Last Sunday, I preached at St George’s Anglican Church Paddington in their 9am and 7pm services. It’s a beautiful church and I’m honoured to have been asked back.
Because in the Anglican tradition a preacher writes and then reads a message, it makes for a pretty easy blogpost while I’m studying for my comprehensive exams. This way, you can keep up with what I’m doing while I’m bouncing around the globe.
The brief was to use the three chosen scriptures for the weekend to continue their topic “Places of Exile” (David Taylor did an awesome job last week of talking about Exile, Babylon and Lament). And, they wanted me to land upon the Incarnation of Christ without ruining the Advent season, which is coming up soon. So I “riffed” off that as I was asked to. This sermon series comes from their deep understanding that land and place is significant in both the Bible and in our contemporary Christian journey. And I wholeheartedly agree. Anyways, I hope you enjoy!
This morning we will turn our attention to three scriptures, that take us on a journey, a story of the gospel, revealing to us something about our place within the world and our Creator’s land.
But first, I’m going to start with a story about my own heritage, with my grandmother. My Grandmother just turned eighty-nine. We have nicknamed her “The Matriarch”, an affectionate term that refers to her legacy of three children and spouses, nine grandchildren and their five great-grandchildren.
My Grandmother’s actual name, “Bettie Sheila” was the only mark left from her mother when she was delivered to an orphanage as a newborn. She grew up in Australia’s foster care system during The Great Depression. She shifted from house to house. During her longest period with a family I’ve been told she slept at times under the house, and was fed leftovers from the ‘real’ family that lived above her head.
That Grandma had no knowledge of her ancestry meant of course that we also had no knowledge of our heritage on her side. Many times we asked, but there was nothing to say – because she simply didn’t know. We wondered aloud if she would ever seek out her people, or her land. She would say “what’s the use? I’m old now and they must be all dead”. Grandma is allergic to romanticism. She’s a pragmatist by virtue of the life she’s lived.
But we often wondered about our identity. Land has a significant quality that bestows identity upon the person that inhabits it. What land were we from? Who were we?
My aunt, who is an artist and fanciful soul once hypothesized we must be related to the lost Russian Tsars. And that was the beauty and the sadness of it – our family stories were missing and unknown.
We may not have known our origins, but land has a way of conferring new stories and identities as we move and live within it. My Grandmother rented a flat in Bondi during the Second World War, and she was there the day Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour. Because she was the only one without a family in the shelter, she volunteered to ride news of the invasion to the Communications Centre. She says she could hear the shells exploding around while she pedaled quickly on her bicycle.
It may have been this very act of bravery that drew the attention of her workmate, Mr Eric Miller. A good-looking man, he had a pet carpet snake that helped him considerably in getting down to the bar for the final round of beers at Bondi’s packed pubs. And so, Bettie Sheila married Eric Miller, and she took on his name, and his family stories. The one about the Welshman that, after a few too many, “borrowed” a horse and was transported to Sydney in chains. The one about the Miller ship merchants that made good from the colonies. Yes, Eric had enough stories for both of them. And Bettie Sheila Miller thought hers would be forever silent.
… Bettie’s story may be unique in some ways, but living with a deep sense of loss in regards to land and identity is not unusual to many Australians. It marks our early national identity. Our Australian emblem’s chosen animals could only walk forward. In this way, we could ignore or submerge any loss we as a people felt about transportation from England. We entrenched our denial into our state’s very character. We are “young and free” as the national anthem sings.
This impulse however, of course runs counter to the First Australians, who guard traditions of the lands we live on. And, so, we live completely out of balance, out of synchronicity with the space we inhabit.
So, it strikes me as strange that Psalm 23, our first passage today is one many Australians may have heard – at a government event, or even the Gallipoli ANZAC Dawn Service.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul
In this Psalm, God is depicted as a shepherd, and we the sheep. In this picture, land provides sustenance to the sheep, and the shepherd protects this relationship. For what do sheep do other than nourish themselves from the land?
It is a picture of embeddedness in context, meaning that these sheep are defined by the attributes of this land — they are blessed.
And, in this psalm, movement through the valley of darkness, and fear that accompanies it is temporary – life with God is to move from a great green grass-bed to a heavy laden table of food. Because,
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
The psalmist then says,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.
This idea of the land as a cathedral is one many would applaud. This is something akin to what the environmental activist John Muir promoted, although not a Christian. He states,
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Yes, the earth is the house of the Lord — and the creation of the Creator, whose fingerprints are in everything, and everywhere. Land is significant.
Here in Psalm 23, we find a connection with the land that few non-Indigenous people actually experience in Australia, where “everything can kill you”. Perhaps it is used at our state events because it stirs within us a deep, great longing to live like this.
So we use the psalm, not as celebration of our experience on earth, but as an image of a mystical future heaven. We use it to remember the fallen, those who once walked among us but who no longer do. We hope that they are feasting, even as we mourn, at a table laid before their enemies, in a land we cannot see or feel, and we don’t know where it is.
There are other laments we could use for this purpose. There are many biblical laments, as pointed out last week, but there are also ones that emerge from our land. The poet Kath Walker, or Ooderooo Noonccal has her own “Dawn Wail for the Dead’, with an Aboriginal woman’s mourning song ringing out at daybreak.
Dim light of daybreak now
Faintly over sleeping camp
Old lubra first to wake remembers:
First thing every dawn
Remember the dead, cry for them.
Softly at first her wail begins,
One by one as they wake and hear
Join in the cry, and the whole camp
Wails for the dead, the poor dead
Gone from here to the Dark Place:
They are remembered.
Then it is over, life now.
Fires lit, laughter now,
And a new day calling
The thing is, Psalm 23 is a beautiful picture, but how we use it is so, so hollow. We are forced to make an imaginary world instead of recognizing that the real world does hold good things, helpful things, meaningful things, things that Noonccal notes here can help us heal and transform. There is no need to look towards the horizon for hope: hope is right here.
But we cannot see it, and so we are lost. We use a psalm of comfort that could never satisfy our lament, because we do not know land, and it does not know us. We ring it out loudly at national events, but the pain within us is only thinly veiled as we gather. Such is the religion that any state offers. It is hollow.
And this illustrates how the dispossessed of land are never truly able to inhabit the words, sounds, crevices or heights of the place in which they are. They are exiled from this blessing. So, we are forced to imagine a mystical future of heavenly grasses for our young, dead heroes. Whether or not it matches the real images of the red dust and yellow sands of the country they fought and died for.
And so we move to a contrasting Scripture, the passage we read today, Isaiah 40:1-11.
Here we find Israel oppressed by Babylon. Those left in Jerusalem are exiles in their own land. And perhaps we can see ourselves more truly, more accurately in this picture. They are in a place but not really ever able to be at home. However, the prophet assures that God will provide comfort for His people.
“ Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”
This time however, comfort is not for those away in some remote grassy paddock. No, this passage is directed to a bustling city — comfort for her gates and her markets, her walls and her ramparts. The prophet says,
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.
The passage makes it clear that the penalty for this city is to be on the move. Exiled — meaning that it has been expelled from the land. It has had that symbiotic relationship cut off, severed. Israel are refugees. But, a voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
The wilderness is a land unknown. It is transitional space. And yet, as the community walk and journey on it, land is brought back into relationship with them. It is changing, moving, transforming under their very feet. As God walks ahead of the people, it relearns and responds to them. It meets and supports them.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
This is the redemption.
And God the Shepherd is striding up ahead. The prophet encourages those who would want to see his arrival,
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
It is a song of praise. God is leading the peoples back to their land, transforming it as they walk. The dispossessed will possess again. The image they so longed for is materializing before their eyes.
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
… He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep..
This is God, in all His glory. The arrival of a new epoch. And the renewal of the creation is made possible, because the grasslands and nourishment and all its blessings are held within His very being — God the Creator.
With our twenty-first century eyes we can see the fulfillment of this prophecy… which leads to our final passage today. Our New Testament reading is 1 John 1:1—4 which begins,
We declare to you what was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands,
concerning the word of life —
this life was revealed.
What John calls “this life” is declared, revealed in Jesus. Here, the promised Shepherd has arrived, but He is not striding forth, at least not initially. Life is first revealed as …. a baby.
Jesus the baby is born, on the hills, the very farthest outskirts of town, in Bethlehem. And of course, we know that He will enter Jerusalem, and he will transform the land even as his donkey walks upon it. But he has come with a different power. And the transformation is not yet, at least, not until his time has fully come. Isn’t this how we still experience God’s redemption life even today? In small glimpses of real life that slowly bring their promises to fruition?
My grandmother received a letter a number of months ago, that radically changed her and her perspective of the world. It was a simple note, really. It said something like,
“Are you the Bettie Sheila that we have been searching for all these decades?”
And suddenly in that moment, aged eighty-nine, my grandmother was found. She received a stream of emails with photos of relatives, who are from Wales. She realized that her town was down the road from Eric Miller’s (thankfully they are not related), and therefore my mother is Welsh. There were photos of the house where Grandma’s mother lived, and the ocean they fished in, and the estate house they took over and made into a hotel. There was even a photo of a Lady in the emails that satisfied my Aunt’s desire to be royalty.
Jesus offers us the chance to cease being exiles, and to be truly found. To truly found, in the sense of gaining a new story, a new identity and a new relationship with the land.
But we must first recognize that we are indeed exiles and refugees. We walk upon a hostile broken path, and we alienate and are alienated from the nourishment this land could provide. We must realize this, because we must understand our sin, our marred and broken state of being, to truly understand the gift of the cross.
Because, we must from this understand what type of power it is that Jesus rides into the city bearing. It is not the power of our age. It is not swords or guns or policies or armies. No, it is the power of the Creator to redeem creation.It is that simple sign of life we have been longing for, hoping for, scheming and trying to barter for this whole time.
That life is not what is marketed to us by the world. It is not hyper life. It is simply real life. And in this sense, it invites us to be. It is finding our true home within the Creator, and truly within God’s great creation.