An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

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Parkrun theology?

Parkrun has become a global movement. After starting in 2004 in London there are now something like 3 million runners in over 20 countries. The concept is brilliantly simple – join others at 9.30 on a Saturday morning in running 5k around an open public space. It’s a timed run, it’s free and volunteer led.

Here’s a map of parkruns in Ireland (from the Irish Parkrun website)

Parkruns ireland

I am a Parkrun novice but get to my local venue when I can. My aim is modest – try not to die and keep moving until it’s finished. The ethos is non-competitive and friendly. There are young children running with parents, dogs on leashes, and even mums running while pushing a buggy complete with baby (good for the humility to be passed out by such a pair – I should know!).

Why talk about Parkrun on a theology blog? Well, as I was ‘running’ around the course this morning it struck me that there are parallels to baptism and the community of the church.

Better explain how before you think I have lost the plot.

A Radical Levelling

At a Parkrun everyone comes as they are. The ‘uniform’ is some sort of running gear. Participants are stripped down to bare essentials. It is just each person facing the same physical challenge. The only ‘resource’ each one has is their body.

Pretty well all the trappings of the modern world are left behind (apart from those running with headphones on). Practically all markers of status, wealth, achievement and distinction become irrelevant. There is a certain vulnerability in having those ‘protective’ layers removed. Whoever you are ‘in the world’, here you are just another runner. For each person, it is just ‘the course and me’. But – and this is the genius of Parkrun – ‘me’ is able to join with others in a community of runners sharing the same task together.

In the early Church, there was a different type of ‘levelling’ experience linked to community – that of baptism. Ben Myers describes it in his wonderful little book on the Apostle’s Creed (from a 3rd Century document called the Apostolic Tradition).

When the rooster crows at dawn, they are led out to a pool of flowing water. They remove their clothes. The women let down their hair and remove their jewelry. They renounce Satan and are anointed from head to foot with oil. They are led naked into the water. Then they are asked a question: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”. They reply, “I believe!” And they are plunged down in the water and raised up again.

Two further questions are asked – about their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Each time they are immersed after their affirmative reply. Then

When they emerge from the water they are again anointed with oil. They are clothed, blessed, and led into the assembly of believers, where for the first time they will share in the eucharistic meal. Finally they  are sent out into the world to do good works and to grow in faith.

Now, I’m not advocating that modern baptisms (or Parkruns for that matter) should be done naked! But the symbolism is powerful. Believers bring absolutely nothing of their own status and achievements to baptism. They come utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And this radical levelling is permanent. From now on there are to be NO distinctions in status and treatment of believers based on their status and wealth. James is the most outspoken but it is a consistent theme in the NT.

Wealth and status are irrelevant before God – indeed they are most likely to be severe hindrances to the Christian life. Take this warning in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10 that I’m studying at the moment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

And this is where (the admittedly loose) parallel to a Parkrun begins to break down. For at the end of the run the hundreds of runners return to the car park (yes, some irony about driving to a run) and get into their cars.

Immediately the world’s obsession with status and achievement comes rushing back – for few things in modern Ireland proclaim those values than our licence plates numbered by year of production attached to famous brand names – whether Mercedes, Audi, BMW or whatever.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

Boundaries, Blogging and Theology

Over at Faith and Theology Ben Myers, who is a very smart fellow,  has a link to an article he wrote on ‘Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse’ with a response by Rob Redman. The article is published in the journal, Cultural Encounters, Vol 6, No.1. and is well worth a read.

Among lots of interesting things he says

“.. I suspect web technologies will play an increasing role in the way theological discourse evolves in the future. And if I have any hope from all this, it would be that, as a result of blogging and similar practices, theology would become a somewhat friendlier discipline. A discipline marked less by narrow specialization and professional self-interest, and more by the friendliness of community, inquisitiveness, and open conversation – so that the whole “style” of theology becomes more like a conversation or a seminar than a lecture or monograph.

And I hope this friendlier theology will open into a larger and more expansive domain of discourse. Larger in the kinds of people it includes-not only scholars but pastors, laypeople, students, curious non-believers and others. And more expansive in its domain: so that theology is not merely specialized rumination on small number of pre-defined topics, but an adventurous and always unpredictable exploration of God’s strange and surprising ways in the world.”

What strikes me here is how Myers’ hopes not only contrast but directly conflict with traditional forms of theological training that operated within clearly defined boundaries of truth, control and authority. Hey, I live in ex-Catholic Ireland, down the road from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. For generations priests were trained within strict literal and theological boundaries. Friendliness, open conversation, playfulness and adventurous exploration of God’s ways were not how you would have described those decades! [And you can apply much of this description to Irish Presbyterianism too of which I know a little.]

Redman notes how the ecclesial aspect of theology is marginal to Myers reflections.  There is a ‘community’ aspect to the conversation but one without boundaries or agreed core beliefs.

If theology should be non-hierarchical, inclusive, playful, conversational and personal exploration of God’s ways in the world,  my question is what are the pros and cons of this vision of what theology is for?

And if Myers’ vision is the future, is blogging and the Web 2.0 hastening the death of denominationalism and theological boundaries? Is this a good thing?

Or maybe is the future an increasing gulf between those that see the purpose and form of theological training in very different ways: between those committed to working within a very definite and structured theological tradition [like a strongly Reformed ethos or a heavily Pentecostal ethos for example} and those who find such boundaries innately limiting to authentic, open, exploration and conversation?