3rd January 2016 - Hugh Perry
Isaiah 60: 1-6
This section of Isaiah deals with a restored Jerusalem at a time when not everyone has returned and the city is in need of an influx of people. In verse four the people are encouraged to notice that people really are returning and then the poem goes on to suggest that wealth will also return to the city.
The two things that an economy needs is adequate population and investment and the things that Isaiah is promising sounds very much what our government tries to achieve. It is also relevant to the rebuilding of Christchurch which needs investment beyond the insurance payouts, and an influx of skilled workers.
But Isaiah speaks across the centuries to also remind us that we need to open our eyes to see both our own people returning and also recognise the contribution of those who have stayed and are making new contributions in this new time.
Matthew 2: 1-12
The Bible Gateway commentary refers to this section of Matthew’s Gospel as ‘The First Star Trek’ and suggests that it is a brief synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. With the arrival of the wise men Matthew not only challenges the prejudice against pagans and outsiders but the wise men represent countries of the East, Babylon and Persia that had oppressed Israel in the past.
Therefore the gospel promise is that, with the arrival of Christ, the world’s order is reversed and those who have oppressed in the past now honour the sovereignty of the new order.
However there is also danger and opposition in this Gospel narrative.
Herod considered himself king of the Jews and rulers of the time were fearful of the predictions by astrologers. Some had been known to kill even their own descendants to keep their throne and Herod had executed many members of his family who were suspected of plotting his assassination including a mother-in-law, a wife and two sons.
This is a story of God’s providence that like a bright star shines ahead of us and leads unexpected people to find hope in a world of political intrigue, violence and discouragement. It is a story that invites us to our own star trek.
Our Gospel may well be ‘The First Star Trek’ but this year it’s all ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.
Certainly the world has plenty of wars, evil empires and people willing to rush off and mindlessly join dubious causes. The idea that a better world can be created by conquering evil is still popular and there are any number of superheroes inhabiting popular fiction to perpetrate the myth.
However Matthew’s wise men from the East came to Jerusalem because they truly felt ‘the force awakening’ and King Herod and all of Jerusalem were terrified. (Matthew 2:3) That is quite understandable because Donald Trump, Sepp Blatter and any number of dubious world leaders, heads of state or chief executives would be frightened too. Those who rule by wealth, domination and corruption would be absolutely terrified if they paused to think about ‘The Force’ of love that was awakened by Jesus birth.
Frightened because the power of love is not something that can be bought and sold, bribed, drugged or even bombed into submission.
The power of love asks difficult questions and changes the world in miniscule increments. The power of love is like a string of DNA that winds its way through history connecting the loving exceptions and random acts of kindness and weaves them into a new humanity that becomes God’s realm.
The back story of the latest Star Wars movie is very familiar, although not spelled out well in the movie. According to Zack Beauchamp, after the Evil Empire was defeated in the previous movies things changed over time and at least some part of the former Empire becomes the First Order, which the Republic decides it wants to topple. Republic stateswoman Leia Organa establishes the Resistance inside First Order borders. The Resistance operates as a nominally independent insurgent group rather than an official branch of the Republic military. The Republic supports the insurgency with money and weapons but there is no evidence in the film that uniformed Republic military forces are directly engaging the First Order. No boots on the ground as President Obama might say.
However an insurgency, supported by a neighbouring power, is waging a guerrilla campaign against a local regime and that is certainly not unheard of in the world of terror and war we find ourselves in today.
What interested me about the first Star Wars movie was that after writing two drafts George Lucas rediscovered Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces which he had read earlier in his college years. Then in creating the final script Lucas took Campbell's blueprint of ‘The Hero's Journey’ from The Hero With a Thousand Faces to draw his sprawling imaginary universe into a single story. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist and was influenced by psychologist Carl Jung. George Lucas described Joseph Campbell as his ‘Yoda’. In other words his guru, his ‘spiritual director’, his mentor.
It is not surprising therefore that when Craig and I went to see the film I picked up a mythic theme woven into the not so subtle social comment about neighbours and superpowers waging war by proxy through support of a revolutionary movement.
There were also two other Presbyterian ministers there on Tuesday evening so I presume they were also researching the films social comment and mythic themes.
The title of the film was Star Wars: The Force Awakens so we can presume ‘The Force’ had been somewhat dormant between films. We could also imagine that ‘The Force’ had seemed dormant for the wise men from the East in our gospel reading. Furthermore if we take on board the commentator’s suggestion that these ‘wise men’ came from the nations that oppressed Israel in the past, Babylon and Persia, we can also see them travelling on a spiritual quest. The wise men make a pilgrimage from the centre of civilisation and past military power to worship the birth of a new spiritual force on the margins of Roman Palestine, in Bethlehem.
Throughout this latest ‘Star Wars’ movie the story is held together by a quest to find Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants to find him and eliminate him. The Resistance also want to find him to re-establish the Jedi knights as a force for good aligned with their cause. Knowing what the readings were for this Sunday it was not difficult to imagine King Herod as the First Order general who wanted to eliminate any powerful spiritual force for good before it challenged his power and authority. Letting the imagination probe further there was significance in the quest by the Resistance to gain Skywalker’s allegiance and restore the Jedi Order which is empowered by ‘The Force’.
Our Gospel text tells us the wise men came to worship the new born Jesus. ‘Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews? We have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ (Matthew 2:2)
Throughout the film ‘the force’ awakens gradually in the heroine Rey and it ends with her quest to the margins to find Skywalker, who looks as though it will take at least another movie before he is reengaged. However the important point is that neither ‘The Force’ nor Luke Skywalker are any use if they are simply worshiped, they need to be engaged with.
Rey discovers the force when she resists the mind power of the new Darth Vader and eventually uses it to overpower her enemies. Simply knowing about ‘The Force’ or paying homage to its memory is not enough. She has to work with it and she has to commit to the programme that will allow good to overcome evil.
In both Saving Jesus from the Church and the Underground Church Robin Meyers maintains that the quest for Christians is not to worship Jesus but to follow Jesus.
The wise men were aware of the spiritual vacuum in their old and undoubtedly sophisticated civilisations and they turned to the galaxy, to the stars, for answers. They are often portrayed as astrologers and astrologers were well regarded in the Roman world of Jesus and Matthew’s time. Roman generals consulted astrologers before going into battle and would make a sacrifice to whichever god the astrologer advised would ensure victory. I recently heard an historian on television suggest that Constantine’s astrologer told him to have the Christian symbol on the shields of his soldiers and the subsequent victory converted him to Christianity. Therefore we can understand why, on hearing the wise men’s knowledge of the birth of a new king, Herod ‘was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him.’ (Luke 2:3) Herod was frightened because the ruling class took the predictions of astrologers seriously and the only way a new king could succeed him was through his death. All Jerusalem would be frightened because the only way a new king could replace an existing dynasty was through violent revolution and they would be involved. The stories of David replacing Saul and Solomon succeeding David at the expense of his half brothers make the risk to others abundantly clear. Even without x-wing fighters and star-killer bases rebellions are very messy for both those involved and even those trying not to be involved.
Of course Matthew is giving his readers an early warning that those in power will see Jesus as a threat and kill him. Matthew, like the other gospel writers is a skilled writer, well versed in the mythic themes that Campbell spent a lifetime studying and Lucas made good use of.
Matthew also cunningly wove into his narrative the fact that the wise men may well have been alerted to Jesus’ birth by the stars but they had to engage with the Hebrew scripture to pinpoint the location through the prophetic tradition. However much as these wise folk from the East might have appreciated the significance of Jesus’ birth they only came to pay homage, to worship him. The wise men came from sophisticated ancient civilisations and worshiped the new born Jesus but it was the peasants, women and fishermen who would leave their nets and follow Jesus.
The desert scavenger Rey left her home planet and set out on a quest across the galaxy, and I suspect several more movies, to empower the force within her and establish the Jedi order. Similarly it was the marginalised peasants, fishermen and disempowered women, not the wise sophisticated men from the East, who not only followed Jesus but opened themselves to the Spirit within and sent ‘The Force’ the resurrection on a journey towards us.
In this wise, sophisticated but also violent and sometimes terrifying world it is the church that is increasingly moved to the irrelevant margins. Meanwhile the wise ones make star struck journeys in search of new born economic theory, sophisticated technology or rampant consumption to bow down and worship. Likewise many Christians seek simply to worship the god they have made of the baby in the manger, shutting off the vision of Jesus on the cross and praying for health, wealth and happiness in return for the homage they pay him.
However the real star to follow is the gospel message that comes to us across two millennium. A call to let the force of the Spirit of Christ live within us. It is a call to join the programme, to follow Jesus, rather than simply worship Jesus.
Our quest is to live Christ into reality in our world, and may that be our transforming force.
May that Force be with us as we step out in mission into 2016.