A Sermon from Sherborne

The Truimph of God’s Will and of His Love

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 5 November by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes


And behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it.   (Daniel 7:7)

Well, what fun! It sounds just like a scene from one of those 1960s horror films, where there is a collective gasp from the audience and the next moment The Thing That Came out of the Slime puts in an appearance. There it is, in the Bible, and, what’s more, set in the lectionary for a sedate Sunday Evensong in early November. Is there no end to the surprises the Liturgical Commission springs on us?

These four beasts – the three smaller ones and the King Kong-sized one – appear to Daniel in a vision. When he enquires of a man who interprets these things, he is told that they represent four kings, powerful and evil, with the fourth especially vicious, who “shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.” The 20th century saw a number of dictators like that; there are various candidates who aspire to something similar – if only they had the chance – in the 21st. What we have here is a picture of the face of Evil. So, perhaps, not such fun after all.

This ties in – although it may not at first appear to – with what Jesus says about wealth and poverty in his “Sermon on the Plain” in our second lesson, from Luke. It is an arresting, perhaps alarming, pair of statements: “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.” We need to understand what the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, meant by these terms. The ‘poor’ represent the righteous, the godly, those who rely on God; the ‘rich’ are the powerful and self-satisfied, those who oppress the poor and do not feel any need for God. It is very much ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it is not so much for being rich that the former is damned as for his ignoring God’s precept to love (respect, care for) his neighbour. In that story the beggar Lazarus is the one oppressed – ‘poor’ – who is therefore blessed. And going back to Daniel we see that the four beasts – i.e. kings – are the oppressors who think they can triumph by military might, and certainly don’t wish to involve God. How wrong they are! For “the saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and possess [it] for ever” (Daniel 7:18). But the fourth great beast will take rather longer to subdue, and will first “wear out the saints of the Most High.” Nevertheless he and his offshoots shall be defeated and God’s kingdom shall be established at the end.

We are not told how this will happen. It is enough to know that God’s will, and the power of His love, shall triumph at the last. For the moment, we may further this work of His kingdom by acting on Jesus’ command to love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you and pray for them that despitefully use you” [Luke 6: 27-28]. Now let’s be clear about this: it is not a bland and bloodless dream, a soggy, impractical and unworldly aspiration. Christian love is an active and positive principle. It deals neither in revenge nor in indifference,  but goes out of its way to assist others, to be alongside them in their need, to give ungrudging service beyond what is necessary; to share and spread Christ’s love and his active ministry.

In his Sermon Jesus gives some examples of this which have perhaps a touch of rabbinic exaggeration: “Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again” [Luke 6: 30]. We get the point, but don’t want to feel we are being taken advantage of. So it is good to have as our role model the splendid St Martin, whose day we celebrate this coming Saturday, 11th November, if we are not too taken up with other commemorations.

Martin was a Roman Gaul of the 4th century who started as an officer in the Roman army. One day, riding with some fellow soldiers into Amiens, he was importuned by a beggar in the gateway for his cloak: the beggar was cold and half naked. Martin dismounted, removed his cavalry officer’s cloak and with his sword cut it in two. Half he gave to the beggar; half he retained. It was an act both of mercy and love and of practical good sense: neither man had to be cold.  Martin soon afterwards left the army, declaring he wished to be Christ’s soldier, and became a member of St Hilary’s clergy at Poitiers, where he lived a rather reclusive life of prayer, meditation and good works. But it was not to last: his fame spread, and the people of Tours wanted him for their bishop. He gracefully declined, so they kidnapped him and made him Bishop of Tours. In that role he was gentle, pastoral and a unifier – just the right sort of bishop. And he lived and exercised his ministry well into his eighties.

On the night after the incident with the cloak and beggar, he had a vision of Christ, who came to him in the guise of the beggar, and said: “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you….. For I was a stranger, and you took me in: naked, and you clothed me.” And to Martin’s astonished question the Lord answered, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25: 34-36).

Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes 05/11/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne