Ancient Eyes | Contemporary insights
Readings: Sirach 24; and John 1: 1 – 18.
Every now-and-then I am surprised by the Lectionary. Today is one such a day. Maybe this is a sign for this New Year: perhaps challenges are in store.
Sirach, a book in the Apocrypha, discarded by some in the past as not being suitable for inclusion in the Bible, makes a rare appearance. We heard 12 verses to us from this book of ‘wise statements’ and, for today these verses are joined by the first words of John’s gospel. Each passage presents us with an alternative Genesis story, to ponder on, and perhaps we can see that the beginning of humanity – named the Genesis – was not just something that happened once, a long time ago. Genesis images are always apparent as the Creator God goes on making all things new: even around us, as we declare our relationship with Jesus the Christ, through song and readings, and the sharing of the communion meal and fellowship here.
As I’ve considered where my preparation led me, the words of N.T. Wright a noted English New Testament Scholar rang in my ears. Those words in his 2009 work Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision are: ‘For too long we have read Scripture with 19th Century eyes and 16th Century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with 1st Century eyes and 21st Century questions.’1
My mind is a whirr as I consider the opening, ‘the Word became flesh and stayed for a while among us’ and those other such images. They do take some unpacking. My unpacking – to the extent of beginning to understand that what we know of today’s scripture and their possible meaning for us today - was aided when I read an art critic’s description of this painting: Rembrandt’s The Holy Family. 2
The Artist's Eyes
This is a typical 17th century homely Dutch scene. We see the woman, whom we identify as Mary, holding a well-thumbed book (presumably the Scriptures) and rocking the baby, whom we take to be the Christ-child. In addition, as an extra layer, behind Mary on the left, there is a faint Joseph, whittling away on a piece of wood, and to her right a young angel. On Christmas Day we heard Luke’s announcement that Mary heard what the angel had said to the shepherds, and pondered the meaning of those words in her heart. The ‘well-thumbed scripture’ image suggests that Mary knew her scriptures well. Mary would not have had scriptures in this form. And, we ask whether this Mary, a young peasant girl would have been able to read; but then, why not, as we accept that Jesus could – after all, he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the Synagogue in Nazareth. On Christmas Day, we also heard that Joseph, the human father of Jesus, defied religious law and customary practice. He did not cast a young pregnant girl out ‘on the street’: he married her. Joseph’s dreams speak clearly to our world. Whether or not Rembrandt intended it, the painting is an icon of different ways to encounter and understand God. We see the book Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works in the background. Because we know the title of the painting, and its back-story we deduce the word of God has been found in this book. We read the words and find the Word of God addresses us. These are real images that transcend time: provided we know what we are looking at and provided we comprehend the back-story. All this provides a platform on which we can build our understanding: an understanding for today.
A Scholar's Insights
Biblical Scholar Dominic Crossan in his 1993 book, The Historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, weaves this story: ‘He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession”.3
This is a similar, but different story to that told by John, who said: ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God.’4
Both stories are interpretations, imaginative reconstructions; of the coming of the one we call Jesus into our experience. One is mystic. The other, everyday, ordinary – even secular.5 For me, Dominic Crossan’s story is more real and understandable. My experience means that I can relate to the images. As I recognise this, I seem to understand that the ‘old religious story’, while warm in my memory, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives. That ‘old story’, as told in religious stories and other shared narratives of human-kind, in our world is increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible, morally irrelevant and unlikely to fulfil the original purpose of the narrative, which was to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life.6 The ‘new story’ telling of a thoroughly human Jesus that is the basis of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.7
My concluding remarks are from the former Harvard University theologian, the late Gordon Kaufman, who wrote: ‘(when) no supernatural authority or extra-human power is invoked to compel our attention, the important thing to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the (human) Jesus-model whether as churches, communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the understanding and we who take or fail to take the steps necessary to carry out that decision … and only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper awareness, a proper openness, as well as accountability for not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well.8
Earlier, I mentioned those words from N.T. Wright that have gripped me this week: ‘For too long we have read Scripture with 19th Century eyes and 16th Century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with 1st Century eyes and 21st Century questions.’ How do we read and understand the scripture we have heard from Sirach 24 and John 1 this morning? What are the 21st century questions that we must ask to ensure we are left with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority to measure our humanness and humaneness as we share our lives with those closest to us, our immediate community, the wider community and the world?
At the beginning of 2020 our prayer is that we will all discover this Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen
1. Wright, N.T., Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p.37
2. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, page 189
3. Crossan, J.D., The Historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 1976.
4. John 1: 10 – 13, NRSV
6. Rue, L. Everybody’s story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution, 1999
7. Hunt, R. ibid
8. Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity, 2006, p. 32 - 34
The Journey Ahead
Reading: Matthew 2: 1 - 12
We are in an exciting New Year. Matthew's gospel has a group of Magi seeking out and visiting the Christ-child somewhere, some time after Jesus was born. Matthew is the only writer who decided to include this story and its associated side stories into an account that we read and ponder on many centuries later. The gift that I have been given this morning is an opportunity to review something that I’ve heard many times, revisit a story that I know well, and to examine a picture painted in my memory that forms a mostly warm snippet in the midst of the Christmas and post-Christmas stories that I know well.
Church scholars and historians of the first century world note that this is a unique account. There is no independent evidence of either a visit of men from the East or of the subsequent horrific events that Matthew records and we know as the Massacre of the Innocents. With this as background information, commentators debate why this story has been told and ask what do we make of it. This gift is an opportunity to prepare myself for the next chapter in my journey, which is to be a full-time minister walking alongside two inner city churches. I never expected to be working full-time again, even if it is said to be only for one year.
This morning I wish also to be so bold as to suggest that exploring this story provides the opportunity to this congregation to prepare for the return of Stationed Methodist Ministry in this community after a significant break. We are all amidst preparation for new beginnings. We all have the opportunity to evaluate where we’ve been and to prepare for the future that stretches ahead.
The Presence of the Past
A question. What images stand out as we run the memory of our Christmas Cards through our minds and think of the wording of some Christmas carols? Christmas cards are less common now than they were. I suggest that prominent among those images would be those of richly adorned kings, riding camels, making their way through desert, or perhaps snow, to a stable, guided by a star, often with animals in the background, greeting Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Am I correct? When we read Matthew’s account accurately, we find that these embellishments are not there: they’re things of legend.
We may have also heard somewhere that the kings were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. One nice story that is part of this legend is that the Magi were each of a different age. Gaspar is presented as a young man, Balthazar as middle-aged and Melchior as a senior citizen. The story is that when they approached the place over which the star hovered, they decided to enter one at a time. Melchior went first. He found he met with an old man like himself. They spoke of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthazar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. Finally, Gaspar entered. A young prophet met with him with words of reform and promise. This fanciful story concludes by recalling that when the three met outside, each marvelled at how each had gone in expecting to see a young child, but each had met someone of his own years.
A wondrous story has evolved. There’s something here about how a meeting with Jesus the Christ concludes. This Jesus is the one that walks with us and talks with us in a way that we can understand where we are at, and where we should go.
One writer, the Roman Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests “The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into the strange ways of faith … the story, as it evolved, became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection. A second bold statement for today is to suggest that as we move forward the challenge is determine what part of our common or individual experience allows a springboard for the imagination, and to identify what is there in that experience to provide the anchor for sober reflection?
A Plethora of Possibilities
In the Church calendar we are in the season of Epiphany. In our everyday, contemporary language we would say that epiphany is about going on a journey, seeking, searching, and finding: finding answers that astound us. There are amongst our biblical stories many that speak of journeying. During Epiphany, Lectionary followers hear stories of wise men, the baptism of Jesus, the marriage feast at Cana, and the calling of the first disciples.
Being on, or beginning a journey, is part of each of these stories. It’s also clear that these stories imply that we are all on a journey, searching for that epiphany, that revelation of the discovery of the Christ that will walk alongside us and guide us into the future.
In today’s Matthew story, we hear of two sets of ‘wise ones’. First, there are the Magi. They took a series of risks as they pushed some boundaries and searched the heavens, followed a star, and made a commitment. In Matthew’s story they’ve crossed boundaries of geography, ethnicity, class, economics and religion to follow their star. If they were from the lands we now know as Persia or Iran, it is suggested that they were priests of the Zoroastrianism faith. The second group of ‘wise ones’ are those summoned by Herod the king, those learned Scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem, who were asked a specific question, “Where do I find this king of the Jews?” This group came up with a poetic answer, to the awkward question, safely quoting the scriptures they knew. They answered, “In Bethlehem, Judea”. The Magi, curious about where they may be led, are prepared to take risks on their journey of discovery. The second group play it safe. Then, when later we read Herod’s response to being outwitted, perhaps we can recognise why they played it safe. Today, at the beginning of this New Year and the beginning of fresh journeys, we are asked to choose between two ‘wise types’: those who play it safe, and those who are prepared to take risks.
Courage to Dream and Change
This will be an interesting year. I hope it will be a year where we all dare to: use our imaginations a little more; recommit our involvement a little more; and, like the Magi, become changed ourselves because of the experience, and to not be afraid of deciding to ‘return home by another way’. One commentator has likened this journey to being on a camping trip … travelling light … without the ‘kitchen sink’ … while recognising that we are empowered by: the guidance of others; each other’s encouragement; each other’s imagination; each other’s curiosity; each other’s creativity; and each other’s balance; and while recognising this, to also accept that we are all at different points on the journey of life and faith. Some of us are way up the front: others may be at the rear. Some of us are willing: some may feel they’re dragging their feet. Some of us will journey with great certainty … while others live with doubt. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter where we are on the journey. What is important is that there is a journey, because by being on an expedition demonstrates that we have responded to a call … we’re taking that risk … the risk to explore … and to return home by another way if that’s were we’re led to go.
Matthew alone presents us with the Magi. As a result of their journey they were changed. The Magi discovered that they were no longer prepared to be instruments in a web of oppression. The Magi discovered that they couldn’t face the world with only mere curiosity, remaining aloof from what was going on. They were changed because they were confronted with the newness and the hope experienced in the creativity of God.
This is Epiphany time: a searching and journeying time! Epiphany calls us to follow our dreams into unlikely places and to see them become alive in unlikely and ordinary persons.
The story of the Magi is our story. Their journey of exploration and revelation awaits us and beckons to us. Welcome to this time of journeying. Our prayer, as always, is that we allow God to be with us on our journey. Amen!
Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas used are from