Monday, March 1, 2010

Jerusalem the golden . . . and the desolate, Feb 28, 2010

Text: Luke 13: 31-35, Jesus sorrows over Jerusalem

"Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest . . . I know not, no I know not what joys await us there." These words are from a 12th Century hymn which was a favourite for many of us from both the 1932 and 1971 United Church hymnbooks. But like many such hymns, it didn't make it into Voices United in 1997 --  and perhaps for good reasons. "Jerusalem the Golden" uses the symbol of that city's name to refer to heaven in literal terms using imagery from the book Revelation. I thought about this hymn in preparing today's service since the  theme is the symbol of Jerusalem.

What is it about Jerusalem, the holy City where God's Temple was built by the early Hebrews? When the city was first destroyed by the Babylonians in 580 B.C., the Jews in exile pined for their lost City and Temple. When they rebuilt the city and Temple 100 years later,  worship at the Temple started again, but this time without the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus at the end of his ministry, walked towards Jerusalem even as he wept for it and warned that it would again become desolate. When early Christians imagined what a restored earth would look like, they used the metaphor of a New Jerusalem. Jerusalem as a city is central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also a symbol of God and holiness, even as it is known as a place of betrayal, death, and desolation.

The most famous hymn about the city is called just that, "Jerusalem."  The text is an 1804 poem by William Blake called "And Did Those Feet." Despite not being in Voices United either, we will sing "Jerusalem" this morning after the sermon.

Blake's poem uses the symbol of Jerusalem in a different way than "Jerusalem the Golden." In Blake's case, Jerusalem refers to "heaven on earth" -- the new age that begun with the coming of Christ. Blake's poem also refers to a strange legend that suggests that Jesus lived in England as a teenager.

I first learned and loved the hymn "Jerusalem" as a six-year old. So on Thursday night at choir practice, I was surprised that many people did not know the hymn. Some people did know it, of course. Nancy Blain, for one, remembers it being sung at Women's Institute meetings. But I wonder if my surprise reflects the differences between Eastern and Western Canada that I also mentioned last Sunday.

I grew up in the small industrial city of Cornwall, which is located on the St Lawrence River about an hour's drive west of Montreal. Cornwall is a microcosm of Canada. 70% of the population is English-speaking, and 30% French-speaking. There is a First Nations Mohawk reserve just south of the city on an island that is half in Canada and half in the United States. Perhaps the presence of French-speakers and First Nations people and the closeness of Quebec and the U.S. made the Anglophones in Cornwall more conscious than some of our English roots -- and there is no more English hymn than "Jerusalem."

In fact, "Jerusalem" is the unofficial English national anthem. When King George V, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, first heard "Jerusalem," he said he actually preferred it to "God Save the King."

Blake's poem was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 as a way to bolster English spirits during the horrors of World War I. There is irony in this because Blake supported the French Revolution and was once unsuccessfully tried for treason. Also, the hymn "Jerusalem" is not only popular with staunch monarchists and conservatives but also with socialists and trade unionists.

"Jerusalem" is the last song at "Last Night at the Proms" concerts. It is a staple in English schools. And a line from the hymn inspired the title of the 1981 Award Winning movie "Chariots of Fire." That movie ends with the singing of the hymn at a funeral service.

Since "Chariots of Fire" is a film about the Olympic Games, it also seems appropriate to mention it today as the Vancouver Olympics come to a close. In the movie, a devout British runner refuses to compete in the 100 meter dash at the 1924 Paris Olympics because one of the heats falls on a Sunday, the Lord's Day.

Yesterday I heard a reporter quote Don Cherry to the effect that hockey is Canada's true religion. He then suggested that today's gold medal men's game should make quite a sermon. So perhaps we can consider this one to be pre-game warm-up to the big religious moment of today, which is supposed to happen Vancouver this afternoon!

In any case, here are the words of Blake's poem: "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark Satanic mills?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold: bring me my arrows of desire: bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." Blake's poem contains a lot of symbols and metaphors, wouldn't you agree?

The Holy Lamb of God is a metaphor for Christ. Jerusalem is a metaphor for the love and healing that would have been found in England if Jesus had walked there as a young man. But what does Blake mean by bows of burning gold, arrows of desire, and chariots of fire? The "dark Satanic mills" probably refer to cotton and flour mills, which Blake hated when he wrote the poem in 1804. And the goal of building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land symbolizes the fight to create heaven on earth.

Our Gospel passage this morning from Luke is also about Jerusalem; and like Blake's poem, it also contains many puzzling symbols and metaphors. At last Wednesday's reading circle where we read this this passage, we talked about reading the Bible literally. This passage is one that cannot easily be read literally. Jesus calls King Herod a fox, which is clearly an insulting metaphor. Jesus then makes an analogy between himself and a mothering hen that protects its chicks under its wings. He also mentions "the third day," which is probably a symbol of his resurrection. He says that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem. But since this is not literally the case, it can only be true as a metaphor for something. And when Jesus talks about the desolation of Jerusalem, this foreshadows the second destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans, 40 years after Jesus' death.

40 years after Jesus death, the Roman-Jewish war occurred. After a three-year siege of Jerusalem, the Romans burned the city, killed 10s of thousands of Jews and destroyed  God's Temple. But by the time Luke wrote the story down, Jerusalem had already been laid waste. Luke's community would connect Jesus' phrase "your house is left to you desolate" with the desolation in Jerusalem at that time.

Like us, the people who first heard Luke's Gospel, would not have known Jesus and the disciples. But they could connect the death of the Son of God to the destruction of God's Temple and his Holy City. They also needed the hope found in the story of the resurrection. It assured them that God's love lives on even though His Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem is once again a ghost town.

I thought of the desolation of Jerusalem this week when I saw the play "Beyond Eden" in Calgary. And I would like to thank Ric and Linda Arthurs for taking me to see this production, which I greatly enjoyed. "Beyond Eden" tells a story about the Haida First Nation on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Set in 1957, it tells of a trip by archaeologists from Victoria to an abandoned Haida village where they salvage sacred totem poles.

The beautiful but decaying totem poles in the empty village made me think of Jerusalem after its destruction. Both the Haida village and Jerusalem were holy places where God was found and worshiped. Both were laid waste by outside empires. And in both cases, new life emerged.

In the case of the play, new life was symbolized by a character based on the real-life Haida sculptor Bill Reid. Reid was so inspired by his encounter with the sadness and beauty of this village and its sacred art that he devoted the remainder of his life to reviving Haida sculpture. You can see reproductions of two of his wonderful sculptures on the back of the Canadian $20 bill.

In the case of Jerusalem, although God's Temple was destroyed in the year 70, Christians revived the life of their community by telling and retelling the stories of Jesus. He was the Christ who was arrested and executed in Jerusalem and then rose again to a new life on the third day.

It is a sad fact that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 is not unusual. Jerusalem had been destroyed 600 years earlier by the Babylonians. Jews repopulated their sacred City by the year 100, but it was destroyed a third time by the Romans in 135. Muslim rulers allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem after the year 800, but Christian armies slaughtered both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Beyond Jerusalem, the sacred temples and cities of far too many peoples have been destroyed in conflict and war over the centuries. European conquest of the Haida in B.C. is just one example among many.

The Christ story shapes our response to such tragedies.  The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the truths it reveals about our individual and social lives are not just relevant following the destruction of Jerusalem and God's Temple. They also resonate with hundreds of different peoples who have seen their sacred places laid waste and the dwellings of their gods destroyed. Each such event is a painful tragedy. But the Christ story reminds us how new life can arise.

In our tradition, Jerusalem is a symbol both of desolation and of resurrection. The path taken by Jesus is to both sides of its reality. And the insights of Gospel writers, poets and playwrights keep us present to the gracious reality of life's strange journey.

This Lent, as we continue our walk with Jesus to the cross, know that God grants us the strength to be present to Jerusalem: both its desolation and its new life. The path of Jesus is one journey with two sides -- a journey through death to new life with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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