20th January EPIPHANY 2, 2019
Isaiah 62.1-5 John 2.1-11
Out of the depths
Whatever our views of Brexit, as we bring before God the state of our country in the aftermath of last week’s debates in the House of Commons, Psalm 130, which we read a few moments ago, is a good place to start. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication” – or, better, “my complaint”.
“The depths” is a word we find in the Creation story at the beginning of Genesis: “The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep”. It means chaos, an endless abyss into which we can fall if we lose our foothold. In the Christian liturgy “out of the depths”, de profundis, is a prayer in the face of death and judgment. In this psalm it’s used to describe a catastrophe. It could be personal, like being struck down with a sudden illness or disability. It is more likely to be a social or national collapse, a military defeat or deportation like the great Exile in Babylon. Where, in such situations, are God’s promises that he will protect his chosen people, and honour the Covenant he has made with them?
The Bible does not offer simple answers to these searching questions. Instead, it encourages us to bring them to God directly, and that is what we do today for our elected representatives and our country as we try to find the way forward with Brexit, and the deadlines (an interesting word!) draw rapidly nearer. Some of the Psalms surprise us by the boldness with which such prayers can be expressed: for example Psalm 44: “Wake up! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Why do you hide your face and forget our affliction?” In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are prayed by Jesus on the cross. “O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint”, prays the Psalmist – the ‘complaint’ here means not just an outpouring of feelings: it is a legal term, a formal complaint made to God as the highest authority, a plea to remedy the situation in which we find ourselves with the seriousness it requires.
Our two other readings are about marriage. John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana – “the first of the signs which he performed, which revealed his glory”. And Isaiah talks about the marriage of the land: “You shall no longer be called Azubah – forsaken – but Hephzibah – my delight is in her; not Shemamah – desolate – but Beulah – married.” What has this to do with Brexit? Quite a lot, actually.
When King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England as James I in 1603, one of the first things he did was introduce a new coinage called “The Unite”, of which this silver shilling is an example. (Pass round.) The coin marks union of Crowns describing James no longer as King of England and Scotland, but as “REX MAGNAE BRITANNIAE”: King of Great Britain. The inscription on the obverse quotes Mark 10.9: “QUAE DEUS CONJUNXIT NEMO SEPARET” – “Those whom God has joined let no-one separate”.
The new coin thus borrows the words of the Gospel to describe the birth of the new Kingdom of Great Britain as a marriage. Practical politics and propaganda were of course at work, not least in securing the Protestant succession and a united front against invasion. There were many within the parliaments of both kingdoms who opposed the union. One wonders what might have happened if they had held a referendum. Nevertheless the aspiration to create a marriage between two previously hostile nations was clearly stated, and what Theresa May has described as “our precious union” has survived, despite the tensions which still persist.
The analogy between marriage and a political union is, of course, limited. But there are things to be said in its favour:
- Consider the way in which such unions come about, through a process of courtship. Each side puts on its best behaviour, and shows itself to advantage. Then, when we have successfully wooed our partner by our charm or our material desirability, we settle down and reveal the real self which was temporarily suspended under the anaesthetic of romance. “Everyone serves the best wine first, and then, when they have drunk well, that which is worse.” Disillusionment sets in: our partner has irritating habits, or can’t be trusted, or spends too much or tries to control us. Eventually we decide the only solution is to break up the relationship with its tiresome costs and responsibilities, and enjoy the glorious freedom of being single again. The more adolescent among us thrill at the prospect of free love deals with glamorous new partners in exotic places far from our tiresome neighbours. Is not this exactly what people mean when they compare Brexit with a divorce?
- The language of marriage and divorce has the further merit of focussing on relationships. What is so disappointing about the whole Brexit process is the way in which the issue of trade has been isolated from its relational context. The Scottish archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver writes of “the ancient grammar of gift exchange” which the modern consumerist mind-set overlooks: “Objects moved between groups, not as commodities, but as symbols of relationships. The items themselves were almost meaningless without the relationship…They had a vague similarity to wedding gifts.” Far from being an archaeological irrelevance, this understanding of free trade has been fundamental to the EU. The aim of free trade has been, not only to raise living standards, but to make Europe’s economies so interdependent that we cannot go to war again. It began with the Iron and Steel Community which created a free market in those strategic commodities in order to remove them from the control of independent national war machines.
Our EU membership has been a marriage with the nations with whom we fought the terrible wars of the 20th century. It has been especially important to those of us whose families span the European divides. It has made possible the beginning of more inclusive identities and loyalties, and so created a new context for the Irish Peace Process; that is why the Irish border issue is so sensitive and so important.
- A third point is the reminder that divorces come at a cost. Despite people’s intention to part amicably, divorce proceedings generate mistrust and bad feeling. Negotiations get stuck, and then – surprise, surprise – we dig in, and blame the other side. The reality is that we cannot become young, innocent and single again. The countries of the EU will remain for ever the neighbours whom God has given us. With the breakup of the marriage and the repudiation of European Courts, what structures will be put in place to ensure the continuation of peace on our continent? These sobering considerations are part of the lament, the complaint of the Psalm: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord”. I do not deny that God can redeem our failures, but let us hear no more of “making a success of Brexit”. Whoever called a divorce a “success”?
The Kingdom of God
The second half of Psalm 130 contains a message of hope: “O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy. With him is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” And there is the promise contained in the story of the wedding at Cana, that “You have kept the best wine until now”: even in our seriously muddled world and broken relationships, the best is yet to come. It’s the defiant, Laurel and Hardy aspect of the Jewish character, the irrepressible humour in the midst of the complaint. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord” translates as: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve got me in!”
This was the message which the 20th century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, brought to the German people in 1918, after the defeat and national catastrophe of the First World War. “The problem”, he said, “is that you have abandoned the core message of the Bible – the judgment of God on all human pride. You have worshipped the gods of progress, wealth, Nation and Empire, and you have failed to criticise the damage done to the poor. Now that those gods have turned out to be false, and led you into this disaster, you are free. You have a new opportunity to rediscover the Gospel – and in your humiliation to put your trust, not in your country’s greatness or superiority, but in the goodness and righteousness that are God’s gift to all people alike.” It was not a message which people wanted to hear – until after the even greater disaster of 1945.
Maybe we too have a similar opportunity, to rediscover the Gospel. If the divorce goes through and we leave the European Union, so be it. The EU is not the Kingdom of God – but an independent Britain is not the Kingdom of God either. There is no way back to our lost youth or to reviving the imagined glories of the past – any more than there was for God’s chosen people, the Jews. The future will be different. We have made our bed, and we must lie on it.
But the Kingdom of God is still there, as God’s promise for all peoples. It becomes a reality when we reject false promises and arrogant attitudes, and learn to wait patiently, and put relationships first. Reach out across barriers to create trust, and greater justice between rich and poor, and build bridges where relationships have broken down. There need to be such bridge builders more than ever, not least with our European neighbours and between our own bitterly divided communities and politicians. So there’s plenty to be getting on with. May the Lord have mercy upon us, and help us to wait for the true transformation of his Kingdom: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him. In his word is my hope”.
Sermon Sunday 6th January 2019
Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Intro: “Arise, shine, for your light has come…” says Elijah
But the 12 days of Christmas have ended today: turn off the tree lights, take down the decorations, recycle the cards, file the letters and put all away till later this year. But no, says Epiphany. No, Christmas is not just for Christmas, at least in what it means, it is for all seasons – it is for life.
Today, the 12th Day is Epiphany and epiphany has two meanings:
1 The manifestation, the showing forth, the display of Christ to the Gentiles (not Jews) as represented by the Magi story; and
2 It is a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization. You know, we all have those epiphany moments when something suddenly dawns, we have got it!
Elijah comes to us with that latter understanding. What has been our long, long hope is now happening; the exiles, the dispersed people are coming home, our kinsfolk and family are re-uniting.
I have to say this about Prophecy: Isaiah is not saying “Arise, shine, thy light has come” to get an aria in Handel’s Messiah. Prophecy is not crystal ball gazing, it is like good journalism, it is reading and interpreting events, what is happening and what these events mean for the short-term future, in the here and now, not predicting the Messiah or even Jesus. BUT, we can quote, we can borrow their poetry to illustrate or illuminate what is happening at any time, even in our own time. Hence, Gospel writers drew upon this rich vein of poetry, of metaphor to explain what life was like after Jesus.
This Epiphany is accompanied by the remarkable New Horizon Explorer – to the edge of the Solar System, to Ultima Thule (bare cold rock like two lumps joined together) four billion miles and beyond, where no human or machine has ever gone before; transcending the limitations of earlier generations; making what was imagined in science-fiction become real; in the humanly restless quest for understanding the origins of our system and life itself and who we are. And we should be also aware of the Chinese quest on the back side of the moon.
Is this our human way today of following a star? Allow me to discuss this further with you as we go even unto Bethlehem and beyond.
1 The search for truth: As we humans travel into the universe and colonise the planets, what God will be found? How can we know? But I think it was one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, a scholar and statesman, (1881-1944) who said something like: Every idea is ultimately theological, i.e. about God. It was he who also said: “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.
A legacy of this is the William Temple Foundation that connects Christian social concerns to the secular world.
For a long time I have really questioned the traditional view that Jesus comes from humble beginnings and served his time as a carpenter, only leaving that bench in his 30s for a public ministry, only speaking an Aramaic dialect. There is even enough in the New Testament to suggest otherwise, e.g. those early years snapshot as a 12 year old boy discussing with the teachers, which implies an education and an education means there was financial provision. Besides, there was a breaking away at some point from family, who seemed to mix with people who could run an expensive wedding. What was he doing up till about 30 years then? Throughout history great changes and movements, revolutions, generally, have been led by members of the educated and middle classes, writers, preachers, public speakers, politicians.
Dominic Crossan in an article in National Geographical about archaeological discoveries in Palestine gives this theory some substance. Through those finds it is now understood that Galilee was not a backwater of the Empire. The research shows that at the time it was an urbanised and sophisticated province. About three miles from Nazareth was the Roman administrative centre and provincial capital, Sephoris. Caesarea Philippi, built by the brutal Herod the great builder was the largest port in the world, then, so named to please the Emperor. The trade routes passed through Galilee and as with the Silk Road, along those routes always moved ideas from around the known world.
2 Gold of obedience and incense of lowliness (O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness): Thus, the story of the Wise Men, coming as it does from beyond the end of Jesus’ life, would have made great sense to early Jewish followers. We do not have numbers of how many there are in the story. There were three gifts, though they may turn out to be attributes of the person of Jesus, the man. I suppose in tradition the number 3 gives rise to three Wise men. It may well be a metaphor for the flow of people and ideas that passed through Galilee frequently.
Herod the Great dies around the time of Jesus birth, so he had long gone when these stories were written. The critical verses are the last two. In verse 11 they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts. This fits well with other learned people coming together to learn, explore, to study even, when you see what the gifts are:
- There is certainly ‘Gold’, but gold has other meanings than wealth; ‘e.g. obedience’ as reflected in the hymn by JSB Monsell, an Irish Anglican born in Londonderry (1811-1875). Or, it could mean knowledge and wisdom and grace.
- Then there was the ‘frankincense’ burned in the Temple; or it may be prayer or holiness of a holy man, sage or prophet
- Then ‘myrrh’ to embalm the body indicating his death, but also used in healing and human comfort and hospitality as Mary Magdalene used, we are told, with her tears, at the last Supper.
I will come back to pick up verse twelve in a few moments.
3 What did Jesus know?
The wonder-working, miracle healer of the Gospels, and there were many in his day who went about like him, as the gospels report (and Monty Python does a marvellously funny scene depicting many Messiah claimants in ‘The life of Brian’). The gospel stories hide the man and the ideas that inspired the myths. Though there is just enough to realise a real person. All the literary analysis of the last two centuries combined with archaeology have done more to reveal that person to us in the 21st century. It was that partially hidden man who has given us such a diversity and devotion among his followers alongside the fractious debates and blind alleys.
If Jesus was the educated man who travelled about learning, engaging in different groups, financed or not, by his reasonably well-off parents or family, or maybe he chose to live a simple life, so is there any evidence at all for this? Again Dominic Crossan writes that the theory that the real Jesus was a travelling sage, whose counter-cultural lifestyle and subversive sayings had a similarity to the Cynics (Cynic did not mean what we mean by it today). They were peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece, who were socially unconventional, often dismissive of the status quo and of pursuit of ritual cleanliness and wealth.
As an educated man, and living in a cosmopolitan Galilee, less Jewish than other areas, was he both Jew and worldly wise? There was a cross-cultural element to the most eminent of Rabbis at the time. Was he part of this, along with the Essenes and many other groups, some isolated, others in the thick of debate? Had he known about Pythagoras, 6/5 centuries before who taught respect for all life, human and animals; the first to suggest that illness was from bodily imbalances, not from the gods?
Did he know about Hippocrates four centuries before? He taught that epilepsy was a disease, not from evil spirits.
Did he know about Aristotle in 4th century BCE? At the time when infanticide was the chosen means of population control in hard times he proposed that an abortion was less cruel. Did he know about Buddhism about 400 years earlier and teachings about compassion? Does any of this matter? Yes, it does because for two reasons at least. One is: understanding who we are has many dimensions. If faith/good religion is of value to us our approach to learning and growing should emulate the same spirit in which NASA sends off a rocket into the unknown. Research is happening that is gradually revealing facts and ideas about Jesus and his context, who he really is and what his vision was. Our traditional Jesus may be too small. This is beginning to reveal a larger, more human and credible visionary reaching into our time too. The epiphany moment is here; and it is in his living years that we really come to know him.
All knowledge, coming from whichever discipline, or source – science, math, astrophysics, philosophy, music and art, archaeology and literary analysis is a revealing of what we mean by the word, God, in whom we live and move and have our being; the ultimate reality of all existence – all being.
4 Going home by another road: The other reason is that we do need to keep changing, adapting and developing in every part of our being. Only if religion keeps intellectually on par with other learning today, can it be taken seriously in a world whose dreams and imaginings are happening. Only then can religion collaborate with the ‘movers and shakers’ who wish to colonise other planets, in creating human togetherness, peaceful environments and a flourishing humanity.
In verse 12 of our gospel reading: ‘And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country, home, by another road.’ In the culture of the times dreams were taken seriously, and part of the growing body of knowledge of the world around them; dreams and astrological signs, even weather patterns all carried meanings. This was not unspiritual, these were ways of explaining the natural world and the thoughts and emotions inside themselves.
When people gather to exchange ideas and push out the boundaries, take time to develop a subject/theme, improvise, invent, do something new there will be something different and fresh emerging, that takes us farther and excites the spirit. Then the way home will be different; we will be different. The difficulty is always in translating that into some practical outcome back home. We cannot nor should we stop the restless, questing spirit, but we can insist on its seeking consent, its sharing, its compassion and its pausing in awe and wonder and respect.