Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2007, Sunday 24th June
BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’ programme has a poll from time to time as to which hymns are people’s favourites. The Top Ten includes a number of old favourites, Guide me, O thou great redeemer, “Love divine all loves excelling, “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, but amongst the favourites now are also hymns which are much more recent, including this morning’s choice, “Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the holy one is here.
Dave Evans the writer of both the words and music of the song is fifty this year, but was only in his twenties when he wrote a hymn that immediately gained very widespread popularity. Published in 1986, it made it into the Church of Ireland’s book Irish Church Praise by 1990—just four years in a church that took two hundred years to officially allow some of Wesley’s hymns to be sung!
The hymn is both profound and very simple. It’s filled with Biblical references and allusions. Anyone who knows their Bible stories will be able to go through it line by line and be able to recognise episodes from which Evans might have found inspiration. The breadth of Biblical theology encompassed in this single song is vast. The hymnbook says it is based on Exodus 3:1-6, but it starts in Genesis and runs right through to the book of Revelation.
Do you remember the story of Jacob’s ladder, the story of Jacob falling asleep and dreaming of the ladder between earth and heaven?Jacob wakes and he realises he has been in a very special place. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”There is a sense in the Bible that God may be encountered very specially in particular places and in particular moments, sometimes when, like Jacob, we don’t even expect to meet him.
Moving on from Jacob and we come to the story of Moses and the favourite story of many Presbyterians for it is the story of the burning bush. “The angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The burning bush is a symbol of God’s presence, but this is a terrifying presence. Take off your shoes because you are treading on holy ground; turn your face away because this is a holy God.
God is not a God to be messed with. God is not someone you bargain with, he doesn’t enter into negotiations. I remember being asked by Michael when he was younger why I had forbidden something. “Because I said so”, I told him, “it’s called the arbitrary exercise of power”. When God says something is so, it really is so, he is an arbitrary God. He is a God who is approached with reverence and fear.
God is not God who fits in with what we expect. We are urged to be still because it is sometimes only in the stillness that we will hear the voice of God. We hear the story of Elijah meeting with God in 1 Kings 19. “The LORD said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It is in the stillness, the quietness, in gentleness, that God speaks. “Be still, for the presence of the Lord” isn’t just about being overawed by God, it is also about making space for God in our lives so there is the chance of us seeing God at work”. Psalm 46 speaks of violence and upheaval in the world and calls on the reader, “Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire”. With all this action, God’s presence should be obvious, but “no” says the psalm, “”Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” It is by being still that we know God is there.
Dave Evans expresses a sense of God’s glory. The God who “burns with holy fire” is the God who is crowned with splendour. The song moves from the experience of God in the Old Testament book of Exodus to the experience of God in the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament: “with splendour he is crowned picks up a sense of God in Saint John’s vision of Jesus in heaven where people are overwhelmed with a sense of his splendour and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Holy fire and splendour may be the things we associate with the God of Moses and with the God of Revelation, do we associate them with coming to church each Sunday? We should do. The Jesus about whom we read in the Gospel story each Sunday is the carpenter from Nazareth, but he is also the “radiant King of light. The story of the Transfiguration told by Saint Luke tells of Peter and James and John going up on to a mountain side with Jesus, “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus.
Dave Evans’ song is about the God who is encountered by Jacob and by Moses and by Elijah, about the God who walks with Peter and James and John, being with us – here – now – as real to us as he was to them. “Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place, do we know that power? Do we feel that presence?