December 1, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Dr Roland Riem using Micah 4.1-7 at Evening Prayer on Sunday 1st December 2019, Advent Sunday.
A few days ago I offered a short paperback to a young woman, to help her think through the claims of Christ and the Christian faith. To my surprise, she asked me whether I could recommend any films instead. There was already a film ringing bells for her, a trilogy of films actually, called The Matrix. She thought Jesus, like Neo, the hero of the film, might be The One.
Neo certainly was The One in those films, the promised deliverer, sacrificing his life to save the last human citadel on planet earth, called Zion.
The Matrix borrows from many sources, including Buddhism and Alice in Wonderland, but the core plot is irreducibly Christian. And Zion is used as a wonderful symbol of human hope for the future, worth defending to the last.
Now this Zion on film is obviously a million miles from geographical Zion, the capital of the state of Israel, to which the US have now moved their embassy in recognition of its legitimacy in their eyes, but is also the place where Palestinians and Christians feel themselves under threat from Jewish settlers.
The present political ambiguities make it tempting to take Zion as a mere metaphor, just as it is in the Matrix, a symbol, an abstraction, nothing to do with the state of Israel and the Holy Land. The new Jerusalem is a heavenly destination awaiting all God’s faithful people beyond this world.
But has God abandoned his ancient people and the land on which his prophets and his Messiah walked? Perhaps we need not leave Zion high in the heavens. So thought William Blake anyway, who wrote:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake takes a metaphorical sword and sees it swung for justice in a real land. He imagines Jerusalem set up in England, despite the satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Zion here is a renewed and transformed nation. And it can be built whenever people work tirelessly to overturn the established order.
Micah would agree that the new Jerusalem is an upgrade on the old; but he would argue with Blake about swords. He sees those as beaten into ploughshares. Zion is a symbol of hope only to the extent that it is peaceable. And this means, in any time or place, that those who try to establish Zion through oppressing minorities cannot possibly succeed in hastening the coming rule of God.
Let’s leave Israel’s future in God’s hands, though, and turn our attention with Blake to our own pleasant land as we seek harmony, wholeness and peace – dimensions of the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’. Micah’s way to Zion is simple – ‘we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God.’
You can’t get clearer than that – a wholehearted devotion to God in all that we do. There’s only one thing to ‘get done’: God’s will.
Micah contrasts walking in the name of the Lord our God with other peoples who each walk in the name of their own small god – god with a small g, a tribal god. Other peoples craft lesser gods, idols which excuse them from the vocation carried painfully, often poorly, by the Lord’s people.
Following in the name of the Lord is a vocation to be a light to others; as the New Testament reading puts it, to be children of light, people who shine from their very DNA as lights of faith, hope and love in the world.
This gives us, sisters and brothers, absolute clarity of purpose in these turbulent times: if the Conservatives win the election, our vocation is to serve. If Labour wins the election, our vocation is to serve. If there is a hung Parliament, our vocation is to serve. Because we are not a tribal people – the Lord is our God, and we walk in his name.
There is a world of difference between the sword and the cross. The sword is a metaphor used in the Bible, of course. The word of God is often described as a sword, which can cut through to the soul. Jesus himself claimed that he came to bring the sword of judgement rather than an easy peace. But Jesus specifically asked his disciples to put away weapons to defend their cause and he died innocent on a cross – his chosen weapon for building a new kingdom, outside the City of Zion, where the worldly power lay.
Walking in the name of the Lord our God means following in the way of the cross, divesting ourselves of the sense of our own entitlement and superiority.
St Benedict in his Rule drives home the lesson that being a monk means dethroning self-will, and his most powerful image of a mature believer is one who runs in the way of God’s commandments, someone who is spontaneously responsive to others in community and habitually attentive to the Lord God in worship.
This can only happen through a listening which sets aside the desire for God to be at our service, or fighting our corner, bolstering our views and prejudices.
If I may confess a disappointment with ‘we’ the electorate, rather than ‘them’ the politicians: we often seem to pose the question, what will your party do for my tribe – students, small business owners, pensioners, farmers, scientists, those on benefit? We ask less often, how will you enable us to serve the common good?
And the Church, too, is seen all too often as another interest group, a tribe with its own rather outdated views on things like Sunday trading, abortion and human sexuality. Whereas actually, we have a positive, radical agenda for unity: we will walk in the name of the Lord our God.
Advent is a great time in the Church’s year for purifying our vision of this Lord. In Advent we confess that the kingdom of God is yet to come. Everyone may long for its coming, but no-one may possess it. It puts us all in the position of seekers and collaborators.
Advent reminds us that no person or party can claim that their vision is absolutely or exclusively right and ought to dominate others: the truth is coming! Democracy acknowledges this: it gives us the opportunity from time to time to choose which way we hitch our sails, in order to tack our way through choppy waters, by turning our sails in one direction, then another. It is not a flattering thought, but we probably make as much progress by adjustment and the correction of mistakes as by any ideological steer.
But Christians will be sure that there is indeed an ultimate destination to which we are heading, a place where peace and justice reign, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it makes a real difference to how we sail.
The most ancient form of navigation is by the stars. In one sense these are heavenly bodies, which we will never reach as we plough through heavy seas; their light comes to us from afar, brushing the face of the deep. In another sense they give us everything we need to find our way. If we keep our eyes on them, we will find a sure way home.
Zion, established as the highest mountain like the stars, is such a beacon: everyone can take their bearings from it and find a blessing there:
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.