Friday, December 23, 2016 Friday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Revelation 22.6–11, 18–20
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
People often ask me if I have been to the Holy Land, to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. I never have. Many of my ordained colleagues have, and so have many laity I know. My former bishop, Bishop James Cowan, was there for Holy Week several years back. My friend and colleague Richard LeSueur lived there for three years at St. George’s College, an Anglican educational centre, and he continues to lead tours to Israel and Palestine. I am sure it is a good thing to do.
And yet I am reluctant to go. I don’t want to be just another holy tourist, visiting the sites and ignoring the present political situation. Like many people I am dismayed at the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I support the right of the State of Israel to exist; as a matter of international law, it was created by the United Nations in 1947 as a homeland for Jews. The problem is that that same UN resolution also was supposed to create an Arab Palestinian state, but that never happened. The Arab nations of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria disregarded the resolution and sought to conquer the land. What territory was held by the Arab states was never given to the Palestinians to administer. The West Bank was administered as an integral part of Jordan – the Jordanian government did not recognise the Palestinians as a separate people (they later disavowed this in 1988). In 2011, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, stated that the 1947 Arab rejection of United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a mistake he hoped to rectify.
I don’t think I could go to the homeland of Jesus and not be incredibly aware of this situation of low grade conflict. What few Anglican there are in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are Palestinians. The State of Israel has the upper hand with its military and security forces, and after peace negotiations that had very limited success the current government seems to have given up of further meaningful discussions. Instead, to minimise the opportunities of Palestinians killing Israelis they have built the wall between Palestinian communities and settlements in the West Bank. We regularly hear of new settlements established by Israelis in the West Bank, often ultra-orthodox Israel nationalists. These settlements are frequently considered irregular and illegal by the government, but in time they are incorporated into the rest of the nation as the wall is shifted to accommodate them. I don’t see any good solution. Neither the State of Israel or the Palestinian National Authority is well led, and opportunities for permanent peace have slipped through negotiators hands more often than we can remember.
What a contrast with the vision in Isaiah: Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes will be broken. Jerusalem, the holy city of three faiths, is anything but a quiet habitation. Every block is contested. Every street in the old city has run with blood, going back to the conquests by the Babylonians, the Zealots, the Romans, Persians, Arab Muslims, the Crusaders, Kurdish Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, Ottoman Turks, the British, the civil war of 1947 and the Israeli War of Independence, the Six Day War, and the Intifadas. “During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.” I’m not sure but that I would hear the bricks cry out of past traumas and injustices so often wreaked not on the perpetrators of violence but the peaceful and marginalized ordinary men, women, and children.
The Jerusalem I look for is the New Jerusalem, a city of peace, a heavenly Jerusalem that is the dwelling place of God. And yet in my hope for this and turning away from the earthly Jerusalem I wonder if there is a hint of abdication of responsibility. I don’t want to see the real Jerusalem that is on the earth and is a real city with millions of people, I feel helpless before the politics, and I just want to say, “A pox on both your houses” and get on with other things.
And yet . . .
There is the tradition that although we may not have the fullness of the New Jerusalem, we nevertheless work for it. As William Blake put it about his home and native land:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
The theme was picked up by British socialists in the late 19th century, culminating in Clement Attlee announcing in the 1945 General Election that he and the Labour party would build a New Jerusalem (an election which they won in a landslide, defeating Churchill and the Conservatives despite having led the UK to victory in World War II). It is still sung, to a tune by Hubert Parry, at the end of each UK Labour Party Conference.
Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) – Baptist minister, Member of Parliament, Saskatchewan Premier (1944-1961), creator of Medicare, founding leader of the NDP (1961-1971), voted “the greatest Canadian” by a CBC show in 2004 – frequently referred to Milton’s poem in discussions and in political speeches. Indeed, his biography is called The Road to Jerusalem. Apparently as a young man he tired of other socialists spouting on about Marxist social policy without actually doing anything to help people. So he emphasised the Christian socialist perspective (which arguably is older than the Marxist one, and of which Marxism is a materialistic warping of the original). The poem by Milton caught what he wanted to do.
So. As a Christian I cannot withdraw from the world. Oh, I might do so for periods of time, to rest and prepare myself. But unless I am Amish or decide to live a monastic life, opting out of politics is not an option. God, who created this world and loves it, and who in that love sent his only son to be flesh and suffer with us on it, in order to begin its transformation, calls me and you to be part of that transformation which has begun in the resurrection, death, life , and incarnation of Jesus. So I need to be involved locally. And I might even become involved, if the Lord wills it, in the affairs of the city of Jerusalem. I cannot simply hope for a New Jerusalem while being indifferent to the current one. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, I just might be able to. To which I add my prayer, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;
they will behold a land that stretches far away.
Your mind will muse on the terror:
‘Where is the one who counted?
Where is the one who weighed the tribute?
Where is the one who counted the towers?’
No longer will you see the insolent people,
the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend,
stammering in a language that you cannot understand.
Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
and none of whose ropes will be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor stately ship can pass.
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
the Lord is our king; he will save us.
Revelation 22.6–11, 18–20
And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’
‘See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’
And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.