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Sermon: Justice And Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes 8:2-17

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting we come to a passage about justice six days after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Did she uphold the rule of law for the sake of good order in society, or did she use the Police to batter ordinary working people?

I’m not going to express an opinion on that debate. I have my views, and while I tend a certain way about Mrs T, my beliefs can’t be summed up in just a sentence or two.

But we come to the writer of Ecclesiastes, living in a vastly different society from ours, yet asking similar questions about justice and authority to ones that many people ask today. After all, as The Who sang in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’,

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.

So we’ll look at the questions Qoheleth (‘The Preacher’) raises in this passage. We’ll have to take some of his answers further in order to set them in a New Testament context, but I couldn’t pick just one New Testament passage to complement this one, because there are a few we need to take into account.

Firstly, he advises his readers to keep the law. It’s for a mixture of reasons, though:

Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’

Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery. (Verses 2-6)

It all starts off rather well: obey ‘because you took an oath before God.’ Whether this is like an oath in a court of law, or whether it simply indicates that someone on principle has declared before God that they will obey the king, it is something that takes promises to God seriously. Those who make serious promises to God should keep their word. No-one should be frivolous about their vows to the Lord. If we are not going to keep a commitment to him, we should not say that we will.

Now this has an indirect effect on a just society. Justice requires truth-tellers. Justice requires those committed to honesty. Whether you take an oath to God in court or simply make an affirmation because Jesus said ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ in the Sermon on the Mount, false testimony leads to injustice.

But at the same time, just promising to obey the king because he wields power as Qoheleth implies in verse 3 is insufficient in itself. It may be a minimal reason for doing right, but on its own it is no more than a pragmatic reason, based on fear. It’s the social cousin of the parents who say to a child, “Because I say so!”

Ultimately, the New Testament has an even stronger reason for commending a general principle of obedience to the authorities. Paul describes it in Romans 13, where he says that the authorities are instituted by God for the purposes of justice. They are both to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do right. This is seen by Paul as promoting a stable and healthy society.

Now don’t you think it’s quite remarkable that a man of Paul’s experience should say such positive things about the state? He is someone who on more than one occasion suffered at the hands of the judiciary for the wrong reasons. He was arrested under false charges. He was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. He was not always protected when he was attacked. Yet despite this, he still wrote about the basic need to submit to those in authority.

I am sure that various questions are forming in your minds about this. One would be: how does this black and white language about rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer relate to Christian belief in forgiveness? Allow me to tell you a story.

During my ministerial training, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one Sunday. Another student and his wife invited me over to their flat for a wild celebration over … beans on toast. At the end of the evening, they offered to call a cab for me, but I declined. I felt I knew what I was doing as a city boy – and I didn’t want to shell out unnecessary money as a student.

Big mistake. On the way back to the hall of residence where the single ministerial students lived, I was mugged by a young thug. The first thing he did was to smash my glasses, and he then compounded it by hitting me in the eyes.

When I struggled back to the hall, one student phoned up my bank to cancel my plastic money, and another (who was a former solicitor) took me to the police station, and stayed with me into the early hours while I was interviewed and gave a statement.

I am sure the young hooligan was known to the local community, but the police never made an arrest. I was asked at a later date whether I would have given evidence in court, had he been apprehended. I replied, ‘Yes, just so long as I was sure first that I had forgiven him in my heart.’ It is my conviction that we need to forgive for the sake of our hearts, and to uphold justice for the sake of a stable society.

But there is another question Christians will pose about law-keeping, and it’s this. Do we really have to give our loyalty to an unjust government? How do we cope with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 when obeying a government would put us into conflict with things we know elsewhere are God’s will?

In 1981, while apartheid was still entrenched in South Africa, a black Christian community worker from Soweto, visited London. While he was here, he was interviewed by Simon Jenkins, the editor of a small magazine called Ship Of Fools that is now a large Christian website. During the interview, Jenkins asked him, ‘How do you respond to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities because they are given by God?’

Mbeje replied,

 It is very clear that the South African government is a government which has not been appointed by God, and if God has appointed that government then he must be a very, very unjust God. Personally, I believe that God has nothing to do with the appointment of the apartheid government in South Africa. If I believed that God had appointed that government, then I should not be against apartheid.[1]

Mbeje’s words point, I believe, to the fact that Romans 13 is not the only word in the New Testament about our attitude to authority, just as the call to obey the king in Ecclesiastes 8 is not the only thing the Preacher says about the subject. As well as Romans 13, there is Revelation 13, where Rome is the Beast. They lead us to the second of the two themes in our reading, then, namely the imperfection of justice. In the rest of the chapter, we read about the wicked being praised (verse 10), delayed justice (verse 11), and some occasions where the wicked get what they deserve but others where what they deserve and what the righteous deserve get reversed (verses 12-14). No wonder nobody can make sense of this, he says (verses 16-17).

And this is why I called this sermon ‘Justice and Meaninglessness’ on the sermon series outline. Things don’t always go as they should. We bring up our children on a ‘happy ever after’, people get what they deserve basis, where every story ends with goodness being praised and wrong being punished, but as we grow up we soon discover life doesn’t always cash out like that. For me, I think it was watching an episode of the TV cop show ‘Softly, Softly’ which ended with the police not catching the criminal. I started to ask questions of my parents. How could it be? This was real life, they told me.

And I’d be surprised if there were anyone here today who doesn’t recognise that. Life isn’t fair. The good don’t always win. Bad people get their way. How can this be?

No wonder Qoheleth says in verses 14and 15,

 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

Note that word ‘meaningless’ that keeps cropping up in Ecclesiastes. The failure of justice always to win can make life seem meaningless. It just seems like a counsel of despair. The commendation to enjoy life then becomes little more than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.

But I take you back to the beginning of this series. On the first Sunday of the series, which we introduced with an all age service, we also had an evening service where I looked at chapter 1 in more depth. I pointed out that the familiar words, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes may better be translated, ‘Breath of breaths, everything is temporary’. If you plug that meaning in here, then actually we have words of hope. The failure of justice to prevail at all times is not meaningless, it is temporary. As Christians, we believe that a new world is coming, ushered in by resurrection and final judgement. The imperfections of justice are not for eternity. Sheep will be separated from goats.

And you know what? This is an Easter theme. Paul in Romans 1 speaks about the Resurrection of Jesus as being God’s vindication of his Son. An injustice was done at the Cross. Throughout the Book of Acts, preachers such as Peter remind their hearers of that. But on Easter morning, God reversed the injustice. The world had said ‘no’ to his Son, but he said ‘yes’. It’s another case where the Easter event is a foretaste of all that is to come in the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Let us remember that the imperfection of justice is temporary. That can spur us on to work for justice with a sense of hope. It is also, then, why the Preacher commends ‘the enjoyment of life’ to his hearers. The Christian can enjoy life, even in the midst of an unjust world. It isn’t a closing of deaf ears to the cries of the suffering. It isn’t a making the most of life before it all disappears. It is instead defiant laughter in the face of evil. Eating and drinking and being glad in the midst of our daily toil is one sign on our part that we believe a new world is coming, and that God has served notice to quit on the forces of darkness.


[1] Ship Of Fools, issue no. 8, December 1981, p 36.

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Election 2010: Some Preliminary Thoughts On Christian Perspectives

So the UK General Election will be on 6th May, as expected. In terms of Christian responses, Churches Together In Britain and Ireland has a dedicated site. The Evangelical Alliance and CARE have set up My Manifesto on Facebook and Twitter. Among my blogging friends, Paul Martin has written an eloquent post in which he calls for a preferential option for the poor. Peter Kirk discusses the Westminster Declaration, issued on Sunday by thirty largely well known Christian leaders, mostly (but not exclusively) from an evangelical background.

The latter stands for so many things both Peter and I believe in, yet there are concerns. It is pro-life, it favours options for the poor and unjustly treated and it upholds the sanctity of marriage. Yet the areas where it calls for Christian conscience to be protected are purely in the areas of what one might call ‘personal morality’ – the sexuality and sanctity of life areas. Peter thinks this is stilted, and I have sympathies with him in that view.

For example, if you hold a conservative view on sexuality, then none of the three major British political parties supports you any more. Labour has pioneered controversial legislation in this area. David Cameron for the Conservatives told Attitude magazine that the Archbishop of Canterbury should sort his church out on the issue. The Liberal Democrats have favoured gay rights for a long time, and in the recent controversy over the Christian owners of a B& B who would not accept a booking from a gay couple. the LD spokesperson Chris Huhne described anyone who believed gay relationships were wrong as a ‘bigot’. If political preferences are drawn on this issue, there is  no safe port. We are a minority, and this is what happens. We need to campaign for our views, but have to be careful about a Christendom-flavoured stridency on the issue, and that is what worries me about the tone of the Westminster Declaration: it sounds like militant demands.

(I recognise, of course, there are several friends who read this blog who do not see sexuality this way. I do not propose to argue the rights and wrongs of different views here, I simply state that I have never been convinced by the arguments of those who wish to show a different conclusion from the biblical texts. Sometimes I wish I could – it would make life easier in today’s society – but I’m not.)

However, the Christian vote should surely never be on a single issue, but on a range. Christians of varying persuasions are often good at majoring on just one or two issues, not the big picture. Who will do the best good for the country, without us believing any messianic pretensions the parties may purport to offer? That’s a thorny question indeed.

Not only that, Christians bring the issue of character alongside technical competence and policies. Paul Martin calls us to examine the character of the local candidates – he doesn’t want simply those who will be cheerleaders for the national leaders. I sympathise with that, and especially at a time when integrity has to be a big question in our national politics. We can still do that in a General Election where there is only one candidate for each party in a constituency. It is less possible in elections where we have to vote for a number of candidates, since Tony Blair enacted legislation reducing that purely to a party contest. In those contexts he took the integrity vote away from the voters.

In short, it is getting harder and harder as each election comes and goes to know where I, as a floating voter, might place my cross. I have Christian friends who belong to each of the major parties, but I don’t find it easy to identify with one political creed, although I know it is important if you are going to get involved to do so. Furthermore, like most of the electorate I don’t have a technical understanding of economics, and so all those arguments that are presently raging are ones I feel I cannot call. I want to vote, not least because I have little right to complain about outcomes if I opt out, but that isn’t an inspiring and positive reason. I am conscious, though, of those who sacrificed that we might have this freedom. I am not taking it lightly, but I can understand those who wonder whether it will make a difference. Did The Who get it right in 1971 with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Truly, discernment and prayer are necessary in large quantities right now.

Carol Service Address: Who Is Christmas For?

Luke 2:1-20

Poverty
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.

Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.

In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?

I think it does.

Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers.  Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.

However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.

Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.

And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.

What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.

The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.

So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.

Exclusion
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.

But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.

But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.

Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.

Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.

Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.

And …
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).

Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.

Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?

I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.

Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!

The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.

Why? Because politicians can’t deliver peace on earth. Augustus couldn’t. Obama won’t. It will be just as The Who sang, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.

What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.

The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.

May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.