Archives for posts with tag: zionists

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.

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Sermon for the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King: 22nd November 2015

Daniel 5

Today in the Christian year we celebrate, we talk about, the idea of Christ the King. The expression ‘King’ comes up when he is on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, which seems to have been the most extraordinary scenario. ‘Are you a king?’ Pilate asks.

Pilate seems to me to have been a rather normal bloke, in a difficult position, having to deal with a bunch of fanatics who were zealots who caused a lot of trouble: possibly we might say they were in the line of ancestors of the people who are Zionists today, contributing to dissent and and unrest in the Holy Land. 

Well, perhaps that’s not a legitimate thing to say, but we can say that the Jews presenting Jesus for judgement by the ruler, by Pontius Pilate, were certainly not thinking about how to promote peace and harmony in the long run; they just wanted to rub out Jesus. He was asking awkward questions, which they did not find easy to answer. It was said that he was King of the Jews.

The idea of the kingdom of God in Jewish theology is a mixture of the idea of the Promised Land and the theology of God’s Holy Mountain. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9) – the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and so on. We all know to some extent about Jesus’ rather upside-down concept of kingship. The first shall be last, washing people’s feet, giving up all that you own and giving it to the poor, when dealing with somebody described as a “rich young ruler”, a sort of prince.

But I’m afraid that I will rehearse all these stories, and then add a couple of pious sentences, saying that somehow you should follow them – and then you will forget this sermon and the ideas that it contains, probably before the end of the service, if not a few moments later.

I’d be very doubtful if a sermon, which concentrates on telling you, just in an academic way, what the meaning of kingship was in relation to Jesus Christ, would influence your life in any meaningful way, because you would find the way of life then so different, so alien from what we do now.

We have to build a bridge. What would Jesus do if he were here today? If we go back to the trial before Pontius Pilate, there’s an awful lot of irony in it. Pilate clearly is the representative of the ruling establishment, of the empire of Rome. So the idea that somebody else should come forward and present themselves as a king looks rather counter-intuitive, when it was so obvious that the ruler was a Roman.

Maybe Jesus’ kingship was a bit like all those grandly-named sort-of kings that survived in India after independence – I think largely for the purpose of owning classic vintage Rolls-Royces. The Maharajah of Jaipur, or the Nawab of Pataudi, for instance. Possibly Pontius Pilate had something similar in mind when he was tackling Jesus. ‘Are you a king?’ Meaning, ‘Are you one of those symbolic kings?’

I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the earliest Christians, what the contemporary readers of the Gospel, would have had in mind. The idea of some kind of symbolic king without any power just doesn’t chime with the whole of Jewish history. It’s more likely that they thought of a king as being like King Belshazzar the King of Babylon, the King from Ur of the Chaldees, portrayed in the wonderful fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

That King’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was so confident in his own legitimacy and strength that he had invaded the kingdom of Judah, overrun the Temple, and nicked all the treasures, the gold goblets, plates and things used in the Temple rituals; he turned them over for use at parties, at his court banquet. It was pretty insulting to the Jews, but he had the power. 

Was their God so weak, so inferior to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s god? The Jews didn’t believe this. What that King did, what Belshazzar did, was sacrilege to the Jews. Even today, in theological debates, now between Moslems and Christians, the heart of the matter is precisely that both sides think they have the correct understanding of the most important question ever, namely, what the nature of God is.

But then, despite all his power, Belshazzar encountered the writing on the wall. What did it mean? And Daniel, the Jew, explained. Despite all his power as a king, Belshazzar was finished.

What would happen today, if the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was re-run in a contemporary environment? Was Jesus a king? And if so, what sort of king? Well, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus very clearly reserves his position, and points out that the kingdom that he rules as a king is not of this world. So we can’t judge him by how big a country he rules or how big an empire: or whether he has given up his power and become a constitutional monarch like the Queen; or whether he is still an absolute monarch, like the Saudi King, for example.

There’s a faint colour of artificiality about the move which I’m trying to make, between Jesus the king in the Bible and some kind of contemporary interpretation. But never mind; let’s pursue it. I’m confident that it will illustrate what needs to be said here. 

What would the kingdom of God look like? Is it like Belshazzar’s banquet, or is it ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ as Jesus proclaimed in St Luke chapter 4 [4:19], fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah [Is. 61:1,2]? Is it ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’? Or is it, ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last’, in the Gospel story itself? [Matt. 20:16]
What does it mean to be a king? I think that the idea of kingship can be taken in more than one way. 

You can of course look historically at who has actually been a king, and identify the qualities these historic kings actually had. But equally, another way of looking at it is to see kingship as a kind of metaphor for the whole business of government, of leadership of people. What would a really Christian government look like – a government where Christ was really in charge?
Would he be democratic, for example? Surely yes. We believe that God loves every single one of us: indeed that he has called us all by name [Isaiah 43:1], and that therefore we are all worth knowing. That would imply that we should each have a vote; it would imply a need for democracy. 

But would Jesus approve of our particular version of democracy? So many people didn’t vote in the last general election. So, although the government claims a majority, in fact I believe that only 24% of the electorate as a whole actually voted for them. Many more, 36%, didn’t vote for anyone. It’s at least arguable that our current arrangements are not as democratic as one feels they might be, if we were trying to create heaven on earth. It’s something to think about.

Again, after Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’, we now understand that the Kingdom of God isn’t in a particular place, where Jesus, the Lamb or God Himself is, up there somewhere on their thrones. In a spiritual sense, the Kingdom is with us here and now. We are God’s workers – ‘Take my hands and let them move | At the impulse of thy love’, as the hymn says [Common Praise no 581]. It’s up to us to work to bring about the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is our King – not in a temporal, earthly sense, as he says when Pilate questions him – but he does rule; he rules in our hearts. 

I worry a bit, when I say that. I worry because I think that it might be the same type of reasoning which IS, Daesh, uses in support of its ‘Caliphate’. They talk about their Islamic State having a king, a ‘caliph’. But the difference is that, whereas their caliph is to be a sheikh, an Arab king, who is defined as the successor to, or deputy for, Mohammed, in Islam, and is king, caliph, by virtue of that divine authority, in Christianity, as Jesus says, the king is not a secular ruler. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, he said, in John 18:36.

And definitely, on our God’s holy mountain there will be peace: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9). It’s so tragic that people who support Daesh believe that God supports violence. We understand that Moslems as well as Jews all worship the same God as we do – but the IS people don’t recognise that if their Islamic State were a real Caliphate, governed by God, then God ‘will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’: 

that we agree on; but we believe that 

‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

That’s in our Bible, in the Book of Revelation, 21:3-4. To be fair, I think that most Moslems do not support the idea of a a militant ‘caliphate’, based on terror. They wouldn’t recognise a Daesh Caliph as a real ruler, whoever he might be.

So, even if there’s no kingly pomp, let us give our allegiance, let us indeed sing hymns and praises, sing the National Anthem of the Kingdom of Heaven, even, to our King, to Jesus.