The Bible as Ocker: Speaking scripturally in a Strayan setting.

For a nation founded as a gaol and whose favourite son is a bushranging cop-killer it might be thought a challenge to discuss the concept of “Law” with regard to Australian sensitivities, especially those to do with faith.  Australians haven’t liked the beaks since our ancestors traversed several seas as guests of Her Majesty’s pleasure, and the God-bothering (flogging) parsons were part of the same system.   But what if the Law is Love?

Paul Kelly, who also sings about footy and Ned Kelly, paraphrases I Corinthians 13 in “Love is The Law”, a song he released in 1981 as the theme track for the Australian (car thieving) film “Midnite Spares”.  The song was re-engineered by Kelly and re-released in 2001 with a music video showing Paul graffiting a wall before running along an inner-city street and engaging unhelpfully with people along the way.  He is pulled away from the one person with whom he does want to engage, and finally disappears in the back of a van driven by men in white coats.

The thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians is a popular text to use at weddings.  It’s also one of the key texts adorning a vast array of Christian kitsch from plaques and photo frames to coffee mugs and tea light candle holders available from Australia’s Christian bookshops[1].  Many Christians cannot get enough of the words of this chapter, and it seems that non-Christians feel safe around this particular quote from scripture.  After all, what’s not to love about love?  But is there more to it than that; are these words just something nice to hang on the wall, or some Bible to use when you and your unbelieving bloke/sheila tie the knot in church because nana’s a Catholic and she’d like that”?

Paul Kelly makes direct use of scripture and Biblical themes in many of his songs and videos; his “If I Could Start Today Again” is offered as a type of confessional hymn for when love is neither patient nor kind.  When Missy Higgins sings it too[2] it’s not just the men who fail their partners.  Kelly[3] describes this song as precise, a song which asks for a miracle and is itself one in its structure and orderliness.  The love Paul of Tarsus describes is orderly and unforced; exactly the way Paul of Norwood describes this song.

As his angel lies broken in the street beneath the front bumper of a Kingswood GTS [4], Kelly is drawn to the message of love.  Colour fills his vision as the full picture of what God’s love is like is revealed to him.  The law of love is the lore of forgiveness.  Australia’s foundation stories of taking stock and getting up from being knocked to the ground are the stories of a tough love that never envious or puffed up with pride.  Paul’s the love of God is Anzac love; the way Australians like to operate.  Diggers stand by their mates, scoff at the tall poppies among them and the stuff-shirted pommy officers behind them, and never dream that they might fail.  Love is the law of the outlaw.

The Bible as Source: Seeing scriptural themes across a variety of media.

For those who observe Christians as people of solemnity and boredom the Biblical injunction to live life at its fullest, “in abundance” as some have it, might appear out of character.  Yet the words are there in the gospel of John[1], and evidence of life’s envelope being deliberately pushed is prevalent in many facets of popular culture.

In film, we can think of Walter Mitty, most recently portrayed onscreen by Ben Stiller, getting out of both his office and his rut to go to Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan via Yemen.  In the scene where the newly unemployed Mitty fills in his CV the change in his life is obvious.  The quintessence of life (and of Life) is its people: people doing what people do.  Sometimes people sit and eat lunch on the steps outside work, and sometimes those same people jump from helicopters.  In a not unrelated way Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, while not affirming the theology behind the Deuteronomists’[2] call to choose life rather than death, directs readers to choose existence over annihilation.  Don’t allow yourself to be robbed by the one who comes to thieve and destroy, make something of yourself.  

There is much in the canon of English literature which picks up the change in outlook to a life filled with wonder and adventure as being a good thing.  Think of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  where Scrooge after the ghosts have been is a changed man.

Many laughed to see this alteration in him….His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge[3].

Looking beyond the contemporary, the seventeenth century Dutch painters Franz and Dirck Hals are known for their pictures of people making merry at a time when there was money to be earned and fun to be had as the shackles of religious duty were falling from common practice[6].

A Christian understanding of “life abundant” offers that it must be more than just  “life with abundance”, having lots of stuff,  but that life must have meaning.  The injunctions of Jesus and Moses to honour God with the freedom expressed in a life of abundance is overlooked in modern expressions of fun, however consistency is found in the direction that the message remains constant that fatalism in the guise of hedonism is not an option either.  Even without worship there must be some point to each expression of enjoyment or it ceases to be enjoyable.  Joy for joy’s sake, or the freedom to relax in the assurance found in faith is a worthwhile pursuit.  Having lots of stuff, abundance, without adventure or significance is never fun.

[1] John 10:10.

[2] Deuteronomy 30:19.

 

The Bible as Critic: Questioning identity amid the loss of Incarnation.

“Jerusalem”; lyrics of 1804 by William Blake, anthem of 1916 by Hubert Parry, asks the question whether the child Jesus of History actually visited England and references the intention of the returned Christ of Glory to establish a New Jerusalem at his Second Coming.  The first story is apocryphal; there is no Biblical account of Jesus outside Israel and Egypt in his boyhood.  The second story is apocalyptic and is recorded in Revelation 3:12 and 21:2.  For Blake the Bible, and popular Christian tradition, can be used as a cultural resource to critique culture.  Is it possible that the New Jerusalem might be “builded here among the Dark Satanic Mills” of a rapidly industrialising England and Wales?  What was in Parry’s mind that the story lost its critical value to become the anthem of the Women’s Institute, or does he also rage against the machine amidst his own dark satanic flesh-not-cotton-mills of the Western Front?

The story of God made flesh, of a real Jesus who walked and ate and as a child might have travelled to Britannia with Uncle Joseph (the Arimathean) is the story of Christianity.  God became one of us out of love; and this we know because the Bible tells us so.  So surely a God who got dusty feet on human roads, and may have puked his boyish guts out on the channel crossing, has an opinion about the world God so loved becoming a mechanised, rather smoky place of fire and millstone.   This too is the story of Christianity, not only that the one and only God joined Creation in a created form but that God came down from Heaven out of profound interest and a desire to engage closely with every man and woman.

What does it mean that the One who created all things “good” (Genesis 1:11-12) is in danger of emphysema should Creator visit Creation for a chat (Genesis 3:8-9)?  This is the sort of question the Bible is made to ask by those who use it to make their point.  A second Bible-in-Culture question is asked, that of cultural identity.  Having addressed a Creational Theology, what does it mean to English cricket’s Barmy Army that “Jerusalem” was chosen as a rallying cry?  How does the Biblical “Jerusalem” address questions of identity in ways that “Land of Hope and Glory” might not?    Isn’t there irony that the popular anthem of English identity while abroad is a song about the breaking down of interpersonal relationships through impersonal industrialisation?    Regardless, when one is dressed as St George while at the Gabba Biblical imagery can prove useful in delineating one’s cultural identity.

The Bible has proven adept at allowing itself to make a valid, divinely ordained point critical of any or all technological or social endeavours.  Whether you are a theologian or a cynic of all Jewish or Christian claims to truth, as a cultural artefact and a book of quotes the Bible is a veritable ore-mine of nifty and lofty arguments and proof-texts.

Epiphany of The LORD

Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12.

 

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Christmas Songs; the ones that are all about winter and nothing about Jesus.  Maybe now that I’m in my forties I’m becoming a bit of a Grinch, but I think there’s more to it than that.  I mean, think about it; what is there of the miracle of God incarnate, the new-born king in “Jingle Bells” or “Winter Wonderland”?  As Australians, with the notable exception of Greg Champion and his “rusty Holden ute”, even the seasons are wrong.  At least “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Good King Wenceslas” have Christian themes amidst the deep and crisp snow on snow.  “Little Drummer Boy”?  Sweet, and we should certainly encourage children to bring their best to Jesus, whatever that best might sound like, but as my sister will tell you after enduring our noisy neighbours over Christmas, the last thing a tired baby or an exasperated mother needs is somebody drumming!! 

But look at “We Three Kings”.  It’s not to be found in the Australian Hymn Book yet take a look at those lines about crowning this small boy born “on Bethlehem Plain” as “king forever”.  That’s solid theology in a box of gold.  Further, these pagans offer frankincense in reverence and worship of a “Deity nigh”, a God who is very close by.  The foreigners acknowledge that this baby is both King and God.  And in true telemarketing style we can yell “but wait, there’s Myrrh!” as the otherwise worshippers of false gods offer balm to the child.  Myrrh is given for the task of anointing the One born to die a suffering death.  Truly we can sing Glorious now behold him arise, King (gold), and God (frankincense) and Sacrifice (myrrh).  It’s no wonder that Alleluia, Alleluia should sound through the earth and skies!!

The visit of the Magi, men attracted from the nations East, North, and South of Israel by the glory of God evident in the heavens, is fulfilment of the hope of Isaiah.  For Matthew’s original readers the Magi were merely pagans, a prefigure of the nations who would come to acknowledge Christ at the end of days which Matthew describes in the final verses of his gospel.  These travellers were not necessarily scholars, and they certainly weren’t princes or kings. Although later thinking suggests that they were astrologers, and probably found Jesus through a “star sign” and some private investigative work, they were still not royal.  I find it really interesting that Matthew, a devout Jew, would portray Jesus so blatantly as the recipient of worship.  Only God is to be worshipped, and there is only one God, Yahweh.  Yet writing about his infancy it is obvious that along with the Magi Matthew believes Jesus to be Immanuel, to be God-with-us, to be Lord-made-flesh from the outset.  In the words of the Magi to Herod Jesus is the one “born King”.  He was not born “to be” King at some later time.  Matthew is telling his readers, educated and devout Jews like himself, that even pagans recognise plainly that the kingship of Jesus Christ was not conferred by decree, or inherited from a male forebear.  The kingship of the child of Bethlehem is implicit.

In our Christmas hymn today we called each other to Hark! and to listen.  “Hey, stop a minute, can you hear that?  The whole sky is resounding!”  Pay attention and hear how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of Kings!  In this first draft of Charles Wesley all of Creation is excited at the birth of this infant king and the sky itself, the visible portion of Heaven, resounds with the bells, cymbals, pipes, strings, drums, and choirs of worship and delight!  What a glorious day to praise the one named “God Saves”.  It is always a glorious day to praise the name of Jesus, worship never goes out of season even if the trees and tinsel are already back in the box and the hot-cross buns are already darkening the doorways of Woolworths in Hobart. 

It is the task of Creation to offer worship.  The Epiphany is also a theophany, not just a moment of sudden great revelation as the Oxford Dictionary would have it, but the revelation  of God.  More than the coming of the men on the camels today is a day like the Transfiguration, today is a day when the glory of God is seen beaming from the Son of Man.

In his prophecies to the people of Jerusalem Isaiah calls them to arise because the light of God will shine from that place to illuminate the nations.  This is a great promise of God to all of humanity, all of Creation, but especially to the people of God.  Isaiah tells them in the words of God spoken to him that Jerusalem would be a place of attraction for those who would want to worship God in the place that God has chosen for worship.  Isaiah says to them “Your light has come.”  But what is that light?  It is the fullness of the glory of God, the light that dispels the darkness of the earth.  Isaiah describes the light of God as visible from afar where there is darkness. The planet is black and cold so this one place where light and heat are is obvious.  And because this is the only place where there is light, the light is attractional.  It is attractive and drawing like a porch-light to a moth.  It is welcoming and alluring like a candle in the window of home for the weary one headed there.  This light is commanding.  The light which drew pagans to Bethlehem draws an enormous crowd to gather in Zion.  This will be a crowd  of sons and daughters returning as adults and as infants.  The Diaspora, along with numberless millions of pilgrims, is returning to the place of God’s glory.  Jerusalem is promised abundance from the land and the sea as gold and frankincense by the camel and shipload are brought from afar.  Those who come will “proclaim the praise of the LORD” as “heralds of the LORD’s praise”.  Those sons and daughters who were lost to us days and generations ago return giving praise and honour to God.  Zion is once again acknowledged as the true and only centre of the religious universe, a symbol of unity and faith for all of God’s humanity.  Like the wise men that came to see the baby Jesus those who are attracted by God’s presence are not coming because they are wise or particularly scholarly to the signs of the times, they are called wise because they came.  As any of you who have sat under a porch light in summer will know there is nothing wise about moths; it is to the profound blessing of the nations that God’s glory is active and informative, wisdom as well as illumination.  Rest your weary wings and lift your surging hearts.

All that Isaiah wrote is a promise in its time to a people in their time, as all Biblical prophecies are.  So what can we draw from this message today?  I believe that this is an inspired message from God to the Church today, although not necessarily with the same outcome. This great word of promise to Christians in 2014 remind us that God has promised to gather all people for God’s glory once again.  Those who are far off in distance or in theology will be brought home.  In a congregation such as this which has reduced in numbers and influence we have confidence in the promise and previous activity of God that God still draws people to God’s glory.  Along with the Psalmist we can offer prayers for our civic and congregational leaders to govern God’s people wisely, so that the glory of God will be seen and people will want to gather in our city to worship God.

As Paul wrote of himself, God has given each of us a special ministry of announcing God’s favour to the people around us.  None of us has the same call as Paul did, to speak to a world of Gentiles as the first Jewish evangelist taking the gospel beyond the Chosen People; yet each of us can point towards God’s glory among the people who live around and beside us.  The message of the gospel is that all people have an equal share in the blessings of God and an inheritance of the riches of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  The light that shone out of a bedroom in Bethlehem, the light that radiates around the universe from Zion, is a light for everyone.  God’s favour is given and not earned.  The favour God shows to Christians on Kangaroo Island is our being chosen to be the bearers of God’s grace to our neighbours, visitors, and clients.  Like Paul, like Isaiah, and like the shepherds and the Magi we did nothing to earn God’s appointment as emissaries, but that is what we are.  The message we proclaim of a God intimately, personally informed of human weakness is also the message of the coming together of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, to proclaim the wisdom of God.  This is a plan for eternity and also a demonstration to all who live beyond the earth in the realms of the heavens.  Whether our noses get a chillin’ as we frolic and play the Eskimo way, or we’re swimming in our clothes on a scorching summer’s day, the story of the theophany of Jesus  and the epiphany of the pagan visitors offers us a blessed assurance of a glad welcome when we come before God in the company of all humanity.  We boldly declare our assurance that we are God’s own people, the God who became a person so notable that people traversed afar to visit him even as an infant.

That is a message worth celebrating, and worth sharing.

Amen.

Bah Humbug!

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year'...

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s New Year’s Day.  So what?  I ask you, why is this such an important day that billions of dollars be spent on fireworks, alcohol, and lost productivity?  All of this in celebration of a new desk calendar.  Bah Humbug!

Don’t get me wrong, I get the whole “new beginnings” and “new chapter”.  I’ll Rosh Hashanah and Kung Xi Fat Choi with the best of them.  Who doesn’t love a good Ras as-Sanah al-Hijriyah?  The traditions and rituals of Hogmanay can inspire, (although I wonder whether the West has taken over even in Alba these days).  I say kia kaha to those looking to instate Matariki in Aotearoa, but the idea of celebrating the first of January with such vigor really does leave me cold, and mystified.

I pray, hope, and believe that 2014 CE will be a happy year, but let’s just get on with it shall we?