Sermon for Mattins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, 18th March 2018
Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 12:18-29

‘Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ‘judgments’. A little bit of Bible study to begin with. Our lessons today are one of those ‘that was then: this is how it is now’ contrasts. Moses had received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai from God, and they were the basis, the terms and conditions, of the covenant, the contract, the solemn agreement, between God and his chosen people.

Do these things, and I will protect you. So, [Exodus 20.3] Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. And so on.

But then there are the ‘judgments’. If you think of a contract – one of those things that you pretend to read when you get something on the Net from Apple or Microsoft, or when you rent a car – then maybe the way to look at the ‘judgments’ in the Book of Exodus is, if the 10 Commandments are the terms, the Judgments, sometimes called the Ordinances, are the conditions, the small print.

They are fascinating reading. You’ll find them in the chapters after the 10 Commandments, so in Exodus 21, 22 and 23. There are all sorts of practical rules for civilised life. Try this from Exodus 22:

25 If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
26 If thou at all take thy neighbour’s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down:
27 For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.

Don’t charge extortionate interest on loans – just like Archbishop Justin said against payday lenders, Wonga et al. If you take someone’s coat as surety for a loan, give it back at the end of the day, because it is his clothing. He needs it to keep warm. Practical stuff. It’s where ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ comes, in the previous chapter, Exodus 21. You remember, only an eye, for an eye – retribution, punishment, must be proportionate. The punishment must fit the crime.

All that came from a conversation between God and Moses, God speaking to Moses after there had been a commotion on the top of the mountain:

18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
19 And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
20 And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
21 And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.

In the Old Testament, mere mortals, except for the priests, or rather the prophets like Moses and Elijah, couldn’t see God, couldn’t be in the presence of God, and survive.

That was then. And then, Jesus came. The picture of heaven, of God’s kingdom, changed. It’s still true that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, ‘ …our God is a consuming fire’. But in general it is a positive, glorious vision. The original covenant has been carried out, has been performed, and the heavenly kingdom awaits. Jesus said [Matt.5:17] ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’

In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is ‘the mediator of a new covenant, whose sprinkled blood has better things to tell than the blood of Abel.’ [Hebrews 12:24, NEB] Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, had a tragic history. Abel was killed by his brother, who was jealous of him. He denied it – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ in Genesis 4. Abel’s blood was shed pointlessly. The contrast is with Jesus’ death, his blood shed on the cross, and the idea that by suffering in this way, Jesus had brought the human race back into a right relationship with God. We say, ‘he died for our sins’ – but it’s not obvious what that really means.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it in terms of our receiving an eternal, imperishable benefit, a ‘kingdom which cannot be moved’, as against ‘blackness, and darkness, and tempest’ which Moses found on Mount Sinai. Now, the faithful have come not to Mount Sinai, but to [Hebrews 12:22]
‘ …mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect..’

OK. So that’s a little discussion of how our Bible readings work today. The context, the church context, is that we are nearly at the end of the period of reflection and humble thought about our lives, and about our relationship with God, that we have in Lent. If we have been attending the Churches Together Lent course, this week we explored how relationships can, sadly, break down. Divorce, abuse, warfare: all involve broken relationships: sometimes broken covenants, broken agreements. That can be the case with divorce, for example. Or, where international treaties are broken, war can result.

That is a bit reflective of the world of Moses, of ‘an eye for an eye’. Fair, practical agreements. Reasonable dealings. No rip-offs, like Wonga. Good, so far as it goes. But – but if there is a breakdown, then, in the time of Moses, God is merciless.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.… [Exodus 20:5; NRSV]

In the Lent course, the Christian alternative, the example of healing love to bind up the broken relationships, was, it was suggested, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s wonderful response to the end of apartheid in South Africa, his Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was surely inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And –

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

This is practical wisdom. To be able to forgive, means you will be able to forget. You can’t forgive unless you can let it go, forget. Of course there are practical constraints. You need to have contrition, repentance, a sense that what one has done is wrong, and must not be done again. You can’t just forgive people willy-nilly. But the consequences, consequences of breaches of contract, of breakdowns in relationships, need not be simple tit-for-tats.

It’s difficult to draw a line, sometimes, particularly where a criminal is dangerous to society. What is the right thing to do about the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia? So far no-one has confessed to poisoning them, and no-one has been convicted in a court of law – or even arrested. So the ‘truth’ part of Truth and Reconciliation hasn’t been established yet. But if it had been, would we get to Reconciliation? What would happen in ‘ …mount Sion, … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,’ in the presence of ‘an innumerable company of angels’?

Or what will happen in Syria, eventually? Will the refugees ever be able to go home? I think that the story of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation, is a real cause for hope. And that story came from people who pray, who are inspired by the Bible. We know that no-one reads his Bible better or more frequently than Archbishop Tutu. He takes time every day to sit in his study, to read the Bible and say prayers. We should try to follow his example; then perhaps we too will start to feel that we are entering the heavenly Jerusalem.