Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dawn breaks only for another night to follow - Lamentations

It is one of those quirks of history.

One that continues to have the power to disturb.

It was on the 9th of Av in 587BC that what had begun three weeks before was completed.  The temple and the city of Jerusalem were finally destroyed by the Babylonians.

Talmudic tradition has it that in AD 70 on that very day, the 9th of Av the Romans destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem once again.

The 9th Av is this year 29th July.  For the three weeks from 8th July Jewish people will observe a period of fasting – Tisha B’Av and the three weeks – destruction and renewal.

On the eve of the 9th Av people will gather in their synagogue.

In the synagogue, the curtain is removed from the Ark and the lights are dimmed. After the evening prayers, the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) is read. The leader reads aloud and the congregation reads along in an undertone.

The Prophet who more than any other was caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 BC was Jeremiah.  He determined to remain in the city when all seemed lost, he had, after all, purchased property in the city as a statement of hope against hope.

But in 2 Chronicles 35:25 we read what Jeremiah did.

Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing-men and singing-women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments.

It was perhaps with good reason that those Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures placed Lamentations immediately after Jeremiah.

But in the Jewish Scriptures Lamentations is the fourth book of the Megilloth, the five little scrolls each of which is associated with a festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Lamentations is the bleakest of books.

It is a collection of five poems that are beautifully crafted.

Chapter 1 has 22 verses.
Chapter 2 has 22 verses
Chapter 3 has 22 x 3 = 66 verses
Chapter 4 has 22 verses
Chapter 5 has 22 verses

What is the significance of the number 22?

There are 22 letters in the Hebrew Alphabet.

In chapters 1, 2 and 4 each verse begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet..  In chapter 3 the first three verses begin with the first letter of the alphabet, the second 3 with the second letter and so on.

The final chapter has 22  verses, but no longer an acrostic pattern.

Hebrew poetry as is the poetry in any language, wonderfully skillfully crafted.

Is it that the destruction, the lament, is unremitting – from start to finish, from beginning to end, from A to Z – there is a totality to it.

It begins in utter dejection …

The Deserted City

1How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal. 

2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
   they have become her enemies. 
At its end there is a glimmer of hope … but it is as if the light is extinguished as the book finishes with a question that haunts …

19 But you, O Lord, reign for ever;
   your throne endures to all generations. 
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
   Why have you forsaken us these many days? 
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
   renew our days as of old— 
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
   and are angry with us beyond measure.

Why should the last chapter not have the sequence?  An oversight, no time?  Or maybe a sense of even greater fragmentation.  Things falling apart that cannot be put together again.

This is a book that works for the Jewish people lamenting the loss of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem.

It is a collection of poems that works in any place where a city is destroyed and its peoples laid waste.

News that comes from Homs is so disturbing … and so many cities like it.  What is doubly disturbing in Syria is that it is a country hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled to as refugees from the destruction of their cities and their homes in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east.

There is an unremitting bleakness to these words.

Tears, lament at the fate of a city is something that Jesus shared.

As he approached Jerusalem Jesus too wept bitter tears.  The tears he wept echoed the tears of Jeremiah at the destruction of Jerusalem long ago …  but they anticipated a destruction that was to come.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

Coming back to Lamentations, the very construction of the poetry invites us to ask another question.

Why should the middle chapter, the third chapter have 66 verses.

For sixty years from 1935 to 1995 Kenneth Bailey’s home was in the Middle East.  Growing up in Egypt and spending 40 years teaching New Testament in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.  His book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes draws on ancient, medieval and modern books written in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic.

One thing he observes.

Middle Eastern writing follows different customs from western literature.  In western writing an argument is developed in stages – from a beginning through a development to a conclusion.

If you want to know the message – look to the conclusion.

Do that in Lamentations and it is pretty bleak.

But Middle Easter writing is fond of a different kind of structure.  And the key to that structure lies in the very layout of the Book of Lamentations.

There is a sequence A – B – C – B – A.

The argument reaches its climax not at the end but in the middle.

See how that works in Lamentations and something remarkable happens.

Our attention is drawn to the middle chapter simply because it is three times the length.

It begins intensely personally.

This is the feeling of devastation of someone at their lowest.

It not only resonates for those caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem, this is a chapter that resonates for anyone who senses their world has fallen apart.

In a powerful book on depression this was a chapter that for some described the abject awfulness of depressive illness.

3I am one who has seen affliction
   under the rod of God’s wrath; 
2 he has driven and brought me
   into darkness without any light; 
3 against me alone he turns his hand,
   again and again, all day long. 

4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,
   and broken my bones; 
5 he has besieged and enveloped me
   with bitterness and tribulation; 
6 he has made me sit in darkness
   like the dead of long ago. 

7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
   he has put heavy chains on me; 
8 though I call and cry for help,
   he shuts out my prayer; 
9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,
   he has made my paths crooked. 
This is the cry of the person whose prayers are not heeded.

It is devastating.

And then something remarkable happens.

In the whole bible, this has to be the bleakest book.

In the middle of this the bleakest book it is as if a light is shone into the darkness, a light that has the capacity to pierce the gloom.

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall! 
20 My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me. 
21 But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope: 

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness. 
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ 
In the most unexpected of places we get to the heart of the Good News of our Faith.

It is when things are at their worst that light shines into the darkness.

Notice what happens here.

This I call to mind.  It is a deliberate focusing.  A turning of the mind.  It is something that gives hope.

It is the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases.

All may seem to have collapsed but God’s love prevails.

This enters our psyche through a hymn I remember singing so often at school,

New Every morning is the love our wakening and uprising prove.

New mercies each returning day surround your people as they pray.

It is in the writing of Thomas Chisholm, plagued through his life by ill health that resulted in the ending of his ministry after only a year, that these words come so powerfully to life.

Great is your faithfulness
Great is your faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed your hand has provided
Great is your faithfulness Father to me.

It is a powerful passage to share.  I well remember sharing it with someone in moments of deep depression.  Much, much later, they recalled the comments we had shared.  It wasn’t these verses that stuck in their memory.  But the ones that followed.

After speaking of the need to wait, and to wait some more, the writer has a much more oblique word to share …

It is a promise to hold on to when things are not readily coming back together again.

31 For the Lord will not
   reject for ever. 
32 Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
   according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 
33 for he does not willingly afflict
   or grieve anyone. 

There is something special about Lamentations.  And in its very structure.

Steeped as we are in western ways of thinking, we can give the impression that the journey of faith is linear.  From despair to hope.  And if we can follow through the logical sequence from the start through its development to its conclusion all will be well.

There is something in Lamentations to hold on to.  It is more true to life, to the experience I have shared, and to experiences others have shared with me.

We glimpse the grounds for hope – but then we have to return to the awfulness of the world.

Lamentations is true to that pattern.  For after the hope in the middle of the book, the lament returns, as devastating as ever.

In a life where we might on occasions reach the mountain top we have to return to the valley – but let’s bring to mind what we have glimpsed.  And hold on to that promise.

The ninth of Av in that Jewish calendar I looked up on the Internet is described as a day of mourning, a day of hope.

In the midst of all that gives rise to the despair of lament let us find hope in just the way the writer of these words did

21 But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope: 

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness. 
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The once irredeemable dark - Ecclesiastes

It has to be one of the all-time great passages of the Bible.

Ecclesiastes 3.

It’s one I grew up with at school.  It’s one rolled out for the big occasion.  Founders  Day.  Remembrance Sunday.

It’s one of the few pop records I actually got round to buying.  The flip side of Mary Hopkin singing ‘those were the days’ was that wonderful to everything there is a season, turn, turn turn.  And a time for every purpose under heaven.  I could almost sing it.  But I won’t.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What do you make of that great passage?

Is it an indication of how things ought to be?

Or is it a description of the way things are?

How you answer that question will shape the way you read Ecclesiastes.  And it will go a long way towards shaping the way you look at life.

Take it as an indication of how things ought to be and you can see it as a statement of what God wants for his world, a statement of what God wants for our lives.

If that is what this passage is saying then there are some major difficulties for us as Christian readers.  Is there really a time for us to hate as well as a time for us to love.  Jesus sees things very differently in those memorable words from the Sermon on the Mount that seem to have an echo of Ecclesiastes in them, almost as if Jesus, the Teacher  is in conversation with Ecclesiastes, Qohelet the preacher.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Read it very differently, however, and this passage takes on a very different feel.

One of the things that appeals to me about my Christian faith and indeed about the bible is that it is down to earth.  It is realistic.  Sometimes brutally so.

Let’s see these words not as an indication of what God wants for his world, but a description of the way things are.  Whether we like it or not, this is what the world is like, this is life as we know it.

There’s no value judgement here.  There is nothing to say that this is how things SHOULD be.  This is simply a description of the way things are.

A great deal of the Bible is to do with what God wants for his world.  The books of the law set a framework for living in the world, that’s taken up and brought to fulfilment by Jesus, not least in the Sermon on the Mount.

The prophets tell the story of the kings and rulers of the people Israel and the way they are continually challenged to turn away from injustices and to seek justice for all the people in the name of God.

It’s powerful stuff.  It’s about setting things right.  It’s about putting an end to wrong.  But on more than one occasion, people have come out of church on a Sunday evening saying but the real world isn’t like that.

Ecclesiastes is the book for those moments.  It is a book that speaks into those times when things are not going well.  When things are not as they ought to be.

There is a despair about the writing of the Preacher, or as the NRSV has it, the Teacher, Qoheleth

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
3 What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun? 

Ecclesiastes is associated with Solomon and in our very logically ordered English bibles comes between Proverbs and Song of Solomon.

Whereas Proverbs is a book full of confidence in the wisdom that comes from God, Ecclesiastes has a despair to it.  After devoting a life to the pursuit of wisdom, still the world remains a perturbing place where it is difficult to discern any meaning to life.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
   and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. 
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
This is bleak stuff!

And yet it is how one can feel.  It’s almost like the Footballer who reaches the pinnacle of their career only to find there is no satisfaction.  Still there is an emptiness.  An unrelenting emptiness.

2I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ 

That leads on to the passage we read … there’s a glimmer of hope.  God is in this.  But only a glimmer of hope.  Maybe this is just the world the way it is.  But it’s a pretty grim place.

Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

This is bleak indeed.  So what do you do?  Take life as it comes?  Eat, drink and be merry.  9.7.  Maybe.

Yet, yet, yet.  There is something.  A glimmer.  Something to hold on to.

Maybe wisdom is important.  A lovely momentary parable …

And yet even that glimmer of hope seems to be snuffed out …


13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed important to me. 14There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. 15Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’ 

And yet even that glimmer of hope seems to be snuffed out

Come towards the end and there are more wise words of wisdom.  Seize the day.  Make the most of your youth. 

Then comes an ending.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

What do we make of such a bleak book?

I for one am glad it’s in the bible.  It’s how people feel.  It is brutally down to earth in its realistic assessment of what this grim world too often can be like.

And the point is that that feeling of desolation is within the experience of faith.  Faith is not something that eliminates all bleakness, however much we might like it to do just that.

The whole point of our series on the Old Testament is to suggest ways of reading what can be difficult books.  Two things are important to my mind.  First, never take a text or even a book in isolation from the whole of the Bible.  What is fascinating is that the writers of the Old Testament are often in conversation with each other.  The wonderful faith of so many of the Psalms, the confidence of the Book of Proverbs with its recipe for living, the exuberance of the Song of Solomon – they are all in a kind of counterpoint with the bleakness of this book.

You want to say at the very end … yes, but read on.  And in our English bibles we read on into the Song of Solomon with its joyous celebration of humanity.

By Jewish people Ecclesiastes is read as part of the Autumnal festival of Tabernacles which leads up to the last of the harvest festivals before winter.  There is something autumnal in the bleakness of this book.  On each of the seven days of that festival the Jewish people build a make-shift shelter in the garden and spend some time in it.  It is a remembrance of the yearst they spent in the wilderness.

That’s a thought.

Wilderness experiences are part of the Jewish experience.  And not to be forgotten.  It is in remembering them that something can be brought into the future.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Thought for the Day on Yom Hashoah, marking the Jewish remembrance of The Holocaust commented,  We can’t change the past, but by remembering it, we might just change the future.

Jesus too had wilderness experiences.   Those 40 days and nights in the wilderness.  The wilderness figures large in John the Baptists’ ministry.  Jesus can only reach his baptism by spending those bleak 40 days and nights in the wilderness.  He has to get through Gethsemane, he has to get through that feeling of abandonment by God on the cross to reach resurrection.

Maybe this kind of experience is part of our experience … what some have described as the dark night of the soul.

Jesus takes the spirit of Ecclesiastes seriously … but he does not go with what it sets out.  Eat, drink and be merry is the philosophy of the rich fool who stores up treasures on earth only to meet an untimely end and have everything taken from him.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, then all these things shall be added unto you.

All through the Sermon on the Mount you can trace echoes of Ecclesistes – but the bleakness is not accepted.  There is a confidence that through the valley of the shadow is a presence that will not let us go

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.   34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
  Take no thought for the morrow, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Echoes of this way of thinking …  and yet it is not bleak.  There is hope.  There is warmth.

This was precisely what we explored in our poetry evening on Wednesday.  Out of the Depths.  Judi Marsh and friends from the Poetry Society read some of the great poets in the first half of the evening.  But in a strange way the evening for me really came alive in the second half when they read their own poems.

In conversation after I learned how it was people’s own experience of plumbing the depths in very difficult circumstances had often turned them to poetry.  And through their poetry they found a way out of the depths.

Let me finish with a poem of Judi Marsh’s which I found particularly moving.  It starts where Ecclesiastes is – in a pretty bleak place.   Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity!  Vanity not in the sense of pride.  But in the sense of emptiness.  Emptiness, emptiness all is emptiness.   It is as if then in her poem Judi comes to the place where Jesus is in those words of calm and reassurance in the Sermon on the Mount.  And it is in that place that she finds the presence of God.

Soul  Seeker by Judi Marsh
Down miles of unlit corridors
And through all the sunless rooms
The air – stuffy and dust-speckled –
Swells in the silent emptiness.

I am at home in this emptiness;
This quiet place of quiet shadows
Is my hiding-place.

My friends do not come here;
Their voices have yet to echo
Through this darkness.

But Your voice is different
Although small and still
I hear it clearly.

When You call out my real name
It doesn’t bounce off the bare walls.
It is warm and Your words are arms
That reach out to save, love, protect.

Beyond dare and dream,
You take delight in me.
You sing of Your love for me
And even these silent dusty rooms
Reverberate with sung love.

And now that I know
What my treasure is
And where my heart is,
Sunlight and song sweep through
Strong as an avalanche,  to bury deep
The once irredeemable dark.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Song of Songs - I am my beloved's and he is mine

Last weekend was special in three ways at least.

It was of course the weekend of the Boat Race.  And this year Highbury had a stake in the Boar Race.  Highbury’s longest-standing family is the Jeffreys family who trace their belonging here at Highbury back to the late nineteenth century.  Quite some record.  And that’s the connection with the Boat Race. It was with great excitement that I tuned in to shout for Oxford and the Highbury connection.

Anne’s brother’s daughter’s husband’s sister’s daughter was the Oxford Cox.

Wow, what a connection.

It was interesting meeting up with Joanne, Richard’s daughter on a day that was particularly special for her and her husband and their family and for us an our church family here at Highbury.  Special for the same reason and yet for quite different reasons.

For Joanne the day was special because it was Passover.  He ten year old son, Joshua, would be taking centre-stage at the family celebration on the evening I met her at her in-laws house.  He it is who would be asking the key questions as the youngest member of the family as the meal unfolded.  Joanne would miss that evening’s meal but catch up the next evening.  She explained that outside of Jerusalem and Israel the custom has developed to have Passover on two days as it was difficult to work out which was the actual day to have it on.  It was fascinating hearing her speak of the Passover customs her family followed, with the top to toe clean of the house, the kosher food, the unleavened bread and the excitement of the family celebration.

That same day for us was Good Friday.  And just as special as we too mark the anniversary of Passover even as we date Easter in such a way as to follow Passover, parting only from the date of Passover when the Jewish way of accommodating the solar and lunar calendars results in them adding in an extra month in a leap year.

Passover is all about the freedom the people gained from oppression as God delivered the people to liberty from bondage in Egypt.  It’s about the depth of love God has for his people who, as Joanne said, feel the warmth of being special in God’s sight.

Maybe it’s the depth and the closeness and the warmth of the love between God and his people that is special at Passover.  Maybe that’s why it is at Passover that the Jewish people read the second in the Megilloth, that  set of five little scrolls in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Writings.

At Passover the Jewish people read through the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs.

It is the most intensely personal of all the books of the Bible and it is a remarkable celebration of the intensity of personal love.  At one level that’s exactly what it is.

It has been said that there are three types of love.

Agape love is that deep down love God has for us and he wants us to share.

Philos love is that binding love that friends have for one another and

Eros love is that intense love a couple have for each other that finds its expression in the physical act of making love.

It is that third level of love, eros love, that is celebrated here.  As a lover and his beloved exchange words of intense love with each other.  Janet Wootton used to quip that she encouraged a couple to read the Song of Songs to each other on their wedding night.  The imagery becomes very powerful, very evocative.  It is the nearest in Christian holy writ we get to the Kama Sutra.

A remarkable piece of writing.

How wrong people are to suggest Christians are po-faced about sex.  This is proof positive that Christians celebrate sex and find for it a place of security and fulfilment in the marriage of a man and a woman.

Sometimes you will hear it said that Christians consider sex and sexuality to be something that’s part of the fallenness of human nature.  The Song of Songs knocks that one on its head and is in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words the finest celebration of the sheer goodness of God’s creation at the most personal of levels.

When the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures applied their logical  approach to the ordering of the books they noted that the Song of Songs was associated with Solomon.  And so they put it as part of a trilogy of books associated with Solomon hard on the heels of the Book of Psalms we associate with David.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are linked with Solomon because of his wisdom.  The Song of Songs is linked with Solomon and in many Bibles headed the Song of Solomon because of the Don Juan side of Solomon’s nature, having as he did a love for a thousand women.

Some can say it’s a cop out when the Jewish people arranged this book quite differently and set it in the Canon in that set of five books they associate with the major festivals of the liturgical year.

By linking the Song of songs with the Festival of Passover you might say they are reneging on the wonder of physical love and ‘spiritualising’ these very erotic words by applying them to the love God has for his people.

Another way of looking at it is to think that for the Jewish people at Passover this was more than a doctrinal statement, or a historical commemoration.  Eating together in the most intimate of settings as a family was to be reminded of the intimacy of God’s love for each family and for each person in that family.

Maybe we can take a leaf out of that Jewish book in coming to the Song of Songs in this Easter season as we still are celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ in the Easter season.

The Passion and Easter are not just at the heart of our Christian faith and doctrine, they are not something to explore historically, they are an expression of the intimacy of God’s love for each one of us and for us all as a family of his people bound together in this place.

It’s interesting that it is in Holy Week, on one of those days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, on one of the days leading up to the Passover Festival that Jesus tells a story about a Wedding Banquet.  The feasting is a celebration of the love God has for his people – many turn down the invitation, and yet all are drawn in.  And in enigmatic fashion Jesus speaks challengingly of the need to join in the spirit of celebration, the spirit of joy.

I wonder whether that prompted a train of thought that then finds its culmination in those words from Revelation 21 we began our service with.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. A

In the Christian tradition the Song of Songs has been spiritualised of the relationship between God and the church.  The church has been seen as the bride of Christ.  Is this a cop-out because the church is unwilling to affirm the beauty of that eros love that is celebrated in the Song of Songs.  Or is it also an insight into the intensity of that love God has for us and we may have of God in return.

In contemplation and prayer maybe we can draw on the imagery of the Song of Songs and rejoice in the closeness of the love bond that binds us together with God.

For to belong to the church is to be bride of Christ and in the closest of bonds with Christ.

When my father came to preach the last of his sermons and come to the last point he would make in a long preaching ministry.

He said with conviction.  One more thing I cannot give up on.  I cannot give up on the love of the lover of souls.

That’s the love God has for us we may share with him.  That’s the love captured in the wonderful poetry of the Song of Songs.
The voice of my beloved!
   Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
   bounding over the hills. 
My beloved is like a gazelle
   or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
   behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
   looking through the lattice. 
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away; 
for now the winter is past,
   the rain is over and gone. 
The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land. 
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
   and the vines are in blossom;
   they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away. 
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
   in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
   let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
   and your face is lovely. 
Catch us the foxes,
   the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
   for our vineyards are in blossom.’ 

My beloved is mine and I am his;
   he pastures his flock among the lilies. 
Until the day breathes
   and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
   or a young stag on the cleft mountains. 

One final thought.

To think of the intimacy of God’s love is something that prompts us to go into the world and face the world and know that we are not alone.

Three times that phrase is repeated

I am my beloved’s and he is mine.

I am my beoloved’s and he is mine (6:3)

I am my beloved’s and he is mine (7:10)

And on that last occasion – comes the invitation to go out into the world.

I am my beloved’s,
   and his desire is for me. 
Come, my beloved,
   let us go forth into the fields,
   and lodge in the villages; 
let us go out early to the vineyards,
   and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
   and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love. 

It is as we go out into God’s world immersed in the love of the lover of souls that we have the strength to do what on our own we could not.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Eyes Opened Wide - on the Road to Emmaus

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

We were coming towards the end of our Good Friday sequence of services that had led us from the Garden of Gethsemane to the foot of the cross.  Here, on the walk of witness and at St Mary’s Church we had simply drawn on the biblical text.  It was as I was reading those words aloud and then waiting in silence for the next reader to approach the microphone, that one name caught my eye.

Mary, the wife of Clopas.

No one knows who the two on the Road to Emmaus were.

But one of them is named.  Richard Bauckham, in a fascinating book, Jesus and the Eye Witnesses suggests that people whose name is given and whose story is not known in the Gospels may well have been the people whose personal memories shaped the telling of the Gospel story of Jesus.  The Eye-Witnesses who, he suggests, were honoured by the early church and referred to right at the outset in Luke’s Gospel.

The one who is named is Cleopas.

Could it be the same person?

Some traditions have it that the two on the Road to Emmaus were husband and wife.  An intriguing thought I want to hold on to for a moment.

Each month we support a local charity through our communion collections and at coffee on a Sunday morning.  We occasionally invite a representative of the charity to speak.  In March we supported the work of Cheltneham Youth for Christ and invited the Director of CYFC to speak.  So it was that Paul Bennett preached on 18th March.

He was very apologetic to me personally for stealing my thunder.  As his sermon unfolded I felt I wanted him to retract his apology.  I, for one, found it challenging and full of insight.  One thing in particular caught my attention.

He preached on the Road to Emmaus story and apologised lest he was jumping the gun and anticipating my Easter sermon.  I didn’t let on about my custom of preaching on that theme each Sunday evening.  I waited to hear what he would have to say, thinking, as you do, I will have heard it all before.

Not a bit of it.  He made two observations that really set my mind thinking.

First, he told a story that, I guess could only happen in a Sat Nav age.  He described how a car drew up to the pavement near Boots Corner, mum and dad were in the front seats, an agitated teenager in the back.  Can you tell us how to get to the Hanger roundabout?  Was the question asked as the window was wound down.

Now, as it happened Paul knew where the Hanger Roundabout was.  He asked whether anyone else knew.  Ian Wallington knew instantly, Richard Newton as well and Sheila Grimes.  They all knew their London.  It’s a major junction not far from Twickenham.  The family had tickets for a U2 concert and their Sat Nav had led them astray.

As the window was wound up and the family set off forlornly for the M4 Paul didn’t like to imagine the conversation going on in the car.

He then went on to reflect how much we make of life as ‘a journey’ and how much we make of our Christian faith as ‘a journey’.  But he suggested that most people go on a journey in order to get somewhere.  It’s not enough to say we are all on the journey, but we also need to feel we are going towards our destination and we’ll get there.

An interesting and challenging thought.

So where are we heading for in our journey?

That brings me back to the other of Paul’s observations.

He suggested that anyone who knew their Bibles and in particular their Old Testament well would immediately spot an allusion towards the end of the story of the two on the Road to Emmaus.

It comes in verse 31.

“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.”

When I set about the task of taking the lid off the Old Testament and reading it through the eyes of Jesus I started out on the Road to Emmaus, and as we have read through the Law, the Prophets and now the Writings I have found myself coming back to it.  The conversations between the two friends and the unrecognised Christ are for me the key to a Christian reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

So I thought I ought to know the allusion.

But I couldn’t for the life of me think what it was.

And the Paul explained it.  It goes right back to the beginning of the Bible and to Genesis chapter 3.  It is that moment in the Garden of Eden when The Man and the Woman have both eaten of the forbidden fruit.  Genesis 3:7

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked.”

This suggested Paul is what the story of the Road to Emmaus is about.  It amounts to the reversal of the calamity that is the fall.  The tragedy of the fall is reversed in the encounter with Christ.  Where once ‘eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked’, now ‘eyes are opened and the recognise the risen, living Christ.

This, suggested Paul, is what it’s all about.  One story arrives at devastation, the other story arrives at a glorious, liberating meeting with the risen Christ that transforms and renews the whole of life.  That’s the destination for the journey we are invited to take.

I’ve always felt that the opening chapters of Genesis set the scene for the whole Bible and contain in microcosm the message of the whole Bible.  They are a wonderful prologue to the whole thing.

I reject the view that they contain as it were ‘scientific’ accounts that explain ‘how’ the world began.  In Genesis 1-11 I believe there is every indication we are in the realm of poetry and story telling that has to do with the truths of human existence.  These stories are larger than life stories about the beginnings of things that contain timeless truths for every generation.

As such those stories touch real, human stories and help us to understand what’s going on in them.

The accounts of the resurrection are different. They have the feel to me of narratives that are written by people who have experienced the remarkable transformation of resurrection and have found that the encounter with the risen Christ has renewed their whole lives and given them renewed hope and confidence in God and a renewed sense of purpose and direction as human beings travelling the journey of life.  They are written in order to help those who were not eye-witnesses to get it and to believe that the resurrection of Christ is the life-changing thing that will make the world of difference to us all.

What’s interesting is the way those larger-than-life stories about beginnings can then speak into the real-life situation these people find themselves in.

Those larger than life stories of Genesis 2 and 3 are about the Man and the Woman.   They speak into every man’s and every woman’s experience, not least Cleopas and his wife.

The Man and the Woman are set in a world of God’s making.  Cleopas and his wife were convinced of that.  It is a world to delight in where The Man and the Woman are simply a part of creation to play their part in it.  But in that age-old story the Man and the Woman are not content simply to be a part of the world of God’s creation, they want to take their own destiny into their own hands.

That is the human instinct down through the ages – the key to having your own destiny in your own hands is knowledge – that’s what’s driven humanity.  The knowledge of good … and of evil.

How devastatingly dangerous that is God knows, which is why in that age old story God wants to protect humanity from the journeying that will result from that knowledge.

Knowledge is attractive.  It is an attractive thought that we each hold our own destiny in our own hands.

There is that whisper in the ear – surely God wants you to go down that route.  God  knows that when you take your own destiny in your own hands and gain this remarkable knowledge of good and of evil you will be like God.

That’s attractive.  And it is the story of humanity.  Humanity’s quest is to take their destiny into your own hands and through knowledge of good and of evil become the GOD of all the world, in charge in mastery over it all.

Cleopas and, dare we say, wife Mary are in that position.  As the stranger joins them ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (verse 16).  The description they give of all the events in Jerusalem of the last few days suggests that actually in following Jesus they were doing just as the Man and the Woman had been doing in that story.

They hadn’t got it.  They had been following Jesus for very human reasons.  They had supposed he was the one to overthrow the Romans and enable them to take their own destiny in their own hands.  As far as they were concerned Jesus had given them knowledge that excited them and they thought they could use to take control themselves.  “We had supposed he was the one to set Israel free” 9verse 21)

No wonder Jesus was exasperated.  Oh how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.”

What Jesus then does is to go right the way back to the beginning “The beginning with the books of the Torah and with all the prophets, he gives them a way of reading those Hebrew Scriptures that makes sense of all he had come to do and of all he had come to say, that makes sense of everything about himself.

Already this was beginning to be a life-changing experience.  This really was an eye-OPENING experience for them.  Their hearts were burning as he talked to them on the road, while he was OPENING up the scriptures to them.

Then it is as they eat that their eyes are opened.  They recognise him.  They see him for who he is.

Now it is not that they are going to take their own destiny into their own hands.  But Christ has opened up a way for them to follow so that the destiny of humanity is once more in God’s hands.

And what of us?

Our humanity so often gets the better of us.  We want to take our destiny into our own hands.  And we buy into a way of life that puts humanity in the place of God.

Resurrection opens up for us something entirely different – we are to become as Christ, embracing a suffering world in order to share in the glory of God’s resurrection victory.  We know where we are going – it is the way Christ Jesus has opened up for us.  It is the way of resurrection and of life eternal.

And we are called to be the Christ figure willing to enter into the journeys other people are making so that they too can find the way.

That’s exactly how Paul described his task in Youth for Christ. It’s all about coming alongside people in the journey they are making and  being Christ for them so that they can discover the destination the risen Christ opens up for them in the life eternal, a life that begins here and now and nothing, not even death, can defeat.