The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Evensong      27th February 2022
Burning bushes and Glory
Andrew Penny

As a child I was fascinated by the story of Moses and the burning bush and especially God’s name (as I then understood it): YHWH. It was so odd and mysterious; why should God call himself “I am who I am”  It was supposed to be indicative of God’s eternal nature- he’s the one who has been and will always be but also of his remote divinity- “I am who I am and my name is none of your business!” None of this, however, made it make much sense. 
So, I had a light bulb moment, searching for ideas for this sermon and reading the Oxford Annotated Bible, first Edition (to be found in the bread cupboard above the Vicar’s stall in the Lady Chapel) which has this footnote: YHWH is a form of the verb to be and is traditionally translated as “I am who I am or will be” but the assumption that it’s in the first person-i.e. I, (not you or he) is simply because God says it. The form of the word YHWH is actually third person-so it’s more likely it means something like “The one who makes exist or causes to be” that is -the Creator; the active presence and the one who intervenes in the world in human affairs. This does make sense; we have read in Genesis how God created the world; in Exodus and the story of Moses we are about to hear about his most spectacular interventions. It is these interventions that show his nature, and what he expects of his creatures-us. So, certainly not remote and less mysterious.
For Christians, the most significant intervention is the incarnation. In Genesis God talks to people; in Exodus He is a real presence, as in the burning bush, the cloud on the mountain, and the smoke and fire that lead the Israelites in the wilderness, but in the Gospels he appears as a man. This is not unique, in other mythologies, notably among the Greeks the gods visit earth in human form. But why should the God of Israel, who has already intervened in human affairs, do so in human form? 
First, I suppose, as with the Greeks the divine presence in its true form would be terrifying and all consuming (as, almost, experienced by Moses on Mt Sinai). 
More importantly, Jesus as a man can show us in human terms what God is like and notably that the Gospel message of salvation, putting right human disabilities, weaknesses and sin, is offered to us by one who is not remote or mysterious, but can truly sympathise with us because he is himself human and mortal, to the extent of dying an excruciating death.
But most significantly, as the Gospel narrative draws to its astounding turnabout conclusion, crucifixion into resurrection- we see that it’s not just about God showing his human face, but God showing us our divine nature, showing us that we have something of divinity in us, and can live “eternal” lives, eternal in the sense (if no other) that death and decay are not all powerful, and our lives have meaning and significance beyond their physical existence. Which is, of course, what we should expect from “The One Who Causes to be”
It’s surprising then, for St John, it’s not the Resurrection but the Crucifixion which “glorifies” God. It’s not easy to see anything glorious in a naked and savagely flogged man nailed up on a cross and left to die; for us it provokes shock and I suspect for most pity. In the Roman world and especially the Jewish world it was more likely to evince disgust and disgrace; either way, not Glory.
Glory is one of those words which we use so often, and so frequently in a ritual context, that they risk losing any meaning, save in this case a vague sense of admiration and wonder. We have said, or heard sung Glory to the Father etc, three times so far in this service. I suspect I may not be alone in not having thought very hard, or at all, about what it meant. 
Our word glory is directly from the Latin Gloria which in turn probably comes from the root Gnor meaning knowledge, which we retain in our word ignorance-the lack of knowledge. Gloria in Latin seems to have originally meant how one is known and recognised and thus how one might be admired. Glory also translates the Greek word Doxa (thus psalms, canticles and sometimes hymns end in a “doxology”) Doxa again means primarily knowledge or opinion, especially of a person and usually approving and admiring recognition. So when we say “Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” we are really saying something like “May the Father Son and Holy Ghost be recognised by us for what each really is”. We might go further and say that Glory is the expression of that name; YHWH- the creator, intervener and saviour of mankind.
Glory is also, however, the translation-or one of them- for the Hebrew Shekinah the cloud that both surrounded and indicated the presence of God, as the unconsuming fire in the burning bush did, hiding that presence from human sight, as it covers Sinai, and much later, receives the ascended Christ.
This cloud is a physical version of the same idea of something which both shows us an aspect of God’s nature, but now mysterious and impenetrable as anyone who has ascended a mountain into cloud will know. This Glory is makes God and his power manifest (so far as is prudent for weakly mortals). It’s the Glory that shone around the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds.
Shepherds and angels apart, the incarnation of Jesus is a sort of  piercing  of that cloud; the baby in the manger and the cross tell of the dual nature of God; both incomprehensibly powerful and the vulnerably human. It is a showing of God as he really is, or really matters to us.
John’s Glorification of the Crucifixion, in its ultimate demonstration of his human mortality is not glorious in ordinary human vocabulary; but necessary to make our salvation convincing and possible and equally the necessary prequel to the Resurrection, which having saved, then transforms us. This truth would only be credible from one who experienced the human condition at its worst. We can indeed call that glorious, a new existence and a new reality, and the ultimate act of the God who causes things to be. Amen  

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years are here | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005