Archives for posts with tag: Assyria

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!