Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When my son was eleven, he wanted to be the ruler of his own island nation. Where do kids get these ideas? And through the miracle of Google he was able to do quite a bit of research on issues such as unilateral declarations and international recognition. Maybe I bought him a book on the topic. The sad reality, however, is that there are few islands available for nation-building and so Isaac’s dream went unrealized.

Next, he wanted a foreign passport. Surely there are nations with relaxed rules around who can get a passport, and the lad was determined to find out. Mozambique, it turns out, will basically sell you a passport, and I had to break it to him that I wasn’t sending a cashier’s cheque to any consulates so he could have a foreign passport.

In the course of helping him develop this false hope, I discovered that there is an entire sub-culture dedicated to reinventing yourself. Forget the passport, what about buying a manor that includes the titles Lord and Lady? Maybe a Swiss-numbered account? It turns out there is even a Princess from some minor noble family that will meet you in Vegas and transform you (for a hefty fee) into a prince. I didn’t tell my son.

I share all this with you because it occurred to me this week that buying your own island nation or becoming a prince is really no different that expecting to be a military dictator or president-for life. What we are witnessing in Tunisia and Eqypt and perhaps other places is the ultimate reality-check, where ordinary people wake-up to realize that there are other ways to be governed.

And if there was ever an occasion where we could point to the television and point to our Bibles, this is it:

5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

The outcome of events in Egypt is uncertain, of course, and we pray for a peaceful resolution. When world events unfold we often feel helpless or uncertain, and it has the effect of testing some of our core assumptions. Governments around the world have valued stability over individual freedom, and we are left to decide. What criteria do we use?

Now that we’ve reached the end of the first month of the new year, you no doubt have your tree down and all those decorations put away. It is helpful, I think, to remember where we are in the year. A month ago, the holy family was on the run from Herod. Three weeks ago, Jesus was baptized. Two weeks ago, Jesus picked his first batch of disciples, and last week he found the rest.

These are early days, and that becomes the context where we read the Beatitudes. The disciples have settled in to listen: there is a pause in the initial rush of preaching and healing, and Jesus has something to tell them.

The first thing to notice is that this is not a list of instructions. There will be some concrete direction given toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, but for today it is only teaching. And even the idea of teaching doesn’t seem to fit the Beatitudes. They are more like a manifesto.

Curious word, manifesto. It is one of the few words we borrowed from Italian, and it simply means “clear.” You share a manifesto when you want to make things perfectly clear. In Canada, we tend to use the word “platform” when we’re discussing the political realm, where the Europeans still seem to prefer manifesto.

So Jesus wants to make these things clear. He wants to define to beginning of his ministry, and for Matthew it begins with an introductory section that will unfold into what we call the Sermon on the Mount. So why begin here? And why begin with the “poor in Spirit?” We’ve only reached the first sentence and already we’re into a debate. Luke says simply “blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” So why the poor in spirit?

The best and most plausible answer is that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience that would have resonated more with the idea of spiritual poverty and the new spirit that Jesus brings. What Jesus actually said remains unknown, and is a source of perpetual debate. I wonder if the answer may be “Jesus says what we need to hear at the moment we tune in to listen,” but some will find this unhelpful.

Then he continues: those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are all blessed. Each will be rewarded in a unique way, and each is a particular object of God’s concern.

Before I go on, I want to go back to Egypt for a moment. Not back to the unrest but farther back in time, to the time of Pharaoh and the time of Moses. Imagine all you know about the conditions under Pharaoh, even picture Yul Brenner and Charleton Heston if you have to, and listen again to the list that Jesus made: Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

I’m going to suggest that if we want a window in what God is thinking about, if we want a window on the things that Jesus pondered as he prepared for the beginning of his ministry, we should collapse our sense of time. In God’s time, the suffering of the people under Pharaoh, and the suffering of the people under Caesar, and the suffering of the people under any garden-variety dictator we can serve up is the same suffering. There are no grades of suffering based on historical timeframe, only the same response to suffering based on the words Jesus shared.

But there is another element here that I want to test out, and that is the ordinary Egyptians who are left behind. I’m still with Pharaoh and Moses here, and I want you to think back to the story of the Exodus. Notice that we only meet Pharaoh and his kin, an evil overseer or two, and God’s people set to be liberated. We don’t actually get to meet any ordinary Egyptians.

But we know that the structure of the ancient world was a tiny elite and everyone else living in poverty ranging from dire to worse. And so it follows that while the Hebrew people where led through the Red Sea to safety, the countless poor under Pharaoh remained behind. And if we picture them, and in particular the ones who were forced to pick up the work that was no longer being done by slaves, we can imagine that among them we would find the poor, the meek, the persecuted, and the rest.

Nowhere on the list does it say “Blessed are the poor among the Hebrews” or “Blessed are the poor among the Christians” or even “Blessed are the poor among the deserving poor.” It is just a blessing, extended by a God that doesn’t see the categories of humans we see, only the humans themselves.

And what about the rewards? Jesus said, in this order: They will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will be shown mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The first thing we notice is that they are in the future tense, that the rewards will come in time, that they are in the realm of things hoped for and not yet received. And so it is with life on earth. Watching the news this week I was struck by the voices that said “we have been hoping for this day for 30 years.” Even when the hoped for reality has not come to pass, there is still gratitude and the recognition that even the act of protest is a realized dream.

And so we wait. We wait for the Kingdom to come, for the hungry to be filled and the meek to inherit the world. We wait both the poor and the spiritually poor to gain the Kingdom. We wait knowing that the blessing of God begins with those in need and extends far into the future. We wait for God. Amen and amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Third Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 1
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Are you a technophobe? Do you fear the latest innovation in the realm of technology? Still sticking your finger in the number hole and rotating in a clockwise direction toward the little metal thingy that means you have dialed the number? Do you refuse to get a cell phone but find yourself borrowing one occasionally with an embarrassed smile and a bit of envy?

A favourite radio ad begins something like “my practice was drying up and finally I googled myself…” The voice explains the first result on Google was unfairly negative, and then a voiceover says “how will you protect yourself when the internet turns on you?” Chilling stuff. By the way: If I’ve scared the pants off you, the internet can’t really turn on people, it’s only a conduit for information.

That being said, it is helpful to google yourself from time to time. Not only to discover if the internet has turned on you, but to find out what’s happening to any content you chose to share with the world.

An example: A few years back I received my one and only royalty cheque for hymn-writing, a staggering 87 cents (US). I was delighted, of course, so I took a picture of the cheque and posted it on my Flickr page (photo sharing site). I didn’t give it another thought.

Months later, while googling myself, I discovered that the image had been borrowed by no less than three Russian newspapers to illustrate articles on something related to chequing. Maybe they were writing about how poorly writers are paid in the West. Whatever the content, I was both pleased and feeling a little ripped-off. Maybe the internet turned on me.


The reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 1 can best be described as google-worthy. If Chloe or Crispus or Gaius wanted to know what Paul was saying about them in his letter to the church at Corinth, they could simply turn to an ancient near-eastern version of Google (that would be an avid reader with a good memory) and say “did you see my name?” And the answer would be yes.

There are lots of ways to obtain immortality. One would be to have your followers copy down everything you say (Jesus, Socrates), another would be to conquer the known world (Alexander) and another would be gaining a mention in an ancient source that never goes out of print. Enter our famous four.

Just before I get to them, though, you will recall that there seven people mentioned in the passage Jim read, eight if you count Jesus. But three are part of the unfolding story, and get frequent mentions, so they have sainthood to fall back on. Paul references himself (he wrote the letter, and one-third of the New Testament), Apollos is mentioned (Jewish Christian from Alexandria who did follow-up work for Paul) and finally Cephas (aka Peter, aka Simon), the only disciple who must have been in a witness protection program to account for all the names.

The famous four, then, are Chloe, Crispus, Gaius and Stephanus. Taken in reverse order, little is known about Stephanus, except that came from a household of believers. If he was a saint, I would nominate him for patron saint of forgetful people or the patron saint of parenthesis, based solely on Paul’s afterthought: (“Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.”) Man after my own heart.

Gaius is a little more difficult. There are two or maybe three Gaius’, the first being noted for his hospitality in Corinth. He may have also traveled with Paul, but this is less certain. Crispus was the chief of the synagogue at Corinth, and also baptized with his entire household.

Then there is Chloe: She is the most intriguing of the lot. It turns out that someone from her household, a family member, a slave, maybe a member of the staff, was in touch with Paul and told him about the divided state of the church in Corinth. Did she instruct them to send word? Did she have a scribe send word without attaching her name? Was she even aware that Paul was being informed? These are open questions, but I think the tone of Paul’s letter speaks for itself:

“My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”

She is clearly a leader in the community, and her name is forever attached to a desire for accountability and oversight. Assuming they acted in her name, members of the household were worried enough about divisions in the Corinthian church to write the founder and seek help.


There is always conflict in the church. Just yesterday, Lang and I were off to a presbytery retreat to represent you and to help develop a strategic plan for the next few years. There were maybe fifty of us, and we divided off to discuss several ideas that the presbytery might focus on as the future unfolds. And while ideas like enhanced communication and measures of congregational viability may not sound very sexy or engaging, they represent the kinds of things a presbytery must do to effectively represent the church in this part of the city.

The conflict began almost immediately when someone felt excluded. Later, some felt that we were moving too quickly and they needed more time. Still later, some refused to vote for the priorities established because the presbytery lacks a mission statement to guide the entire process. Just another day in churchland. Still and yet, the day ended with handshakes and best wishes, the odd apology from some of the more forceful ones, and a general sense that the work continues and somehow we will get it done.

The afternoon, however, contained some surprises beyond bickering church people. We heard from the Rev. John Buttars, a retired colleague, and an expert in Ignatian spirituality and an all-round wise person. He spoke of discernment techniques, and the ways in which we can set aside the “stuff” that gets in the way of understanding God’s intention for our lives and see things more clearly. I’ll have more to say about this towards Lent, so stay tuned.

For today, he added an idea that I think helps to clarify a few things, including 1 Corinthians 1. John Buttars said that the church, at this moment in time is being “dismantled.” The church is being dismantled. Now, we all have our favourite metaphors to describe the state of the United Church of Canada at this moment in time, the most popular being “dying.” And while it might feel that way to some, it seems too dire and maybe too general at the same time.

“Dismantled” seems much more helpful, because some churches have closed, and others will follow, there are some who will persist for many years to come. Dying only fits when the whole dies, whereas “dismantling” indicates that some parts are being taken apart while other parts are allowed to stand. If you dismantle the whole thing it is no long dismantling, it has become demolition. And that is not what Rev. Buttars said, nor is it the situation on the ground. It is piece by piece these days, and anything that happens piece by piece requires constant discernment. And may cause constant conflict.

Back to Corinth for a moment. Things are tense and here is why:

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

To follow is to subscribe, to adopt a viewpoint that is distinct from the others. The people of the Corinthian church were functioning based on adherence to ideas belonging to others. Wise others, but others nonetheless.

In this early chaotic period in the church, every leader had a different opinion on the way forward: Jewish Christians only, Gentiles and Jews, what to eat, how to mark adherence, how to stand apart. All these topics are debated in Acts and Paul, all these topics are resolved in more or less satisfactory ways. But conflict never ends, first because it is the human way, and second, because every age of the church is as chaotic as the first.

And many of the voices yesterday calling for a clearly defined mission before proceeding could easily have been visitors from long ago Corinth. Each style of baptism named for an early leader was little more that a worldview, a set of ideas, in short, a mission. And Paul has no choice but to cut through all this, to make things clear:

Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Baptisms, and what they might represent are one thing, but the power of God can only be found in the Gospel, defined this way:

God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to most; but to those who are the called, (people of faith), Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (my paraphrase)

And that power comes through surrender. Jesus didn’t gather power, he gave it away. He didn’t run from the cross, he gave himself over to it, to lead by example and save us all. He didn’t say ‘argue endlessly about mission statements,’ he said “go and make disciples of all nations.’ He didn’t say ‘debate each other,’ he said ‘feed my sheep’ and ‘whatever you do for the least of these by brothers and sisters, you did also for me.’

We don’t need a mission statement, we just need a Bible and a good index, one to look up “the poor” and “the vulnerable” and “the way of the cross.” And we don’t need to explain the cross—foolishness to those who are perishing—we need to live at the foot of the cross, where people continue to be crucified, and where the clearest word Christ said is “forgive.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter[a]).

My mother tells me I was born in a snowstorm. I still don’t like snow. I’m sure she told me the exact time, but that bit of information was been overshadowed by the snow.

My son was born at 8.21 in the morning, on a hot day in June, exactly six months from Christmas Eve. If you want your gifts to arrive evenly spaced, go for June 24th. They also throw a big party for you in Quebec, which is a nice touch.

It is the details that make things real, the ability to add that extra bit of information that says “this part matters.” When I say “son, you were born at 8.21” it adds gravity to an already important event. He, like me, may not remember his own time, but he knows I know, because the time matters to me.

Likewise with place. Travel through London and you will see countless signs that begin “On this spot.” Births, deaths, important events in the history of the UK, all revealed with a geographic maker. I can tell you that Benjamin Franklin was a printer’s apprentice behind Great St. Bart’s in Smithfield, but stand at the spot, and you can’t help but be impressed.

So imagine Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, spending three years traveling the length of the Holy Land to discover the places described in the New Testament. Like an early Indiana Jones, she read and pondered, explored, ask questions, and decided between sites that are already in dispute.

Some were simple: a cave near Bethlehem, a tomb in Jerusalem. But some were not: the site of John the Baptist’s ministry is uncertain, likely in modern-day Jordan, but always subject to a river that has changed course many times through the centuries. The baptism of Jesus site is always listed as “traditional,” which seems to suit most pilgrims because there is nothing much to see.

So the place is part of this story from John, but not the whole story. The author builds in a timeline, something any good author will do. It gives the narrative a sense of direction, not simply ‘where did they go’ but ‘how long did they stay’ and ‘was it this day or the next.’

And we might say the author John is ambitious: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.” You might as well begin at the beginning. That’s verse one and two. Verse nineteen seems to be ‘present day’ or the same day. It is not named as such, but suddenly the human action begins, and John the Baptist is busy defending himself:

“I baptize with[e] water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Then a time marker: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him.” This is the day of Jesus’ baptism, though you would hardly know it from reading the passage in John. We have gone form the heavily descriptive in Matthew, Mark and Luke to the vague and oblique in John. I mentioned this in Advent, this discomfort with John baptizing Jesus, so John gives it a gloss and makes it an event that fits his agenda for the whole book: a sign.

John’s Gospel is a really just a collection of signs, beginning formally at Cana but also present at the Jordan. John says “the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” If the author is uncomfortable with a human baptizing the Light of the World, than what better approach then to create distance between Jesus and the event. John doesn’t tell the story, he makes John an eyewitness:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

The timeline continues: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.” So it’s creation, day one (debate), day two (baptism), and day three (present day). John is still there, still doing his thing, but the narrative is about to move on, literally.

“Look,” John says to two of his own disciples, “the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Not bad for a day’s work. Three new disciples, including a disciple recruited by one of the original two, came together that day. How did John the Baptist respond? Was he annoyed? Did he bless them on their way? We’re not told, but we have to assume that his testimony indicates his blessing, and he knew all along this day would come.

One more thing: my favourite detail, found in verse 39: “So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.”

Four in the afternoon. Jesus and his friends would have called this the tenth hour, following the Jewish practice of numbering the hours from sunrise to sunset. Daylight was fading, with little time left in this third momentous day. The author John records that Simon is renamed Peter some time after four, and the day comes to an end.

Twenty-eight verses to cover 13.75 billion years, minus two-thousand, five verses for day two, and four verse later it’s day three at four in the afternoon and time to slow down.


A friend recounted meeting a smiling young woman on the street one day. She was passing out some written material and telling everyone “today is my birthday.” My friend stopped. “Congratulations,” he said, “how old are you?”

“I’m three,” she said, “I was born again three years ago today.”

I’m certain that if he asked, my friend would have discovered the time of day.

What happened to John Wesley? (heart strangely warmed)
Where did this happen? (Aldersgate Chapel, London)
What was being read? (Preface to Luther’s commentary on Romans)
What time? (8.45 pm)

What time were you born? Four in the afternoon? For at least three of the disciples, they seem to point to four in the afternoon. Like Wesley and my friend’s new friend, there is a day, and there is a time, and the day and the time mean much more that a day on the calendar or a spot on the clock: they mean life.


If you are a news person like me, you know that everything happening south of the border is larger than usual this week. A struggle for meaning is taking place. A nation is waiting for more miracles and stories of ordinary lives are being told.

One such story is the story of Christina-Taylor Green, just nine years old, her life stolen by a madman with a semi-automatic pistol. A nation mourns. But this story has a strange and inexplicable twist, with little Christina born on another tragic day, September 11, 2001.

She was featured, we learned, on page 41 of a book called “Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11.” It seems like a very American thing to do. Extend the national obsession with 9/11 to include those born on the day, forever marked with reactions like “poor you” or “that must be terrible.” Instead, these children became “faces of hope,” with a book and a story and a new way to see reality.

Until tragedy struck again. Call it the shadow side of remembering, the terrible task of trying to understand where the hope went when the first “face of hope” dies a victim of the violence that haunts the U.S. every day of the year.

So we live with a variety of dates and times. We trace the steps of hope and loss, the place we stood, the time on the clock, who we were with, what we were doing, how it unfolded. All these details provide the context for emotion: feelings are made real when they are given space and time. We can’t seem to help ourselves, it is the human way.

Now for the truly uncomfortable part: someone, in the next day or week or month will ask: “where is the hope?” They will not expect you to have the answer, even though you do. You will think to yourself, the answer must be four o’clock, because for John and Jesus and Andrew and Simon everything seems to settle on four o’clock. 13.75 billion years of time seems to lead to four o’clock, on the third day, the day that their relationship with Jesus truly began.

The answer is four o’clock. It may not be four o’clock for you yourself, maybe it’s another time, like sometime after nine for me. Whatever the time, whatever the location, we believe that the simple act of bringing your uncertain friend to Central may lead to something momentous for them, maybe an insight, maybe a sense of belonging, or even a heart strangely warmed. If I can be bold: not sharing the gift of this community of faith seems a tad selfish—don’t you think? Remember the question: “Where is the hope?” All we have to do is listen and wait, and our opportunity to make the time will come. Amen.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


Isaiah 60
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Psalm 72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Do you ever have the sense you were born at the wrong time?

As a reader of historical books, fiction and non-fiction, I am often left with the sense that I was born at the wrong time. I read Simon Shama’s Embarrassment of Riches and became convince that I belonged in the Dutch Golden Age. I read the Hornblower saga and became convinced that I belong somewhere on the high seas. I read Pillars of the Earth and knew I should be building a medieval cathedral.

I worry, though, about belonging to another age. My sense is that everyone smells in the past, and I’m not sure how I could cope. And infection: get one, and things didn’t look good. And all the violence. It seemed Hobbes was right, that life was nasty, brutish and short, with lots of sword play and things set on fine.

Last evening we rented “Robin Hood” (no subtitle), the latest Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe effort to recreate the past. Now, in case you lost count, Robin Hood has appeared in movies and on television 112 times in the last 100 years. He has been interpreted and reinterpreted, he as been a time-traveler, a cartoon favourite, and a vehicle for Errol Flynn and Errol Flynn types from the beginning.

In case you are visiting this planet for the first time today, I should tell you that Robin Hood is an “historic outlaw from English folklore” (Wikipedia). Beginning in the middle ages, stories of Robin and his merry men have been told: living in the forest, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, defying the Sheriff of Nottingham and usually singing. It most often breaks down as Saxons good, Normans bad. Then more singing.

The 2010 version is an attempt at a “backstory” with Robin as the son of a martyred rebel, thrust by fate in to the very same conflict that cost his father his life. Evil King John must be taught a lesson about the power of the people, and Robin Hood becomes a medieval George Washington ready to fight.

The really compelling stuff, for people who like both history and Google, is the quote that Robin uncovers on the hilt of the sword given to him by the dying Robert of Locksley:

Rise and rise again until lambs become lions

It turns out to the fictional manifesto of Robin’s late father, and the idea that propels the story forward. As Robin explains to Little John and the others, it is a quote about liberty, and setting aside meekness in favour of lion-like rebellion.

Now, I’m always interested in things that sound like scripture, things that on the surface, at least, sound like they might come from the Bible. “Rise and rise again until lambs become lions” is a perfect example, and I have to confess that I must have some kind of quote dyslexia because I only realized that it said “lambs become lions” (and not the other way around) when I turned to Google this morning.

Tt isn’t scripture, of course, but it’s obvious how it could be mistake for scripture, much in the way that “God helps those who help themselves” is assumed to be in the Bible (Ben Franklin who stole if from Algernon Sydney). Digging deeper, it turns out that the “lambs to lions” quote is from an obscure Hindi source, named Maitreya, a favourite of New Age-types and none other than L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. And Russell Crowe is known to be at least sympathetic to Scientology, and so the whole thing feels like a set-up.

So why the lasting appeal? The American interest seems natural, except that 330 years later they should relax and just let it go. But Robin Hood is an English legend, with a rebellious edge, in a country that remains a monarchy. How does the story survive hundreds of years and remain a steady source of interest. The answer, I think begins with the Bible.

Both passages we heard this morning, Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, concern God’s desire for Israel, that Israel reflect the light of God’s glory, and that God’s desire for Israel be reflected in the life of the king. These are political statements, likely written in exile, and promoting values that will be needed to prevent exile from happening again.

Isaiah 60 is a message to those who remain in exile. Some were reluctant to return to the Holy City, and so the author of Isaiah describes a fond hope for Jerusalem, that it regain her former glory, that it be “a light to the nations” and source of culture and wealth, and ultimately, protection.

Psalm 72 is an inauguration psalm, the message shared at the anointing of a king, the message that those in power use it wisely, and use it to further God’s values. It is a plea for justice, the work of every ruler, and a subtle pledge that the diligent pursuit of justice with result in a long reign.

So why does it sound like a Robin Hood psalm? Verse four: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” This hardly sounds like the work of the King, certainly not King John and not any of the kings since. The theme we find most often, albeit filtered through Hollywood, is that kings oppress and the people defend themselves (usually with the help of some unique individual).

The Bible posits a different view. In the Bible, the king is the unique individual, the one who stands up for the people, the one who liberates, defends, and ultimately redeems the people. The king must uphold the biblical values of peace and justice, and in doing so ensure the success of the nation. The king must offer protection to the people, from internal and external threats, and most of all, from God’s judgment. The lesson of exile, the lesson that was learned through decades in Babylon, was an unfit king poses a risk to all the people, because God may act against an unfit king in the form of other nations.

On the topic of the unfit king, I would need the afternoon to chronicle all the unfit kings of Israel. Saul, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Ahaz, Ahab: the list goes on. Worshipping idols, ignoring prophets, failing to protect the people, the Bible is a catalog of bad kings. And all of this adds to the importance of Isaiah 60, Psalm 72, and for today, Isaiah 9:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (vs 6)

Aside from great music, this passage points beyond the bad kings of Israel, beyond bad King John and many of his successors, to the hope vested in a baby, “born a child and yet a king,” the light of the world, the first and last and living one. It is his government we look to, his protection we seek.

And this will come. Jesus will defend the cause of the oppressed, he will set free those captive to sin and sorrow, he will redeem all who seek his holy name. But I can tell you something he won’t do, written “Rise and rise again until lambs become lions.” No, Jesus will reject the desire to become a lion in Judah, he will resist the desire to show a strong arm and power, he will do the opposite, he will become the lamb himself, the lamb of God who takes away thing sin of the world. He will turn everything on it’s head, he will rise and rise again until lions become lambs, and give away his power, and in doing so, become power itself, the power of the living God to remake us, to save us, and lead us home. Thanks be to God, Amen.