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.


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