Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday before Lent 2017
Start Date 12th Feb 2017 11:15am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

We hear our Lord Jesus Christ in today’s gospel reading as a great teacher. St Matthew tells us that vast crowds have gathered to hear him. They hang on his every word. He teaches them at length. The Sermon on the Mount, of which today we have heard a small part, takes up fully three chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel. And it is a teaching with authority; it has power.

This year we are hearing the Sermon on the Mount in the series of Sundays between the end of the long Christmas season and the beginning of Lent. In a few weeks’ time we shall see Jesus again surrounded with great crowds of people as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and they tear down branches from the palm trees and lay down their cloaks so that he has a smooth ride on the back of his donkey.

And a mere few days after that, we shall see Jesus mocked and derided, denied and rejected, a very scorn of men, and the out-cast of the people. We shall see him whipped and tortured and nailed to a rough-hewn cross. We shall see him die in agony.

We might say, how on earth did that happen? What went wrong? One minute great crowds hanging on his every word; the next minute they’re cheering him to the echo, Hosanna to the Son of David; the next minute, Crucify him, crucify him, we have no king but Caesar. What made them change their minds?

If there was one particular moment that made them change their minds, that turned his own people against Jesus, we might want to focus in particular on what we call the cleansing of the temple. St Matthew tells the story very briefly, ‘Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.’

But it is a big moment, a radical moment, a transformative act. Jesus says, not in words now, but in deeds, as clearly as it is possible to say, that the religious practice of the people of Israel is displeasing to the Lord, is unacceptable to God, and must be discontinued. No more temple sacrifice. No more offering to God the lives of two turtle doves or two young pigeons to redeem the first-born son. No more offering to God the lives of bulls and sheep and goats and deer. No more sending into the wilderness the scapegoat bearing the sins of Israel. The money changing was incidental. It was the sacrifice that Jesus condemned. No sacrifice but his own offering of himself could redeem the people, could atone for their sins, could reconcile them with God.

But in truth, this incident of the cleansing of the temple was only the tip of the iceberg, one moment among many when our Lord taunted, challenged, mocked the religious authorities of his day, and in particular the Jewish ritual regulations.

We can see the same challenge in so many of Jesus’ miracles of healing. Take this account from St Matthew’s Gospel of a healing on the Sabbath day when a good Jew would do no work, in accordance with the Ten Commandments. Jesus ‘entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.’

St Matthew explains to his hearers what all this means, when he quotes Jesus saying, ‘I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’

If we think afresh about the gospel reading this morning, we can see that again it is full of challenge to the authorities. Time and again, Jesus takes account of the accommodation with the law of Moses that the religious authorities have authorised and denies it, going right back to the strongest interpretation. ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.’

The constant refrain is, they said this in ancient times, but I say unto you. I say unto you, ‘Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.’ We see in the Sermon on the Mount the captivating personal authority of Jesus as a teacher, just as we see elsewhere his authority as a healer, and in the account at the heart of the story of Jesus Christ his power made perfect in weakness, as he submits to Passion and Death.

How do we approach this extraordinary figure, how conceive him, how react to him? We must recognise both the complexity and the mystery in the figure of Jesus, which has captivated and confused thinkers and writers over the centuries.

Different eras have responded to Jesus in different ways and often in ways that chime with their own experience. The great German doctor, musician and theologian Albert Schweitzer, in 1909, reviewed the writings of many in the 19th century who had tried to get behind the gospel accounts in a quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. This was in the wake of the Enlightenment that had begun to question the divinity of Jesus as Son of God. So what, people wanted to know, made him so special, so captivating? Could it just be his human gifts?

Many of these writings were of course fanciful, imaginative. Take for example the life of Jesus written by a Frenchman in 1866, Ernest Renan, who, on the basis of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey, elaborated a story of his childhood with a favourite donkey, thus stripping the account of all its real significance. The prejudices of the writer led him to write out of the story the power of Jesus, his miracles, his anger, his challenge. Jesus was not meek nor was he mild. Schweitzer, incidentally, launched a bandwagon that trundled on for decades that the key point about Jesus was that he preached the coming kingdom of God. There was more to him than that.

In today’s gospel we see Jesus as a great teacher, one with authority, who above all challenges us to go beyond compromise, to be bold in pursuing true goodness, real holiness. But we must take seriously the whole biblical account of Jesus if we are to see him clear, if we are to follow him. We are not for Apollos. We are not for Paul. We are in Christ. If we wish to be his disciple we must see him as a great teacher, powerful preacher, miraculous healer, one who knows himself to be the revelation of God, who gives himself to suffering, dying on the Cross, risen to give us new life. We cannot just take our favourite bits of Jesus and ignore the parts of the accounts we find difficult.

And, above all, the task of knowing Jesus is not an historical exercise in archaeology. The Jesus who died on the Cross now lives. He encounters us in our dejection and joy, our grief and our gladness. He reveals himself to us as we long to see him, to know him. ‘Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ Then shall I know. Now we see Jesus through our confusion, our selfishness. One day, we shall see him as he is.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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