December 7, 2018
Making history – Mark Bratton – Dec. 2, 2018
(Note: The Rev. Mark Bratton is a priest of the Church of England and serves as the rector of the Church of St. John Baptist, Berkswell, West Midlands. He was our guest preacher on the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2, 2018.)
I want to begin my sermons this morning with a question:
Is history going anywhere?
I remember my history teacher at school giving me an article to read written by a well-known journalist describing how he had been taught history in his day. The article was headed ‘One Damn Thing After Another Mainly in England’. His wizened old teacher taught from a single threadbare volume which began with the dinosaurs, then moved into historic times in strict chronological order. There was the Roman invasion of Britain followed by the coming of the Anglo-Saxons and then the Norman Conquest. He describes how at this point his teacher became visible distressed. Yup, there was no getting away from it: The Normans were French! She soon perked up however and the rest as they say was history.
Or was it?
What is history?
Is history really just one damn thing after another with no rhyme or reason, or is there a deeper principle which leads history inexorably on to a particular end? The Marxist-Leninists clearly thought so and thought they would give history a helping hand with catastrophic results. In 1989, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay called ‘The End of History’ which happened to coincide with the collapse of the Communist world. Was the End of History, he mused, the triumph of capitalism and consumerism. Is the end of history shopping? To those of you who are nodding your heads vigorously, that was a rhetorical question.
The idea of ‘history’ has been around for a long time. The first historians were the ancient Greeks and perhaps the first great historian was Thucydides whose great work was his account of Peloponnesian Wars. It was the Jews and the Christians however that revolutionised our understanding of history. Unlike the Greeks who thought that history went round and came around in cycles, the Jews and Christians believed that God was moving history forward towards a glorious end. They believed that history was moving forward to fulfil the promises God gave at the Creation and in the election of Abraham – that God would restore Creation, overcome evil, and in a renewed heaven and earth dwell with his people and his people with God. The old order will pass away and the new will come and there will be no more mourning or crying and pain. The idea that history is going anywhere at all is a revolutionary Jewish and Christian insight.
Today is Advent Sunday and wholly appropriate to my theme we begin a new cycle of lectionary readings focussing on the Gospel of Luke. Luke is often referred to as Luke the Historian. He begins his gospel in a historical vein by offering somebody called Theophilus – possibly a Roman official of rank – an orderly account of the events that have occurred amongst them including eyewitness accounts. In contrast with the other Gospels, Luke is very keen to locate the birth of Jesus in history which as he says happened during the Governorship of Quirinius and the reign of the Emperor Tiberius in that tiny backwater of the Roman Empire we know as Israel Palestine.
But for Luke history is not one damn thing after another mainly in Israel Palestine but a story pregnant with meaning. He continues his story in a second volume known to us as the Acts of the Apostles which according to one biblical scholar might more accurately be called the acts of the Holy Spirit. The specific events of history, according to Luke need to be interpreted in the context of the ‘bigger picture’ of God’s plan for the world, the larger frame within which the confusing events of the world will finally have their meaning revealed.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that people in our secular age have lost sight of the bigger picture because they live within what he calls “an immanent frame”, the view that we don’t need to look for anything beyond the natural world to make sense of history.[i] Our world is rather like a picture that is firmly bounded by the frame in which it is set. The meaning of history if it has a meaning at all is to be found within the frame and not outside it.
I want to suggest to you that this limited perspective is deeply problematic because it narrows our view of what might be possible. I am astonished that we still think that there are conventional solutions to the three greatest greatest contemporary challenges to mankind – the mother of all financial crises, the deepening catastrophe of climate change and the threat of mass economic migration. This is to say nothing of the political turmoil stateside and on the other side of the pond. We believe e can solve these problems politically while at the same time harbouring a profound disillusionment with our politicians.
Thinking within the “immanent frame” encourages narrow either/or style of thinking which so often leads to opposition and confrontation.
But one of the striking features of each of our set Advent readings is the way they engage in both/and thinking rather than either or thinking. They engage in paradox. A paradox is a way of thinking and speaking in ways that seem on the surface to be contradictory or absurd but in fact reveal deeper truths. The teacher and activist Parker Palmer in his excellent little book ‘The Promise of Paradox’ points out that paradox requires both/and thinking rather than either/or thinking.[ii]
For Luke the baby born in the manger is also the Saviour who is Christ the Lord. It is in the small vulnerable frame of the Christ child that the meaning of history is ultimately to be found. The message of Jeremiah is that things must get worse before they will get better, that there is hope beyond the exile. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we know this to be the case. Jeremiah was given a glimpse of the bigger picture which made sense of a situation which within the immanent frame could not be interpreted as anything other than a complete disaster. And the paradox for the Apostle Paul was that Christ was not in a fact returning imminently as in 1 Thessalonians he initially thought because God was calling Gentiles as well as Jews as members of God’s people. To any good Bible believing Jewish Christians at the time, the very idea of blessed Gentiles was absurd. But in the light of what God was actually doing in history, the promises of God testified to in the Jewish Scriptures were discovered to have a universal scope.
The great paradox at the heart of Advent is that history moves backwards as well as forwards. The glorious future which will be made fully manifest when Christ returns again is in a sense already here in Christ. When we gather together for the Eucharist, when with the aid of the Holy Spirit we seek to implement the peace justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom in our present context, we are drawing forth that glorious future into the present and in the process fulfilling the promises God made at the beginning of Creation.
As members of the baptised, as members of the Church, as Christians, we can make history in whatever seemingly hopeless situation we find ourselves because we are the living sacraments of a future which though not yet can be made now. Within the perspective of the immanent frame the very idea is absurd, but within that larger Advent frame it makes complete sense. As Christians we are called to interpret the events of our time within the bigger picture of God’s glorious plan for the world rather than within the narrow frame. This doesn’t mean that we are any better placed to predict how things will pan out in the short term. But God has equipped us to discern the signs of the times in the confidence that the future is never determined. The good news of Advent is that history is not one damn thing after another. The future of the world depends on us believing that.
[i] Taylor, C. 2007. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA
[ii] Palmer, PJ. 2008. The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.