Sunday, 30 December 2018

The One True God?

From time to time, I lead small groups on tours of the British Museum,
          focusing particularly on artefacts that are relevant to Biblical Studies.

It started many years ago,
          when I used to bring groups down from my university classes in Cardiff,
and I’ve done a few since coming to London,
          including a group from our Tuesday lunch earlier this year.

It’s always good fun,
          and there’s a surprisingly large amount of material in there
          that’s relevant to helping us understand the Bible.

One of the objects I always try and point out is a small baked clay cylinder,
          a bit like a large toilet roll tube, and covered in tiny writing.

It’s known as the Cyrus Cylinder,
          and it’s one of the great treasures of the Museum.

It was discovered in 1879,
          but actually dates from the 6th century BCE,
and spent the intervening millennia buried in the ground in Babylon,
          in modern day Iraq.

It returned to the Near East a few years back, in 2012,
          on a four month loan to Iran, and was displayed in Tehran.
During this time, nearly a quarter of a million people came to view it,
          and it has been described, intriguingly,
          as “the first charter of human rights

So what is it that is so special about this little clay object,
          that’s about the size of a bottle of wine?

Well, the cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform
          with an account by Cyrus, the king of Persia,
detailing his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC
          and of his capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

This takes us right into the final years of the Israelite exile to Babylon,
          which begun under king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE
          and ended under Cyrus’s own rule in 539 BCE.

If you were around for my sermon a few weeks ago
          on the Massacre of the Innocents,
you may remember that we traced the events of the start of the exile,
          as first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians
          conquered the country of Israel.

Well, the Cyrus cylinder takes us to the end of the exile,
          and it also takes us right into the time of the prophet
          who wrote text of our Old Testament reading.

The cylinder is, in effect, something like a cross
          between a piece of propaganda, and a historical document.

It describes the good things that King Cyrus has done
          for the inhabitants of Babylon who he has just conquered.

One of the things it talks about
          is how Cyrus has returned a number of images of foreign gods,
which Nabonidus and other Babylonian kings had collected together in Babylon,
          back to their proper temples in their own countries.

There is a certain irony here,
          because the Cyrus cylinder is itself an object displaced from its land of origin,
          and there are those who are calling for it to be permanently restored to Iran.

And yet it famously contains the story
          of how Cyrus returned revered objects from his time
          back to their land of origin.

The cylinder also tells
          how Cyrus arranged for the restoration of foreign temples,
          and of how he organized the return to their homelands
                   of a number of people groups who had been held in exile in Babylonia.

Although the Jews aren’t mentioned by name on the cylinder,
          their return to Palestine following their years of exile in Babylon
          was certainly part of this policy enacted by Cyrus.

One of the fascinating things about the cylinder, is that in it,
          Cyrus claims to have achieved his victory over the Babylonian king Nabonidus
          with the aid of the Babylonian god, Marduk.

Cyrus, of course, wasn’t Babylonian, he was Persian,
          but he claimed that the Babylonian god Marduk was fighting on his side,
          against the Babylonian king.

So here we have a Persian king,
          who would have grown up worshipping gods
          drawn from the pre-Zoroastrian pantheon,
                   including Mithras who later became so popular with the Romans.

But when he conquers Babylon,
          he claims in the Cyrus Cylinder that he did it
                   with the help of none other than Marduk,
                   the god of Babylon itself.

One of the things about the ancient pantheon
          was that each tribe, or country, had their own gods.

So it kind-of makes perfect sense for Cyrus to claim Marduk’s support
          when he becomes the ruler of Babylon,
because his Persian gods are still in Persia,
          and if he is to rule in Babylonia,
          he will need to do so with the approval of the Babylonian god.

By the same token,
          there’s not a lot of point keeping the gods from Mesopotamia in Babylon,
they might as well go back to their own temples
          in their countries of origin,
and so Cyrus sends the captured gods back home,
          with grants to rebuild their local temples.

The story of the rebuilding of the Jewish temple
          that we find in the book of Ezra
          clearly fits into this story at this point.

But our Old Testament reading for this morning
          isn’t from quite that far into the future.

The Jewish prophet of Isaiah 45
          is writing in the final years of the Israelite exile,
at the time when Cyrus of Persia was growing in strength,
          and was starting to pose a threat
          to the previously unassailable Babylonian empire.

And Isaiah hails Cyrus, not as an agent of the Persian gods,
          nor as an agent of Marduk,
                   but as an agent of none other than Yahweh himself.

The way Isaiah 45 puts it,
          Cyrus is Yahweh’s anointed one,
                   he is Yahweh’s messiah,
coming to bring release and freedom for the people of the Lord,
          to overthrow the evil powers of the Babylonian empire,
          to bring release the captives
          so that they can return to the promised land.

Just as Cyrus claimed Marduk’s support in conquering Babylon,
          so Isaiah ascribed Cyrus’s actions
          to his God Yahweh!

You might start to suspect
          that history is written by the winners,
who spin their stories to claim whatever God they can
          to justify the outcome of their endeavours.
But maybe that’s too cynical.

However, this idea that a non-Israelite
          might be the servant of Israel’s God
has found an interesting parallel
          in religious responses to President Trump.

Following Trump’s announcement earlier this year
          that the US embassy in Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,
the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked,
          “I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory,
                   so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great,
                   Persian king 2,500 years ago.
          He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon
                   could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem.”[1]

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Trump may be compared to Cyrus
          because of his specific policies affecting Israel
          gives his analogy a unique twist.

But American evangelicals have been comparing Trump to Cyrus
          since he first started to stand for the presidency.
They argue that just as Cyrus,
          scarcely a devotee of the God of Israel, served as God’s agent
          by authorizing Jewish exiles in Babylon
                   to return to the Promised Land
                   and to rebuild the temple,
          so the narcissistic and morally flawed Trump
                   can advance the causes of the evangelical community,
                   and by extension, the country.

If you are wondering how Christians can overlook Trump’s moral failures
          and still support him,
here is a strong theological rationale.

And if you’re wondering how Christians
          can offer uncritical support to the Israeli occupation of Palestine,
here is a strong ideological rationale.

In both these scenarios, as in so much else in public theology,
          pragmatism wins and the ends justifies the means.

But back to the sixth century BCE

One of the implications of Jewish monotheism
          was that other gods have no validity.

Whereas the polytheistic Cyrus
          could happily adopt a policy of when in Babylon,
                   do as the Babylonians do,
          the Jews didn’t have this option.

Their perspective was that if good happens, it happens because of Yahweh,
          even if those doing the good
          think they’re doing it the name of Marduk.

Now, we might have a conversation
          about whether we think God ever actually wills
                   warfare and wholesale destruction,
          but that’s a conversation for another day.

As far as the prophet of Isaiah 45 is concerned,
          anything that threatens to break the stranglehold of Babylon
                   is unambiguously a good thing,
          and so he welcomes Cyrus as Yahweh’s anointed.

The proclamation of the Lord as the one and only God,
          the one who created the heavens and the earth,
          the one besides whom there is no other,
leads the prophet to an interesting place, theologically,
          which is the recognition that God is at work beyond Israel,
bringing his purposes to fruition
          even through people who do not yet know him by name.

Earlier this year I participated in one of those Facebook challenges,
          of posting the covers of the ten books
          that have had the most influence on me.
A couple of mine were by C.S. Lewis,
          and one was The Last Battle, the apocalypse from the Narnia series.

In The Last Battle, the follower of the eagle-headed god Tash,
          (a clearly Assyrian deity, by the way),
finds himself confronted with Aslan.
The Tash worshipper says to Aslan:

‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but a servant of Tash’

but Aslan answers,

‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash,
          I account as service done to me.’

The Tash worshipper continues the story:

‘Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding,
          I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said,
          Lord, is it then true … that thou and Tash are one?
The Lion growled so that the earth shook … and said, It is false.
          Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites,
                   I take to me the services which thou hast done to him.
For I and he are of such different kinds
          that no service which is vile can be done to me,
and none which is not vile can be done to him.’

Now, this is not unproblematic, because within the world of Narnia,
          the Calormenes who worship Tash
have a strong similarity to a stereotypical caricature
          of Arab Muslims in our world.

The Catholic theologian Paul F Ford has commented that
"C. S. Lewis was a man of his time and socioeconomic class.
Like many English men of this era, Lewis was unconsciously
          but regrettably unsympathetic to things and people Middle Eastern.
Thus he sometimes engages in exaggerated stereotyping
          in contrasting things Narnian and things Calormene.
He intends this in a broadly comic way, almost vaudevillian.
          But in our post-September 11, 2001, world, he would, I am sure,
          want to reconsider this insensitivity."[2]

Whereas outspoken atheist critic and novelist Philip Pullman
          has called the Chronicles of Narnia "blatantly racist"

So we must tread with care,
          because I would not for one moment want to suggest
          that Allah and Yahweh are opposites.
Quite the opposite in fact;
          the objects of worship in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity
          seem to me to have far more in common than otherwise.

But I would also be avoiding the issue,
          if I wrote off the significance for me as a young Christian
coming to realise that service offered
          in the name of a differently understood and differently named God
          might be counted as service by the God I worshipped.

And, of course, it occurred to me that maybe the corollary is also true;
          What if my faithful service to my God
                    were similarly welcomed by the God
                    of those who worship their god differently to me?

Well, this is the insight of Isaiah 45.
          The actions of Cyrus committed in the name of Marduk
                   are accepted by Yahweh,
          because the Lord of Israel is the Lord of the whole earth,
                   and nothing that is good can be anything other
                             than acceptable to him,
         regardless of who does it,
                   or in whose name it is done.

And so the prophet of Israel proclaims
          that God is continually at work in the world,
overthrowing chaos and bringing order to the land,
          just as he called ‘order’ on the chaos of the deep
          when calling creation itself into being.

The chapter ends with a proclamation to all people,
          in all nations, to the ends of the earth,
that they should turn to the Lord and be saved,
          and the prophet has the Lord himself speak,
in language later echoed by St Paul in his letter to the Romans (14.11):
          The Lord says: "To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear."

For Paul, it’s not Yahweh to whom every knee shall bow:
          it’s Jesus Christ himself who commands the worship of every knee,
          the allegiance of every tongue.

The testimony of the New Testament
          is that it is Jesus, not Cyrus,
                   or any other modern-day, Cyrus-like figure,
          who is the Lord’s anointed,
the messiah sent by God to bring freedom to those in captivity,
          and release to those who are oppressed.

We see this in the story of the wise men coming to worship Jesus.

Wise men from the east, from Persia, from the country of Cyrus.
          Probably Zoroastrian philosophers,
                   the heirs of the pantheon worshipped by Cyrus.

And they come to worship Jesus,
          led by a system of astrology very alien to us,
                   and condemned in the Old Testament,
          yet they come anyway,
and their adoration of the Christ-child is acceptable
          and their gifts are received by mother of God.

And we see the same thing in the story of Paul in the Areopagus in Athens,
          who proclaims Jesus as the one already being worshipped
          by the Athenians as their ‘unknown god’.

In fact, we have this story immortalised in this building
          in one of our stained glass windows,
as the founder of the church built into the architecture
          a commitment to proclaiming God
                   in the midst of a city where God is at work,
          but where many who live there don’t know it and can’t see it.

Paul says that the worship offered to the unknown god,
          by those who also worshipped the Athenian gods of Rome and Greece,
was, at least as far he was concerned,
          acceptable to Jesus.

All of which, I want to suggest,
          raises some interesting questions for those of us
who seek to witness to Jesus Christ
          in the midst of a pluralistic world.

What is our approach to be,
          towards those who currently worship other gods?

On what basis might we seek to proclaim our belief
          that there is only one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Does our belief in one God of all the earth rule out the possibility
          that others might know and worship the true God
in ways that seem very alien,
          or even unacceptable, to us?

What do we think we mean
          when we speak of the mission of God to the world?

Can we learn to see that God is at work
          in the world beyond our boundaries and borders,
drawing all things and all people to himself;
          and that we and those like us
          are only a part of God’s loving intent for all that exists?

What do we think we’re doing
          when we engage in evangelism?

What if we think of the sharing of the good news of Jesus
          as being less about saving people
          from other forms or religion, agnosticism and atheism,
and instead as being more about inviting people
          to hear the good news of a God of love
who enters into human affairs and lives
          to bring a new world of peace and justice into being?

I’m not sure the answers to these questions
          are quite as clear-cut as we would sometimes like them to be,
and I think that the witness of scripture
          is that we may need to be very careful
          before we start to condemn those who we do not understand.

The testimony of the Prophet of Isaiah 45
          is that spiritual world is not made up of a good god and a bad god,
                   competing for worship.
There are not lots of gods,
          presiding over different territories.

Rather, there is only one God,
          and he is the Lord of the whole earth.
All that is good is acceptable to him,
          and all that is evil is abhorrent to him
          and comes under his judgment.

And it is this one God who comes to his people in Jesus,
          to bring liberation, freedom, and good news.

And it is the one God who sends the spirit of Jesus
          into the world to draw the nations to himself,
          to the ends of the earth.

And it is this one God that we worship,
          in wilful defiance of all other claims to our allegiance.



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