September 9, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Revelation 8.1-5; at Evensong on Sunday 9th September 2018 the 15th after Trinity, Medal Sunday.
Silence. Not quite for the half hour of silence in heaven we heard about earlier; just a few seconds worth. ‘What’s going on?’, we wonder. ‘Why have we stopped?’ Silence does not come easily in our culture or to our souls. And of all things to focus on, silence, when we are celebrating the contribution of the girl choristers to our worship, seems rather ironic.
However, things are more complicated than that. Choristers new and old learn that making music involves as much rest as actual singing and that any performance hangs together under an always dynamic, shifting pulse or rhythm which needs to be conducted, to ensure that a choir feels and expresses the music clumsily suggested by the notation.
Futhermore, music leads us into silence. I’m not the only one for whom the seconds after the end of an anthem are some of the best and longest moments of the service. I’m hoping that November might bring us – a not-so-subtle request here to Mr Lumsden – Geraint Lewis’s great anthem, ‘The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hands of God’. Words of faith are given substance and conviction by their setting; and by the end we are in deep silence, trusting our dear departed into those sure hands. Silence has an enormous role in worship, and frankly we do not value it enough.
We have heard that there is silence in heaven when the Lamb opens the seventh seal of the scroll given him by God. Seven is the number of fulfilment – there are seven angels with seven trumpets in the scene as John the Divine describes his vision, but they do not blow them yet.
What is this silence about? It’s the beginning of something dramatic, a scene of vast quantities of incense being offered up by another angel, along with the prayer of all God’s saints, at a golden, flaming altar, which results in terrifying portents on the earth – thunder, rumbling, lightning and earthquakes.
The reason for this silence is listening. Heaven is a place of praise, filled with angel-song. But the singing stops so that something else can be heard, the prayers of the saints. Heaven is a place where our prayers find an audience before God’s throne.
For the persecuted Christians who first heard these words from John the Divine, and whose prayers seemed unanswered, this vision of prayer’s efficacy must have been electrifying. In the vision their prayers are borne aloft by angelic incense, to bring about a shaking of the very foundations of the earth. Perhaps we might be also heartened by it.
The work of prayer is a mystery; it’s not a quick play of a heavenly slot machine: we pull the handle by praying for this and that, the wheels spin, and with luck we end up with three cherries or even the occasional jackpot. It’s tempting in these days when so much happens so fast and just as we’ve planned it, to test prayer by whether we get what we want, or something approximating to it, now.
But prayer works on the basis of what will ultimately happen, not immediately happen – we pray: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Our prayer is taken before God’s final throne, so the answer to things that might seem right to us now – obviously the very thing that any sort of loving God should do – is often not now, not yet.
For a mother of a boy of three to die of cancer is simply not right, and one day justice will prevail and it will be put right, but for now we can only be grateful for the very public journey towards death taken by Rachael Bland and trust that the love and prayers of her many admirers will be found an acceptable offering in God’s sight and remembered.
Silence is eloquent. It tells us that we are waiting, waiting for something to be gathered to a fullness, but we are powerless to make it so. God has to act to bring about something new. And yet we have to arrive at that deep silence; we have work to do to enter into this Sabbath rest.
Our girls sing mostly at Evensong, so let me explain how its liturgy works. The core of Evensong is listening and responding. Right from the start we listen to words from Scripture which encourage us to confess our sins to Almighty God. As soon as we confess our sins, we hear of his forgiveness and our cleansing from all unrighteousness. As free people, we rise to praise him
In the following psalmody we are taken more deeply into dialogue with God. The choir stalls are arranged antiphonally, so that we sense this to-and-fro of listening and response.
Then we are ready to hear God’s word from the Old and New Testaments, and respond to his speaking with canticles of praise. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis serve this purpose magnificently, as they are not only acts of praise but each speaks of God’s promises being fulfilled in Christ; and so at Evensong we stand between the promises already fulfilled in Jesus Christ and the promises which we long to see realised in God’s everlasting Kingdom.
The key word here is ‘glory’. As we look to God to come in glory to fulfil his final promises, our worship is punctuated by the cry, ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen’.
The versicles and responses sung by the precentor and choir again have a dialogical structure, and the prayers of intercession respond to the sermon, where God’s word is expounded.
Silence is the place we wait between God’s Word and our response, between our word and God’s response, and we trust that as we go through this cycle, repetitively but with variation, we will travel deeply into the mystery of our life in God and God’s life in us. The progress is like knocking a nail into wood: the nail is not going anywhere but deeper.
And so we are very grateful for our Music Foundation and today, for our girl choristers in particular, because music gives this to-and-fro into glory a beautiful sonority and structure. Music encourages us to open our hearts and ears just a little wider, so that we listen and respond at a deeper level than we otherwise would, and this draws us still closer to God.
Silence is perhaps the fullest expression of trust in God because it says that we are listeners and learners before him, more inclined by our own initiative to go wrong than right. As we are still, as we wait and let our hearts rest in a beckoning mystery greater than ourselves, we sense our spirits lightening.
As T S Eliot put it:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
There is more to come from trusting silence. How long we must wait, we do not know, for God to rise from his throne and act more decisively than we had ever dared hope, to bring his justice, to hear the prayer of his saints over the long centuries of struggle and sorrow, and to bring his creation to full flower. Meanwhile we watch and wait and pray in faith.