28 November 2017 Christmas reflection (Robinson College, Cambridge)

“The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain”

The opening lines of Christmas by John Betjeman, a poet often maligned for his sentimentality. Rather than absolve Betjeman of this accusation I would like to defend sentimentality itself, particularly when it comes to Christmas. In religious circles, sentimentality has become deeply unfashionable, particularly when it comes to Christmas. And yet I still wish to defend sentimentality. Why is that?

I have been studying theology for a term now, and one of the things that strikes me is how even the most eminent theologians struggle to express the mysteries of God. It is not because they do not have the right words. The theologian Brian Daley refers to this sort of God-talk as involving “language with rules of signification that have been permanently altered, bent beyond the shape and contexts of its normal use, to point to the ineffable”. There comes a point where what you want to say about God is simply inexpressible through words. Instead we might turn to music, to art, to poetry, or – I would dare to suggest – emotions and sentimentality.

The Christmas story is one of the very hardest to express:

“And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?”

Here, in a human baby, was found the fullness of God. This baby – Jesus – would grow up, walk among us, show us what it was to truly love, only to be rejected by us and executed as a common criminal. As Daley puts it: the hope of humanity is God not simply as God but as “God with us”. Words fall short of this enormity, and so some resort to sentimentality.

Those familiar sentimental Christmas images induce a surge of emotion, which meets a deep yearning within us. A yearning to know and be known, to love and be loved. Those images bring our hearts towards that point they would be had we actually encountered Jesus Christ. “Bring towards” because even our emotions ultimately fall short of an encounter with the Living God, revealed in the Christ child.

“And is it true ? For if it is,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.”


19 November 2017 Sermon on Martin Luther (Robinson College, Cambridge)

“Suddenly Babylon falls and is broken; wail for her!” – Jeremiah

“‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She has become a dwelling for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
for every unclean and loathsome bird.” – The book of Revelation

“I have truly despised your diocese, the Roman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness.” – Martin Luther

This year marks 500 years since Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. This evening we conclude our series on Luther, and we finish rather where we started, with Luther vigorously attacking the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

The Catholic Church was undeniably corrupt – Luther in his 1520 Address to the German Nobility lists a wide range of grievances:
the Pope’s ability to seize control of churches and siphon money back to Rome;
the Pope’s tendency to bring spurious lawsuits, purely with the intention of swelling Rome’s coffers; and most notably
the practice of indulgences – granting forgiveness of sins, but only at a price.

Again from Luther’s Address to the German Nobility “[The Roman Curia] should have Satan himself as pope, for he now actually rules in that Babylon…”

Isn’t Luther going a bit far here? Is it really right for Luther to liken the Roman Catholic Church to Babylon? What does he mean by Babylon anyway?

In our first reading, we heard words from the book of Jeremiah also condemning Babylon, a once proud empire that had polluted the nations and that had proved itself to be beyond healing. This was the original Babylon, an ancient empire in what is now Iraq.

The Babylonian Empire of the sixth century BCE headed by King Nebuchadnezzar had invaded the ancient nation of Israel. They destroyed Jerusalem including the holiest place, the Temple, and took the King and leading citizens to Babylon in captivity. Babylon enjoyed dominance in the near east for only a few decades more before they, too, fell to the next great superpower: the Persian King Cyrus, who released the exiles from captivity and allowed the Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.

The Babylonian invasion and captivity may seem a small, insignificant incident in the life of a tiny, ancient civilisation. But Biblical scholars conclude that a vast amount of what we call the Old Testament was forged in that time of great upheaval:
many of the Psalms we sing on a Tuesday evening;
our first reading today; and
the words of today’s beautiful anthem, to name but a few.

So significant was this event to the ancient Israelites that since that time Babylon has become a bye-word for any corrupt empire or excessively greedy social system. By the time the book of Revelation came to be written the real Babylon was a distant memory, yet Babylon is still decried as if it were a real, oppressive empire. There was a real, oppressive empire when Revelation was written: the Roman Empire, the same empire that was instrumental in the death of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus’ early followers were dreadfully persecuted by the Roman Empire, and for them the old description of Babylon must have seemed fitting to describe their new enemy. Revelation describes Babylon, Rome, as corrupt at every level, indulging in every luxury, living a life of self-worship – and looks forward to that day when the whole edifice will be brought crashing down.

By the time we get to Luther’s day it is again a Roman powerhouse that is decried as Babylon, only this time it is the Roman Catholic Church. From his preface to Nobility:

“We have cared for Babylon and she is not healed. Let us then leave her that she may be the habitation of dragons, spectres, ghosts, and witches, and true to her name of Babel, an everlasting confusion, an idol of avarice, perfidy, apostasy, of cynics, lechers, robbers, sorcerers, and endless other impudent monsters, a new pantheon of wickedness.”

But still, the Rome of old had been killing Christians. Were the Pope and his followers really fit to be described as Babylon in the same way? Luther seems to have felt a great sense of injustice in the imbalance between the Pope’s life of luxury and the crushing poverty of everyday citizens. The Pope had in effect become an emperor in his own right, propped up by ill-gotten money taken from even the poorest peasants. In his Address to the German Nobility he berates those who go on pilgrimages to Rome. Such pilgrimages cost a fortune, and all the while the pilgrim’s poor family and neighbour were suffering back home. This was intolerable to Luther, who had himself come from very humble beginnings. His father was a farmer who had moved into copper mining so that Luther could receive a good education.

Luther never backed down from his stance against the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. He continued to condemn them as Babylon, and would even call the Pope the Antichrist himself. Luther’s life’s work was to follow in the footsteps of Jeremiah and Revelation in attacking his own Babylon any way he could.

Two observations…

A first observation concerns Luther’s choice of weapon in his battle with the Pope. Just as Jeremiah and Revelation had aimed vicious verbal barbs at the Babylons of their times, Luther’s weapons of choice against his Babylon were also words, and particularly the words of Scripture. Luther’s Address to the German Nobility attacks the Pope’s spiritual and temporal authority, his argument each time based on Scripture.

His principal attack on the Pope’s spiritual authority is that there should be no fundamental distinction between a priestly class on the one hand, and everybody else on the other. This argument is supported by several passages of the New Testament describing every Christian believer as part of God’s royal priesthood with no distinctions. As to the Pope’s temporal authority, Luther contrasted the Pope’s extravagant lifestyle with Jesus Christ’s own example of humility – followers of Jesus were never meant to seek status and luxury the way the Pope had done.

So far so good for Scripture being used to bring down the tyrannical Pope. But, you say, Scripture has also been used to oppress all sorts of vulnerable people since then: people of colour, slaves, women, sexual minorities. Surely this can’t be a good thing? Well, I agree. It isn’t.

I would like to suggest that there is a significant difference between using Scripture to tackle tyrannical regimes and using Scripture tyrannically to attack the marginal and vulnerable. In that great hymn of the New Testament we hear every week at evensong, the Magnificat, we hear how God has put down the mighty, and exalted the humble and meek. The Magnificat is rather more aspirational than descriptive, but the image of God portrayed is not of an oppressor, but the one who sides with the oppressed.

My second observation is really a question: who is our Babylon today? In Jeremiah it was the Babylonian Empire. In Revelation it was the Roman Empire. For Martin Luther it was the Roman Catholic Church. Who is it for you?

The American theologican Walter Brueggemann offers: an “equivalence of Babylon in the ideology of free-market consumerism and its required ally, unbridled militarism”. That’s a pretty difficult thing for us to hear. But in many ways it is true. These are the dominant ideologies of our day, and although many would argue that capitalism has brought about huge benefits, any system that involves winners often involves losers too. As Brueggemann puts it “this powerful ideology is such that it robs the human community of its humanness and reduces all of life to commodity”.

From the end of our Revelation reading:

“The merchants of the world will weep and mourn for [Babylon], because no one buys their cargoes any more, cargoes of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, purple and scarlet cloth, silks and fine linens; all sorts of fragrant wood, and all kinds of objects made of ivory or of costly woods, bronze, iron, or marble; cinnamon and spice, incense, perfumes, and frankincense; wine, oil, flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses, chariots, slaves, and human lives.”

You do not need me to tell you about blood diamonds, child labour in gold mines and on cocoa plantations, slave labour in the cloth and garment industries, hunting of animals to near extinction, and devastation of rain forests. You know about these things already. You know that our Western consumerism comes at a terrible cost to the planet and to human lives. Perhaps our very way of life has become Babylon and it’s time to say again “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

How are we going to make that happen?

It would be easy to assume from Jeremiah and Revelation and from Martin Luther’s streams of polemic that the only way to take on the Babylons of this world is with aggression and violence and burning fire. There are times in life when the injustices of the world seem so great that we might wish for that kind of violent restitution, and that is indeed reflected in Scripture. But it would be wrong to pretend that was the only image presented in Scripture.

In the text of this evening’s anthem from Isaiah we see a rather different image that holds strength and gentleness in balance, an image that is really much closer to what we see revealed in Jesus Christ. This is a God who comes with might and rules with a powerful arm, but who takes us in those arms, who tends to us like a shepherd tends his sheep, and gently leads us in his ways.

So, who is your Babylon? What are you going to do about them?