A Sermon from Sherborne

The Glory of the Lord

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 6 August 2017 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes

When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone [Ex. 34: 30].

Moses has been communing with God on Mount Sinai for forty days, and receiving the Law. As a consequence his face has taken on that brightness and luminosity derived from God’s presence in him, His Shekinah, and his skin shines. This can sound a little droll to us, rather like one of those adverts for skin cream, which we only partly believe. But to the Israelites gathered at the foot of the mountain it was a terrifying sight: no one, they believed, could see God and live; so even His reflected glory was intimidating, and they were afraid to approach Moses, until he veiled his face to hide the radiance.

There are a few people – I’ve come across just two or three in my lifetime – who have a kind of inner radiance. Their skin may not shine, but in their faces you can trace signs of what is within them: patience, compassion, kindness, true humility, gentleness and love – just the list of Christian virtues that St Paul commended to the Colossians. That final quality, love, he says, “binds all thing together in perfect unity” [Col. 3: 12-14]. These people – and I expect you have known a few yourselves – reflect God’s glory not only in their deeds and speech but also in their very features. And they reflect it into the world lighting up dark places.

During the war there was a church which was almost destroyed by enemy bombing. But the east wall and its beautiful stained glass window were spared. The congregation lovingly removed and stored safely the stained glass, and after the war, when the church was rebuilt, the window was restored to its former position. When the glass was being reassembled, however, the glaziers discovered that there was a piece missing. It was a piece which contained the letter E, which meant that the sentence which should have read: GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST now read: GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGH ST.  The parishioners discussed whether a new piece, with the errant E, should be made and fitted into the gap. But in the end they decided not to. A plain piece should be put there, they argued, so that all who worshipped there should be reminded, every time they looked up at the window, that it was essential to worship and glorify God not just in church but also outside in everyday life – in the High Street.

That, I think, gives particular meaning and potency to St Paul’s declaration in tonight’s second lesson. Writing to the Corinthian Church he says, “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men” [2 Cor. 3:2].  And that brings us firmly – perhaps uncomfortably – back to our own lives, our dealings with others, our witness in the world: each person is, says Paul, an open letter for Christ. As his followers we are judged by the world according to how far we live up to the tenets of the faith we profess. It is quite a responsibility!

But we are not left to muddle through as best we may. In the very next verse we hear that we “are a letter from Christ …written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.” It is the Holy Spirit who can both energize us and give us strength for the task. When I was first ordained I wondered how, over the years stretching ahead, I’d be able to continue to think of new and stimulating things to say in my sermons, without deviation, hesitation, and particularly repetition. The fact that I have been able to do this moderately effectively – though there are those who would dispute that! – I attribute to the action and promptings of the Holy Spirit. And I believe, with St Paul, that I am not “sufficient of [myself] to claim anything as coming from [me]: our sufficiency is from God” [2 Cor. 3:5]. That isn’t to say that this is not a joint enterprise: some of the worst sermons I have ever heard appear to have been left entirely to the Holy Spirit.

One of Paul’s chief contentions in today’s passage is that, under the old covenant, the moral and social Law (Torah) was literally set in stone: Moses brought the tablets of the Law down from Sinai, and the Israelites’ part of the bargain was to keep its dictates and requirements. Under the new dispensation our behaviour and our whole ethical approach is based on the power of the life-giving Spirit, who can bring about a change of heart and who offers forgiveness and love – and freedom, freedom to choose to follow the way of Christ.

Moses appears on another mountain top, at the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a feast which the Church celebrates today. He is seen, by three chosen disciples, beside Jesus and Elijah, to show that the old covenant continues into the new as its fulfilment. Like Moses, Jesus’ face and clothing shine with God’s radiance; but unlike Moses the veil is not put on but stripped away, revealing the human Jesus transformed with heavenly dazzle: the High Street is truly suffused with God’s glory. This glimpse of the eternal, unexpected and ravishing, brought heaven to earth for those disciples, as such glimpses may do for us too; for, in G.M. Hopkins’ words, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to give us such insights; and as Paul, once again, tells the Corinthians, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” [3:17]. For, just as we find fulfilment by being bound to family and friends in bonds of love, so we are free to be most fully ourselves, most richly who we are meant to be, in serving the One whose service is perfect freedom. He, we believe, is the source of everything we value most; He reassures us that life is not a bad joke, that what we aspire to does indeed have ultimate value. He is the One of whom St Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

God is our home, the haven to which we journey. And at that journey’s end we shall, as Paul concludes, “With unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” [2 Cor. 3: 18].

Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes 06/08/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne