Benedictus for the Grave

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace”


Each morning many Anglicans join together to pray the morning office together, continuing the tradition started by the first monks in these lands, praying for themselves, the communities in which they find themselves, the Church and the world. And every morning, we say or sing a canticle, the Benedictus, sung by Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel.

It is an odd canticle, but as I have been training I have fallen more and more deeply in love with it. It is a canticle rich in the praises of God, calling to remembrance God’s good promises to his people from the earliest days, and charting their fulfilment in Jesus.

And it is an odd canticle to have on Holy Saturday. This is the day between the commemoration of Christ’s passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Church is in mourning. Christ lies in the tomb. Still. Silent. The altars are stripped of their ornaments and hangings, as the Church lies waiting.

Or does it? I suggest that the Benedictus at the morning office reminds us that God is far from dormant when Jesus is in the tomb. Already on the cross, Christ has been enthroned. Soon he will rise from the dead and ascend to be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. And now, this Holy Saturday, he is hallowing the grave for us, actively and powerfully, preparing it for us as a place, not of fear, but of joy and hope.

The Benedictus begins with the praises of God, and the remembrance that God has “raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” (2). Jesus has been enthroned in glory, just by his mere presence in the world, his coming into the world. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb we can truly say that ‘God is with us’, Immanuel. And on this Holy Saturday, we remember that God is still with us. From the womb of his mother, through his ministry, to the cross, through the grave and into glory… Christ is with us.

And all this is part of God’s eternal plan. For God’s plan is to “come to his people and set them free” (1). Through the prophets (3), the covenant (4), and God’s promises to Abraham (5), God has always and at all times been working to make his people “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (6).

The cross does not stop God’s work. There is no pause. As Jesus lies in the tomb, God remains what he has always been and shall always be. Active. Continuing to carry out his one great work of creation, redemption and recreation, spanning all time and space. Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is going on.

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So what is going on?

1Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel,
who has come to his people and set them free.

2He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

3Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,

4To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

5This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

6Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

7And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

8To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

9In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

10To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah acknowledges that his son John will be a “prophet of the most high” (7), but his role will only be to “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (7), giving “his people knowledge of salvation” (8) not wrought by himself, but by God. John will not himself forgive sins, but will announce what God is about to do (8).

And here, the Benedictus trawls Isaiah for some of the most beautiful and effective imagery. Christ, the light coming into the world (John 1), is here “the dawn from on high” which “shall break upon us” (9). And now, remember Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

Well, according to the Benedictus, God’s work in Christ is “to shine on those who dwell in darkness” (9), but not only that. On Holy Saturday, we do well to remember that God also shines on those who dwell “in the shadow of death” (9). From the tomb, as a corpse, the Christ is still shining. From the tomb, Christ’s light hallows the grave and opens up for us the gate of glory.

As Christians, we confess that the grave is not a thing of shame, or fear, or terror. For it is not the end. We believe that in Christ we will be raised. We believe that at our deaths Christ’s light, far from being extinguished, is visible most clearly. For we die not in despair, but in hope and joy. Our grave is not our end. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. And after a while, we shall be raised, and see him as he comes again, to establish his kingdom of justice, everywhere and for eternity.

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (10).

Amen.

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Abraham: What is God’s Covenant with us in Jesus? A Sermon for Lent II

This is the sermon given in St John’s Meadowfield, Durham, on Lent II, the 21st of February 2016.  It asks the question, ‘What is God’s Covenant with us in Jesus?’ God’s Covenant is God’s good promise to us of love and life in Jesus Christ.

Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 (included at the bottom)

 


 

The Old Testament Covenants

You won’t understand what it means to be a Jew, until you understand what the Bible means by ‘covenant’. Words of my Old Testament teacher. The idea of covenant is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, and is the foundation of the Jewish faith.

Covenant in the ancient world was a special sort of contract. A deal made between two parties about something that was important. Peace treaties, war pacts, marriage and land rights… the things that mattered most to people, they sorted with a covenant.

A covenant was an unbreakable bond. It was more than a simple agreement. A covenant was the sort of deal you made for life. A spit and handshake deal. They were often sealed with the blood of sacrifice… and their terms even called the gods to punish anyone who tried to wriggle out of their obligations.

In other words, a covenant is something you take a bit more seriously than an agreement to go halves on a new fence. Think about marriage. Marriage is an agreement that runs deep. It binds two people together, changes them, forms them into something new. This is exactly what covenant is like in the Bible.

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In our Old Testament reading, we heard how God made a covenant with Abram. On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’

Now there’s something odd about this covenant. I wonder if you can spot it? ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’ +++ It’s all one-sided. Where are Abraham’s promises? This doesn’t seem like a pact, an agreement…. It’s a gift. It’s like a couple on their wedding day, standing at the front of church, and only one of them making any vows. God gives Abram the land and Abram has to do… nothing!

And there’s the nub. The covenants the God makes with the Jewish people in the Bible… are completely different to the sort of deals we make with each other.  A pint of beer please. That’ll be three quid. Cheers… NO. God’s covenants aren’t like that. God doesn’t do buying and selling. God doesn’t have a wallet… and he doesn’t keep a tab.

God’s doesn’t buy anything from Abram.. he doesn’t try to sell him anything. In his covenant… God gives Abram… a promise. A good promise… because God loves him.

*****

The first really famous covenant in the Bible is in Genesis, and it’s one we probably know better than we realise. God has flooded the earth, cleared it of everything living… but for one man and his family. Noah. And when the waters have subsided, Noah, his family and the animals step off the boat and God says: I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

Anyone remember that story? God promises that never again will he destroy the earth… and he seals this good promise with a covenant… and he gives a sign for that covenant. Can anyone remember what it is? ++ The rainbow. God said, When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.

God’s good promise is that he will grant life to all creatures… and because it really matters, he seals that promise with a covenant.

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*****

And God’s promises keep coming. God promises life to Noah and all creatures. God promises Abram a land to live in, as we heard this morning. And in Exodus, when the people are fleeing from Egypt, he promises something really quite beautiful. You shall be my people, and I shall be your God. In the wilderness, God promises Moses and his people something amazing… God promises them… Himself.

Whether it is life… land… or God’s very self, that God wants to promise to his people… at every stage He thinks it important enough to do it with a covenant. All the most important moments in the life of the Jewish people… are bound up in God’s good promises… sealed with this almost unbreakable bond, this marriage of lovers… sealed with covenant.


God’s Covenant with us in Jesus

And what does this matter for me? I’m a Christian, not a Jew. All that Old Testament stuff is very well, but I’ve got Jesus, I go to Church, I’ve got the New Testament. I don’t need this covenant nonsense.

But do you remember the name by which the New Testament used to be known? It used to be called the New Covenant. And do you recognise the words of the Eucharistic prayer, which say “This is my blood of the New Covenant”?

The New Testament is a covenant as well. The sacrament of the mass is a covenant. They seem to be saying that there’s something about Jesus that has to do with covenant, that Jesus is another of God’s good promises. But what is going on?

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*****

The answer, I think, is to be found in the letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews tells the story of What Christ Has Done For Us. It tells the story of how God made a relationship with the Jewish people, how he made Covenant with them… God promising them good things… time after time… and binding those promises with Covenant. And then Hebrews says: But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

Basically Hebrews says, If you thought God’s promises in the Old Testament were good, the promise that Jesus brings will knock your socks off.

This New Covenant, made in a birth in Bethlehem, a Cross and an empty tomb… is the sign and the seal of God’s greatest promise ever. God’s promise to Noah… God’s promise to Abram… God’s promise to Moses… these were only small things compared with the promise God makes to you.

In his New Covenant, sealed with the life, and the death, and the resurrection of His Own Son, Jesus… God promises you… nothing less… than his unfailing love in this life… and in the next, eternal life. In the New Covenant, God promises you… love… and life.

*****

The other covenants were imperfect. Human beings mucked them up. Whenever God promised them good things, the people turned away. Noah got drunk and broke the promises HE made to God. The Jewish people turned away from God, and the land given to Abram was taken away. The people who fled from Egypt were promised God’s very presence among them… and they preferred to worship a golden calf.

But not this time. God says that this time… whether this succeeds or fails is not up to us. This time, God has made an ETERNAL Covenant. What God has brought together in Jesus, we can never put asunder, no matter how much we forget him, or do wrong.

And this is the spirit in which we keep Lent. We do not fear that God will not love us. We do not worry that we are not doing enough. As Christians… our challenge is to keep lent… in faith… faith that God’s promises to us in Jesus are true. If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life.

And this is what we come to now. We approach this table… we affirm our faith in God’s promises to us… we affirm our faith in the New Covenant in Jesus, the promise that will always stand firm… we receive the blood of the covenant… we receive the body of our Lord.

And we rejoice… even in Lent… for God has promised us good things… love and life that will never end. This is the promise of Jesus. This is God’s covenant, God’s good promise, to me… and to you.

Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.

Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.

Amen.

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Reading: Gen 15:1-12,17-18

God’s Covenant with Abram

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’