Sermon for Evensong for the Meeting of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse, on 9th March 2019

Psalms 47,48 and 49; Genesis 41:1-24; Galatians 3:15-22

At the moment I’ve got a young Turkish couple staying with me, who are really delightful people, whose only fault, so far as I’m concerned, is that the wife is for ever trying to feed me with Turkish delicacies.

On Wednesday I bumped into them when I got home at the end of the day, and after a certain amount of whispering, the husband asked, excusing himself if it was rude, but, did I know that I had a big dirty mark on my forehead? I had to explain to him – because he is a Moslem – that it was the ash from Ash Wednesday.

So it’s that time again – it seems to come round quicker and quicker as the years go by – when we are supposed to reflect, take stock, follow Jesus on his 40 days in the wilderness, and amend our lives: change our minds, repent, in the face of the momentous events of Holy Week and Easter.

Here in the Prayer Book Society we all come from different parishes, and in each parish I’m sure there are study groups and Lent activities for everyone to take part in. At St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon we are following Bishop Steven Croft’s Pilgrim course, in which we study the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ and so on.

We could, I’m sure, take a straw poll of the courses that each of us is following, or the Lent activities or Lent sacrifices which we are all making, in order to make this ‘40 days’ special and to bring home to us the seriousness of it.

I wonder if there is a distinctive Prayer Book approach to Lent: do we get any ideas from the Bible readings prescribed for today? I must confess that when I first read our first lesson, about Pharaoh’s dream, the seven good kine, cows, and the seven ‘ill favoured and leanfleshed’ ones, and the seven good ears of corn and seven shrivelled-up ones, I wondered whether the compilers of the Lectionary were being cruel to us and inflicting yet more worries about Brexit on us.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night, frankly very worried about what seems to be happening to our country, and not knowing where it is all going to end. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could forecast the future, or at least interpret one’s dreams, as Joseph did for Pharaoh?

But Joseph pointed out that he wasn’t being a fortune-teller in his own right, but that he was doing something prophetic, that the words were being given to him by God. He was God’s mouthpiece. Seven bad years, seven good years; famine is coming along, is what God said to Pharaoh through Joseph. And Pharaoh, with Joseph’s help, was able to organise his country to deal with the famine which was coming. God was speaking to his people through Joseph.

And then again, there is the passage from Galatians, which may be quite difficult to follow. I’m not quite sure how many of us here are lawyers, but I think it probably helps if you are or were one, as indeed I was.

So here goes. ‘Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.’ Once a contract has been signed – a ‘covenant’ is a contract – once it has been agreed, it can’t be unilaterally cancelled or added to. I definitely won’t go anywhere near the discussions in Brussels about the so-called ‘back stop’ here: but you can see the point. Having made an agreement, it is what it is. Unless both sides agree, one side can’t just unilaterally cancel it or change it, add bits to it.

‘Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.’ What St Paul is saying is that God made contractual promises to Abraham. They made an agreement. If you worship me and keep my commandments, then I will keep you safe and you will be the founder of my chosen people. This was a promise to Abraham ‘and his seed’, as our Bible puts it: to Abraham and his descendants. Actually, not to his descendants, plural. St Paul’s point is that the word ‘seed’ is singular, so it means, ‘to Abraham and his descendant, singular’. So the beneficiary of the contract is Abraham’s descendant, singular. And that descendant is ‘thy seed, which is Christ’. This is all about a special kind of covenant, a will. God has bequeathed the benefit of his promise to Abraham’s descendant. He is ‘heir to the promise’.

St Paul goes on. ’And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul’ You have to read this upside-down. The law, which came 430 years later, can’t override the covenant. St Paul is drawing a distinction between God’s original promise to Abraham, and the law which he gave to Moses in the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments.

St Paul is pointing out that the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, based on the Ten Commandments, is a comprehensive system to keep people on the straight and narrow. ‘It was added because of transgressions’, because people were doing wrong, and it was put there to take care of the situation ‘till the seed should come to whom the promise was made…’ and that is the seed, ‘which is Christ.’

The Jewish Law and the basic promise to Abraham are not in conflict with each other. ‘Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid …’ But you have to understand what is of fundamental importance and what is, in effect, a temporary expedient, to make for a good society till the kingdom of God comes. Remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law … but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17) – but St Paul wouldn’t have been able to read St Matthew’s Gospel, so he might not have known exactly what Jesus had said.

This is all squarely in the ambit of Paul’s main mission, his main task, to bring the Gospel, the good news of Christ, to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews, and like all the letters, it’s like one half of a telephone conversation: you have to imagine what the other party in the conversation was saying.

Paul ticks off the Galatians – ‘O foolish Galatians’, at the beginning of chapter 3; and it becomes apparent, when you read the letter, that what he was berating the Galatians for was the fact that, whereas originally they had simply accepted the Gospel and started to follow and worship Christ, over time they had begun to believe that they couldn’t just become Christians, but they had to become Jews first.

Only the Jews could obtain salvation, and therefore, in order to be a good Christian, you also had to be a good Jew. You had to carry out all the Jewish Law and also, if you were a man, you had to be circumcised. But St Paul pointed out that this was not necessary, not right: that we are saved by faith, not by works, not by simply carrying out the dictates of the Jewish Law. Paul wrote, ‘if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.’

And then you will see, if you read on – your afternoon homework, after the match tea, might be to read the rest of the Letter to the Galatians – you’ll see how it works. And you’ll see that although you may be tempted to do bad things, what will straighten you out is not following the dictates of the Jewish Law but having the power of the Holy Spirit in you, which will bring the ‘fruits of the Spirit’. So instead of ‘fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies, and the like , instead of those, the fruit, the harvest, of the Spirit, as he puts it, is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control: but he says there is no law dealing with things like this. ‘[T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the lower nature with its passions and desires. If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course’. It’s tempting to think that it may be that the idea of being ruled solely by gifts of the Spirit could extend to ways of worship. You know, you don’t need any rules.

It seems to me at least arguable that, if you don’t have to be circumcised, in the context that St Paul found himself in, today we must recognise that people can come to Christian faith and gain salvation through the grace of God in all sorts of different ways.

Worshipping with the help of the Prayer Book is certainly fine, and is a good example of true worship, ‘worth-ship’, bringing our best to God. But equally, we mustn’t turn it into an object of worship in itself. That would surely be idolatry.

Maybe after all, what speaks to us as Prayer Book Society members today particularly is in our psalms. Take Psalm 47:

Clap your hands together, all ye people:

O sing unto God with the voice of melody

This psalm contains the deathless line, which Miles Coverdale wrote and which has even survived almost intact into Common Worship:

God is gone up with a merry noise:

I have to say that I’ve always had, in the back of my mind, a picture of somebody letting off a balloon. I think that is how I picture going up with a merry noise. But why not? If you read all the psalms today, you will be in part uplifted, in part enlightened, and in part, chastened. Remember Psalm 49:

There be some that put their trust in their goods 

and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches.

…[T]hey think that their houses shall continue for ever 

 and that their dwelling-places shall endure from one generation to another; and call the lands after their own names.…..This is their foolishness ……They lie in the hell like sheep, death gnaweth upon them, and the righteous shall have domination over them in the morning.

These psalms, 47,48 and 49, are psalms which it would be very good to meditate on as part of your Lent observance.

But it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any reason for Lent to be relentlessly gloomy. Just thoughtful.

O sing praises, sing praises unto our God:

O sing praises, sing praises unto our King.

Advertisements