Sunday, January 25, 2009

Epiphany 3

There must be something about spending long periods of time at sea that encourages otherwise perfectly sane human beings to tell whoppers.  Did you see that news item a week or so ago about the two fishermen who claim to have floated around on the open ocean for 25 days in an esky?  I guess there’s no getting around the fact that they were spotted from the air – it was an enormous esky, I have to admit – 80 km out to sea off Thursday Island.  But immediately they got to shore – and in the footage I saw they did seem to be tucking into platefuls of tropical fruit with enormous gusto – well we heard from the expert in Canberra who said two men couldn’t possibly live in an esky for 25 days on the open ocean, and then we heard from the men who actually found them, who said they certainly acted like two men who’d just spent 25 days together in an esky and were glad to be saying goodbye to it.  So maybe we’ll never get to the bottom of it, but two things are for sure, tall tales from seafarers take some beating, and even life and death stuff can have its comic dimension.

Yes, of course I’m planning to preach on Jonah.  After all, I only get one chance every three years, so I’m hardly going to miss it!  And this brings me to my first serious point, which is that it’s a very funny story.  I don’t think for a moment we’re supposed to be dwelling on the problems, like the fact that terrifyingly large marine creatures usually chew people up a bit before they swallow them, or worrying about how Jonah would have breathed down there or what three days of rolling around in a great fish’s digestive juices would have done for his complexion.  It’s a funny story that reminds us that laughter and comedy are right at home in God’s scheme of things, in fact, the good news that creation is shaped by the paradox of divine love that transforms death into life and tears into – well, into tears of joy – isn’t always best conveyed by long faces and pious attitudes.  But like all serious comedy the story of Jonah speaks to a world that tends to gloss over its pain with trivialities, and it helps us to see our own faults and self-contradictions when we see them parodied in the behaviour of the ancient world’s most lovable prophet.

So here’s the next serious point.  Jonah is my kind of guy.  Reluctant, stubborn and grumpy.  Absolutely determined not to go to Nineveh.  All through the Bible, people are getting up and going.  Abraham and Sarah move out on a promise and a prayer. Moses stands up to Pharaoh with nothing but a magical staff and his brother to write his sermons for him.  Elijah stands there pouring water on a pile of wood, daring four hundred and fifty Baal prophets and the army of King Ahab to get their fire going before his.  All through the Gospels people are getting up at a moment’s notice and following Jesus.  Fishermen are dropping their nets, tax collectors are leaving their ledgers, and others are leaving their parents behind.  None of it very socially responsible, you have to concede.  But not Jonah.  Jonah gets the word loud and clear ‘you’re a prophet, so act like one, for heaven’s sake.  Go to Nineveh and warn them that I’m very, very cranky with them’.  So he promptly goes out and buys tickets for Tarshish, somewhere out in the Mediterranean near the Rock of Gibraltar.  I have to say I relate to Jonah’s absolutely consistent way of resisting whatever it is God wants him to do.  Matter of fact, I do that pretty well myself.

Part of the problem is that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the nation that gave the people of Israel and Judah a hard time for hundreds of years.  One of the ancient world’s all-time superpowers, and Israel has the misfortune of being smack bang in the middle of the road that the Assyrian army have to use whenever they want to get anywhere that matters.  So Assyria has made itself unpopular around these parts, also Nineveh, the capital, has got a reputation for being sleazy and immoral, populated mainly by merchant bankers, casino waitresses and mining magnates.  It takes three days just to walk into the middle of the city, which makes it, by ancient standards, very big, very cosmopolitan and very scary. And so this is Jonah’s first objection.  Nineveh is out of range, or at least it should be.  Not Jewish, not even nice.  God’s care isn’t supposed to extend as far as that. 

Here’s the other thing.  Jonah’s a prophet, which means his job is to tell it like it is.  Not very different from a priest’s job, except that prophets generally get chased out of town sooner.  About half the time you need to be telling people how badly wrong they’ve got it, how selfish, preoccupied and short-sighted they are and what the outcome is likely to be if they keep going down the track they’re on.  To offer an alternative vision of the future and say, ‘that’s God’s idea of the future, and it’s very different from yours.  So you need to make up your mind whose team you’re on here’.  And the other half of the time the prophet’s job is to tell people – the very same people, in fact - that God’s heart breaks with love for them, that they are held and protected and guided by the one who created them in love.  Nations need prophets - in fact, without prophets nations lose their sense of identity.  And if they are fortunate – as we Australians are, I think – then we’ll have prophets who don’t pull any punches, who refuse to allow us to be complacent about matters of national shame, like the systematic disadvantage of Aboriginal people, prophets who prick our conscience until we take notice and make changes, as in our treatment of refugees – and we’ll also have prophets who help us to laugh at ourselves, to identify the currents of humour and tolerance and irreverence that make us worthwhile as a people. 

And the church needs prophets.  We need prophets to remind us that the great commission applies to us, that the people Jesus sends into all the world to teach and baptise and serve – are us.  We need prophets to challenge us when our worship becomes self-serving or our fellowship grows cold or inward-looking, and we need prophets to assure us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us.  Jonah gets the first part of the prophet’s job.  He just doesn’t get the second part.

So, rejected by the fish, Jonah finds himself arriving at Nineveh.  Actually, at a symbolic level the three days in the fish’s belly represents despair, it’s certainly Jonah’s lowest point, and it is a good metaphor as well for what happens to us when we recognise the direction God wants our lives to go in, but we think we know better.  We end up all at sea, swamped and swallowed up by stuff we can’t control.  But at the end of three days, the fish regurgitates Jonah – hardly a very attractive image when you think about it, but as Christians we can hardly miss the parallel with Jesus’ own death-to-life experience after three days.  Jonah, the world’s most reluctant missionary, is restored to life and brought back to dry land because, even when we choose death over life, or withdrawal and isolation over life and growth, then God is still in the business of transforming death into life.  With us or without us, but preferably with us.

Even when he gets to Nineveh, Jonah doesn’t have his heart in the job.  As he walks into the centre of the city he preaches about the world’s shortest sermon, just five Hebrew words that translate, roughly, into Aussie: ‘Forty days and you’re cactus’.  Hardly a very inspiring message, but the Ninevites hear and respond, every single one of them from the king on down, including all the animals, donkeys, dogs and cats, puts on sackcloth and heaps ashes over their heads and they all repent of their fast living and loose morals.  You can see how this would take the wind out of a certain kind of missionary’s sails!  Especially when God lets them off the hook!  And for the rest of the whole story, Jonah berates God for being such a softie, ‘I just knew you’d do this, it’s why I didn’t want to come to Nineveh in the first place’.  And the point is that God doesn’t change – God’s concern for human life doesn’t stop at national or religious boundaries – but neither does Jonah change, in this story.  ‘It’s not fair, and I’d rather die than have anything to do with such a wishy-washy system’.

And this is the whole point, right there under the comic image of dogs and donkeys covered in sackcloth and ashes, and Jonah sitting in a sulk because God is as God always is.  And the point is that we’re invited to recognise ourselves, maybe even to have a laugh at ourselves.  Maybe we could start by recognising ourselves as Nineveh.  How do we react, as a nation, as a church, or as individuals, to the lone, ridiculous-looking prophet pointing out that God’s idea of where we should be heading is a bit different to the way we are actually going?  Do we listen and repent, or do we label the prophet a do-gooder or a radical, and insist that the only real criterion that matters is that we do things the way we’ve always done them?  Certainly, we’re invited to see ourselves as Jonah, aware of our calling to be prophets of change and evangelists of God’s liberation, but actually, in our behaviour, arguing the point with God.  ‘For a start, it’s somebody else’s job.  You should be looking after us, not expecting us to do your job for you.  We’re happier going this way, it’s what we’ve always done and we’re good at it’.  And the clincher: ‘You want us to talk to them?  They don’t even like us, and they certainly don’t like You!’

The good news is that Jonah ends up in Nineveh.  In spite of himself, he doesn’t waste the rest of his life floating around in an esky.  God’s saving purposes get accomplished through him, in spite of him.  It’s just, I think, that he would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if he had recognised that God’s promptings pointed him in the direction not only of his mission, but of his own transformation.  Perhaps it’s a good point for us, as well.


Epiphany 2

I remember a while ago reading a quote by an anthropologist who defined human beings as animals in search of meaning.  We are meaning-seeking and meaning-making animals.  According to this guy, whose name I forget, that’s the main thing.  It’s not even about opposable thumbs or amazing cleverness.  Alone of all the species on the planet, human beings want stuff to make sense, and we want to find a reason that’s big enough to sustain us.  Well, the more I think about it, the more I think he’s right.

When I was a teenager, and particularly around the age I left home, I remember being acutely aware of searching for something.  Maybe it was just me, certainly I was a painfully serious young man – or maybe it was a generational thing, certainly all the popular songs back then, or at least the ones that weren’t about finding love, were about finding yourself  Or maybe it’s a universal human thing, that the anthropologist was right and we are meaning-making animals, constantly wondering whether what we’ve found in life is all there is, looking for something to make sense of it all, looking for an answer to the question of why we’re here at all, and now that we are here, how we can live in a way that reveals the purpose of our lives. 

And I think that fundamental human search is one of the major underlying narratives of the Bible.  Over and over again, the Bible writers tell us stories that show us that what it means to be human is to be constantly on the move, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, constantly looking around us at the world we live in and saying, ‘is that all there is’?  One of the definitions of despair, of course, is to look around yourself and see the shallowness and selfishness that passes so often for normal and think, ‘what if that’s as good as it gets’.  But the Bible teaches us, I think, that it’s normal for human beings to be restless.  St Augustine gets right to the heart of it, and he sums it up, when he prays, ‘our souls are restless until they find their rest in you’.  And maybe it’s another sort of despair when people stop looking, learn to make do with what’s on the surface of life and lose their sense of restlessness for the eternal things, that alone can tell us what it means to be us.

The Old Testament, that wonderful treasure-house of stories that reveal the warts-and-all truth about human beings and our relationship to God – is chock-a-block with restless searchers.  In an episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, Ray’s father is telling everybody about how as a little boy Ray stuck Coco-pops up his nose, and he says, I can’t work out why you’d do that!’, and Ray says, ‘because you kept telling me not to!  And also, because they smelled good.’  Well, in Genesis that’s exactly what Adam and Eve do: ‘lots of good stuff here, hey, what about the one fruit we’re not allowed to have!’  It’s what human beings do.  And so they’re kicked out of the Garden, because they suffer from the human curse – or is the human blessing – of having to find out ‘what if ...?’  – so actually it logically follows that Eve and Adam can no longer live the settled and comfortable but not very exciting life in Eden and have to make their way in the world where trial and error is the way it works and seeking but not finding is often the way of things.  The Garden, of course, represents life as we would like to think it should be but never has been – a world where we never have to try very hard, where we always get a good night’s sleep and never open our mouths to change feet.  It’s just that it’s a world that – ever since Adam and Eve – we’ve never quite been able to find our way back to, we all, in a sense, live the whole of our lives off-centre and  East of Eden.

Then there’s Abraham and Sarah, packing up their belongings and heading west on the vague promise that they’ll find their dream home there and have lots of grandkids.  Abraham and Sarah, of course, explode the myth that nobody can ever expect anything new of you when you’re over ninety.  You’re never too old to have your head filled with dreams and starlight, and a good thing, too.  Or Jacob, who spends most of his life running away from the shadowy figure of the brother he wronged, waking up at 2am to wrestle with an angel who turns out to be the better side of his own Self. 

None of us lives in Eden any more.  Even when we do grow up and find the girl of our dreams and get the job we’ve studied hard for, even when we have the mortgage and the 2.3 kids the statisticians tell us we’re supposed to – no matter how far life seems to have taken us from where we started – there’s still going to come that night where you wake up at 2am wrestling with yourself.  And the rich vein of stories in the Bible that ring true for us because they show us what, deep down, we know we’re really like – the Bible tells us that that perennial sense of not being quite there yet, not quite sure what it is that I’m looking for but I’ll know when I’ve found it – is what it means to be human.

So John the Baptist’s two disciples are also images of us.  They’ve come a long way, they’ve followed John into the desert and now – maybe just out of curiosity – they start following Jesus.  And he turns and asks them, ‘what are you looking for?’

It’s a question without an easy answer, and certainly they don’t answer it directly, instead they just ask, ‘teacher, where are you staying?’  In other words, they don’t know whether he’s got what they’re looking for – they want to get a bit closer, check him out.  Actually, this intimate account of a spiritual encounter and the call to discipleship sounds disappointingly banal, like a conversation overheard between teenagers.  ‘Do you want to come over to my place.’  ‘I’ve got Playstation 4’  ‘Alright’  And after they’ve spent the whole day at Jesus’ place, when they meet Simon, ‘come and see for yourself.’

The reason it sounds so ordinary is because, deep down, what we’re looking for is simplicity itself.  We just want to be accepted.  We are looking for someone to welcome us and accept us just as we are without any preconditions, whether or not we’re attractive or clever or kind enough to deserve it.  ‘Do you want to come over to my place?’  ‘Alright’   Except - what we really want is to hear that affirmation deep down, from life itself or from the heart of the impersonal, mind-blowingly complex and improbably huge universe, that we matter.  Don’t want much, really, when you think about it.  Of course we’ve got a whole lot of other needs as well, and part of life is about learning that what we think we need and what we really need aren’t necessarily the same thing.  But this need – the need to belong and the need to know that ultimately there is meaning and purpose in our lives – even though as we go through life sometimes we seem to forget about it for a while, sometimes we get distracted by busyness or responsibility, sometimes we find ways of distracting ourselves with the latest toys or gadgets – this need or this obsession lasts our whole life through.

To be human is to be an animal in search of meaning.  The anthropologist was right.  But the good news is that God is also obsessed with the same search.  Our lives only make sense in relationship with God, because, as St Augustine also pointed out, we are made that way.  The whole point of creation, it turns out, is that God needs to be needed.  You know, theologians get a bit cranky if we start talking about God needing anything, God’s supposed to be totally self-sufficient, but there it is.  The whole kit and caboodle is just because God wants somebody to talk to.

So if, ultimately, we spend our whole lives looking for God, even if we tell ourselves we’re really looking for something else – the good news is that God is looking for us too.  And the trick is just not to make yourself too hard to find.

It reminds me of one of our absolutely all-time favourite games as kids.  I grew up before the days of proper childhood activities like Playstation 4.  And so, whenever you had a whole heap of cousins or whatever to entertain, you played hidey.  It was very sophisticated.  Whoever was ‘he’ – and yes, it was ‘he’ even if it was really a ‘she’ – had to count up to a hundred, and often as not they’d cheat and count by fives, or skip everything between about ten and ninety – and then come looking.  Well, one of my most vivid childhood memories is the day I found the perfect hiding place, by crawling under the house.  And I was so chuffed that nobody could find me that I refused to come out, even when I was given a ‘free homer’.  I wanted to be the centre of attention, to have everyone out looking for me, mystified by my cleverness – but after a quick consultation they decided to just keep playing without me.  So I learned something quite important that day.  If you’re really, really looking for something in life, don’t be a smartypants, don’t make yourself too small a target, don’t forget to leave a little bit of yourself sticking out so it can find you.

Let’s pray:    Creator God, you have made us for yourself,

                   and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

                   teach us to offer ourselves to your service,

that here we may have your peace,

and in the world to come may see you face to face;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


One of Maxwell Smart’s favourite self-justifications, every time he finds himself outwitted, tied up or dangling at the end of a long rope – whenever he’s made himself look foolish yet again and played right into the hands of Kaos – is, “missed it by that much!”.  I guess it’s Max’s way of saving face – to deflect attention from the “oops, stuffed up again” moment by reminding the Chief – or anybody else who might be watching – that it really was a very difficult shot and he almost, very nearly, made it.  Course, when your life depends on it, or when the future of democracy as is usually the case on one of Max’s missions, then actually that doesn’t really help a great deal.

Today we listen in on a cosmic “missed it by that much” moment.  A great big “doh” from the supposedly wiseguys who’ve come all this way from the exotic lands to the East - and landed in the wrong town.  “Missed it by that much”.  In the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian”, the wise men get to Bethlehem but end up at the wrong stable just in time to witness the birth of an insignificant Jewish boy named Brian and hand their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to his very surprised-looking mum, who doesn’t think much of the myrrh and tries to give it back.  But Monty Python really didn’t need to bother.  The real mistake the wise men make in Matthew’s version of the story is to read the wrong verse from the Old Testament and go to the wrong town.

Certainly Matthew himself, as a master storyteller, has also been getting a bit of background material out of Isaiah, chapter 60.  It’s just that it just doesn’t quite fit for the baby born on Bethlehem. The people of the Torah had come back to the land after years of exile in the fleshpots of Babylon where the sharemarket had just kept going up and up [no, seriously, they actually did very well there], and they had acquired more intellectual and political sophistication than they ever could have got at home, and now what do they come home to but a broken-down economy, a bombed-out city and nobody with any clue about how to fix any of it up.  And, like any good economist, the poet dares to suggest that the only real missing ingredient is hope.  “Stop being so down in the dumps, light up on the neon lights and switch on the music”.  And the poet says Jerusalem is again going to become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a centre of international trade.  Caravans of traders are going to come laden with precious goods, frankincense and gold just for starters.  Nations will be drawn into your orbit like moths around a flame, foreign kings will come flocking to the brightness of the opportunities you offer.  It’s good, stirring rhetoric, the triumph of hope over experience which is exactly what we all need when the bottom drops out of things.  And Matthew the storyteller picks up this vision as his template for the original mission of the wise men.  Presumably he’s also been reading the newspapers, he remembers the political delegation that arrived to see Herod the Great around 11BC [according to Josephus], maybe he’s heard the official legends of the star that greeted the birth of the Emperor Augustus, he’s heard of Halley’s comet that made an appearance a few years earlier, and he certainly remembers the prophesy made by the pagan prophet Barlaam in the Book of Numbers: ‘a star shall arise out of Jacob’. [1]  This sort of event was not unheard of in Matthew’s day, though what we might make today of a star that travelled around corners until it finally hovers just over the roof of somebody’s back shed is another matter.  Whatever the historical underpinnings, as a story it says that the birth of this baby is going to have international reverberations.  And of course in Matthew’s actual story in the Bible they aren’t kings but magoi, which means soothsayers or astrologers, in other words men who use the occult arts to read the signs of the times – so maybe there’s also an implied criticism there – Israel’s own priestly caste don’t get it, and they don’t recognise the Messiah when they have the chance, but these pagan astrologers manage to work it out.

Except that the way Matthew tells the story, they’re basing themselves on the wrong Bible verse, and they arrive in the wrong town.  You can just about imagine the scene with a cranky king Herod having to act the diplomat, hastily consulting a few wise men of his own, specialists in Old Testament studies who tell him Isaiah chapter 60 is wrong, which is a shame because that’s a good one - all about Jerusalem regaining its greatness which is good news for merchant bankers and media barons and visiting diplomats and for Herod too, because it would mean that the status quo wouldn’t change.  But unfortunately for you, the Bible scholars assure Herod, the correct citation is Micah, chapter 5, verses 2-4.  “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, one of the smallest of the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, one whose origin is from of old”  And that, the religious professionals explain to Herod, is not such good news for you because it’s a peasant fantasy, a vision of the future that doesn’t depend on banks and stock markets, and not on Temples and priests either, but on the flourishing of justice and a leader who models the upside-down, grass-roots power of compassion and forgiveness and self-giving love.

Herod tells the magoi what they need to know, but makes his own extreme preparations just in case God turns out to be right.  Luckily, he doesn’t think of getting anybody to follow them, because as soon as they leave Jerusalem the star reappears to guide them the five miles down the road to Bethlehem and the right address. 

And I think that in the way Matthew writes the story he’s dropping us a hint.  He’s giving us all the fireworks and all the nationalistic references of Isaiah chapter 60, parallels to the dream of restored national glory and economic success, as well as obvious parallels to the self-promoting mythology of the powerful and elite in his own world – and then he says, “Doh!”.  “Missed it by that much”.  It’s not Jerusalem, it’s Bethlehem.  It’s not just gold and frankincense – it’s also myrrh.  And he shows us the magoi veering suddenly sideways, off the beaten track and disappearing back into the desert by a different route.

Why myrrh?  Gold is for kings, everybody knows that, and if this king was also supposed to be a priest in the tradition of Aaron, then frankincense is also an obvious choice.  If you’re bringing gifts to Jerusalem and to the temple then gold and frankincense work just fine.  So, why myrrh?  It was certainly very expensive stuff, and used only by the very well-to-do.  But hardly a typical present for a new-born, not even a royal one, whose doting parents generally wouldn’t be too pleased to get embalming supplies in the baby shower.  Matthew, the Bible experts tell us, is writing his narrative with a copy of Mark’s gospel open in front of him, in some places he is using the earliest gospel as a source and in other places just as an inspiration, and what Mark tells us about myrrh is that rather a lot of it is going to get used in preparing Jesus body for his burial.  Matthew, in other words, is telling us right up front what to expect if we keep reading his story.  A king, sort of, but not one that Herod would be too pleased about.  A priest, sort of, but not one who the Temple authorities are going to be too pleased about.  A prophet, absolutely.  Prophets know all about offending kings and priests, and they know all about premature funerals.

So, what does all this have to do with us?  We know how the story ends, so why do we need to think about the epiphany of the wise men, the “missed it by that much!” moment that turns into an “aha!” moment?  One reason, I suspect, is because the church has been stopping off in Jerusalem for over 2,000 years, that we continue to miss Bethlehem by that much, that we continue to mix up the claims of Jesus of Nazareth with the self-serving claims of power elites, the claims of nationalism and capitalism and consumerism.  That for too much of its history the church has been an ally rather than a critic of the status quo, being a Christian has been a comfortable option for the middle class.  But ultimately, I think, because we need to listen to the punch-line of the story: “they returned home by a different way”.

The magoi have got what they came for, after all.  They have encountered the alternative visions of power, the alternative kingships of Herod and Jesus, and they have correctly identified which one comes from God.  They have given the gifts that reveal who Jesus is, and they themselves have been changed.  And so they understand the need to return home by a different route.  On one level it’s just a narrative device to tell us how Herod’s nasty plans are foiled.  On a deeper level, it’s about knowing that we ourselves can’t stay the same, once we have encountered the differentness of God.  If these are God’s priorities, then what are ours?  If God critiques worldly definitions of success by being born, not at the heart of power but on the margins of weakness, then what does that say about how I live?

On the personal level, I think, the story says to us, ‘it doesn’t matter what wrong turns you took on the way.  But now that you’re here, what has to change?’


[1] R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, New York, 1999; pp. 170, 171, 187.  Also Num 24.17.