Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11th March 2018

Exodus 6:2-13, Romans 5:1-11 – see

We are getting towards the most important week in the Christian year, Holy Week and Easter. Two weeks to go and then Easter begins. It occurred to me that in the Easter story, there are almost transactional elements, you know, dealings, between us and God, at least in the way that the Bible puts it.

In the lesson from Exodus today, there is a sort of discussion; it is almost like a fly on the wall between two heads of state: maybe not Kim Jong Un and and Donald Trump or any combination involving Boris Johnson, but nevertheless you can see what I mean. Moses is the Jewish plenipotentiary talking to the most important man in the world – or rather, the most important man not in the world.

The trouble is that the Israelites just keep on doing the wrong thing. It’s the other way up from today. It isn’t the rogue leaders going off at a tangent, making nuclear weapons and declaring trade wars, but the people, knowing what the good thing to do is, and then persistently not doing it. Oh, I realise that actually there is a similarity today, but you wouldn’t want me to dwell on the Brexit thing yet again.

I’d better just pause at this point and apologise for the fact that this isn’t really a Mothering Sunday sermon. It is more a fourth Sunday in Lent sermon. I hope that if you are blessed still to have your Mum with you or if you are a Mum yourself, you will have been to our 10 o’clock service today as well, so that the whole family could be together and give thanks to God for the blessings of family life. I hope that my Mum is with us in spirit nevertheless and I hope that she knows that my brother and I still think about her fondly very often.

And of course the thing that we’re talking about at the heart of the Easter story is Jesus as a son. The transaction, the relationship that we concentrate on, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son….’ [John 3:16], doesn’t mention his mother. But of course although Mary, the mother of God, may not be mentioned today, still certainly she has a huge part to play in the events of Easter. So there is some ‘mothering’ in our reflections tonight.

But what about what Paul is talking about it in his letter to the Romans, dying for somebody, having so much love for somebody that you are prepared to die for them, die in their place, take upon them the burden of condemnation for somebody else?

We can imagine what that looks like by reference to stories of bravery and self-sacrifice: Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz volunteering to be punished by the Nazis when they were decimating the prisoners: you know, selecting at random one in 10 of the prisoners to receive punishment. When a particular man had been selected to be put to death in a brutal way, he cried out that he would never see his family again. Father Kolbe offered to take his place, and indeed did.

There are some amazing stories, often from wars, of self-sacrifice of this type. People are indeed capable of the most amazing generosity and bravery.

However, I don’t think that really answers the question what is going on in the Easter story. Jesus, we say, died for our sins. We would otherwise have been punished for being sinful, but instead he took our place, rather like Father Kolbe, and we avoided punishment.

That’s what we say, for example, in the Creed, but what does it really mean? Who would be doing the punishing, and why? Do we really believe in hellfire and damnation? Dare I say that most of us don’t actually come down on whether they do or do not believe in it, but we just would rather not think about it too much?

The idea of a sacrifice, a propitiation, making up for misdemeanour by giving someone something, making up for it, is a very old one. In the Old Testament there is the Jewish idea of the scapegoat (Leviticus chapter 16), where on the Day of Atonement the sins of the people were symbolically loaded on to the back of a poor goat, which was driven over a steep slope so that it fell down and died in the fall.

There is a similar idea in the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. This starts with the same Jewish Passover sacrifice, although the goat has become a lamb. Αμνός θεού, Agnus Dei in Latin, it appears at John 1:29, where John the Baptist sees Jesus and exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s interesting that there isn’t much difference, in the traditional Jewish mind, between sheep and goats here – when Jesus talks in Matt. 25 about the Last Judgement, the great division into sheep, who are saved, going to eternal life, and the goats, the damned, condemned to eternal damnation, clearly there’s a preference for sheep. Here, they seem to be equally – unfortunately – expendable.

Jesus’ Passion and death happened on the day before the Jewish Passover festival. So there’s clearly a kind of cultural carryover going on. If, as the first Christians were, you are Jewish, the sacramental significance of Jesus’ death, of his being put to death, much in the way the poor goat, or lamb, was slaughtered, would perhaps be more understandable.

There is also the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis chapter 22. The ending, and the point of the story, seem to be different from the story of Jesus. Isaac isn’t killed. God was just testing Abraham’s loyalty. Not ‘God so loved the world’, but Abraham so loved God, that he was willing to sacrifice his own son.

But what can we take from this? Surely the idea of a wrathful God who has to be placated, placated even by a human sacrifice, is something we surely can’t accept. God, a loving God, surely would not want to hurt a perfectly innocent person – leaving aside the question whether in Jesus, his ‘son’, God has before him someone He has created, or whether we are right to see Jesus as just being another side of God – and our language is inadequate to express their relationship one with another, ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ [Reginald Heber, 1783-1826, hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty] They aren’t brothers, so they must be father and son. But really, words aren’t adequate to describe this.‘He gave his only Son’ might even have a circularity about it. In a sense, that God sacrificed Himself for us.

Perhaps we should approach it another way. We don’t really have the Jewish cultural heritage against which to appreciate what happened as a sacramental act.

Look, what are the essentials of why you are a Christian? I would expect that the miracle of the Resurrection has a part in it.

Something extraordinary happened, in 33AD, in 33CE. A man died a horrible death: and he somehow came back to life. You may baulk at that rather stark way of putting it. Plenty of people do, in a way. ‘I don’t believe in it’. It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’, they say.

(You’ll remember the fuss about the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. As reported by Andrew Brown in the Guardian, he ‘… said that the resurrection “was not just a conjuring trick with bones”. This was reported, …. as “comparing the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones”’ [See].)

Not just a conjuring trick. The point that the then Bishop of Durham was trying to make was that the Bible isn’t a photograph album, or a video. David Jenkins’s successor as Bishop of Durham actually did say that, if they had had video cameras at the time of Christ, it would have been straightforward to get a film of the risen Christ. I don’t think many of us would really go along with that.

Putting that contrast surely makes where I’m going with this rather clearer. The stories, about Moses talking to God, about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, about the scapegoat, or the Agnus Dei, are better understood as not being literal statements of fact, but stories, myths. Just as watching a Shakespeare play or a Verdi opera opens your eyes – and ears – to a new level of insight and understanding, so the central miracle-stories work better, make better sense, if you don’t take them literally, but rather metaphorically.

That metaphorical understanding is nevertheless authentic, true. It rings true. Jesus rose from the dead. We have no idea, literally, how that happened. But we believe that his followers were convinced that he had really come back from the dead. How, and in what sense, we can’t now tell. Jesus’ encounter with Doubting Thomas fills in some gaps. He isn’t a ghost. ‘Touch me, feel me’, he says. Something happened. What it was, is something that has kept theologians busy – and faithful people coming back to church – for 2,000 years. Let’s really think about it. Let’s not just put it out of our minds