8 December 2019
Dr Sally Guthrie
O Lord, forasmuch as without Thee, we are not able to please Thee, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts, thro’ Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
G’morning ev’one! And thank you for inviting me to speak to you this Second Sunday in Advent, the day when we turn our thoughts especially to the forerunners of Jesus, the prophets; their words are recorded throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the NT, as we heard from John the Baptist in the Gospel appointed for today. And as well as much reproach and lament, how beautiful a vision of peace and justice Isaiah offers us: for when the time is fulfilled “they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain”- words of consolation and hope, and all the more so as we trundle through the next stages of these troubled times for our nation.
The Gospel writers certainly record that Jesus thought that His advent was the fulfilment of that prophecy: His first words in Mk:“the time is fulfilled”; at the beginning of His ministry reported in Lk, speaking in the synagogue He quotes Isaiah 61 (which echoes our rdg today): “.. the Lord has anointed me..” And Mt too carefully tracks the references in the prophets: of whom was the promised one a descendant?
David, the iconic King, of course; where wd He appear? Bethlehem, of course, for “out of you shall come a leader..”; and there are many other detailed references.
These Gospel writers, literate Jews and thus leaders in their communities, write with growing confidence despite the dreadful and unexpected ending of His ministry in their certainty that Jesus was indeed God’s promised Messiah.
And surely this momentous conclusion has been far-reaching, the spring as it were of a two thousand yr long stream of history in the Western world. Some like Paul hv reached it in a blinding flash of revelation, some absorbed it as an unchallenged circumstance of cultural identity, taught or assumed. And it was in those days, and still is now, contentious. Today when religious observance, going to church and so forth, has become a matter of choice, thinking Christians like ourselves seek to understand it. This ambition is enabled by modern open-mindedness: we are used to scientific ways of thinking, we are free to question and voice doubt. We hv new information from archaeology, documents as well as objects; and technology has given us much wider opportunity for comparison; global vistas hv become easily accessible, tentative suggestions shared and examined.
Above all, bros and sis, the extreme events of the 20thC hv shaken the very foundations of our confidence; a catastrophe beyond imagining, still within living memory, has truly challenged the moral and spiritual world of Christian Europe (or I might say of the West in general)– I mean the Holocaust. So today as well as hving the means to understand better we surely hv the motive.
So let us hv a quick look at the world of Late Antiquity, as historians call those times, and see if we can not only build a
picture of the social reality but
also gain insight into what was going on in people’s minds. We are a bit short of written evidence
which I think the best way in to that mixture of nature and nurture which makes
up human minds. The trouble is very few people in antiquity cd read and write.
Add to that, writing needs scarce, expensive and perishable materials. This
means straightaway that written evidence comes from a narrow perspective. For when consensus relies on face-to-face encounter, it is quite literally
From the evidence in the Gospels and apostolic Letters there was keen interest shown by many educated Gentiles in contemporary Judaism; like all such interfaces, this was sure to raise issues and cause conflict. We hv an example in our reading today from Romans: here Paul tries to settle argument about the terms on which interested Gentiles cd attend mtgs in the synagogue where Christian Jews gathered. Rabbinic Judaism fore-runner of the modern version was in its early stages of development.
1stC Judaea was not peaceful like some of the senatorial provinces closer to Rome; as well as discontented movements seeking to cast off the yoke of the oppressor there was much religious dispute; for example- was healing allowed on the Sabbath? and as the 1940s discoveries in the caves at Qumran witness, other forms of resistance might include retreat into the desert to form clandestine communities.
Such arguments wd become acrimonious. The way all this settled into anti-Jewish rhetoric in the first hundred years of Christianity has been described as the Parting of the Ways. Not one event of course: probably it took a while for this to happen, for clearly neither party was homogeneous even in Judaea, let alone in the wider world of the Roman Empire. Some of the early Christian writers permit themselves vitriolic invective. It was certainly not only about who Jesus was. Rather it settled into a narrative of blame for all that was to be feared in those difficult times. Not everyone swallowed it; but it takes cunning detective work to hear the balancing voice of dissent. For alas! there is something else of critical importance to understanding all this- what is heard, what gets copied, what is preserved to become normative is selected; history is written by the winners!
Well, as they say, the rest is history, our history: by the 300s and Constantine, Christian doctrine is becoming standardised, Council by Council; the Sabbath is to be observed on Sunday (321), Pope Damasus has ordered scripture to be translated into Latin. The non-compliant Jews en bloc are being called Christ-killers. When the prophets rail against idolatry and disobedience they furnished an opportune rhetoric. Christian anti-Jewishness – or anti-semitism- has remained part of European culture for centuries and is still in some places taken almost for granted. Finally – though it did not cause, it legitimated the most terrible genocide in history..
In 1942, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, got together with the then Chief Rabbi and founded the Council of Christians and Jews. This now established national charity has HM the Queen as patron as well as representatives from all denominations of either faith. It flourishes, with branches wherever there is a sizeable Jewish community. Look out for our active programme in Leeds. You will be welcome.
Dear bros and sis, the past is past: today we face with anxiety an uncertain future; we shall be making a decision about it in a few days’ time. Perhaps now if ever people of faith shd lay aside old enmities and quarrels about dogma: let us embrace our uncertainties side by side, approaching each other with the expectation that whatever is best in ourselves we shall find there.
So hear again the Advent msg of the prophets:
The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice, the desert shall blossom and burst into song.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weary hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to the anxious, Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, Coming with judgement to save you.
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, And the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing With everlasting joy upon their heads.
Joy and gladness shall be theirs
And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.