The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      23rd September 2018
Touching the Holiness of God
Jeremy Fletcher

Exodus 19. 10 - end; Matthew 8. 23 - 28

What would you do if it became clear you were just about to touch something that could kill you? Lots of things, I guess. You’d be afraid. You’d  think about running away. Perhaps you’d think of others and get them away too, declare an exclusion zone, get some protective clothing, call for help, and get someone else in to else to sort it out. And then perhaps you’d be afraid all over again. 

In the Scriptures an encounter with God is rarely comfortable. To be in the presence of God is mostly not to have a spiritual spa experience, to be warmed and soothed with balance restored. Almost always the holiness of God is like nuclear material, so bright as to blind you, so hot as to consume you, so powerful as to obliterate you in an instant. Even things which had been touched by the presence of God could kill you, just like irradiated objects from nuclear power stations can do today. There are exceptions; think of Elijah who is rescued and restored by the still, small voice. But most of the time to meet God face to face is to be in fear for your very life.

This makes sense. After all, if this is the God who touches mountains and they smoke, who causes storm winds to arise with a word, and calms them in a moment, then what can we do but respond with fear and trembling? In Exodus 19 the people of Israel, having left Egypt behind three months before, come to the mountain where they know they are to meet God face to face. It’s not all been frightening. God has affirmed that they, alone among the nations of the earth, are treasured. They have been rescued by God’s will, and promised a new place to live in security for ever. But…it is still God whom they will meet. They know that if they get close in the wrong way they will be consumed. 

All of the reactions we might have to touching something that can kill us are then on offer. Well, not quite all. They can’t run away. Where else could they go? But other preparations must be made. The exclusion zone is declared, and none of them touch the mountain. Protection is worn, literally and spiritually. They get clean inside out and out, with their clothes washed and their souls and bodies prepared. It takes two days. And still they must be afraid. Of course they are. There is thunder and lightning and thick cloud. So remember the final reaction: send someone else in to sort it out. To their relief it is Moses and Aaron who do the negotiating, and bring the word of God back to them. 

What they bring is the Law: the Ten Commandments, the rest of Exodus and most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy too. They get clear instructions not about how to avoid the holiness God, but how to handle it, how to bring it into every aspect of their lives. They are offered ways of living, of being, and of worshipping which hold the all-consuming power of God in such a way as to energise and not destroy them. After all, nuclear material, handled well, is empowering. Some early heart pacemakers were nuclear powered. One was still going 34 years after it was implanted. Nuclear engines power vessels. A nuclear power station heated a community I lived in, and was the major employer in the town. The holiness, the presence, of God does not have to kill. 

In the Gospels the reaction of people who encountered Jesus was not always to embrace him and follow with a spring in their step and joy in their heart. Many people were deeply frightened. The Gadarenes begged him to get out, now. Even the disciples were scared. In the boat these experienced sailors knew that this was the perfect storm and it would kill them. Jesus said one word and it was still. They knew now that this man was beyond anything they could understand. They were staggered, not comforted. The storm was now inside them Their question was incredulous. “Who is this?”

The disciples do not throw Jesus overboard. They recognise that, however frightened they might be, the safest place is to be right with him in the boat. Turn a church over and you have the hull of a ship, built to withstand the battering of waves and the shattering of the wind, just as the roof beams above us withstand the storms from which there is no other shelter. The earliest readers and hearers of this story understood that the boat was the church. This is called a Nave – navis – a ship, after all. 

In this boat, in worship, we encounter the devastating holiness of God. In the beauty of Evensong it can seem easy to ask God to open our lips, to save us speedily, to make our hearts clean. You could almost use this to create a beautiful exclusion zone between us and the presence of God, inoculating us against its power. True worship, true following of Jesus in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God will not be about the beauty of words, music, art and architecture in themselves. Rather these things will be the vehicle for an encounter which will not obliterate but empower. They will be the boat in which Jesus sails

The safest and scariest place to be is in in this boat, or on the mountain, in the presence of God. The safest and scariest place to be is in touch with the power of God. The safest, and scariest place to be is to be welcomed into the very heart of God through Jesus Christ.  May our worship fill us with the knowledge of God, draw us into the presence of God, and fill us with the power of God, that our lives may be lived to the glory of God, to whom be all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

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