On St Mary's. The vicar's final sermon at St Mary's
Thank you: for the immense privilege of working here among you – amazing place, remarkable people from whom I have learnt so much, from the town and from the parish.
Sorry: There are so many of you who I would have loved to have spent time with before we go, especially those with whom I have had the privilege of going through times of immense pain or of great joy - but it has not been possible
I’d like to look today at Hebrews 10.19-25.
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess
Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds
I call it the Rabbit passage. Lots of lettuce in it!
(That is not even worthy of David Crofts or Ricky Wilkinson)
And on this occasion, I haven’t brought a visual aid with me because today – and I ask people from St Peters to forgive me – St Mary's building is my visual aid.
This building speaks of the glory of God and of Jesus, the Son of God, and like our passage, it invites us to go on a journey – not to Addis Ababa or Moscow - but a journey of faith as we ‘draw near to God’.
1. This building speaks of the glory of God.
It is big. For 10 years I was telling people it was the 3rd or 4th largest parish church in the country, and then I was gutted to discover that there are at least 12 other churches that are larger! That was the point I seriously started to think of an extension on the North side! But 3rd or 13th – it is still big!
It speaks of majesty, a royal procession of angels in the roof. And at the East end we have the glory window. Four archangels, Gabriel, Michael (they’re mentioned in the bible), Ariel and Raphael (they’re mentioned in the apocrypha). And below are the words, ‘With Angels and Archangels we laud (praise) and magnify Thy glorious name’ – words that come from the 1662 order from the Book of Common Prayer.
We live in a country that has been shaped by Christian teaching. For 1000 years people have spoken of the possibility that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, can be our friend, that we can have a relationship with God, that we can know God. And the great triumph of the Christian faith is that most people today assume that God is personal and can be known personally. And so, if they believe in God, they will say – for instance – I don’t need to come to church to get to know God because I can meet God in my garden. God and me, they say, are mates.
There is the story of the little girl who knelt down during the prayers in church and began to giggle. Her mother told her to shush. She looked up at her mum and said, ‘It’s OK mum, I told God a joke and we’re both laughing’.
But perhaps in stressing the fact that God can be our friend, we have forgotten that God is totally other to us; we have forgotten the majesty and holiness of God. We have forgotten what Eastern Christians are very aware of, that God is eternal and that we are mortal. We have forgotten that God is the creator and we are the creation, that God is holy and that we are sinful. We have forgotten that if you put the combined knowledge and wisdom of a million Platos, Einsteins, Hawkins and Wittgensteins together, and compared it to the wisdom and knowledge of God, it would be like comparing a paper clip to the Eiffel Tower. And there is a danger that we conjure up a figment of our imagination, call it God, and then claim to have a personal relationship with it.
The ancients were very aware of the otherness and glory of God.
They were aware that they could not simply waltz into the presence of God.
And so instead they devised various different approaches in order to get God to notice them, to get God on their side.
They tried sacrifice, even sacrificing their own children.
They tried starving themselves, standing without sleep for hours, sitting on pillars for years, even castrating themselves – they made Japanese endurance games look like vicarage tea parties (not that we had any of those!)
They even tried being good - very, very good.
But none of it seemed to work.
But our reading from Hebrews tells them and us that although God is big – although he is holy and majestic and glorious, and although we are sinful and mortal, we are invited to ‘draw near to God’, to come into the presence of God.
2. It speaks of Jesus, the eternal Son of God.
It is Jesus who has opened the door for us into the presence of God. He did that when he died on the cross – Hebrews speaks of the ‘blood of Jesus’ (v19). He is ‘the new and living way’ (v20) into the presence of God.
At the heart of the old temple in Jerusalem was a room called the Holy of Holies. It was separated from the temple by a curtain. Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and only once a year. But now, says the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus has opened the way for each of us into the Holy of Holies, through the curtain.
God made that very clear. When Jesus died there was an earthquake, and the actual physical curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
And because of his death, we are forgiven – our hearts are sprinkled clean and our bodies washed with pure water (almost certainly a reference to baptism) – so that hearts, weighed down by an evil conscience, are changed and become true hearts.
And because of his death, we who are sinful can draw near to the God of glory.
Maybe this was intended when they created that magnificent window at the West end, but when you walk into this building, whether you like it or not, whether you are aware of it or not, you walk in under the image of Jesus on the cross.
That is how we can “draw near to God, with a sincere heart and in full assurance of faith”.
Not because we’ve redefined sin so that what is sin becomes not sin.
Not because we have managed to justify and explain away our sin.
Not because we have somehow come good – so that our good outweighs our bad.
But because Father God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. And Jesus loved us so much that he chose to die for us. And we rest on that. Not on what we have done; not even on the strength of our faith; but on the fact that because Jesus died for us, we are washed clean, we are forgiven, and God is at work in us to change us so that we become more like Jesus.
3. It speaks of a journey of faith and mercy
This building reminds us of the journey that each one of us is invited to come on.
It is not a physical journey, like the journey that we are going on
Rather it is a journey of faith.
It begins not when we are born, and not when we buy an air ticket.
It begins when we kneel before Jesus and receive his love and acceptance and forgiveness. It begins when we commit ourselves to follow him; and when we allow him to come and live in us. It begins when we are born again.
And we go on this journey, listening to him, and putting our trust in him.
On my right and on your left is what Clive tells me, was known in the past, as the Jesus’ aisle.
And in the window, there is the scene of the transfiguration – that occasion when Jesus’ appearance was transformed, he shone with the glory of God, and he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. And as the three disciples look on in a stunned stupor, they hear a voice: ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him’.
Don’t listen to Moses even though he was the one who gave you the law. Don’t listen to Elijah, even though he was the greatest of the prophets. Listen to Jesus, because he is the Son of God.
So, we are led on this journey by the voice of Jesus, by the word of God. That is why the lectern – from the where the Word of God is read, and the pulpit – from where the Word of God is taught stand like sentinels on our way into the choir and sanctuary. And it is why the bible is ‘the lamp for our feet’.
And I would plead with you to try and spend time each day with him. Find some time in the day when you can sit down for a few minutes, pick up the bible, read some verses, think through what they mean and what God is saying to you through them, and then come into his presence. And if you don’t know what to pray, simply pray the Lord’s prayer – slowly and thoughtfully thinking through each phrase.
We need to listen to him.
And as we go on this journey, we are not on our own.
Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by the heavenly host (our angels). They are cheering us on.
And it tells us that we are surrounded and encouraged by the heroes of faith from the Old Testament (the windows on the South side): men and women who did great things and who endured dreadful suffering, even when it seemed that God had gone AWOL, because they put their trust in the promise of God, and they held fast to that promise.
And as we go on this journey, we are surrounded and encouraged by each other.
We need each other. That is why this passage urges us to consider how we may ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (v24). And it warns us of falling into the habit of not meeting together (v25).
We tend to think of church-going as a habit. Our reading turns that on its head. The habit is non-church-going. Coming and regularly meeting with God’s people to worship God is the radical action that breaks the habit.
Vicars come, vicars go. Some you will like, some you won’t. In Moscow, there may be one or two who come to love us but there will also be some who really struggle.
There is the story of the vicar who was going round after he had announced he was leaving. One lady said to him, “We’ll be so sorry to see you go”. He replied, “Oh I’m sure the new person will be far better”. “I don’t know”, she answered, “I don’t know. That is what the previous man said”.
Please don’t stop going to church because you can’t get on with the vicar or clergy. If you really struggle, don’t cause grief, but go somewhere else. But don’t stop going.
Don’t get into the habit of not-coming-to-church, because it is very hard to get out of that.
You may think the CoE is bonkers and has got so much wrong. This may surprise you, but you won’t be alone! But it is not about the CoE or the vicar. It is about meeting with your brothers and sisters in Christ, encouraging them, spurring them on to love and good deeds.
And as we go on this journey, we ask God to fill us with his love and compassion so that we show his love and compassion. I’ve spoken before about the window at the West end, the mercy window: where Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ and where we see scenes of people putting mercy into action: caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison, giving water to the thirsty and clothing the naked.
And each time I go into the sanctuary, this building reminds me that our journey has a destination.
It finishes when we have ‘drawn near to God’, when we are in final communion with the God of glory – when we know him as he knows us, when we are filled with his fullness, when we have been transfigured like Jesus, and shine with his glory, when just as we are ‘in’ the sanctuary, we are in him, and just as we receive the bread and wine deep into us, he is in us.
There are many people who come into this building who look up and who see wonderful carvings. They look at the windows and see the product of skilled craftsmanship, glorious colours and stained glass images. They walk into the sanctuary and they see the tomb of the Queen. But that is all they see.
My prayer is that our eyes are opened. When you come into this building you will look up and you will see the God of Glory. It is that you will look at the windows and be reminded of the Lord Jesus who died for you, who speaks and calls us to listen, and who would walk with you through life; that you will be reminded that we are called to live by faith in him; and that you will be spurred on to show acts of mercy. And my prayer is that as you enter the sanctuary, and kneel before the Lord’s table, you will see the King, the King who loved us and died for us, so that we might draw near, so that we might come into the very presence of God.
O God of Truth, Love and Power,
Open our eyes that we might see the glory of Jesus
and our ears that we might listen to Him.
Give us a glimpse of the joy of the worship of heaven
so that we delight to worship you on earth.
Inspire us through each other to daily grow in faith;
And by your Spirit fill us with such mercy
that we are compelled to speak of your love and serve those in need.
We ask this in the name of the Lord Jesus,
who loved us and gave himself for us on the cross,
and for the glory of our heavenly Father. Amen