A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St James’ Old Cathedral on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2014, marking the Feast of St James, Apostle, and the 175th anniversary of the Foundation of the Church:
This morning’s readings (2 Chronicles 5.11-14, Revelation 15.1-8, Luke 9.28b-36) record three extraordinary moments in the life of the people of God that tell us about the importance of music, and of silence, in experiencing and responding to the presence of God. They take us back to the moments at which God manifested himself in worship, in glory and in judgment.
They encourage us to learn to sing new songs ourselves in worship of our God: both songs of liberation—the songs that celebrate our being set free from the slavery of sin and death, the songs that celebrate our relationship with God, and songs of judgment—the songs that give voice to our desire for God’s vision for this world to be fulfilled, and to become a place of justice and peace that is shaped by God’s will ‘in earth as it is in heaven’.
Our first reading from the second book of the Chronicles (2 Chronicles 5.11-14) celebrates the culmination of a long journey of faith for God’s people, a journey that began in exile and slavery in Egypt, was granted symbols of the assurance of God’s presence at Sinai, in the form of the tablets of the covenant of Moses contained in the ark of the covenant and tent of meeting, and ended in the dedication of a permanent place to house these signs of faith: the building of Solomon’s Temple. We join God’s people at the moment at which they set apart the holy place that was being built for more than a generation. Not only the Temple itself had taken a generation to shape in stone, cedar, precious stones and gold. The setting apart and formation of a generation of Temple priests and Temple musicians, from among the families of the tribes of Levi and Aaron, also had commenced a generation ago, during the reign of King David.
And it is at the moment of the dedication of the Temple—the permanent physical symbol of God’s presence in the heart of the people of Israel—that the Temple musicians sing a new song to God’s glory. They sing a song of God’s glory that celebrates their long journey of faith: it is a song in praise of their creator, their liberator-God who now deigns to dwell in a house made of human hands. And so the 120 Temple priests, and the singers from three Levitical families, lead the people of God in song. They sing a song that celebrates God’s constancy, lead the people in singing of the Hallel (הלל)—words that we now know as Psalm 118, ‘For God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever’, they sing. And as they sing their song of God’s constancy and presence in the house set apart for the symbols of their journey—the tablets and the ark of their covenant—‘the House of the Lord was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud’. They are prevented from moving, or entering the cloud. That cloud, our first reading tells us, was the ‘glory of the Lord filling the house of God’ (2 Chronicles 5.14).
Through the music-making of the Temple musicians, God’s presence was made manifest. Extraordinarily, it was their new song—the song of God’s liberation and constancy—that made visible all that the Temple stood for; made visible the presence of God among his people. God’s presence was made manifest in the form of a thick cloud that covered the entirety of the sacred space—‘the glory of the Lord filled the house of God’—and his ministers were blinded by God’s presence, unable ‘to stand to minister because of the cloud’ (2 Chronicles 5.14). Their song of the steadfastness of God’s love for his people made visible the grace-filled presence of God, as the Temple musicians led God’s people in singing their new song. And from that moment onwards, the singing of the Hallel Psalm has become part of the celebration of the liberation of the people of God at Passover, as God’s people recall the constancy of God’s love and his liberating power—even though the Temple building that first revealed the physical presence of God’s grace in song had long been destroyed.
Our Gospel reading, from Luke’s gospel (Luke 9.28b-36), takes us far away from the assembled people of God to a place of isolation. Jesus takes with him his closest followers—Peter, John and James (for whom your church is named)—away from the crowds that had followed him on his journey through Galilee. He takes them to a mountain-top to pray. And while they were praying, the disciples have a spiritual experience that is as extraordinary as the experience of the Temple musicians at the moment God’s House was set apart for service: their teacher and master becomes transfigured before them; ‘the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white’ (Luke 9.29). And standing by his side, talking with him, were the champions of God’s people—Moses who had led his people through the wilderness to the Land of Promise, and Elijah who had led his people through times of great godlessness and idolatry.
Two long-departed heroes of faith flanked Jesus to talk with him about his own departure Jesus ‘was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.31). They spoke about Jesus’ liberation of God’s people. Jesus’ ‘departure in Jerusalem’ is, of course, a reference to two departures: his departure from life at his ignominious ascent to the cross to die there for the sins of the people; and his departure in glory from this world in his resurrection body at his ascent to the Father. In the increasing darkness of the fading light Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus. Speak of the darkness of the cross and the glory of resurrection. Speak of the life of heaven they already have shared, and will once more share. And the disciples beheld ‘his glory and the two men standing with him’, saw Jesus as he truly was: the glorified Son of Man, and his face reflecting the light of eternity (Luke 9.30). And as Moses and Elijah depart from Jesus’ presence, they sense another presence, might perceive the strains of another song, a song of suffering and glory: the song of Christ’s departure to the cross and to the Father, the song of death and resurrection.
In his sleep-filled thoughts, Peter still thinks about how to capture this awe-inspiring moment by a marker, when a cloud descends on him and the other two disciples. And, unlike the manifestation of God’s glory at the dedication of the Temple, when the cloud prevented the movement of God’s servants, here, on the mountaintop, the cloud opens up to envelope them. And the disciples ‘were terrified as they entered the cloud’, we hear in our gospel reading (Luke 9.34). They were terrified indeed, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31). Not only are the disciples entirely surrounded by God’s presence. They hear God speak to them—for the voice they hear is for their benefit alone—and they hear God confirm that the Son of Man they saw bathed in the light of eternity is, in fact, the Son of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen’, God speaks to them and charges them, ‘listen to him’ (Luke 9.35). And when the heavenly voice had spoken, there was no more voice, no song. Only silence on the isolated mountaintop, and Jesus alone with his disciples. ‘And they kept silent’, our gospel reading concludes. For sometimes the music of our new song may be the stillness of silence (Luke 9.36).
Where in our first lesson and gospel reading we heard about God’s servants experiencing the presence of God in an extraordinary way on earth—through music, voice and silence—the final song our lessons speak of is a song that is sung in the physical presence of God (Revelation 15.1-8). It is a song of praise and justice, of sovereignty and judgment. It is sung in an awe-filled place: a sea that is both still as glass yet at the same time awash with living flames of fire. At its shore stand the servants of God who, in this world have been sustained in their journey and battle of faith by the songs of God’s liberation and faithfulness: the songs of Christ’s death and resurrection, the songs of longing for God’s physical nearness.
They sing a new song, combining the song of covenant—the song of Moses—and the song of sovereignty—the song of the Lamb. A song of God’s presence—for he is among them to hear their song in person at the entrance to the tent of witness—and a song of judgment—for he is about to bring judgment to the nations.
With harps given them by God, they sing of God’s glory, his justice and constancy: ‘Great and amazing are your deeds … just and true are your ways’, their song confesses (Revelation 15.3). You are ‘Lord God Almighty’, you are ‘King of the nations’, ‘you alone are holy’ they sing in God’s presence (again, in the form of a cloud). And, in their song, proclaim the endpoint of the journey of all faith: ‘your righteous acts have been revealed, and all nations will come and worship you’ (Revelation 15.3-4). All nations will be judged, and all nations given voice to worship God, to join the new song of covenant and sovereignty at the shores of the sea of glass and fire; to sing the song of love, glory and adoration at the approach to the heavenly temple. And, as they—in this vision of the endtimes—themselves foreshadow the very end of all things, they behold both the destruction of all evil—‘seven angels with seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God’ about to be poured out on the universe (Revelation 15.1)—and the completion of all justice—the ‘temple in heaven, and the tabernacle of the covenant of the law open’, for from now on God will do away with evil, and open up his sanctuary to those who have responded to his covenant in love (Revelation 15.5).
Three dramatic and extraordinary visions are set before us: the vision of the glory of God filling the earthly sanctuary as the Temple musicians’ song resounded; the vision of the disciples of Jesus beholding the light of eternity and the brightness of resurrection in the silent music of the mountaintop; the song of the redeemed about the behold the judgment of the universe and the coming among them of their sovereign king, their ‘Lord God Almighty’, at the sea of glass and fire. They tell us that it is in silence and in song that we can give voice to our experience of the presence among us of the living God.
And they invite us to enter ourselves into the covenant relationship with God that the singers of new songs of old—both those chosen for the service of God and who have come to know his nearness through their art, and those who have come to know God’s presence in the music of silence—have come to share. The covenant that promises us the knowledge of God’s presence on our own journeys of faith on earth; the covenant that is for us an invitation to be numbered among those who, at the end of all time, will come to behold the gates of God’s tabernacle in heaven, and Jesus Christ opening his kingdom to us.
Today we are invited to join in the new songs of faith ourselves: we are called to join in singing the songs of covenant, and commitment; the songs of calling and service, the songs of love and adoration. We are invited to join our voices with countless who have gone before, in the harmony of earthly and heavenly songs. We are invited to join their song confident that our music-making can resound with theirs in our worship on earth. We are invited to learn new songs to add to those of many generations in adoration of the God who is from everlasting. And, as we sing the song of earth and heaven, we do so in the firm and certain hope that one day, our own voices will resound in God’s dwelling place in heaven.
And now, ‘may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 15.5-6). Amen.
© Andreas Loewe, 2014