Listening to one or two people speak during last weekend’s Synod events, I was struck again by the tricky challenges of how we use both Scripture and history to illuminate our faith and lives. For both Scripture and history can be sources and mediums of Christian assurance and hope. Yet they can also be means of unhealthy myth-making and even misdirection. In secular politics, we frequently experience the same thing: when, for example, this or that dictator is ssid to be ‘just like Hitler’, or when events are said to be repeating themselves. There are sometimes varying degrees of truth in such statements. However, the reality is that noone is ever ‘just like’ someone else, never mind like Hitler. Events do not simply repeat themselves. Even Herod, in our Gospel reading, realised that: hence his perplexity about who Jesus was. Whether we use Scripture and/or historical allusions, we have to be discerning and judicious. There is much to be drawn for example from allusions, similarities, and questions, which arise from our knowledge of the early Church and the European Reformations. That is why we study them, and why, in teaching them, I actively encourage such reflection. For, in that sense, though different, like Scripture, history is not a mere record of what has been. It is an invitation to understanding ourselves, our world, and God, afresh. It is about dynamic encounter. As with some mentioned in our Gospel reading today, is inevitable that some will seek to re-run the past or think it is simply coming alive again. Yet drawing straight lines from one era to another is not only intellectually problematic but spiritually dangerous. Christians, for example, will never, ever, quite live again in the early Church or Reformation, or any other era. Our contexts and horizons will always be significantly different, not least because we are products of that history not mere participants in its re-running. All of which brings us to the challenges and wisdom of Haggai…
What happened on 14 July 1833? Well, obviously, all kinds of things, not least in post-Revolutionary France perhaps, albeit it had at that point backslid into a monarchy. For Anglicans that day has certainly become a momentous turning point, for it was the date of John Keble’s famous Assizes Sermon in Oxford, a sermon given traditionally at the start of the law courts in England. It was not a call to Revolution. Yet it was a call to arms and to re-foundation and it issued in a movement of considerable change. In the face of a greatly transforming world, and of significant changes in church-society relationships, it helped give the Church of England a fresh identity and vitality. So, on the anniversary of his death, as we remember John Keble, can the memory of that sermon, and of his life and ministry, challenge us to find similar purpose and energy today?
One of the wonderful things about many Jewish people I have met is their capacity to wrestle with our human experience and ideas of God. They just do not settle for simplistic answers, especially when it is comes to the really big human questions of hope and suffering, life and death. Indeed there is a famous saying: ‘ask two Jews, get three opinions.’ Now, of course, this, can occasionally lead to a certain stubbornness and unnecessary conflict. It points us however to the very heart of biblical religion, especially as we find it in the Hebrew Scriptures. For the God of the biblical tradition is very much a God with whom to wrestle. We see this, not least, in the book of Hosea, from which we hear again today. Indeed, the God whom Hosea reveals is very much a God wrestling with God’s own compassion, very much as a parent wrestles with their own hurts and hopes for their child. This is the deepest, most mysterious, heart of love, and it is into this kind of love we baptise Margaret Rose today…
What experiences have we had of the fabled Australian ‘Tall Poppy Sydrome’? ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is of course known in other countries by other names, yet it is true to say that it has had a particular strong place in our own national culture, and that of Aotearoa New Zealand. For it has been used, pejoratively, to describe the way in which people of sometimes outstanding merit can be resented, attacked, criticised, or cut down, because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers. Or, as a saying in Chinese and Japanese culture has it: ‘the nail that stands out gets hammered down’. Some have thus wondered recently whether ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is a factor in our remarkable turnover of Prime Ministers, something which has made us the puzzlement, and to some extent the laughing stock, of the rest of the world What do you think? I feel that there are other concerning factors too, including certain limitations and power structures of our political parties, the undoubted personality weaknesses of some politicians who have risen to power, and, not least, the unusually short gap between elections compared to other developed nations. Yet ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is surely a reality in our politics, as it is in many aspects of our national life. So, as we hear today the great Gospel story of Jesus and his community’s ‘Tall Poppy’ reaction, what are we to make of our gifts and talents?...
How do you picture peace? I wonder if your vision is quite the same as that of the prophet Isaiah in the John the Baptist story in our Gospel reading today? Isaiah says this: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Well, that definitely doesn’t work for me if it were taken at all literally. For I was born in the North Pennine hill country of England, which owes so much of its life, history, wildness and picturesque beauty to the variety of its landscape, its hills and valleys. I certainly know that the folk of the Durham Dales would do all they possibly could to avoid every valley being filled, every hill being made low, and the winding paths and rough ways being made smooth. I suspect too that few people in Toowoomba would take kindly to such an environmental transformation of our own Range, valleys, hills and landscape. No. On this second Sunday in Advent, as we centre on the theme of peace, we need to look deeper if we are to find fuller meaning in today’s Gospel reading. Perhaps we are helped by re-casting Isaiah’s words a little. To that end, I offer some words of the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero: words which I believe catch up the spirit of the Advent prophets, that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.” Let me return to that, and to John the Baptist in our Gospel, again, in a moment…