Sunday, February 21, 2016

Birds, Gravitons and the reality of God

Maarten de Vos (attrib) - catalogued as
"Jesus compares Jerusalem to a Hen"(!!)

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18,

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
‘Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.’But Abram said, ‘Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’

Sky at night (courtesy Wikipedia)
Then the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, ‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’
But Abram said, ‘Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?’So the LORD said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and ill-treated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.

Luke 13.31-end

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’He replied, Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a bird hen gathers her brood chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is forsaken left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Sermon 21 Feb

Gladstone, the great Victorian Statesman, had many virtues but was not very interested in Science. While he was Chancellor of the Exchequer he reportedly  attended a talk by Michael Faraday, probably about electricity, and his only remark was ‘but, after all, what use is it?’  Faraday was really interested in discovery for its own sake but he had a shrewd appreciation of his audience. So he replied ‘Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!’

On Feb 11th this year the LIGO experiment officially announced the detection of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, which came from two black holes colliding billions of light-years away . Kip Thorne, the inspiration behind this work, is almost certain to share a Nobel Prize for the discovery. A colleague of Thorne’s sent me the calculation that the number of gravitons emitted from this event (gravitons are the “particles” associated with gravity waves) was about 1080 which is more than the number of atoms in the observable universe.  And about 1030 of them would have passed through each human being – that’s about as many atoms as there are in the human body, a thousand billion billion billion.  According to current understanding, gravitons were there from the beginning of the universe, but we have only just become able to detect them. And now that we can detect them, they begin to open up a window on the universe that we have never seen before. Please don’t forget the gravitons!

The world is full of amazing unseen realities of which we are completely unaware. And that’s why it’s hard to find a first-rate scientist who is a dogmatic atheist. Kip Thorne for example says "There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God [...] There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.”
In our readings today we begin with the most influential person, in human terms, who has ever lived: Abraham or as his name then was, Abram. He was not, of course, a scientist in the modern sense. But he performs a curious experiment.
Abram has just rescued his nephew Lot. He’s been blessed by the Priest-King Melchizedek and given tithes to him – an event to which the writer of the Hebrews attaches great importance. He has refused gifts from the King of Sodom (so that he couldn’t say “I made Abram rich”).  Now The LORD appears to Abram for a second time, and this time Abram answers back- It’s astonishing how often the patriarchs argue with God!  The New Jerusalem Bible translation is better here than the NIV:
Do not be afraid, Abram
I am you shield
and shall give you a very great reward
And Abram replies “what use are your gifts, as I am going on my way childless?”
But God shows him the stars in the sky and says that his descendants will be greater in number than these (there are about 2,500 stars visible to the naked eye on a clear day ). Abram believes God on this without question and it is “credited to him as righteousness” . But when told that he will take possession of the land he asks God for proof. So he brings this set of animal sacrifices (Leviticus 1:14 says “a dove or a young pigeon” are the acceptable birds to offer, and indeed when Jesus’ parents offer a sacrifice in the Temple it was “a pair of doves  or two young pigeons.") and God visibly accepts them.  This is the second time a bird appears in the Bible, after the dove in the Ark.

The dove is sometimes used as an image of Israel (Psalm 68, 74, Isaiah 60) and another image that is used heavily in the Psalms is of sheltering under God’s wings. “Hide me under the shadow of your wings!” (Ps 17:8)  and there are 4 other passages (36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 63:7) .  The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 uses the image of an Eagle who watches over his brood
So now we come to Luke. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and some sympathetic Pharisees warn him that Herod is after him. Jesus sends back a stinging put-down of Herod - to call someone a “fox” (shū‘āl in Hebrew) is to say that they are second-rate, as opposed to a “lion” (“Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.” says the Mishnah).

And then – the hen. A fascinating saying which is also recorded in practically identical language in Matthew 23.37-39.

Jesus is specifically likening himself and God to a mother bird. Almost all translations have “hen” but the Greek word doesn’t specifically imply any particular species of bird. It’s ornis from which we get ornithology, the ordinary word for bird, although in 3 early MSS  it’s ornix which specifically means a female bird. However we can be sure the bird is female from the pronoun.

I don’t want to go off on a big riff on feminist theology at this point – for which I am anyway quite unqualified. Although there may well have been some excesses in this movement as in all theological movements, it should have been as plain as a pikestaff from Genesis 1:27
And God created man in His own image
In the image of God he created them
Male and female he created them.
Not to mention the application of basic common sense that both male and female qualities are derived from God, have their perfection in the Trinity, and that all of us – male, female or indeed those for whom “it’s complicated” are called into loving union with Christ. That this wasn’t so clear as recently as 40 years ago is deplorable    In 1 Corinthians (3:2) Paul speaks of feeding the infant Christians “milk, and not solid food.” The author of Hebrews, who is clearly a pupil of Paul’s and I think is probably Priscilla, says “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” (Heb 5.12-13). Peter also says “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, (1 Peter 2.2). The early Christian apocrypha 2 Ezdras speaks of God as mother and nurse.

God loves us perfectly – He is both the perfect father and the perfect mother, and although there are many contexts where it is useful to use gendered imagery (the Church as the Bride of Christ for example) this must not obscure the fundamental fact that In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” (Gal 3:28).

And then Jesus says something curious. “your house is forsaken”. The NIV is highly misleading here. The Greek word is aphietai which is a form of aphieemi which basically means let go or leave. Just 3 times in the NT is this used to mean forsaken: here, in the parallel passage in Matthew, and when “all the disciples forsook him and fled” in Mat 26:56. By far the most common use of aphieemi and its derivatives in the gospels is in the context of sins or debts being aphieemi - that is, forgiven.

For the Jews the Temple was God’s dwelling place on earth. In Ezekiel 10:18 the glory of God is seen leaving the temple because of Israel’s sins, and then the first temple is destroyed. Herod’s father rebuilt the Temple, but Jesus is saying that the Presence of God is no longer in the Temple, but with him. Only when Jesus comes into the Temple will God’s presence be there.  The Temple will be destroyed, but Jesus remains, and for those who turn to Him, God is truly present.

So what does this mean for us?
  1. We can trust God’s promises, even when they seem impossible. Abraham has well over a billion descendants, because in Christ we are all sons and daughters of Abraham. Reality is not just what we see – remember these billions of Gravitons?
  2. God loves us as a father and mother and we are all equally called into a loving relationship with God. Sadly there are an awful lot of people in this country who have very little personal experience of a father’s love – though they know the love of their mothers. The early Christian apocrypha 2 Ezdras depicts God as saying this: “Have I not pleaded with you as a father with his sons, as a mother with her daughters or a nurse with her children?”
  3. However much we may feel forsaken, we are loved. At all stages in our Christian journey, from the very beginning to (almost) the very end, we can go through periods when we feel forsaken. We thought we knew where God was, and then we feel that God is no longer with us.  St John of the Cross teaches about the Dark Night of the Soul . CS Lewis has Screwtape speak of “the law of undulation”.  The Psamlist knows this - listen to the end of Psalm 88:
                              your terrors cut me off.
    Like water they surround me all the day
    And altogether I'm encircled round.
    My loving friends you've distanced all from me
    And darkness is my only company.
But God is there, God is with us, and God loves us, whether we perceive this or not.  It’s fascinating how, in Greek, forsaken and forgiven are so close. Jesus does not give up on his people.  Even after he pronounces that their house is forsaken, he goes to them in love, offering his life on the cross, for them, and for us, prophesying that “when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.” To adapt the words of the psalmist: the gravity waves are mighty, and weave wonderfully, but yet The LORD, who dwelleth on high, is mightier and more wonderful, because His mercy and love endure forever.

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