Sermon at Evensong, St Paul’s Woldingham, Sunday next before Lent
“Walk while you have the light.” What does it mean to walk in light? What does it mean to stand on holy ground?
It was the light that Moses would have seen first, so bright, and unending as the burning bush didn’t burn. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition it’s called the “unburnt bush”: and the angel of the Lord that appears to Moses in the bush, the fire that Moses sees, are interpreted not as temporary miracles, there for a moment, but as a glimpse of the truth of God.
What an odd thing to happen to a shepherd. Moses wasn’t out in the wilderness looking for holy ground. He also wasn’t looking for trouble: far from it! He was there because he was an outlaw: he was brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s court, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave he got angry and thumped him. Thumped him a little too hard, perhaps: he struck the Egyptian dead. So, he ran away to Midian to escape the punishment due. He settled down there and got married, but he was a fugitive, a refugee, maybe looking for a quiet life and trying to leave the persecution of his people behind him.
And then he sees this bush and goes to check it out and hears this voice calling his name, “Moses, Moses.” Tonight we heard him answer “Here I am” and we are told God spoke some impressive introductory words, but what follows is daunting. He is to go back to Egypt, where he’s wanted as a criminal, and make Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go. It’s a tall order, but he does it – and goes on to receive the Law given by God to those same people.
I think it’s interesting that an outlaw receives the Law, and that rather than being punished by God for having done wrong, his anger at the injustice shown to his people is turned toward the purpose of securing their freedom. It can be an important thing to keep in mind when trying to learn what God wants us to do, too. If there is an issue that you are passionate about, something which really gets you riled up, it might be worth exploring whether God is calling you to do something about it. For the record, I don’t recommend killing any Egyptians, or anyone else! But it’s also good to remember that the things you see as faults or mistakes, the things that make you want to run away into the wilderness and hide, may be part of your vocation too: they certainly won’t prevent God working through and in your life.
A calling that suits your personality still isn’t always going to be easy, of course. I’m sure that Moses, after a relatively affluent upbringing, wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable journeying through the wilderness for the rest of his life, but that’s exactly what he does after the Hebrew people are chased out of Egypt. The discomfort and unease of responding to God’s call is also obvious in tonight’s Gospel reading. Jesus’s heart is troubled. He’s upset. Of course he’s upset: he’s going to be crucified.
We started this reading halfway through a speech, so let’s look at the background and see if we can make sense of it. Jesus and the disciples have been travelling and now they’re in Jerusalem, and things have been… pretty weird, really. On the way to Jerusalem, at Bethany, there was that thing where Mary anointed Jesus with the expensive ointment, and Jesus said she bought it to use at his burial. There was that procession into Jerusalem itself, where people were hailing him as the Son of David, the King of Israel.
The disciples are, understandably, getting a bit confused. And then these Greeks turn up: they aren’t even Jewish but they’re in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, along with the other “God-fearers” who like to worship the God of Abraham and Jacob but don’t go through the process of becoming full members of the people of Israel. But they say to Philip that they want to see Jesus. So, Philip tells Andrew and the two of them go to tell Jesus and he starts talking about all this weird stuff again: about how the hour has come, about the grain of wheat that must fall to the ground and die. He says that whoever loves their life will lose it. He says that those who serve him must follow him.
And then we pick up where our reading starts: he tells Philip and Andrew, and the crowd that are there, this is what he has come for. There isn’t any getting out of it. His death will be to glorify God.
The voice from heaven that follows is confusing, too. Maybe the disciples aren’t so surprised by it, it’s happened twice before, once at His baptism and once at the Transfiguration. The crowd are just confused, though, not sure whether it’s thunder or an angel or what. And Jesus just tells them it’s for their good not his, and goes on talking about his death, and about judgement. The people still don’t really get it. How can the Messiah die? That isn’t what they understand of the Saviour who is meant to come and rescue them from the occupying Roman forces. How can the one anointed to crush their enemies be put to death on a cross? Who is this Son of Man, anyway?
The crowd doesn’t get a straightforward answer and neither, in this reading, do we. There is just the instruction to walk in the light – almost as if trying to outrun a sunset. Walk in the light now and believe in it so that you may become children of light.
We have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight and scholarship to help us understand what happens next and where Jesus is going. We can read about the events that followed, about the Cross and Passion and Resurrection – and in the coming weeks of Lent and Easter we will do exactly that. It’s all a bit easier to take when you know there’s a happy ending!
But to walk in the light of Christ, to truly serve Him, means more than simply skipping the parts of the Gospel narrative, or those parts of our own lives, which make us uncomfortable. We don’t get to just jump ahead to the happier news of Christ’s resurrection. Instead we are called to follow Him, even when we aren’t quite sure what’s going on, and when we feel we are inadequate or unworthy.
This Lent, may we all follow Jesus, right to the foot of the Cross. Then we will indeed be standing on holy ground. Amen.