The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Exodus 19.10-25; Matthew 8.23-34
Keep out’, ‘No admittance’, ‘Private’, ‘Authorised persons only’, ‘Go away’. Whatever words are used the message is the same, you’re not welcome here. It’s quite different to those passes that celebs and ‘A listers’ desire ‘Access all areas’. Most of us will never get such treatment and the closed door will, potentially, always be there
The experience of divine encounter in the Old Testament contrasts so profoundly with what we find in the New. We got a clear indication of this in the First Lesson this afternoon. The children of Israel have escaped enslavement in Egypt, God has rescued them from their oppressors and brought them on dry land through the Red Sea. Now they’re on the long trek, the journey that will last forty years, moving relentlessly through the wilderness until the time is right for them to enter the Promised Land.
But what we heard was something that happened early on in their journey.
At the heart of the Sinai Peninsula stands the mountain that gives that area of land its name, Mount Sinai, one of the holiest of places. Since around the year 565, St Catherine’s Monastery has stood at the foot of the mountain. It was built by Emperor Justinian to contain and protect the burning bush that pilgrims can still see. But in this harsh environment it’s built like a fortress, high, forbidding walls, keeping unwanted visitors out.
God says to Moses ‘You shall set limits for the people all around.’ They weren’t to touch the mountain, go any where near, they’re told that even their livestock would be stoned if they approached the place where Moses and God would meet, the place where the Ten Commandments would be handed down on tablets of stone. God keeps humanity at a distance. It almost feels that God is too dangerous, too powerful, too unpredictable to approach. Keep off, back off, keep away is the message from God to his people.
When the Jewish people established the Temple in Jerusalem the same principle applied. The Holy of Holies was out of bounds, only the High Priest could enter, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrated on Wednesday and Thursday last week. For the rest of the year God was out of bounds, a brooding, distant presence in the midst of the people, hidden from sight behind the veil of the Temple.
And then comes Jesus who as it says in the Letter to the Ephesians ‘breaks down the dividing wall’ the hostility, whose death in St Matthew’s Gospel tears in two the veil of the temple from top to bottom, exposing the true nature of God. Jesus makes God accessible. He comes as a baby lying in his mother’s arms, he comes as a man, sitting with friends, sharing a meal, touching the leper, embracing, holding and being held. He comes as bread to be laid in our hands, he comes as the one who opens wide his arms on the cross, who shows us the way to eternity and that divine encounter which is our peace, our true atonement.
It all sounds so easy, so warm, so lovely. Until we read the Second Lesson for today. They go to the land of the Gadarenes, Jesus and his disciples. It was on the other side of the lake, another country. But Jesus’ love is not bounded by place and he heals the two men he finds there raving amongst the tombs. And the local people tell him to go away.
The whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.
Go away, Jesus, we beg you, leave us.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’
How we hold this reality of God in tension, the awesome, the distant, the familiar, the immanent, divine and human, God and man – well that is the journey of discovery to which humanity has been called from Sinai to Calvary and beyond, to here.