Sermon: Holiness of Heart

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Preached on 3rd March 2013
by Revd Paul Cleever-Thorpe

I often wonder, as indeed you may also wonder, quite what people in 2013 make of the Church.  As a smaller proportion of the population, currently around 1 in 12 share in any form of worship service held in a church building … so the need becomes ever more urgent for us to consider fresh ways of encouraging greater participation by those within our community whilst also, when they do come, ensuring that worship is meaningful, relevant and understandable to them – a challenge!

One image then which provides us with helpful context to a Psalm and which also reinforces the Christian understanding of HOLINESS with which we tend to associate words like MORALITY and PURITY.

In a street survey carried out by the Bible Society a few years ago now, members of the public were asked to define various words which are found within the Bible and which could therefore be used in church worship.

When asked what the word ‘Begotten’ meant, most thought it was the opposite of ‘Forgotten’; when asked what the sin of ‘Adultery’ is, someone replied that it was the sin of saying you were older than you really were  … and the word ‘Consecrate’ was thought to be something that you do to coconuts!

When it came to the word ‘Holiness’ most people had nothing to say at all, apart from those who thought it was a name given to the Pope.

It seems to me that the season of Lent is a right and proper time for us to reflect more deeply on this word ‘holiness’ which, remember, at its root, means ‘to separate’ or ‘to set apart’.  When it is used of God, as in our hymn just now, it is done to try to help us to grasp how God is ‘other’, how God is transcendent … different to us.

Which particular images then resonate for you with this word, Holiness?

In the wake of the horrors of 9/11there were may reactions, of course, to this tragedy.  My own reaction, or response, was to visit the Islamic Cultural Centre in Monkseaton, a mile or so from where I was living at the time, the purpose of the visit being to forge some dialogue with a Muslim who was the Leader of the Centre and to seek a greater understanding of Islam as a religion and the Koran as its holy book.

As I entered this Islamic Centre, the first thing that I noticed was the sight of shoes and socks neatly placed inside the doorway opposite a number of small foot baths.

This was a sign, of course, that my visit had coincided with a time of prayer taking place inside the centre and, for Muslims, in tis ‘holy space’ where prayer was taking place, the requirement was for clean feet and a pure heart.

Rather like the reference in our Psalm this morning (Psalm 24 – HP 843), a Psalm which would certainly have been used in Old Testament times by Jews as part of their worship in the Temple.  As they posed the question:


These Jews, I am sure, would be thinking of a ritual, not so far from that which took place in that Islamic centre.  They would be recalling how, before entering the Temple, they had the need to step down into one of these: mikvah baths. (

Now the word ‘mikvah’ means ‘collection’ and refers to a collection of water that was used by the Jews for ceremonial washing.  These are, therefore, ritual baths, this particular one having been excavated at the southern end of the Temple in Jerusalem.

With our understanding of the Jewish Law and its requirements, we realise that Jews would need to purify themselves before several activities or after certain events that made them unclean.

And so a mikvah would have an important part to play – it had to have a source of running water, such as a spring, or fresh water, and it also had to be large enough to allow an average sized person to immerse their whole body.

As you can see here, steps would be used to descend into and ascend from the mikvah.  Often there was a wall separating the clean side from the unclean side:



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