Lent.