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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon


22nd August 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity 11

'You have come to Mount Zion and to the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to enumerable angels in festal gathering...to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.'

That verse from Hebrews is part of one of my favourite passages. I like it because it is a reminder of what we are about and for its encouragement in times of difficulty.

The writer to the Hebrews is concerned with how we can come into the presence of God. Having described the terror of Old Testament religion, when even an animal that strayed onto the Holy Mountain was put to death and when Moses trembled with fear in the presence of God he describes how we can come into God's presence through the priestly self-sacrifice of Jesus, the New Covenant. The picture of heaven is accessible. It draws us into the presence of God. It is celebratory. We are in good company.

And yet the passage is not without its difficulties. Quite apart from the problems it presents for those who have no belief in another world or in the coming kingdom and for whom the language is therefore inaccessible it also presents problems for those of us who believe. Why, because the reality of the Churches often appears rather different? A cold draughty run down church with only a few worshippers beleaguered in the inner city does not automatically suggest the city of the living God. It requires a lot of faith to see the vision beyond the apparent reality of decline.

Once you probe today's readings more closely you soon discover that faith has never been easy. The passage in Hebrew's follows the long section listing the persecutions and hardships endured by key OT figures. The aim is to encourage perseverance in a Church also facing hardship and persecution. It is not that those early Christians had the perfect community. In their poverty they too were encouraged to grasp the vision of heaven. Isaiah also addressed a people who knew poverty, drought, ruination and affliction. He spoke of future restoration in the midst of dark times.

In the Gospel we might see the women crippled for 18 years as representing the Church in need of Christ's healing and renewal. So much in institutional religion is crippling and life denying. Jesus condemned the excessive Sabbatarianism of those who said he should heal on the Sabbath. Christ bids us stand up straight and be free from bondage.

The kingdom according to Hebrews is a gift that we 'are receiving.' We find ourselves in the presence of God, on Mount Zion, in the Heavenly Jerusalem, through his grace given to us in Christ. But we do have to receive the gift and to respond to it, just as the women did 'praising God' for her healing.

In Isaiah the people are urged to refrain from neglect of the Sabbath, from self-interest and to care for the needy if they are to receive God's blessings. In our society most neglect the worship of God and pursue their own gain with consequences that are all too clear to see.

But it is a verse from Hebrew's that I'd like us to consider more closely. 'Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.' That gives the means to increase our faith and vision.

Thanksgiving under-pins our worship for when we are thankful we look beyond ourselves and give God his worth. The Eucharist is the great thanksgiving, yet all too often we forget this. We take for granted the routine of worship.

True worship has before it God who is a 'consuming fire.' It is full of reverence and awe. It is said that worship is now a lot less reverential than it once was. Whilst it is good that we are no longer hidebound by a rather stuffy, life denying Victorian formalism, something has been lost.

How can we add to the sense of awe and reverence in the presence of God? We might begin by being more attentive to him before the service, of trying to be less rushed and more expectant when we come. Stillness in worship can be a powerful draw to others crippled by the freneticism of modern life.

Another way is to be less afraid of the gaps in worship seeing them as a vital part of the whole. A weakness of our modern liturgy is that is very wordy. Less words and more prayerful silences can increase our sense of reverence. This is supremely true when we come to receive Holy Communion. If we see this as an ongoing act of adoration in the presence of Christ, of a corporate as well as a personal action and if we conduct ourselves accordingly then our Eucharist will be an occasion when we encounter the living God.

Paradoxically the most effective worship is often very simple, an expression of our essential poverty before God. At such times we know ourselves to be caught up in the worship of heaven with the angels and the saints.

Amen

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Last updated 27/08/04 09:00 Author: David Shepherd