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‘Reverence and glory’

Sermon Lent 3,

19 March 2006 11:00 | Fr. Robert Harris

In considering what to say this morning I have found myself carried back some twenty years. In my mind’s eye I have a vision of a young man strong limbed, smooth skinned, ruddy-cheeked and bright of eye kneeling before the Bishop at his Ordination. In the intervening years the skin may have lost some of its suppleness; a few inches may have been added to the waist; even the hair, thank God, has at last begun to recede; but I trust and pray that the vision which motivated and inspired your incumbent then is as vital and real today. Even more important than the visual image are the words of the prophet Isaiah which echo in my ears. Words from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, read at most ordinations, in which we hear him describe his call and his great vision of God. That vision which provided the inspiration for Bishop Mant’s hymn.

It is a vision of the holiness to which we are called. Like Isaiah we may despair that we live in the midst of a godless people; in a society whose norms, attitudes and behaviours show scant regard for the values and beliefs we seek to uphold. We may even have an awareness of how far we have been tempted personally by the standards of a secular and materialistic society. However, like the prophet whose lips were touched with a burning coal, we have been set apart and cleansed by the waters of Baptism which wash us of our sins, give us life, and identify us as Christ’s.

It is a vision of and a call to worship, surely one of the primary functions of God’s people. Yet this vision also speaks to us of the nature of our worship. The prevailing wisdom within much of the church is that worship should be instantly accessible, that it should reflect the aesthetic predilections of contemporary society musically, linguistically and intellectually. We are called to become a café society for the aspirant; a mystic rave for the trance generation; and a set of sound bite certainties in a culture where ever decreasing attention spans apparently preclude intellectual rigour and serious thought on the part of many. At the risk of sounding a discordant, even ‘heretical’, note, I would suggest that such perceived wisdom is wrong, that such an emphasis panders to all that is inconsequential and ephemeral. An article in ‘The Tablet’ this week suggested that one of the factors contributing to a decline in attendance within the Roman Catholic Church is the quest for accessibility. The vision of the prophet Isaiah was of the majesty, awe and distinct otherness which characterises the person of God. The timeless and eternal nature of this vision is reiterated in the writings of the other prophets, in apocalyptic literature and in the historic witness, worship and experience of the Church. We abandon a sense of the numinous to our own peril. It is this essential otherness in worship which lifts us beyond the mundane and ordinary, which enables us to encounter God and emphasises that here we are doing something of true significance. How can we profess ourselves to be sharing with saints and angels in the Feast of the Kingdom when it is accorded little more reverence than the consumption of a Big Mac on a bench at the end of Southend pier?

Last, the vision of Isaiah contains a call to mission, a mission which is the responsibility and vocation of each one who has been called to holiness through Baptism. It is our task to proclaim Christ to the world today. I would suggest we best fulfil that mission not by conforming to the world but rather by enabling it, through our words and worship, to have a glimpse of the divine, that all may come to proclaim with us: -

“Lord, thy glory fills the heaven;

earth is with its fullness stored;

unto thee be glory given,

holy, holy, holy, Lord.”

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