The following sermon was preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 (the second Sunday of Lent), at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. Services today, as all through Lent, begin with the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Penitential Rite (Summary of the Law with Confession), in which each commandment is read aloud followed by the whole congregation saying together, “Lord have mercy and incline our hearts to keep thy law.” Following all the commandments we say the general confession and hear the words of pardon. This takes the place of the Confession later in the service.
Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:
A few years ago I met a priest who had been a guest preacher at Eton College Chapel in England. As you may know, Eton College is one of the world’s great boarding schools, where boys from 13 to 18 years old have been educated in the shadow of Windsor Castle since the reign of Henry VI, in 1440. The school has sometimes been called “the nursemaid of the empire,” and it has been the alma mater of monarchs, statesmen, and churchmen alike (both the present Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury are alumni, to name two examples). Since its founding, daily worship has been offered in the school chapel, according to all the seasonal changes and chances of the Book of Common Prayer.
This preacher whom I met had arrived at the chapel early, since he wanted to check a reference in his sermon against the Prayer Books in the chapel seats (which of course were then — and still are! — the Book of Common Prayer of 1662). He chose the nearest prayer book, and on opening it, the pages fell naturally to the “Table of Consanguinity,” the page that lists all the persons in a person’s family whom he or she is not permitted to marry.
This amused the preacher, and as he scanned the familiar list, he noted some writing in the margin: next to the line saying that a man may not marry his grandmother, some poor homesick boy had written, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!”
Of course the boy was making a wordplay on the lines we just spoke earlier this morning: they are part of our “Penitential Rite” which we use at the beginning of our services during Lent, and which are spoken with at least the same frequency in the English prayer book. “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Whether reciting the Ten Commandments or steeling ourselves against the charms of Grandma, it’s a wonderful prayer to keep in our back pockets and at the tips of our tongues!
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is also engaging in a little wordplay. First he calls Herod a fox, which is funny enough: this Herod was not his father: his father was the Herod who talked himself into a fruitful alliance with the Romans, who had engaged in massive building plans, negotiated with the three wise men, and left his kingdom far stronger than he found it. This Herod, the son, was no great politician. He had presided over the fracture of his father’s kingdom into much smaller bits, an outright takeover bid by new Roman Governors, and couldn’t manage to keep a lid on the intrigue in his own house let alone his kingdom. Jesus is making fun of Herod by calling him a sly fox. But then he continues, by referring to himself as a hen! Foxes and henhouses, the implication is clear: Herod is out to get him. Jesus reflects that as much of a fool as Herod might be, Jerusalem will still be his doom, even as it was the doom of all the prophets before him.
Jesus concludes his rueful reverie with yet another wordplay, this one a little more biting: “Behold, your house is forsaken, and I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” First of all Jesus is referring back to Psalm 118, one of the great liturgical psalms used in Jewish feasts, in which the whole people of God is summoned to praise the Lord, “whose mercy endureth forever.” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is one of the concluding verses of that Psalm, and serves to point the whole singing congregation towards the saving activity of God on behalf of his people. It is one of the great summaries in Scripture of the whole purpose of the prophets.
Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. By saying that people will not see him until they say this line, Jesus is identifying himself with that tradition of prophecy and praise. But more than this, he is also foreshadowing his own triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In true prophetic fashion, his witty play on words serves a real predictive purpose: this is exactly the chorus that the crowds will shout on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the Son of David!”
Of course the irony, which Jesus knows all too well, is that the crowd will not crown him king except with a crown of thorns, and they will not set him on a throne but nail him to the cross. The even deeper irony is that, though they do this to mock him, their coronation is a true one: the Lord of Glory, who comes in the Name of his Father, does reign from that tree: from that cross he works the salvation the prophets had promised, and truly is it said of him, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus’ wordplay here is not just the tired and somewhat caustic commentary it initially appears to be. His wit plays the whole prophetic and religious tradition of his people off of his own upcoming triumphal entry, passion, and crucifixion. In a moment of sly humor, Jesus makes a wonderfully cheeky comment about his own future and the nature of his gospel.
What about you and me? “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” has some resonance for us too, just like the homesick Etonian and the line “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” We repeat “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, whether quietly at a midweek service in the chapel, or to music at this choral mass on Sunday morning. It comes immediately following the Sanctus, when we repeat Isaiah’s great vision of the Lord enthroned in glory with the three-times acclamation “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.”
When we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in church we are doing two things: first, we recall the act which Jesus accomplished on our behalf upon the cross and give thanks for the salvation it works for us; and second, we also turn our attention towards the coming Eucharistic Prayer, and recognize Jesus’ presence among us under the sacramental signs of bread and wine. In effect, we are saying, “Thank you for what you did for us on the cross; and thank you for the nourishment we are about to receive, the fruit of that same redemption.” Singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” locates us as recipients of God’s grace, and throws us on the Name of Jesus as the one through whom we receive it.
But this isn’t all. There is more wordplay to offer. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is a witty remark by Jesus which reflects on prophetic tradition and predicts his own triumphal entry and crucifixion. It is pithy line by which you and I remember his sacrifice and prepare to receive the ongoing nourishment of his body and blood. But it’s not just a way of reflecting on the past and preparing for the present. It is also an anticipation of the future.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” You and I, with all the baptized, have put on Christ as a garment by the power of the Holy Spirit. Day by day, in Lent especially by our individual disciplines, we are being conformed to his image and growing into the fullness of his stature. When God the Father looks at each of us on Judgement Day, He will see the likeness of his Son and the virtue of His sacrifice, not our own meager efforts. On that day, as we enter into the joy of our Master, the whole chorus of angels will sing of each one of us, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” and all heaven will laugh at how well the wordplay fits for each of the redeemed.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” What am I trying to say with this whole wandering series of reflections on wordplay? Only a very simple point, which some of you have been hearing me make all week long. That is, that the Christian religion is not a sad or a depressing thing. Sure we discipline our souls and bodies, especially in Lent, and of course we mourn our sins. But the whole brilliant wonderful reason for doing all this is that, thanks to God, our sins do not have the last word, they cannot speak the last judgment against us. The power of sin and death have been defeated by him who faced them on our behalf. And all that’s left, he deepest truth about heaven and earth and each one of us, far deeper than our sin and failings, is the mirth, the good cheer, the laughter of God.
There’s a wonderful line in the classic film, “Becket.” Richard Burton, playing Thomas Becket, the recently appointed new Archbishop of Canterbury (who did not go to Eton College, by the way) has just given away all his former possessions to the poor. The Bishop of London, his more worldly friend, is scandalized by his profligacy, thinking it merely a clever political ploy to win favor with the crowds. But Becket reassures him by laughing and saying he never felt better. He says, “I’m simply enjoying all of this. I’m beginning to believe he’s not a sad God after all.”
Friends, we do not serve a sad God, but one who delights in laughter and good cheer, whose abiding mirth is a far firmer foundation than anything sin and death can throw at us. This Lent, let us rejoice to lay aside the sin that clings so close, to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, to see all of heaven opening before us, and to say with prophets, saints, Angels, and all the redeemed, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Amen.