Escaping from a precipice of a shallow faith


Photo: Mount Precipice near Nazareth

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

What a beautiful service we have this morning, beautiful readings, beautiful hymns, all embedded in a poetic liturgy and celebrated in this glorious space.

Travelling to Italy in 1817, Marie-Henri Beyle Stendhal visiting Florence was overcome by the experience of visiting that glorious and beautiful city – a city full of fine religious art and architecture that makes it almost an act of worship in itself. Stendhal wrote of the visit:

I was already in a kind of ecstasy by the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in contemplating sublime beauty … I reached the point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations … the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling… when a thought takes too strong a hold of me, I fall down.

This led to the term Stendhal Syndrome being applied as a medical diagnosis for the condition suffered by many a subsequent C19 tourist to Florence – a debilitating feeling as a result of a surfeit of Florentine religious art and architecture.

Is there a parallel here to our visit to this space this morning? Do we sometimes feel deeply moved by the whole experience of a service – the readings, the hymns, the music and, hopefully, the sermon all set in a beautiful and serene space. Sometimes we might feel one would have to be dead of heart not to be moved. I know friends who are atheists who can appreciate great beauty in the music and poetry of services held in magnificent cathedrals. Bach and Handel can cause the Stendhal effect as much, at one level, on the non-believer as the believer.

So what of our order of service this morning. The lectionary that we follow has a functional purpose of getting us through the whole Bible over a cycle of years; so sometimes the readings can seem an odd grab bag from across Scripture. But this morning, for me, the readings [Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; and Luke 4:21-30] have come close to representing a surfeit of beautiful and powerful content. Each has spoken with its own beauty and its own power. Their elements of beauty and power then weave together with shared motifs to form a wonderful tapestry inviting us to better understand God’s reaching out to us.

First we have words of great beauty and comfort. From Jeremiah:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you … (and) Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth.

Or from 1 Corinthians 13, coincidentally the reading that has been chosen by our eldest son, Kerchever and his fiancé for their wedding next Saturday:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … (and) Now faith, hope, and love abide these three; and the greatest of these is love.

And from the Psalm:

For you, Lord, are my hope: you are my confidence … (and) On you have I leaned since my birth: you are he that brought me out of my mother’s womb.

And finally from the Gospel:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

Of course, we also will have noted, in the midst of these beautiful words, that there are also words of the complexity of being human in the face of eternity; for we cannot be all knowing. From Jeremiah:

Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.

From 1 Corinthians:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.

And from the Gospel we have first the wonderment and then the anger of the congregation whose hearing of words of great beauty and comfort turns to a reaction arising from a failure to understand.

In the episode recorded in the Gospel we read that the reaction of the congregation became so strong that they expelled Jesus from the synagogue and then strong-armed him up a hill in order to throw him off a cliff. You can visit the very cliff near Nazareth to where the crowd bundled him – it is called, somewhat ominously, Mount Precipice.

Once Jesus had been forced to the edge of the cliff, what happened then? Luke didn’t fill in the details, he simply wrote:

But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Have you ever thought about the incongruity of the scene that day? A mob has taken Jesus up the hill to hurl him over the cliff and, somehow, Jesus just walks away. I think the key to the incongruity came in an earlier verse in the same chapter, a verse read last Sunday and to which the Dean in his sermon last week alluded that there would be a link to today’s reading. Do you recall verses 9 and 10 from that reading?:

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’

To which Jesus had replied:

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

In that encounter with the devil, Jesus refused to jump; not because he doubted that angels would indeed be sent to save him, but because he did not want to dishonour the Father by participating, at the devil’s behest, in some sort of miracle magic. The scene that day in Nazareth, however, was quite different; in the chaotic aftermath of the service in the synagogue there was real danger, and so God did command the angels to protect his son from the mob. That is how Jesus could simply pass through and go on his way.

Let’s go back to the lead up to the crowd eruption. What was it that caused them to become so angry? I must admit that, until now, I have mistakenly tended to think it was the upset of Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes hearing one of their own claim to be the chosen one – expressed by Jesus as “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  My mistaken assumption has over time been fuelled by a subsequent statement by Jesus to the congregation:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Jesus says these words to an assembled gathering who had been amazed, I quote, “at his gracious words” and who had spoken well of him. To that point, the crowd was not angry; indeed we are told that they had been amazed and impressed at ‘the gracious words from his mouth’. So what was it filled them with rage?

What angered them, a chosen group, was that Jesus slapped their choseness in the face when he cited two episodes of God reaching out … reaching out not to the chosen but to the unchosen. In both cases Jesus reports the hand of God reaching over the heads of the chosen to an outsider, to one of ‘them’.  In the first instance, after three and a half year famine in the land in the time of Elijah, assistance came to a widow in Zarephath, from Sidon, a non-Israelite; and in the second, in the time of Elisha, the only leper cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.

The story of the widow and her starving son in Zarephath (related in 1 Kings 17 & 18) is a last supper kind of story. For after all the years of drought the widow had come to the point where she only had enough flour and oil to make one more meal for herself and her son; she said to Elijah:

After we have eaten, we will die.

At this point of no apparent hope in their lives has come a stranger who asks to share in this last supper. The outcome is that a miracle occurs, but you can read about that yourselves in 1 Kings 17 and 18.

And in the case of Naaman the Syrian, told in 2 Kings 5, this military leader of the powerful Syrians, a potential oppressor of God’s chosen people, is cleansed of leprosy while in a twist in the story, Elisha’s own duplicitous servant, an Israelite, becomes infected with the disease.

The reaching out of God, through prophets, to two non-Israelites, one powerful and one a widow, angered a crowd who, moments previously, had been happy enough to hear Jesus proclaim himself the fulfilment of prophecy. In a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’, they reacted angrily to Jesus highlighting the divine blessing of ‘them’ over ‘us’.

But Jesus wasn’t prepared for the assembled listeners to feel just the warm glow of the proclamation to an ‘us’. Instead he poked a stick into the embers of the warmth of their reactions; poking provocatively until the embers burst into angry flames.

So what is the message here for us?

How do we view the sacred temple of our worshipping? Is the whole act of our worship a place of beauty that awes us just as the artistic religiosity of Florence awed Stendhal to the point of being physically overwhelming? But just how profound is that awe? Are we just superficially moved by the gracious words of scripture and the beautiful melodies of the music, all set in a place of beauty?

Or will we let Jesus prod and poke into our comfortable faith? Let him drill down through the beauty of our comfortable faith into what seems to be a zone of extreme discomfort that tests the certitude of our ‘us-ness’ by cross-examining our definitions.

In this drilling down, Jesus asks of us not that we piously accept but that we interrogate where we stand with regard to statements such as:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Do we really? Or do we, like that faithful congregation all those years ago in Nazareth, have limits that refuse entry to the ‘them’ into the comfortable clique of the faithful ‘us’?

The beautiful words of scripture can be sedating like a beautiful greeting card, but God intends us to get more from his word that simple warmth. But it is not easy to leave that stage of sedated comfort for we sense danger. We feel like Jeremiah when, in the presence of the word of God said:

Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.

Even Paul, less anxious than Jeremiah, has to acknowledge the limits of his capacity to take in God’s message.

Unless we let Jesus prod us uncomfortably, we will remain basking in the superficial beauty of Scripture; and if so the words of love cannot have their full power in our lives. We have to let them burst into angry flame from the warm embers so that we can give voice in our hearts and minds to the question:

But how can I love the unloveable?

Perhaps, because the answer seems so unthinkable, we might then say “Get thee gone, Jesus, it is too much I can’t do it.” Then the moment may come when, just as the angels came to Jesus and saved him from the angry crowd, he may come to us and take us with him through our own crowded mind of angry anxiety. We may then find that place of deep faith, certain hope and profound love.

I opened with a reference to Stendhal, let me now finish with one:

A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.