Sermons & services

Sermon for Epiphany 1

Published Sunday 9th Jan. 2022, at 4:10 p.m.

Do you ever do that, I wonder what it would have been like to thing? You know: I wonder what it would have been like to be here at St James in the 13th century, or the 18th century? I wonder what it would have been like to visit ancient Rome? Or, I wonder what it would have been like to visit the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus? To be honest, it’s a vain thing fondly imagined because I’m not sure I would have actually enjoyed the reality. To start with, I don’t do crowds, and the Temple would have been filled with people a lot of the time, especially during special feast times, when it would have been rammed. It would have been incredibly noisy. It would have been incredibly smelly: not necessarily in a bad way. There would have been the smell of incense constantly rising up from the altar: a symbol of the presence of God in his Temple, and of the prayers of the People of Israel rising up to heaven. Both reasons why incense is still used in Christian worship today. There would also, I hate to say it, be the smell of animals because – let’s not beat around the bush here – the Temple was many things – a place of prayer, place of worship – but it was also a place of slaughter. The Bible talks about tens of thousands of cattle and sheep and goats being slaughtered in a single day. I mean: it must have been horrendous. So another thing about the Temple was that it was an abattoir. Jewish Temple worship revolved around offerings of all kinds: offerings of the fruits of the harvest and the field, oil and wine, but also animal sacrifices, especially the Passover Lamb, which is what is happening in today’s Gospel. An animal – which had to be perfect, without spot or blemish - would be ritually slaughtered, the blood offered to God, and then part of the animal eaten to demonstrate that union with God had been restored. Now even back in the day, Judaism realised that it wasn’t the physical act that brought about unity with God: sacrifice was a spiritual act. Over the centuries you can see this movement within Judaim. God gives Israel a sacrificial system. He asks for obedience. He asks for victims. And he asks for bloodshed. But in time, and as Israel’s knowledge of God matured, it came to see that God didn’t actually want this. A religious system that depends on scapegoats, victims, and bloodshed stands in opposition to the divine way of justice and love. You see this really clearly in Psalm 40, where it says: Sacrifice and offering you do not desire but my ears you have opened; Burnt offering and sacrifice for sin you have not required; then said I: ‘Lo, I come.

In other words, what God wants is us: ourselves. Not some substitute that we can pretend heals our relationship with God but really ourselves, offering ourselves to God, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice, as it says in our first reading. We see this lived out in the life of Jesus whose whole life was a life offered in praise and thanksgiving and obedience and service to his heavenly Father. His was a life lived wholly in offering to God: a yes, to God and God’s will. A yes, put another way, to love and a life lived in humble sacrificial service to God and neighbour. Why does God want us to offer ourselves to him? After all, He doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need our worship. Well to go back to the Old Testament, Israel came to understand that God did not only reject animal sacrifices, but other things as well. He rejects false worship: in the prophet Amos God says Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. He can even reject prayer. In the Book of Isaiah, God says When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen. In other words, God rejects worship that is not authentic. He rejects sham worship: the worship of the Pharisee who can only see the good in himself and the bad in others. He rejects the offering of the symbol but not of the self. It’s why in John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the Temple in chapter 2, and then, in chapter 4, has the conversation with the Samaritan woman in which he teaches that true worship is worship in spirit and in truth. In other words, not to do with outward symbols and sacrifices but with bringing ourselves to God in truth: in other words, authentically, as we are. It’s why in Psalm 51 we hear God’s word: For you desire not sacrifice, else I would give it; you take no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

What God wants us to bring to our worship, to the Temple of our hearts, the place where God dwells, is authenticity and truth. About ourselves. We can only come to God – must only come to God – as we really are. There is simply no point in doing anything else. Why? Because if we try, we are not fooling God: God knows us better than we know ourselves. And also because it is only if we come to God honestly as we are – with broken and contrite hearts – that those hearts will be open enough to allow God in to change them. A closed heart has no room for God. A heart that is centered upon the self has no need of God: it is entirely contained in its own self-satisfaction and self-conceit. Only an open heart can be open to the life-changing action of the Spirit. Only a heart that is broken and contrite can know its need of God and of his healing love. And only a heart that is changed, filled with God’s love, can offer itself in service to God and to our neighbour. Amen.