Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist for the Dedication of Westminster Abbey
Start Date 16th Oct 2016 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

We heard earlier a passage from the first book of Chronicles, where David, the king of Israel, with the leaders of the ancestral houses, was offering precious metals for the service of the house of God: five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold in addition to other metals, silver, bronze and iron. These are tremendous gifts of huge value. A talent in biblical times is estimated by those who care about this kind of detail to be worth somewhere between $1,000 and $30,000. I should say I was consulting an American website. Take this at the conservative end. Say a talent was worth $1,000. That makes 5,000 talents of gold worth about $5 million. Thirty times that, at the higher end of estimation, makes $150 million, quite a sum, and that was just the gold, and all as gifts for the house of God.

This house of God, in which we worship, was dedicated to the service of almighty God 747 years ago, and was itself the third church on this site. King Henry III gave most of the cost of building this church, though he persuaded his friends and allies to contribute. It is thought the cost to the king was of the order of £45,000. How on earth does that translate into today’s costs? Well, one website suggests the labour costs might be the best comparison, which makes the cost of building this church in the 13th century about £700 million in today’s prices, or about $850 million. That’s quite a sum of money. So, why would you spend so much money on making a church magnificent and beautiful?

Chronicles gives the answer. David addressing God says, ‘Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. All things come from you, and of your own have we given you.’ We give back to God only what we have received from God.

The other morning a scientist was interviewed on the radio. He was talking about recent discoveries made by the extra power of the Hubble telescope in space. In the 1990s it was estimated that the universe contained 200 billion galaxies. A galaxy, you will know, is a huge collection of gas, dust, and billions of stars and their solar systems; our galaxy is known as the Milky Way, with billions of stars. And there were thought to be 200 billion galaxies. But now, a concentrated measurement of galaxies in one small area of space has revealed that 200 billion galaxies in the universe is an underestimate by ten times. That means that in our universe there may be as many as 2 trillion galaxies, each with billions of stars like our sun. And some astronomers think there are multiple universes beyond our universe. Incidentally, and you probably know this, the theory is that it all began with a big bang 13.7 billion years ago, when all the matter that makes up the universe, concentrated in an intensely dense ball, began to expand, as the universe is still expanding.

Now, I find all this conceptually intensely challenging. There is no way we can possibly imagine or conceive what must have gone on. And some scientists are content to say that there was just this little peach-sized body of matter; to say that was the beginning; to say we can’t know where it came from or why; to say that all we can know is that it expanded and billions of years later here was the world as a tiny part of this vast body of dark matter and matter, 2 trillion galaxies big. Other scientists see that there must be an external cause and, rather casually, name that external cause God but can see no further. Yet other scientists believe in God as the Creator, who is still creating. That is of course what the Church encourages us to believe. We believe in God the Creator.

And what amazes me and surely amazes you is the sheer majesty, extent, and overwhelming profusion and generosity of the creation. People who believed that the sun revolved around the earth and that the stars were painted in the visible sky would have had an idea of the fantastic variety and richness of nature but would have had no idea at all that everything on earth is but a tiny speck and that the gift is so many billions and billions of times as great as to boggle the imagination. So, this morning we are dealing with big numbers, massive richness, huge generosity: the profusion of God’s creation; and the response of people offering great gifts to the glory of God.

But really the numbers only point to a deeper reality, the reality of God’s overwhelming generosity and love. And the question for us all is: will our response be not just offering some of our wealth, our property, but offering our lives, our love? What can focus our response to God’s generosity?

In the Gospel reading this morning, from St John, we saw our Lord Jesus visiting the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Passover. St John places the incident early in his gospel, soon after the sign of God’s profuse generosity in the wedding miracle at Cana, with water turned into far too much wine. Now Jesus cleansed the temple. He drove out the animals for sacrifice and the money changers. This act is often misinterpreted. It was absolutely not about a calm and prayerful atmosphere in church. And Jesus was not angry about the profit the money-changers made from exchanging Roman money for temple money that would be used to pay for the sacrificial animals.

Jesus was demonstrating something far more important: it is not through animal sacrifices that we can make our peace with God. Jesus is repeating a theme of the Old Testament prophets. Take the prophet Amos in the 8th century before Christ. He put these words into the mouth of God, ‘Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of your fatted animals I will not look upon.’ Jesus wants us to know that it will only be the sacrifice of Calvary that can make our peace with God, not our own efforts, not anything we can offer. It is God’s gift in Christ that reconciles us with God. So St John quotes our Lord as saying, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews mocked him. ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ St John explains that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.

The richness and exuberance of the Creation of God in this wonderful universe, or multiverses, was conceived in the mind of God. Why?  As a means of spreading and sharing God’s relationship of love. That aim focuses into clarity and meaning when we come to see the amazing gift of the Son of God, the Incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, and above all his sacrificial Death and glorious Resurrection after three days in the Grave: Jesus, the revelation of God, the light of the world, the cornerstone.

We see the face of Jesus in the work of artists and icon writers and artisans who make crucifixes. We see the face of Jesus covered in blood and sweat and tears in his agony on the cross. And sometimes we see the face of Jesus shining in glory like the sun. These are no more than images. What is the reality? How will it be when we come to see Jesus face to face? How will he look? We can perhaps imagine a look of love. We must imagine a stern look, that of the judge. But perhaps we shall see tears streaming down the face of our loving Lord as he sees God’s love in us marred and spoiled by our lack of care, our vanity, our heartlessness, our self-centredness.

On this feast of Dedication, as we thank God for the Creation and Redemption and for God’s overwhelming generosity to us, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the love of God and the love of our fellow human beings, to the service of God and the service of our fellows, that we may one day look on the face of Jesus in joy and peace.

‘Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. All things come from you, and of your own have we given you.’

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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