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Sermon for Choral Evensong (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3)

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 30th September 2007

An opinion survey revealed that more people prayed than believed in God. That seems odd. Who or what do the people who don’t believe in God think they are praying to? But perhaps it isn’t so odd. Believing is an act of the mind, of the intellect, whereas praying also involves a deeper instinct, a movement of the heart. Faith involves that deeper instinct as well: not just of the intellect but of the heart and the will. So does worship.

Of course, faith can be quite irrational and can be misplaced; we can put our faith in quite the wrong things. So it is with worship. We all worship. It’s, as they say, hard-wired in us, to worship someone or something we value above all else. But we don’t all worship God. People worship wealth, power, status, all kinds of things; people worship themselves. But these are false gods, inadequate substitutes for the real thing. The worship of almighty God fulfils in the right way a profound human instinct and thus has a good effect on us.

At this time of year, Michaelmas, when the Church thinks of the archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and of all the angels, our minds are drawn to the worship of heaven. The choir sang in the anthem (A Sequence for St Michael, Latin, Alcuin trans. Helen Waddell) of the archangel Michael in the temple of God, a censer of gold in his hands and the smoke of it rising up fragrant with spices till it came before God. The smoke of the incense reminds us of the prayers of the saints rising up before God. The worship we offer here on earth draws us into the worship the saints and angels are always offering to God in the joy and glory of heaven. The worship of God unites earth with heaven. When we truly worship God, we are one with heaven and one with all those who have gone before us and now worship God in his nearer presence.

So, true worship satisfies a profound instinct in us. It prepares us for heaven. And thirdly it enables us to be true to ourselves. Christian tradition speaks of a fourth archangel before the beginning of time, the greatest of all, Lucifer, the bearer of light, who thought he could be God’s equal and refused to worship God. He thought he had power to be something he was not. Pride caused his fall and Lucifer was cast out of heaven to the lowest place, to a place of darkness. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 3) Happy are we who know we have “no power of ourselves to help ourselves” (Book of Common Prayer Collect for Second Sunday in Lent). Worshipping God helps us see ourselves as we are. Blessed are those who know their need of God.

Here in Westminster Abbey, we recall with thanksgiving this weekend the birth 800 years ago of King Henry III who built this present Abbey Church and enabled our offering of worship to be in a place of stunning power and beauty. Hundreds of people experience it each day as they, and you, join the Abbey community in worship. But the worship we offer to God this side of heaven, however rich and beautiful it is, can never be all that God deserves. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness [and] intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8: 26) Praise be to God who himself takes and perfects our worship.

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