Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 16 January 2011
16 January 2011 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Every teacher knows that the first and most powerful teachers are our parents. Inevitably, our parents make a deep and lasting impression on us. We absorb many of their likes and dislikes, their interests, their attitudes, values and beliefs. This is good. It offers us a firm foundation and a basis on which choice becomes possible. Nor should children be denied the benefit of religion so that they can be free to choose when they are old enough. As we know, we are perfectly capable as age and maturity develops to reject many of our parents’ attitudes and strike out on our own fresh path.
But, if we have been brought up without a grounding in a particular religion, we face a dilemma when we experience a personal interest in religion or become aware of spiritual yearning. Which path to choose? How to work through the various representations of God in the great religious traditions of the world to the reality of God? How to learn about God? How to know God as God truly is? These questions are not those only of the initial searcher but of the experienced traveller in religion, for whom God is always mysterious, beyond our grasp, ineffable. But understanding can grow.
Fascinatingly we can trace the development in the people of Israel’s perception of these questions through the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament. The first lesson this morning from the prophet Isaiah tells of a real and remarkable moment of disclosure, a break-through in understanding. The context is the 6th century before Christ, when the period of fifty years’ exile in Babylon for the leading people of the nation is coming to an end. The Babylonian empire has been defeated by Cyrus King of Persia, who permits the return of the exiles to the Holy Land and the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. The exile has been a significant time of growing understanding of the nature of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Now the suffering servant of God, understood as Israel itself, hears the Lord, the God of Israel, say, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ [Isaiah 49: 6]
For the first time, now in the 6th century BC, the people of Israel see the Lord their God as God not just for them but for the whole world. To go back to the beginning, we read in the book of Genesis the account of how a fixed and permanent relationship is established between the Lord, Jehovah or Yahweh, and the people of Israel. The Lord promises Abraham, ‘I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.’ [Genesis 17: 7] The special character of that covenant relationship is reasserted time and again.
And reassertion is necessary. The people of Israel keep being seduced away to follow other gods. When they feel that the Lord is not treating them as well as they would like, they wonder whether other gods might be better for them. Even after the Lord has freed them from slavery in Egypt, while Moses is up the mountain receiving the law from the Lord, the people down on the plain melt down their gold ornaments and make for themselves a golden calf to worship. The first commandment is an explicit response: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ [Exodus 20: 2, 3]
Eventually, the people repent. Their God is the Lord. The Old Testament books of the Kings recount how other people come to recognise the power of the Lord for them too. Naaman the commander of the army of the king of Syria is suffering from leprosy and hears that Elisha the prophet of the Lord has healing power. He comes to Elisha and is eventually healed. He decides to worship the Lord instead of the gods of Syria. So he takes two mule-loads of earth back to Syria so that the Lord can accept his worship in a foreign land.
What leads the people of Israel at the end of the exile to recognise the power of the Lord to work beyond the boundaries of Israel? It may be their reflection on the actions of the Persian king Cyrus. They come to see him as the agent of the Lord in rescuing the people of God, in allowing them to return from exile and restore Jerusalem. Even though he knows not the Lord, God is able to work through him. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’
The Church looks back on this gradual centuries-long process of growing understanding by the people of Israel that the God they worship is the Lord of all the world as a process of preparation for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who will perfectly reveal for all time and for all people who God is. St Paul puts it like this, ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ [Galatians 4: 4, 5] St John puts it another way in the prologue to his Gospel, where he recognised Jesus as the Word of God, with God from the beginning before time began, in the world but often despised and rejected, not fully known by the world. This Word, this Truth of God, this reasonable and rational expression of ultimate reality is always detectable through the actions of God in the world and through the prophets, but in the days of the Old Testament awaited its full voice. That voice, the Church believes, was fully heard in the life, teachings, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
St Justin writing in the middle of the second century used the metaphor of a plant. He spoke of the seeds of the Word of God, the logos spermatikos, being planted and detectable in the days before Christ but the full growth being still awaited. So the Church recognises in the faith of the people of Israel that their God is our God. So it must be with other faiths. There is one God. The Church sees the ultimate revelation of God as being in Jesus Christ but cannot claim fully and for all time to have thereby grasped the nature of God. If we could grasp it, we would certainly not have grasped God.
The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury St Anselm wrote, ‘God cannot be conceived not to exist. God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. That which can be conceived not to exist is not God.’ He did not thereby think he could grasp God. But he could address God. ‘Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand.’
I pray that we too may see that we should not seek to understand and on that basis decide to believe; rather that we should trust the Lord and ask God to work through us and gradually to allow our understanding to grow. ‘Come and see’ said Jesus [John 1: 39]. The disciples did begin to see, but at first only vaguely. Gradually they began to see more clearly. Like them, we shall only see fully when in the end we see God face to face.