Sunday, 4 January 2015

Golden Dawn

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60.1-6  Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.  3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.  5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.  6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Matthew 2.1-12   In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"  7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today we stand facing the golden dawn of the new year.

‘Arise, shine, for your light has come,
            and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’

A new year…
            A new hope…
                        A new dawn…
A new government?

But who will lead us,
            who and what forces will shape our national life together?

The European attraction to far right politics is not a new thing.
            The desire to define oneself by a fusion of national and ethnic identity
                        is not a recent trend.
            Neither is it merely a twentieth century phenomenon.

In part, it is an outworking of the innate, and readily understandable,
            human tendency to feel comfortable with those
                        who look and sound like those with whom we grew up,
            coupled with a fear of those who look and sound different
                        to that which we are used to.

But in addition to this, the way in which the European mind-set
            has been shaped over the centuries
lends itself to a particular kind of nationalist politics
            which recurs in various forms throughout European history.

The flip-side to all this, of course,
            is the attempted enlightenment of the European project;
the desire to find some expression of unity
            which transcends national boundaries
            and finds common ground, and unity, and stability
                        between nations and peoples who have a history of conflict.

The first European ‘project’, as such, was that enacted by the Romans,
            who by virtue of their imperial strength
                        imposed a political, and to some extent cultural, unity
                        on the nations of Europe.
However, the decline of the Roman empire
            led to the fragmentation of its constituent parts,
            and the rise of the nation-state as we have come to know it.

Many centuries later, the treaty of Westphalia
            marked the end of a series of wars
                        that had swept the Holy Roman Empire
                        during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
and whilst it failed to abolish inter-European warfare,
            it succeeded in laying the basis for the system
                        of national self-determinism
            that we still live with in our own time.

The notion of co-existing sovereign states,
            held in check by a balance of power,
            laid the foundations for the Europe we recognise today.

The three key tenets of the Peace of Westphalia were;
            firstly, the right of the ruler of each state
                        to determine their own religion;
            secondly, the freedom of religion
                        for those who wanted to worship
                        in ways other than that determined by the state;
            and thirdly, the recognition of the exclusive sovereignty
                        of each state over their own lands.

All the inter-European wars fought since the treaty of Westphalia
            have been enacted on the basis of these key tenets,
and it was in this context that the far right politics of fascism and neo-fascism
            emerged as an ideology
            committed to the maintenance of ethnic and cultural purity
            within the confines and borders of the nation state.

Whilst the more moderate end of far-right politics
            focusses on opposing policies of immigration and integration,
the more extreme end is amenable to methods
            designed cleanse and purify the population
            of those who challenge the homogeneity of the nation;
and so groups deemed inferior, undesirable, or traitorous in some way,
            find themselves ostracised or removed from mainstream society.

Many of these far right groups,
            from the National Socialists of Germany
                        to the National Fascists of Italy,
            have sought to equate their stance
                        with some notion of a dawning golden age,
and it is here that we start to encounter the forces of religious belief,
            and it’s here that we start to hear the impact
                        of passages from the scriptures
            including our readings from this morning

So, for example, the Nazi party
            defined themselves as the ‘Third Reich’,
                        or ‘third rule’ to put it in English.
            They believed the First Reich to be the thousand year rule over Europe
                        of the Holy Roman Emperors (800-1806),
            with the second Reich equating to the German Empire (1871-1918).
The third Reich, by this understanding, was the golden age,
            a dawning new period in European history,
beginning in Germany,
            but destined to spread its good news across all the states of Europe

This identification of a coming, dawning, new age, was nothing new.
            In many ways it finds its origins in the writings
                        of the twelfth century monk Joachim of Fiore,
            who understood the history of the world from beginning to end
                        as being divided into three stages
                        modelled after the three persons of the Trinity.
            Each of Joachim’s three stages represented an age,
                        ruled over by the relevant person of the Trinity.
            So the first age was the age of the Father,
                        and ran from the time of Adam to the birth of Jesus.
            The second age was the age of the Son,
                        and ran from the birth of Jesus to Joachim’s own time.
            And the third age, the age of the Spirit,
                        was the dawning new age of enlightenment
                        that he believed was coming into being in his own time.
            In this way, Joachim located himself on the cusp of a transition,
                        with the world moving from the age of the Son
                        to the age of the Spirit.

This idea of dividing history into ages, or dispensations,
            entered deep into European psychology,
                        and comes out again and again, in both politics and theology,
            as people continually believe themselves
                        to be living on the cusp of the dawning new age
                        that is coming into being in their midst.

So whether it is the Third Reich of the German Nazis,
            or the Age of Aquarius of the New Age Movement
                        and the Rosicrucian mystery sect,
            or the imminent millennium
                        of Christian fundamentalist interpretations
                        of the book of Revelation;
            people continually convince themselves
                        that the new age is dawning,
                                    and that it is dawning in their time,
                                    and, specifically, amongst their people.

Interestingly, the Rosicrucian movement
            gave birth to an occult organisation
                        known as The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
                        co-founded by my namesake William Woodman
                                    along with two others,
            and it attracted many celebrity members
                        including, allegedly, Arthur Conan Doyle,
                        Aleister Crowley, and E. Nesbit.

The name they chose, with its language of ‘Golden Dawn’,
            picks up on the hope of a dawning new age,
and it is a phrase which echoes down to the present day,
            as does the association of far-right politics
            with the idea of a golden dawning new age.

The Golden Dawn political party in Greece
            is simply its latest expression,
combining extreme nationalistic ideology
            with a commitment to establishing a new world
            through violence and exclusivism.

This is the same language that we find in the book of Isaiah,
            who prophesied to the people of Israel,
                        to offer them a vision of a future
                        where their nation was purified, remade, and reborn.

Isaiah says to Israel that,
            ‘Nations shall come to your light,
            and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ (Isa 60.3).

The hope that Isaiah holds before the broken and dispirited people of Israel,
            languishing in exile in Babylon,
is that a new age is coming,
            with the golden dawn of a nation reborn rising ahead of them.

It is easy for us to be blind to it,
            because we hear this passage through the lens of Handel’s Messiah,
but in its original context this is as revolutionary a piece
            of nationalistic propaganda
            as any contemporary political tract or rallying speech.

The nation that has been overrun by the foreign power of Babylon,
            the nation that has been compromised by the experience of exile,
is called by Isaiah… no, is called by God, no less…
            to set its eyes on a hope that ahead of them
because there lies a future
            where they rise above those who have trampled them.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
            and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
            and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
            and his glory will appear over you. 
3 Nations shall come to your light,
            and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

It is often said that the nationalistic theological perspective,
            that was dominant in the nation of Israel at the time of Jesus,
was forged in the crucible of exile,
            some six hundred years earlier.

And, if Isaiah 60 is anything to go by,
            it is a theology of nationalism,
            it is a theology focussed around the rise of a so-called people of God;
                        a chosen nation, called to be a blessing to the world.

And this theology of patriotism,
            this fusion of religion with the politics of nationalism,
is alive and well in our world today.

From Blake’s Jerusalem,
            stirringly and radically reinterpreting the chosen-nation ideology
            for a world dominated by the British empire;
to the American Dream of a new world born in our midst,
            welcoming the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of the world
            into the arms of America, one nation under God;
the use of religion to justify nationalism
            is as vibrant today
            as it was in the sixth century before Christ.

And it is to a world where nationalism and religion are synonymous
            that the Christ-child comes.

It is to a world where monarchy is hereditary,
            that the Christ-child comes;
it is to a world where the most important thing about a person
            is who their father and mother are,
                        that the Christ-child comes;
it is to a world where privilege is entrenched,
            and rights are national not universal,
                        that the Christ-child comes.

And so the Messiah comes,
            not to the blue-blooded family of the Herodians,
                        but to a penniless, homeless family,
            soon to be refugees on the run from a reign of terror…

As the Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn puts it
            in his wonderful Christmas song, ‘Cry of a tiny babe’

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything

Cause the governing body of the Holy land,
Is that of Herod a paranoid man
Who when he hears there's a baby born, King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two

But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and getaway clean

And there are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever,
Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe

These astrologers, the ‘wise men from the east’, as Matthew calls them,
            cross the Jordan into the chosen land,
            and come to worship a king.

They, too, at least at first,
            are seduced by the ideology of nationalistic theology.
They head straight for the palace of Herod,
            because where else would one find a king?

They, like the rest of us, find it easy to think
            that a powerful ruler must come from a family of powerful rulers.
From Kennedy to Bush to Clinton,
            from Tudor to Stuart to Windsor,
            from Cavendish to Astor to Churchill,
We like our political leaders to come from political stock,
            to be ‘born to the task’.
We like our leaders to be ‘ours’ and not ‘theirs’,
            preferably children born on our soil…

And this is an ideology that is directly challenged
            by the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi.
As wise men from a far-off country,
            wise men who followed another religion,
came and worshipped the child of God.

Too often we domesticate the story of the birth of Jesus;
            too often we use it to privatise our faith…

Too often the popular nativity scene
            of mother, father, baby, and visitors
                        creates a Christ for the nuclear family,
            a Christ who comes to us in the trials and joys of our personal life.

Too often the baby in the manger remains an infantile Christ,
            divorced from the realities of the public sphere,
            an object of private devotion, and personal comfort.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
Too often the political significance of Jesus’s birth,
            a significance that Herod understood all too well,
is lost because the church … reads the birth
            as a confirmation of the assumed position that religion has
            within the larger framework of politics.
That is, the birth of Jesus is not seen as a threat to thrones and empires
            because religion concerns the private.
The gospel of Matthew, however, knows no distinction
            between the public, the political, and the private.
Jesus is born into time,
            threatening the time of Herod and Rome. [1]

So Herod, upon hearing the news that ‘wise men from the East’
            have come to Jerusalem asking about a child
                        who has been born ‘king of the Jews,’ was deeply concerned.
His fear of this baby reveals the depth of his fragility.[2]

A king born to the wrong family,
            a new ruler emerging from the wrong town,
is an inherent threat to the ideology that sustained his power.

And so it is to this day,
            despite the attempts of so many down the centuries
            to domesticate or assimilate the Christ-child.

The birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph
            continues to undermine any attempt
            to confine his coming to the realm of the private and the personal.
The coming of Christ to the margins
            continues to subvert any attempt
            to fuse the kingdom of Christ with any kingdom of this world.

Because this is not a messiah for the private world of the family,
            and this is not a messiah for the parochial world of nationalist ideology.

This is a messiah for all people, for all nations.

It was in the birth of Christ
            that Matthew saw Isaiah’s vision fulfilled;
not through the resurgent nation of Israel,
            but through the Messiah of Israel
                        drawing kings and rulers and wise men
            from nations far beyond the reach of Israel’s national borders.

Matthew tells us that the wise men from the east
            brought their gifts of gold and frankincense,
            just as Isaiah said they would.
And they worshipped the new-born babe as a King,
            but not as king of Israel alone.

In the coming of Christ, the borders and identities we construct for ourselves
            are consistently challenged.
Those who are ‘in Christ’ are part of his universal kingdom,
            whatever earthly country we may inhabit.

The new dawn that comes with Christ,
            is a new world where nationalistic theology is rendered meaningless.
The star of his coming, seen rising by wise men from the East,
            is a new day, a new age, a new kingdom.

Stanley Hauerwas again:

The kingdom of Christ is not some inner sanctuary,
            but rather the kingdom is an alternative world,
            an alternative people, an alternative politics.
Jesus is, in his person and in his world, God’s embodied kingdom.

The temptation for Christians is to equate the kingdom
            with ideas that we assume represent the best of human endeavour:
            freedom, equality, justice, respect for the dignity of each person.
These are all worthy goals that Christians have every reason to support,
            but they are goals that are not, in themselves, the kingdom.[3]

The wise men from the east
            grasp the truth, eventually, that the kingdom of Christ
            is more than one nation, one ideology, one theology.
And so they worship the child born in the manger,
            bringing the gifts of the world to the child who challenges all power.

And what about us?

Where, in our world, and our lives, will Christ be found?

In our private devotions?
            Yes, I hope so, but not only there.
In our public life?
            Yes, I hope so, or else the world continues as before.
In our political life?
            Yes, again, I hope so, but never in a way
                        that equates any political ideology
                        with the in-breaking kingdom of Christ.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again,
            we need faithful followers of Christ
            to be active across the broad spread of mainstream political life.
The kingdom may be political,
            but it is not party-political,
and as election year dawns,
            we will need to remember that our allegiance is first and foremost
                        to Christ, and to Christ alone.

We will need the wisdom of the wise men from the east,
            to see through the pernicious propaganda
            of thinking that I and mine are in some way special.
I am no more, nor less, a citizen of God’s kingdom
            than any other human being on the face of the earth.
It is to each of us that Christ comes,
            and it is in him, and him alone, that we find our identity.

As Paul reminded the Christians in the province of Galatia;
            for those who are in Christ,
                        there is no place for any division based on
                        ethnicity, culture, social standing, or gender.

We must live this in our common life together
            as the people of God in this place,
            where all are welcome, and none are excluded.
And we must work together at how we live this truth
            in our public lives as we engage with the politics of our society.

So, as we stand at the dawn of a new year,
            may the star of Christ rise before us,
            guiding us into all truth.

[1] Hauerwas, Matthew, p.38
[2] Hauerwas, Matthew, pp. 38-39
[3] Hauerwas, Matthew, p.38.

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