Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 21: Memory and Scripture
November 14, 2011, 12:25 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 13th November 2011

1Kings 1.15-40; Rev 1.4-20

Before we take a look at this evening’s readings, I should like to muse a little on the topic of memory and remembrance. Today is, after all, Remembrance Sunday, a day for recalling the dead of the great wars of the last century, as well as various smaller conflicts since. Given that few of us, now can actually remember the fallen, in the sense of having any personal memory of them in their lifetime, we may ask what the function of such annual remembrance is in our national life. The great Silence, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, is tied historically to the Armistice of 1918. We remember those who died in later wars, but we do not pretend to remember those of earlier conflicts- the Boer War, the Crimean War, let alone the Napoleonic Wars and so on. In their day, those struggles loomed large in the national consciousness, but no longer. We have, as it were, drawn a line. So what is our deliberate act of remembrance for?

Ancient philosophers saw the human power of memory as a key factor in our sense of self-identity. This is true both at the personal level, and at that of communities. It is by remembering the past that we confirm that we are the same people now, as experienced these things. I remember where I was, and what I was doing, on “nine eleven”, for instance. The memory is an important part of what makes me “me”. Once a year, at this time, we re-affirm that we are, collectively, the same people who suffered the Blitz, who rejoiced at the Normandy landings. The lapse of time is unimportant: we are the same people.

As Christians, we remember partly through reading and meditating on the Scriptures, as well as through participating in the Liturgy. This is how we come to understand “who we are”. Although it is not our history in a secular sense, we “adopt” it in faith, and so identify ourselves with the people to whom it historically happened. With this in mind, let’s now take a look at the readings offered to us tonight.

The Books of Samuel and Kings form a comprehensive history of the Israelite people from the foundation of the kingdom to its destruction. Composed during the Exile in Babylon, it asks and attempts to answer the question, “How did things go wrong?” Beginning with the demands for a king while Samuel was the principal religious leader, it traces the unsuccessful reign of Saul, and his replacement by David. It then follows the establishment of the Davidic dynasty and its history through the following centuries until the Exile. The History ends with the release of the exiled king Jehoiachin from prison, and his rehabilitation by the Babylonian authorities, and event possibly contemporaneous with the publication of the History, a little glimmer of hope for the future.

In this total context we can appreciate the significance of the episode recounted in this evening’s first lesson. David had replaced Saul as a result of the latter’s death in battle, having been at loggerheads with him during most of their previous careers. David was for long not accepted by Saul loyalists. The historian wanted to show David as the founder of a proper dynasty, a dynasty which was still a focus of loyalty for Jewish exiles. It was important to show how the kingship passed, not by violence, but in a smooth and constitutional way from David to his first successor, Solomon.

Much of his previous narrative had been concerned with the rivalry between David’s sons, with various plots and attempted coups. He had also shown David to be no saint, but a flawed leader not above seducing an army officer’s wife, and having the officer himself conveniently removed. The present narrative is important in establishing that Solomon was David’s own choice as successor, and that the dynasty that emerged was undoubtedly legitimate.

The climax of the story, after all the political manoeuvring, comes with Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet taking the young prince to the spring of Gihon, there to anoint him in the presence of the people. And the brass did clash, and the trumpets brayed, and he cut a dash on his coronation day, as everyone shouted, “God save the King! Long live the King! May the King live for ever!”

Let us leave Solomon there for a moment. We move on about a thousand years, where an old man is in prison on the island of Patmos in the Aegean. It is Sunday morning, and he is at prayer, when he hears behind him not a trumpet, but a voice like a trumpet, telling him to write down what he sees. He turns, and sees a glorious human figure, robed in white. His eyes are like a flame of fire, his feet like burnished bronze, his voice like the sound of the roaring sea. A truly awesome sight! This kingly figure identifies himself as “the first and the last; the living one who died yet lives for evermore.” Surrounded by the accoutrements of the ancient Temple, he also claims to hold the key (that is, in effect, the sceptre) of David. John, the visionary, recognises this as the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth who died and rose from the dead, who is now enthroned in heaven, from whence he watches over his followers and calls them to account.

St Anthony would call the juxtaposition of these two passages a “concordance”, a divinely intended parallel, in which each text sheds light on the other. Solomon foreshadows Christ, Christ is the true Solomon. Once we accept this, we can see meaning in other details of the story; for instance:

Solomon is the beloved son, chosen by his father;
His mother plays a key role in his succession to the kingship;
He is anointed and proclaimed beside the flowing waters of Gihon.

It is not hard to see a likeness to Jesus, receiving his human nature from his mother, and proclaimed as beloved Son by his heavenly Father, anointed with the Spirit at the River Jordan. The message of John’s Revelation is that this same human Jesus, once crucified and rejected, is alive and reigns in glory as successor of David and universal King.

Both David and Solomon came to be “idealised” in Jewish tradition. The Books of Kings, closer to the historical reality, paint them “warts and all” as very human, very flawed rulers. The “idealisation” of them that took place was not just nostalgia for an imagined past golden age: the record could not be ignored. Rather, they became types of a hoped-for future Ruler, who would free Israel and inaugurate an era of universal peace and justice. Memory of the past was somehow “flipped over” to become an anticipation of the future. This too is an important key to understanding what we read.

Group memory is wholesome when we use it to identify ourselves with others, rather than distinguish ourselves from others. The Scriptures start with the creation of the world and of the human race. We have a common root, a common humanity, symbolised in the figure of Adam. The story of the Fall expresses the gap between mankind as it should be, as God wants it to be, and mankind as it actually is, in all its ignorance, frailty and sometimes malice. The historian of the kings of Israel wanted his exiled compatriots to accept his work as their story. He wanted them to understand where they had come from, how and why they had got to be where they were. To acknowledge and accept the past, to learn from it and so go beyond it.

The history of Israel both is, and is not, our history. It is not ours in the way that a modern Jew can regard it as his or hers. It is not part of English history as such. But it is ours, inasmuch as (as we read it) it leads up to Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be not only the Jewish Messiah or Christ, but the Divine Saviour of all the world. The human race is one in its origin, and one in its destiny. Memory of the past becomes ground for hope in the future. John the Divine shows us the eternal Christ, the living Christ that you and I can speak to every day.


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