28th February 2022

Defining Moments

A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor

Sunday 27 February 2022, The Sunday next before Lent
(Exodus 3: 1-6, John 12: 27-36a)

Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon

Several years ago the BBC ran a series in which it invited some of the world’s most influential people to talk about the defining moments in their life. Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Cape Town, who died on Boxing Day last year aged 90, was one of the participants. A key figure in the fight to rid South Africa of apartheid, he reported that his biggest defining moment was when he saw Trevor Huddleston, aged 9 or so. “I didn’t know it was Trevor Huddleston,” he wrote. “But I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker. I didn’t know then that it would have affected me so much, but it was something that…really…blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat… And the passion with which he opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate” (Defining Moments, BBC News, Wednesday 9 July 2003).

What are the defining moments of your life? And do you remember them? These are moments that may cause us to see the world, or our place within it, in a new way, moments of great beauty perhaps, or when we realise something with tremendous clarity which we otherwise might have missed. Such moments are often highly memorable, becoming part of who we are and how we live our lives. We may find ourselves telling the story of them many years afterwards.

A defining moment can be something simple that has massive implications, as in the case of Desmond Tutu. But such moments can affect us on a smaller scale as well. This last week, I visited my 3-year-old niece who lives in Germany. I hadn’t seen her for 2 years, the last time I’d been able to go having been just before the first lockdown in March in 2020. We had a brilliant time, cutting out, reading books, and playing Hide and Seek. Although this was something quite simple, it felt highly significant, given that I hadn’t seen her in real life for over half the time she’s been alive, and something I won’t forget. Covid has made us even more aware of the significance of such everyday encounters, especially with friends and family who, for whatever reason, we don’t get to see that often. The gift of time spent with those closest to us feels even more precious than it did before.

Our reading from the book of Exodus this afternoon is the story of Moses and the burning bush, a defining moment for him and for the people of Israel. The burning bush may not have been as miraculous as it sounds- according to botanists, there is a bush which gives off methane in certain conditions and can be lit but the bush itself is not burned or consumed. The important thing about this story isn’t so much the miracle itself- that the bush was burning- but that God stopped Moses in his tracks and brought him into a powerful and significant encounter with Himself, the Divine.
Many things have been written about this famous passage of scripture. But in this week at the beginning of Lent, the significant point to draw out is that Moses “turned aside” to look at the bush. And when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, he called him, and revealed himself to him. Lent is a time for turning aside- a time for not just looking, but seeing, and for seeing things in a new way. It’s a time to turn aside in prayer, as we have been doing for Ukraine in recent days- and there will be a series of sessions on Monday nights during Lent here in the Cathedral to help us do just that, whether we’re new to prayer or unsure, or whether we’ve been learning to pray for many years: all are welcome.

In Lent, God is calling us to “turn aside,” whether it’s here in the Cathedral or in the course of our everyday lives. Lent is a time for asking God to renew our vision, not just to look and hear and move on, but to see and to listen, to ask God to meet with us in significant moments, and direct our lives afresh.

God waited for Moses to turn aside, and then he spoke to him, in a defining moment that changed him. Are we ready to turn, and find God waiting for us? God is waiting for us to turn aside, this Lent. And we do that for a few moments now, as we turn to God in prayer.

Heavenly Father, as we prepare to begin the season of Lent on Wednesday this week, we pray that this may be a time of drawing closer to you in prayer. We give thanks for significant moments in our lives; help us to see your glory. Help us to make space in our lives to be still and attentive to your presence with us in a way that is so easy to lose in our busy lives.

Almighty God, whose holy people journeyed through the desert and whose Son Jesus Christ was driven into the wilderness, be with us as we make our sacred pilgrimage through Lent. Refresh us with the living waters of prayer, feed us with the spiritual food of the Scriptures, protect us from the heats of life’s temptations and bring us at the last to your promised land of plenty, rest and joy, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s easy to feel, as we see the unspeakable scenes of suffering and fear on our TV screens following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on Thursday, that prayer is not much to offer, that our prayers cannot achieve very much when action is so much needed. Yet coming together in prayer is a way that we show our support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We ask that God may have mercy on us and on our world as we turn to him in prayer this Lent; and that our prayers may be a source of comfort and support, as we pray for peace and an end to the fighting.
A Prayer for Ukraine- Archbishop Justin Welby Archbishop Stephen Cottrell

God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons. We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them. We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at-risk and in fear, that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.