Archives for posts with tag: Israelites

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13th January 2019

Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:1-11

What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?

Isaiah is saying to the Israelites, come back to the true God. Don’t follow pagan idols. 

‘Why spend money and get what is not bread,

why give the price of your labour and go unsatisfied?

Only listen to me and you will have good food to eat,

and you will enjoy the fat of the land.

Come to me and listen to my words,

hear me, and you shall have life:

I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever,

to love you faithfully as I loved David’ [Is. 55:2-3, NEB]

Salvation is coming. The Messiah will come. He will not be what you expect – he will be like a suffering servant, even – ‘ despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ [Is. 53:3f]. But ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. You can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in it – but you mustn’t be seduced by the beautiful music into not hearing the Bible underneath.

It’s the major theme of much of the Old Testament. The chosen people, the Israelites, ‘like sheep have gone astray’. They have worshipped false gods. Isaiah asks, ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ 

We can recognise ourselves a bit in this, even though it was written nearly 3,000 years ago. Your eyes will probably glaze over if I say this. Yeah, yeah. Of course we shouldn’t get hung up on new cars and posh extensions to our houses. But – we do. What harm does it do? Worse things happen at sea.

Well, Isaiah said to the Israelites, according to some scholars about 700BC, that they needed to ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord.’ It could still be valid for us today.

Because what the Israelites were doing was sin; they were sinning against the one true God. But he offers them a second chance. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

Sin is, in a sense, doing bad things. But underpinning that is the reason that something is sinful. It is, that it shows that the sinner is turning away from, is separated from, God. So if you steal, or envy someone their things, or elope with their wife, those are bad things, but they are also sins, because you are going against God’s commandments. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ [John 14:15f].

But in our other reading, from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have flashed forward 700 years from Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, and St Paul. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true. The Messiah has come. This morning in our services we were marking the Baptism of Christ. Christ meeting the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. You might perhaps think that because of the story of Jesus, there isn’t any need to bother with the Old Testament, with 60+ chapters of Isaiah and things, any more. But remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17). So when the dove came down on Jesus after his baptism in the River Jordan, and the voice from heaven said, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’, it was a pivotal moment, joining the prophetic time with the incarnation of God on earth.

Paul made powerful use of baptism in his preaching to non-Jews. Baptism was a ritual common in Greek cults as well as in Christianity. ‘To his pagan converts it appealed as a sacrament parallel to those of the Greek mysteries’ (C.H. Dodd, 1950 (1920), The Meaning of Paul for Today, Glasgow, Wm Collins Sons and Co, p.130). In the Greek mysteries, by performing sacramental acts ‘spiritual effects could be obtained’ (Dodd).

Running through St Paul’s letters is the idea of the Christians being ‘in Christ’, intimately bound up with Christ. So, in a sense, Christ’s baptism was a symbol of being dead and then resurrected; going down into the water and then rising up out of it.  By being baptised ‘along with’ or ‘into’ Christ, Christians were symbolically sharing in his death and resurrection. 

At the same time, there was a problem: even after being baptised, Christians were still human, they still did sinful things. Paul said that we need to be ‘dead to sin’ in the way that Jesus was. That is, as Jesus died, he couldn’t be prey to sinful influences. He was ‘dead to sin’.  So as a Christian, if I am ‘alive to Christ’, baptised, sacramentally dead and resurrected with him, I too should be ‘dead to sin’. 

But it isn’t magic. It’s a sacrament. The essence of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, as the Catechism in the BCP puts it (p294 of the Cambridge edition). It’s worth reading this bit of the Catechism. Things aren’t as fierce today as they were in the 16th century, when the heading to the Catechism in the BCP was ‘an Instruction to be learned of every Person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. That is, learned by heart, at about 10 years old… 

Anyway, if you’re up for it, this is what you have to learn about being baptised.

‘Question.

How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer.

Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question.

What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer.

Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question.

What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer.

A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question.

What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer.

Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.’

‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. That’s what you get in Christian baptism. But just as sin doesn’t just mean doing bad things, so conversely, being a child of grace doesn’t mean just going with the flow, being baptised and doing nothing in consequence of it. You need repentance, μετάνοια, change of mind, as a prerequisite.

Paul has posed the problem, the puzzle. Why is there still sin around, or rather, can we still get away with committing sins, after we have been baptised? Indeed, he starts with a rather nerdy argument that sounds as though it has come out of a philosophy essay, to the effect that we need to carry on sinning in order to demonstrate by contrast the weight of grace which we have got. It’s almost like saying you can’t understand what it is to be black unless you have white as well.

Paul answers his puzzle not philosophically, but by explaining how we are joined with Christ in the sacrament. Dead with him; dead to sin.  Alive, resurrected, with Christ. So, I come back round to my original question. ‘What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?’

This is tough stuff. It really means that, if we put our heads above the parapet and let people know that we are Christians, it should be evident in what we do, evident in how we behave. 

It means that in business, if we say that our actions are dictated solely by the need to make value, or profit, for shareholders; or in public affairs, if we say that we would like to do something good, but that money, or the market, dictates otherwise; if we see poor people risking their lives to escape poverty and danger, and try to keep them out instead of giving them a place of refuge; in all those cases, we will show ourselves as still not being dead to sin and alive to Christ. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching. God and mammon: the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; giving and not counting the cost. As Jesus said just before he was baptised, in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.’ It’s not enough – although it’s a good start – just to go to church. Think what you have to do, to really do, in order to be really dead to sin.


Advertisements

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Christmas-Day, 30th December 2018

Isaiah 61; Galatians 3:27-4:7 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=412935020)

Do you remember when Jesus started to read in the synagogue – it’s in Luke 4, from verse 17 – and he read out from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, and then said, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.’ In other words, He was the Messiah, which Isaiah had prophesied about, had foretold in our lesson tonight, chapter 61, and chapter 61 was what Jesus was reading out.

That prophecy is all about the salvation of Israel, deliverance from its oppressors, from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians – and latterly, it would be, from the Romans – deliverance from slavery; because the Israelites were the chosen people of God, and God would keep his promise to them.

That’s as you would expect. Jesus was Jewish, he was an Israelite. He was brought up in the Jewish culture. The gospel of St Matthew, aimed at a Jewish readership, is at pains to set out his genealogy, tracing it back to King David, son of Abraham.

But truly, if the story of Jesus had just been a Jewish story, just been a story about Israelites, that story would have remained a footnote in history. But the genius of St Paul was to realise that the one true God is the god of everyone. There isn’t just a god for the Jews, or for another national group – or in those days, for the Romans. God is far bigger than any question of nationality or origin.

And so we have this great passage in the Letter to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [Gal. 3:28f]

Just as Isaiah had prophesied,

I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people”

God’s chosen people are no longer to be regarded as being just the Israelites, but rather all those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, who are Christians. They are God’s chosen people now. ‘Their seed shall be known among the Gentiles’, just as much as among the Jews.

Paul’s mission to the ‘nations’, (which is what the Latin-based word ‘gentile’ means), to the non-Jews, opened the door to Christianity becoming a universal religion, and there is no bar in it to anyone on the grounds of nationality, or colour, or origin: being, and becoming, Christian, and indeed that key expression in St Paul’s thought, being ‘in Christ Jesus’, is integral to the way he understands God: that God is at the heart of everything, the ultimate creator and sustainer of all our being.

But although Jesus’ coming as the Messiah meant that we should look wider than just the sons of Abraham, the Israelites, in order to find who are God’s chosen people, nevertheless, in Isaiah’s prophecy, there are some key truths which, maybe, started as distinctive Jewish or Israelite concerns, but nevertheless now have a worldwide or universal importance.

Important among these is the concept of justice.

‘.. to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God’

This is all about the rule of law. In the Jewish Law, the ‘acceptable year’ is the Jubilee year, is the year one-in-seven when debts were forgiven; when people were allowed a new start. Not that the law disappeared, but that its application was tempered with mercy. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’, if you prefer Shakespeare. [The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1]

‘For I the Lord love judgment, I hate robbery for burnt offering’. Don’t go out and pinch your neighbour’s things so as to be able to afford to put more in the collection plate. The Lord loves judgment. The Lord loves the law. Do the right thing. And the right thing is a message of renewal and, as I have observed so often, and particularly in Advent, the message of the Bible is one which is full of the counter-intuitive, it is often contrary.

See, Isaiah foretells opposites: ‘ … beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’. This is not a message of despair: this is a message of hope. But it is hope based upon a fresh appreciation, on repentance, on throwing away the old truisms; casting off slavery; slavery, which means forcing people to work for less than they need in order to pay the rent and to buy food. And look, in this vision of justice, Isaiah sees that

strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.’

Strangers. Sons of the alien. That is what the Millennium looks like. There is nothing wrong with people coming and joining our society and doing useful jobs. But note that, both in Isaiah and in St Paul, it’s not the case that origins and nationality are obliterated. It’s more a question that there is no hierarchy of worth, based on nationality or origin.

‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female.’

It doesn’t literally mean that. It means that the connotations of being Jewish, or the connotations of being Greek, what it means to be in slavery, what it means to be free, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, do not include connotations of worth: or to put it another way, they are all equally worth.

It doesn’t mean to say that they are all the same. But it means that you can’t say, just because somebody is from a particular country, for that reason, they are less entitled to share in the world’s riches than someone who is from Hollywood – or from the British Hollywood, Cobham.

So as we begin 2019 on Tuesday these are very timely lessons. In the good society there is no room for xenophobia or nationalism – although we can celebrate our differences and enjoy the riches of each other’s culture. We can explore new foods, new literature, new ways of looking at things, that come from different places of origin.

I was blessed, earlier in my life, in having ten years of fairly constant travel, to all sorts of other countries. I really enjoyed learning about different ways of life and making friends with people in other countries. But today, there is a worldwide movement against this, based on nationalism and xenophobia. Freedom of movement, for our young people to be able to do as I did, to travel freely throughout the world, to live and work and different places; and the other side of that coin, for people from other countries to be able to come freely here, to make their life here if they want to do so, by working hard and contributing to our society, that freedom is being overtaken, overtaken by narrow nationalism.

We should recognise that there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ in the Kingdom of God: that we are all sons and daughters of God, descendants of Adam and Eve: and Jesus is the second Adam, ‘a second Adam to the fight’ as the hymn puts it. He is really Everyman – He is for everyone.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 5th August 2018

Psalm 88, Job 28, Hebrews 11:17-31

I’m going to cheat, ever so slightly, tonight: because the text that I want to talk about isn’t actually part of either of our lessons this evening. But it does come in the Book of Job, a bit earlier than our first lesson, which was from chapter 28. This quotation is from chapter 19: and it is

‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth’.

You can probably hear it, as one of the arias, ‘airs’, as he called them, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I know that my redeemer liveth. It does lead into our two lessons, which are about different ways of knowing things.

The first lesson, from the Book of Job, is all about wisdom; the value of wisdom, how difficult it is to come by, but how important it is: and the second lesson, from Hebrews, is all about faith; trusting that something is the case, believing in something. Hebrews tells how faith can make you a hero, and how the various stars of the history of the Israelites had faith in things, and did remarkable deeds as a result.

Let’s look first at wisdom. What does it mean to be wise? This has connotations of good judgement, discernment and fair-mindedness. I think these days that we often tend to concentrate not on what would be wise in certain circumstances, but rather, on what would not be wise. You know: we tend to say, for instance, ‘If I need to go home from here, I could go in the golf buggy. But it wouldn’t be wise.’

The idea of wisdom is that it’s the sort of knowledge which leads to a successful outcome. Knowing what is likely to turn out well, and having the good judgement to choose that course of action rather than anything else.

Another thing that wisdom is bound up with is understanding. If you understand something properly, then probably you will deal with that thing better, more effectively, more correctly. In the Book of Job, Job has three dialogues with his so-called ‘comforters’, his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, candid friends who hold up a mirror to him, he having suffered unjustly. He’s not done anything wrong, but terrible things have happened to him. They try to help him to understand what has happened to him. For some reason God has caused it.

One thing that’s different between the world of Job and our world today is that we don’t tend to look for a divine cause for everything that happens. Obviously, as Christians, we believe that God is the ultimate creator and sustainer of our life. But I’m not sure that we would see Him at work taking sides, if you like, lifting up some people and casting down others. I think these days we tend not to think of God in that way, because it tends to lead you into the possibility that God is not a good and loving god, but that He may in certain circumstances be a vengeful and cruel god.

I think we tend to say that things just happen; perhaps, tying them a little bit to somebody’s conduct: ‘If we carry on polluting the atmosphere, then global warming will happen much more quickly’, say. Of course, if you were in an Old Testament frame of mind, you could cast that discussion in terms of breaking the Covenant to look after God’s creation on our part, and God inflicting punishment accordingly.

But I’m inclined to think that’s not a common view these days, even among people who do think about God and believe in Him, because in a way it makes God out to be not necessarily a loving god. And it’s interesting to see how Job thought of wisdom in this context.

‘… the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.., and so on, is, I suppose, what ‘the fear of the Lord’ means – although it’s odd that it should be fear and not love. Maybe a better word would be ‘respect’. You can have loving respect for God.

I think that’s pretty good, even in the court of the philosophers. What is it, to be wise? It’s not something you can just acquire, as the lesson says. And it’s not something you can buy, or learn, like riding a bike. There has to be some sort of guarantor, that what we think may be true, is true. That could be God.

The point about having God in the background, underpinning our knowledge and understanding, is that otherwise, we might never agree on what is wise. What is it, to know that something is a good idea? It might be a good idea for me; but it might not be a good idea for you.

In Handel’s ‘Messiah’, that line from Job, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, actually points to the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, to Jesus. The air goes on, ‘For now is Christ risen, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ Händel’s librettist Charles Jennens quoted 1 Corinthians 15:20 as well as the Book of Job.

But in the context of Job himself, another way of putting what he says is, ‘I know that my vindicator lives’. He has been unjustly condemned. Poor old Job is suffering all sorts of indignities, trials and torments. And he has done nothing to deserve it. So what he really needs is somebody to speak up for him in a persuasive way, an advocate, a ‘vindicator’: somebody who can prove that he is not a guilty party: somebody to show everyone what the true position is.

But here’s the problem. It’s not necessarily the case that we will all agree about things that we say we ‘know’. I might say that I know that something or other is a good thing. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing – and you might disagree with me. We sort-of think that, if you say you know something, if I know that such-and-such is the case, then it must be true. Really? Well, just saying it tells you that that’s not necessarily right.

Maybe faith can add another angle on this. This whole topic is what’s called epistemology, the philosophy of understanding, what it is to understand something, what it is to know something, what it is to perceive something. And faith is in this area. In the Letter to the Hebrews, you find this wonderful catalogue of heroes in Bible history, doing heroic things because of their faith. By faith they did such-and-such. I think we’re meant to distinguish faith from knowledge – although that may not actually be a real distinction.

At the beginning of chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, there’s a definition of faith. ‘Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of realities we do not see’, (NEB), or ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, according to the King James version.

I’ve been beginning to think about how I’m going to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to my little grandson Jim. Jim is 19 months old, so his capacity for philosophical reasoning is probably a bit limited, at least for now. But I think it’s a good thing for me to start thinking about how I will be able to explain these things in terms that Jim can understand.

So much of our understanding of God, so much of our religion, involves things we cannot see. In some ways it would be very handy if, in the same ways as with the ancient Greeks, our God periodically came down from heaven and appeared among us: and of course 2,000 years ago, that’s exactly what happened. But these days we are challenged by how to explain that we believe in something, we trust something to be true, that we can’t see and we can’t prove the existence of – at least in the same way as we could prove whether I’m wearing pink socks.

It’s not just religious things: there are a lot of things where in order for our lives to just carry on normally, we need to have faith. I have faith that I will get up next morning and that there’ll be another day. But there’s no way I can prove it. Anything involving the future involves faith. If I turn the ignition key of my car, I have faith that it will start up and go. But I don’t know.

There are some similarities with what Job was talking about. He was praising the idea of wisdom. It was a gift beyond price, unable to be found anywhere specific. If you had wisdom, then you would make fewer mistakes. You would be able to discern the right thing to do.

But if you have faith, it takes it on a further stage. If you believe and trust in something or in someone, depending on how inspiring that figure is, how compelling they are, you will be inspired, you will be able to rise to the highest challenges. Just as with wisdom; you won’t be able to prove it, but it will be real for you. If you have faith that something is the case, then for you, that is reality.

But there is an extra factor in this, both where wisdom is concerned, and also with faith. And that is, that it isn’t just a question that if I do the right thing, it will make me more successful; or if I have complete faith in, say, a particular diet, then I will achieve spectacular weight loss – well, actually , there may be better examples that you can think of – but the idea, the point, is that wisdom and faith, in this context at least, involve something extra, someone extra: they involve God.

In Job’s world, the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and in the context of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the light of Jesus, faith makes it possible for us to be heroes, to do things which by ourselves we would never be able to do.

I know that my Redeemer liveth.

I know it. It’s wise to believe it. I do believe it. I have faith.

Sermon for Mattins on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 15th July 2018

Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Acts 28:17-31

‘I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I’ve got speed

I’ve got everything I need

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I can fly

I’m a supersonic guy’ [Neil Innes, 1968]

The great Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band reached number five in the hit parade, in the UK charts, in 1968, with that song, ‘I’m the urban spaceman’. The writer of the song, Neil Innes, that you might remember from children’s TV programmes, is still performing, and occasionally he still sings that song. He was at the Claygate Music Festival last year; and very good he was, too.

What is success, in life? What does it mean to be a ‘supersonic guy’? For the Israelites in the Old Testament, having come out of Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and then being stuck in the desert for a long time maybe not literally 40 years, but that’s what the Bible says – everything paled into insignificance when compared with the need for them to get to the Promised Land, the place of safety, the land overflowing with milk and honey. That must be the same sort of feeling that you have if you are stuck in a refugee camp in Jordan, say. Northern Europe must look pretty decent as an ultimate destination: you might well use such expressions as ‘the promised land’ in talking about that.

But interestingly, what Moses says God has told him is slightly more complicated, and if anything, even better. If the Israelites will keep to their bargain with God,

[I]f thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day….

… all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, ….. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. … And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee.[Deut. 28:1- 3,11]

In other words, if you worship God, you will do well. If you go through the list of blessings, it is very much a promise of prosperity.

Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. [Deut. 28:4]

Of course, the converse is true.

[I]f thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, …. all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:

Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field.

Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store.

They are the other side of the coin. Instead of blessings, you will get cursed.

Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.

Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. [Deut.28:15-19]

Compare all that with the blessings that Jesus goes into in chapter 5 of St Matthew’s Gospel.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: ….

Blessed are the merciful: ..…

Blessed are the pure in heart: …

Blessed are the peacemakers: .…

And then follows Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount – which isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’. It doesn’t say, ‘Do all these good things, and they will make you rich – or powerful, or successful.’

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; ….

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. [Matt. 6:25-26]

So who is it who is talking? In the Book of Deuteronomy, God is talking to Moses; or rather God is giving a message to the Israelites through Moses, who is a prophet.

In the New Testament, even though Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that He has not come to ‘abolish the Law or the prophets’, (and the Law includes a lot of the principles laid down in Deuteronomy, for example); nevertheless the whole accent has changed: indeed, you could almost think that God had changed.

The kingdom of God, to the Christians, is not really like the Promised Land was to the Israelites. It isn’t really a place, and there aren’t any special foods. No milk and honey – although perhaps quinoa is a sort of manna: who knows? As Christians, we aim instead to seek the kingdom of Heaven and to gain eternal life.

In both cases, whether we’re following the Old Testament God, or whether we are Christians, it’s a good thing to do what we believe God has commanded us to do.

If we are Old Testament Israelites, it’s pretty straightforward. God has made a contract with us, a covenant: if you do such-and-such, then I will do such-and-such in return – a solemn agreement. You mustn’t worship anyone except me; you must follow the other nine commandments and all the second-order rules and regulations which are set out in the first five books of the Old Testament. If you do that, God says, ‘I’ll make you successful and secure in the Promised Land. If you don’t, I will punish you.’

St Paul, in effect, tried to reconcile and make sense of these two visions, it’s very interesting to see how St Paul got on, on his way to Rome to appear before the emperor. He got some of the local Jewish people together – they were keen to hear what he had to say, because they had heard about the Christians, whom they thought of as a sect of the Jewish community – but they hadn’t heard any good things.

They were a bit suspicious. Paul laid out the whole story, from Moses up to and including the life of Jesus. In his teaching, he was telling them about God. And off they went, afterwards, discussing what he had said.

Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. [Acts 28:24]

Paul remembered that Isaiah had also observed that some people’s ears were completely closed to any kind of enlightenment. He could tell them about the Kingdom, but they wouldn’t listen. That’s pretty similar to what happens today. Not a lot has changed. Some people believe, and some people don’t.

I sometimes think that perhaps that has to do with our not really knowing who or what God is. We blithely read stories in the Bible, where God said this, and God did this, and that – on the face of it, some very human-sounding things. Making a contract, making a covenant, for example.

But at the same time, God is said to be all-powerful, all-knowing: to be feared, even. I’m not sure that He really speaks to people in the way that you read about in the Old Testament; and in particular, speaking to the people through the prophets. I think that we would, to some extent, not recognise some of the aspects of God as He is put in the Old Testament.

He is said to speak through Moses; He is said to make things all right; he endorses the idea of material prosperity, especially in the Promised Land; he favours some people over others; and He is to be feared. In a lot of the Old Testament, just as in our lesson, there isn’t a lot about love. God is a fearsome god rather than a loving god. ‘God so loved the world ..’ is very much a New Testament message.

The other interesting thing is that the objective in the New Testament is not the Promised Land, so much as to be ‘saved’, to gain eternal life. Is that a selfish message? Is one supposed to turn in on oneself in order to draw near to God?

If you believe and trust in God now, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, do you indeed become the ‘Urban Spaceman’?

I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face

My natural exuberance spills out all over the place

I’m the urban spaceman, I’m intelligent and clean

Just as we haven’t seen any burning bushes or received tablets from heaven recently, I’m rather worried that a lot of what we are, blithely, reading in our Bibles and letting flow over us, without perhaps challenging it, engaging with it, is open to an ultimate question.

I never let my friends down

I’ve never made a boob

I’m a glossy magazine, an advert in the tube

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; here comes the twist–

I don’t exist…

Too many people think of God as the urban spaceman; and too many people know what comes at the end. We don’t follow the Urban Spaceman. Frankly, we don’t follow the God of Moses much. Do we follow the gospel of Jesus?

It won’t take us to the promised land. But it will change us. If you believe and trust in Him, you will want to follow Jesus’ two vital commandments, to love God – and to love your neighbour as yourself. Think how they were, even when they had St Paul himself preaching to them. Which side of the line would you be on? Is this something you can believe in – or not? I hope and pray that you can.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 29th April 2018

Isaiah 60:1-14, Revelation 3:1-13

I’m not sure whether Jerusalem is a good thing. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’: as some of you will know, always puts me in mind of my favourite biscuit when I was little: Huntley and Palmer’s Milk and Honey biscuit, which was a bit like a superior jammy dodger. No, what I have in mind now is that the idea of Jerusalem covers all sorts of things. It is a place: for sure it is a place today, which President Trump has designated as the place where the United States will have its embassy, as though it were the capital of Israel – although it isn’t. There is the place in ancient times which Isaiah, the third of the three authors who together make up the book of the prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century before Christ, made the more or less mythical capital of the promised land, the city of the Lord, the ‘Zion’ of the holy one of Israel. Zion is the name of the hill on which the city of David, the centre of Jerusalem, was built. It was the place for the temple and was, in a sense, where God lived.

So it goes on to have a meaning as the heavenly city, the kingdom of heaven; which is the idea in our reading from Revelation. ‘Him that overcometh’, the elect, the chosen ones, ‘him … will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God’. We still talk about people being ‘pillars’, ‘pillars of the church’. They are the stalwarts, the usual suspects, on the PCC and Deanery Synod.

That mythical new Jerusalem was adopted by William Blake, of course, in his great hymn,” And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? … I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

In some ways that all sounds very admirable and harmless. The picture in Isaiah of the holy city, ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense’ is a wonderful picture. You may wonder, of course, what a dromedary is. And I have to tell you that Hilaire Belloc, in his ‘Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ gets the dromedary completely wrong. He says,

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:

I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse, collected edition (1954), reprinted 1991, London, Pimlico, p.237 n

A Kurd, you know, people who live on the borders between Turkey and Iraq: Kurds, not animals at all! But also, dromedaries are not birds, not birds at all. They are a sort of small camel. Mind you, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts is probably not a good source of zoological information. I can’t resist reading you what Hilaire Belloc says about the tiger, just before the entry about the dromedary. It comes after his description of the lion.

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,

He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;

And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)

Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Oh dear. Well, Isaiah correctly thought of dromedaries as a species of camel. ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Everyone will come to the holy city, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles: ‘The Gentiles shall come to thy light.., the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.’

‘Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.’

This is a clue to the problem which I want to go into now. It’s the idea of a homeland or nationality; it’s a very strong idea in many people. Scotsmen go all over the world but keep their Scottishness; they always celebrate St Andrew’s Night and Burns Night. But nationality is not an entirely benign idea. The problem seems to come when people are on the move. Obviously, as we are in church, we can think of the Jews, the people of Israel, leaving the land of Egypt and the land of Babylon –

‘By the waters of Babylon

We sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’ Psalm 137.

They longed for the Promised Land. Then, as we know, the promised land story was effectively repeated, but without any parting of the Red Sea or anything, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Palestine was declared to be a national home for the Jews – and there’s been trouble ever since, between the Israelites and the people they displaced, the Palestinians.

In this country, maybe William Blake’s new Jerusalem has to some extent already been built. I noticed that an MP called Kemi Badenoch, whose parents were Nigerian, was saying on ‘Any Questions’ on Friday that she thought that Britain was a very attractive country for people to come to and settle in; and that we are a welcoming people. I have to say, having heard the awful stories of what has happened to many of the ‘Windrush people’, I thought she was being rather generous; but nevertheless, the idea is there. It seems to be a similar one to the one in Isaiah: that if we have ‘built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’, then not only the Israelites, but also the Gentiles will be welcome to it:

‘.. thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night’

so presumably that means that not only the people who were born here, but also other people from outside – in this context, the ‘Gentiles’ – should be able to get into the Holy City.

But then again, perhaps the Holy City is spiritual, a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one, so we should rather look at the sort of vision that St John the Divine shares with us in Revelation. A place for the people who prove worthy of salvation:

‘Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world..’

If you are one of the saved, then you are going to be welcome in the City of God, new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem is in heaven, or it ‘comes down from heaven’. I think that, as soon as you see the word ‘heaven’, it’s a signal that this is a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one.

The Son of Man, Jesus, appearing to St John the Divine, telling him to write down his letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, is a sort of preparation for the Day of Judgement. Watch out! ‘I know thy works’. You aren’t everything that you’re cracked up to be. Be careful, if you want to go to the new Jerusalem.

So I wonder whether the idea of the new Jerusalem resonates with us at all today. Is it in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’? If so, are the Gentiles allowed in – with their camels and dromedaries, bringing their gold and silver? Who are the ‘Gentiles’ today? Are they just us, who happen not to be Jewish? or should we be like the church at Philadelphia – by the way, you know what ‘Philadelphia’ means in Greek: it means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ – and of course that includes sisters too. Αδελφός means a brother, and αδελφή a sister, so Φιλαδέλφεια means brotherly or sisterly love.

So are we going to be like the people in Philadelphia? Although they have ‘a little strength’, they’re not very strong, they have ‘kept my word’ and have not ‘denied my name’. They will be welcome in the new Jerusalem. We know what we have to do. Open the gates!

L