Sunday, December 13, 2009

God's Grace at Work in the World

Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 1.57-64

Baruch is a book which didn't make it into the Protestant version of the canon of scripture, although you will find it in the Roman Catholic version. It purports to have been written soon after the Exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon and other parts of the Middle East. The author claims to be Baruch, the person who wrote down the prophecies of Jeremiah, but because no copies have survived in the Hebrew language - if indeed there ever were any - people have long suspected that it was written much later, probably during a time of rebellion against the Greek rulers of Palestine about 150 years before the birth of Christ.

The opening image of chapter 5 pictures Jerusalem as a woman, perhaps a widow or an orphan, who is exchanging the garments of mourning for a wedding dress. Now at last, after a long time of exile and sadness, it is the time for celebration.

When I went with my daughter, Jenny, to see her try on the wedding dress which she and Helen had found during a trawl through the bridal shops of Leeds, a colleague at work said, 'Prepare to shed a tear.' And I think the tone of the reading captures that sense of something very special happening which, in this case, will utterly transform Jerusalem into a symbol of true peace and glory.

This is no ordinary peace. We're not just talking about the absence of conflict here. We're talking about 'righteous peace' - a pure harmony brought out by the removal of all the causes of bitterness and division between people. And we're not just talking about ordinary glory, the kind associated with celebrities and VIPs - swanky cars, high fashion, loads of expensive bling, an entourage of heavies to protect them from the hoi polloi. No. We're talking about 'godly glory' - the kind of glory which, for Christians especially, is associated with love and self-sacrifice, for godly glory finds its fullest and truest expression in the Cross of Jesus.

The passage then moves on to another striking image. The old city of Jerusalem is perched on top of a high hill and the writer imagines the City, personified again as a woman, gazing into the distance,
straining to see her lost children returning to their home. They will gather from all the points of the compass to which they were scattered - though mainly they will be coming from the East, whence a long column of weary prisoners trudged into exile when the City fell. But they will return not on foot, but carried high in triumph like conquerors.

My grandfather was a policeman in Surrey and one of the high points of his year was to accompany the winner of the national rifle shooting championships on a victory parade led by a military band. The winner was always borne aloft by the other competitors in an open topped sedan chair, and that's the kind of picture which Baruch evokes here.

Finally, the passage echoes Isaiah by depicting the idea of ancient hills being levelled and valleys being filled in to make a straight path for the returning exiles to follow. However, the writer adds an extra dimension to the image. The road will be a tree-lined avenue, or else it will run through woods and groves, shading the travellers and providing fragrant air for their journey. Generally, ancient travellers were wary of making their way through woods, because trees can shelter highwaymen and outlaws as well as providing shade. But Israel will walk safely in the glory of God.

The key note of the passage is that glory will be given to God and his people - but not glory as the world currently understands it; this will be glory tempered by a mercy and righteousness that makes true peacefulness a real possibility, even in the Middle East. What would this look like in terms of today's world situation?

We should picture Afghanistan, still occupied maybe, still struggling no doubt against the Taliban, but without any corruption and bribery, and without any bombs falling on wedding parties or innocent villagers. We should imagine a policy focused on making travel and ordinary life as safe for as many people as possible - the kind of policy which has, of late, been attempted with some success in Iraq. It's a policy which, of course, requires the occupying army to show mercy to former adversaries, like the new policy in Iraq which allowed tribal and religious leaders formerly opposed to the Americans to join them in resisting the more hardline Al Quaida militants.

Peace in Palestine. That's another intractable problem, isn't it? How would mercy and righteousness play out in that situation? I think it would have to involve the more powerful side in the conflict treating their enemies as equals in the negotiations for peace and offering serious concessions in return for an end to violence. It would mean paying compensation for war crimes and agreeing to abide by international law. It would mean an end to illegal settlements. That's my interpretation of mercy and righteousness.

And what about the meaning of mercy and righteousness in our own situation? I think it means giving everyone meaningful work to do for a fair day's pay. It means not giving up on those who have struggled to get the education and training that they need. It means ridding ourselves of a culture where people think that how much we can earn in salaries and bonuses is the true measure of our worth, and where fairness and integrity receive the recognition they truly deserve. I think that would go a long way to making our streets and parks safe places for everyone to walk.

These sound like political ideas, and they could be part of a political manifesto, of course. But as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Christians of Philippi, striving for peace. mercy and righteousness is also a deeply personal thing. In fact, without personal commitment to the vision on the part of millions of ordinary people, we won't see the glory and harmony in our society which Baruch envisaged. Paul says that by the grace and peace of God working among us, we have to share in the gospel - or 'take part in it' as the Revised English Bible puts it, though I prefer the idea of 'sharing' because to share in something implies that we identify with it completely, whereas anyone can take part in something for a day or two and for a variety of motives.

That Paul really is talking about a deep level of sharing and commitment is made clear by what follows. Paul himself has landed up in gaol because of his total commitment to the cause, and - even though he is parted from them - the Christians at Philippi have continued to hold him in their hearts and he has continued to pray constantly and joyously for them, longing - with the compassion, or deep yearning, that is a characteristic of truly Christ-like people - to be with them again and be able to support them.

The beautiful image of his friends holding Paul in their hearts, and thus reciprocating his Christ-like concern for them, is missing from the Revised English Bible translation which we heard tonight. It talks instead about Paul holding the Philippian Christians in deep affection, but - whichever translation we prefer - did you notice how that word 'sharing' crops up again in this verse? The Revised English Bible describes how the Christians at Philippi share with Paul in
the privilege of defending the truth of the gospel. But that's a paraphrase of Paul's actual words. The original Greek talks about Paul and his friends sharing in the grace of God, who will bring the good work begun among them to completion by the day of Christ. Only when we all share in the grace of God can the full harvest of righteousness anticipated by Baruch actually be achieved.

Incidentally, we have just seen that the Revised English Bible can sometimes be a bit free with its interpretation of the meaning of the text. But don't ask me which is the better translation of that striking phrase in verse 7 about being held in the heart. The Greek says something like, "Because to hold me in the heart you", which doesn't make much sense, does it? It could mean, 'Because you hold me in your heart' or it could mean 'Because I hold you in my heart'. Normally, the Greek language would make it absolutely clear which meaning is intended, but on this occasion there seems - at least to me - to be a grammatical mistake in the sentence, which prevents the meaning from being clear. That's why the New Revised Standard Version opts for one translation and the Revised English Bible opts for the other.

So, when people say that "
every word in every part of the Bible comes from God" I think they have a problem, because if the Bible really were that kind of book it wouldn't have any unnecessary ambiguity in it and, of course, God would not make any grammatical mistakes. The truth is, I think, that Paul dictated his letters and - like anyone doing dictation - sometimes got a bit muddled halfway through one of his longer sentences. Hence the difficulties with translating some of what he says. But, even when the details are a little clouded, the big picture is always clear and that's the level at which the text is inspired by God.

And one more incidental note about this passage - the reference here to bishops and deacons simply means the leaders of the Christian community in Philippi and its pastoral or community workers. I think Paul is still using the word 'bishop' here to mean any kind of leader, and the later distinction between bishops and priests, or presbyters, hasn't emerged yet.

So, finally, to our Gospel reading. This isn't the lectionary reading. The lectionary invites us to read either Zechariah's hymn of praise to God after John's birth, or the story of John the Baptist's ministry, when he called people to repentance in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, God's anointed representative. But I thought it would be interesting to look at John's naming ceremony, the moment when Luke says that - to the surprise of the onlookers - Elizabeth and Zechariah departed from tradition and called their son 'John', instead of one of the names previously used in their family.

The story puts me in mind of my granddaughter, Erin. Before she was born we were informed that we wouldn't be told what she was going to be called, because we probably wouldn't like the name and might try to persuade my daughter and her husband to change it. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. We've had three goes at choosing names for a child, and that was quite enough. We once missed a turning on the motorway because we were deep in discussion about whether our third child should be called Susanna or Sarah. As it happens, he was a boy so it made no odds.

Why the name 'John', then? Because, it means 'God's Grace' or 'God is gracious'. Zechariah had been sceptical when God's messenger first told him that he and his wife would be the parents of a special son. As a result he had lost his voice - not, I think, as a punishment, but as a reflection of the deep turmoil going on within his psyche as he struggled to come to terms with God's intervention in his life. His choice of the name 'John', 'God is gracious', which he writes on a piece of broken pottery - the equivalent of a post-it note or memo today - marks the turning point when Zechariah reaches the same understanding as his wife, that only by sharing in and opening ourselves to God's grace can we play our allotted part in his great enterprise to reshape the world. To put it another way, only when we fully participate in God's grace can we share in bringing about the glorious harvest of mercy, righteousness and peace.

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