Archives for posts with tag: flight from Egypt

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’.

The vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday of Easter, 19th April 2015
Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This week I was influenced by two stage plays. On Thursday I went to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’, as a live relay from the National Theatre to the Everyman cinema in Walton-on-Thames. I won’t spoil the play for you, if you haven’t seen it yet: but you won’t be cheated if I tell you that the ‘hard problem’ is the question, if we know how the brain works, as a kind of super-computer, so we know which bits of the brain control different functions, and we know that they do it by switching little electrical currents, the question, what is it to be conscious of something?

Another philosophical problem touched on in the play is the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Why do we often do things which aren’t necessarily in our own interests? If Ned Kelly and I rob a bank, and we are arrested, do I give evidence against Ned? If I do, it may go easier for me. But I probably won’t, out of loyalty to Ned. ‘Honour among thieves,’ even.

In pure evolutionary terms – survival of the fittest – there is no reason for altruism. It would serve my interest best to look after myself. But I may well not do. Why are we often altruistic? This is something that Tom Stoppard looks at in his play. But because it’s a play, and not a philosophy lecture, in the ‘Hard Problem’ the altruistic part is played by a pretty girl, who believes in God and says her prayers every night. The Richard Dawkins part is played by a rather suave Irishman, her tutor, who likes to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur with his female students, and who is an atheist, a materialist.

Imagine these actors transposed into the world immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of a rather dry set of arguments about the way that computers, the way that the most able computer, the human brain, works, and Wittgenstein’s conclusion that ‘of which [we] may not speak, [we] must be silent’ [L.Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1.21], groping towards an understanding of God by reasoning and inference – which must feel like really inadequate tools – instead of that, they would bump into people who claim to have seen a man who has risen from the dead, who is divine, God on earth.

What a contrast! In the Hard Problem, the actors are tied up with questions about how life – and its creator – works, and whether one can infer from that any information about said creator. Is it an algorithm, or God? The early Christians, by contrast, had accepted the momentous news about the presence of God in their lives, as a fact. They were concerned much more with how they should react to that fact, than whether it was a fact. Doubting Thomas had settled that.

Today our Bible themes, in our lessons, deal with the after-effects of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. How did it affect Jesus’ followers – and how should it affect us, even though we are so long after it happened? You might be surprised that there is such an Old Testament emphasis, but this is the train of thought used by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

St Paul, as a leader of the early church, sought to link the new life, which he called ‘being in Christ’, with the Jewish Law, the tradition of the Jews as spiritual ancestors of the Christians. He was ticking off the people in the new young church at Corinth for forgetting the story of the Israelites, and how by obeying and worshipping the one true God the Israelites of the Old Testament had been saved, led out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

He goes through the history of the Israelites, how they ‘ate the same spiritual meat’, manna from heaven, but ‘with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness’. Then comes a moral lesson. ‘Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things’. In St Paul’s letter, if you do the wrong thing, if you break the Commandments, you will come to a sticky end.

Looking at things 2,000 years on, it is perhaps a little bit difficult to bring alive in our minds the excitement of the period after Jesus first appeared to the disciples risen from the dead. Even if their lives hadn’t already been changed by being with Jesus, they certainly were when they became aware of His resurrection.

In the light of that cataclysmic fact, some early Christians thought that, as they were God’s elect, saved, they need not worry about how they behaved. There was no need for them to keep the Jewish Law, to abide by the Ten Commandments, any more. They could do what they liked: they could eat, drink and be merry – because tomorrow they would not die, but have eternal life.

In the Old Testament, Moses was receiving from God His Commandments, rules for a good life in the Promised Land. 700 years later, Jesus came, the Messiah. Surely the old Law had had its day. Jesus had given a new commandment, a commandment simply ‘that ye love one another’. But Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. Instead, His coming was fulfilment of those prophecies, and the Ten Commandments were still valid.

But there is a thread running through Jesus’ teaching, most evident in the Sermon on the Mount, that simply following the letter of the law is not enough: Jesus’ commandment of love involves going the extra mile, doing something extra.

Which brings me round to my second theatrical encounter this week. This one was even more of a ‘virtual’ experience than seeing the Tom Stoppard play by live relay in the local cinema. The second play was one that I read about, in the editorial of a newspaper this Thursday. This is what it said.

‘”The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think,” says the character Stefano in the opening scene of a new play, Lampedusa (in London now …) The work of the young playwright Anders Lustgarten, the title refers to the island where Stefano works rescuing the bodies of those who’d fled from war and disaster in Africa and the Middle East, and found death at sea instead. “They’re overwhelmingly young, the dead,” he observes. “Twenties. Thirty at most. Kids, a lot of them. You have to be to make the journey, I suppose.” The play wants to make its audience ask what kind of society it wants. Within days of its opening last week, 400 people were missing presumed drowned after a wooden fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Its human cargo had all rushed to one side in the hope of rescue. At the start of what is becoming the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season, the question of what sort of society we want to be is a challenge for all Europeans.’ [The Guardian, 16th April 2015 http://gu.com/p/47hb2%5D.

All the commentary on this topic which I’ve read so far concerns itself with how to stop the migrants coming into Europe. Do we set up systems to head them off at the point of original departure, or put up even fiercer barriers at the points of entry?

What would Jesus say? I wonder whether He might point out that it is a matter of luck where we are born. Some are fortunate, and are born in Northern Europe. The majority are born in greater or lesser poverty somewhere else. Is it wrong to try to go where there is a better life? After all, that’s what is celebrated in the Old Testament: the wanderings of the Jewish people, their search for the Promised Land. Just imagine what might be said today if 144,000 people all decided to migrate from a big country into a smaller, more fruitful one. All the talk would be of how to prevent them. Think about it. The population was much smaller then. Think of the effect on their schools and their local services. Much more of an impact than Poles or Romanians might have today.

I think that Jesus might also point out that we are all children of God, wherever we have been born. Rich people are no more deserving than poor. Indeed, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’. (Luke 1:51) or, ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Matt. 16:26). It follows that we should not be concerned about nationality in future – we are all, in a real sense, citizens of the same world. There would be no more immigrants, no more strangers. Our sole concern should be to see that no-one should be hungry and in need.

Remember what the early disciples did – no doubt because they believed that this is what Jesus would have prescribed. ‘..all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’

It’s a challenge. What do we believe Jesus would say? Tom Stoppard’s play made room for God, even in the rational worlds of a business school and a hedge fund: in his play Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten has posed ‘the question of what sort of society we want to be’, ‘at the start of … the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season’.

What sort of society do we want to be? Will Easter make any difference to us? I pray that it will.