The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      10th March 2019
The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart
Handley Stevens

In our gospel reading Jesus famously uses the words of Scripture stored in his heart to refute and defeat the temptations of the devil.  

I know from my own experience how profoundly helpful it is to have even a small stock of memorised texts stored in the mind, not just for formal liturgical use, but as a resource to draw on in moments of crisis. Some years ago now, as I lay alone, or so it seemed, on a hospital trolley awaiting a routine surgical procedure, I was overtaken by a completely irrational fear.  Not knowing what else to do, I recited the Lord’s Prayer. The familiar words were not particularly appropriate, but they reminded  me of Our Father’s love, and gave me peace.  There have been other occasions when a warning light has flashed up, or a word of much needed comfort and reassurance.  That’s why I usually preach from a text rather than exploring a theme. The text gives me – and I hope you – a few words to hold onto in the week ahead.  The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.

Paul was writing to a church in Rome whose members came predominantly from the Jewish community there, so he draws continually on the Scriptures with which they would have been familiar as he teaches them about their new faith in the saving power of Jesus.  This quotation – the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart – comes from the book of Deuteronomy.  As Moses concludes his teaching of the law to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy, chapter 30), he sets before them the stark choice between life and death, prosperity and adversity.  If they will keep the law which he has laid out for them, they will live well in the land which they are about to enter; if they ignore God’s law and turn away to serve other gods, they will perish.  The choice is theirs, as it is ours to-day.   They can’t say it’s all too difficult and complicated; we don’t know what to do.  The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.       

We were given a practical example of what this might mean in our first reading, where Moses lays down the precise words to be used every year at the harvest festival to give thanks to God for the whole sweep of his loving care.  The prescribed text celebrates the shepherding of their wandering Aramaean ancestors down into Egypt and back into Canaan.  Once they were settled in the promised land, they were to use these words as a reminder that their good fortune as a nation was a gift from God.    

St Paul, having taken his text from Deuteronomy, develops it for us in the light of the new insight into the loving nature of God which Jesus gives us as we learn to put our trust in Him.  The word which is near us, on our lips and in our hearts, is not just an inspired text of Scripture, even  in its New Testament context.  Rooted in Jesus himself, the word made flesh, the word of faith which dwells in our hearts finds expression in the lives we lead, in what we are and what we do as well as what we say.        

St Paul puts it rather starkly.  If we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we shall be saved (Romans 10.9).  I would put it the other way around – I think we have to believe in our hearts before we can confess with our lips – but the heart of the matter is that we are a resurrection people.  Believing as we do that Jesus was raised from the dead – the most improbable true event in all history – we can have confidence that in Him we too will live.       

For Paul, belief in the resurrection is the litmus test of faith. If  it were not true, we should be the victims of a terrible con trick. But it is true. We know that love is at the heart of the nature of God.  And that changes everything, because it means that whatever is touched by the love that wells up from the heart of God is – like Jesus himself – beyond the reach of death.  That is what gives us hope.   But there is a rider in what St Paul says that I think we have to take seriously. He seems to draw a distinction between being justified by the faith which is in our hearts, and being saved by confessing that faith with our lips. What does he mean?       

Jesus himself often asked people to confess their faith as individuals before he healed them.  He could have healed their physical disorders anyway – sometimes he did - but he asked because if they were to be healed in their souls as well as their bodies they needed to reach out to him in public commitment, as a sign of their trust in Him. The scribe who knew all the right answers was said to be not far from the kingdom of heaven, but he could not bring himself to take that final step.  Nicodemus asked profound questions, and he received a deeply sympathetic response from Jesus, but he came under the cover of darkness, and was told that those who do what is true come to the light – as ultimately he did, with Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body.  Even Peter, for his own sake, had to say to Jesus three times, Lord, you know that I love you, before he could be entrusted with the ongoing care of the nascent Christian community.      

Somehow we all have to take that step. We all have to ‘come out’ as Christian believers.  Membership of a Christian community such as this church provides a safe context.  Many of us have found  that participation in a small study group, such as our Bible study groups or the Lent Groups starting this week, offers a natural opportunity to speak openly of our faith.  We are among friends, and as St Paul says, this time citing the prophet Isaiah, ‘No one who believes in [God] will be put to shame’.       

We can all take that step, for the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.  

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