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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)

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Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday 2015

Isaiah 10:33-11:9; John 14:1-29
‘We will remember them.’ This has been a time of remembrance today, looking back in remembrance on all those brave people who have given their lives in the service of their country in war. Now in the evening of the day, ‘at the going down of the sun,’ it is time perhaps for us to look forwards, and reflect on the question of peace.
‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them …. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ This beautiful and mystical scene is the prophecy of Isaiah. And then in St John’s Gospel, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions …. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
When I started to study Latin and Greek, the Latin was Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico (‘about the war in Europe’), and the Greek was Xenophon’s Anabasis, another history of war. Julius Caesar, as you know, invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC – less than a century before the time of Christ. It was definitely a warlike time throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus grew up surrounded by wars. Before then the world of the Old Testament was permeated with lots of violence and wars. The story of the exodus from Egypt was very violent and the entry into the promised land equally involved a number of battles.
In the passage we have read from St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Presumably, that includes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But even so, Jesus himself also said, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34). So would Jesus have belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and worn not a red poppy, but a white one, today? Just as today most people see war as something to be avoided if possible, but never to be ruled out as a last resort, in Jesus’ time, war was an unavoidable fact of life.
Following St Thomas Aquinas, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘Just War’. (See Summa Theologiae 40.1). This is what Aquinas says. ‘If a war is to be just, three things are needed. It must be waged by the due authorities, for those who may lawfully use the sword to defend a commonwealth against criminals disturbing it from within may also use the sword of war to protect it from enemies without. … the cause must be just, …. And those waging war must intend to promote good and avoid evil.’
It might be instructive to compare these principles with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter allowing a modern nation lawfully to declare war – or at least to make war, even without a declaration – on another. These days the requirements for a war to be just are: that it should be in self defence; or because a treaty obliges us to wage war to protect another nation – as we were obliged by treaty to protect Poland at the beginning of WW2 – or because the approval of the United Nations has been obtained.
But the original ‘just war’ principles are still influential. War can only be waged lawfully by a sovereign nation: you cannot have private wars, vendettas, as they have in Sicily between Mafiosi. The cause must be just. A nation can’t wage war simply in order to benefit itself. So Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, literally, ‘living space’, territorial aggrandisement, was not a legitimate occasion for making war.
And the means employed must be proportionate. Proportionality is an old legal principle dating back at least to the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, (Deut .19:21): the point is that it is just an eye for an eye, not more. There were similar provisions even earlier, in Babylonian law and the laws of Hammurabi.
There must also be a reasonable expectation that the war will be successful. This does still come, perhaps, from Aquinas. He says, “The Lord’s words, ‘I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance’, [Matt. 5:39 ] must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self defence if the situation calls for that.” (Summa Theologiae 40.1) Pyrrhic victory might not be lawful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly went much further than the Lex Talionis.

Are we content that there is, or there can be, such a thing as a just war? Does it matter that some of the wars which have been waged, at least arguably, as just wars, have not achieved their objectives? See for example the situation in Iraq today, or even more tragically, in Afghanistan.
Is it reasonable to ask, what would Jesus do? Would he have something to say, for instance, about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, (the rationale behind the holding of nuclear weapons), or of ‘shock and awe’ as used in Iraq. Would these doctrines square with the doctrines of just cause and proportionality in the case of MAD, or proportionality, in the case of ‘shock and awe’?
The theory of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the rightness of one’s cause. The opponent is deterred not because we are right, but because we can kill him. Perhaps it is proportional to respond to a threat of global annihilation – with what? With a threat of global annihilation. But perhaps that simply illustrates that the principle of proportionality is inadequate in the context of nuclear weapons. And again, what about a nuclear suicide bomber? MAD will not affect them.
I for one was very encouraged when Parliament refused to back military action in Syria. It seemed to me that the criteria for a just war were indeed not properly met. There was no threat against this country, so as to raise a question of self-defence. There was no treaty obligation to help some of the Syrians against the Syrian government – how could there be? And what was the likelihood of success – if indeed one could agree on what would constitute success? Of course, the question may come up again soon.
So much of our Remembrance Day liturgy and poetry was inspired by WW1. That was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ – which must be a perfect example of Aquinas’ second test for a just war, that the cause must be just. There can surely be no more righteous cause than the eradication of war for the future.
But even in this most worthy objective, war was not a solution. Indeed the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the aftermath of the First one. Can we honestly point to many wars and say they have really achieved anything?
Perhaps universal pessimism is not justified: it was vital that Nazism had to be defeated: war was the only way to do it; the war succeeded. The war on Nazism succeeded at least in that the military threat to this country was removed – it was justified according to the principle of self defence.
But one cannot change people’s minds by war against them. Just as there are still people who are Nazis, even in this country, and there certainly are still Nazis in mainland Europe, it is certainly arguable that people have been inspired to take up terrorism by their believing that the West has waged war unjustly in the Middle East.
This is a terribly difficult area. Clearly we can be, and we are, really thankful for the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. That is the main purpose of Remembrance Sunday. But it is much more difficult to know where our duty lies as Christians in the face of the threats to peace which the world now faces.
We must say our prayers, we must pray for world peace. But also we must be alert, we must scrutinise everything that is done in our name, especially if warlike acts are being prepared. ‘At the going down of the sun’ we will remember. We must remember – and because of what we remember, we must be careful. And we must be just.