Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean
In April last year, while on holiday in South Africa, Christine and I had a few days in the Addo Elephant National Park. My first visit there was as a teenager when the park, recently fenced, held only about 20 elephants – all that was left of a once prolific sub-group of African elephant which had adapted to that particular environment. It was a rather sorry outfit altogether, with little other than the dream of a few people to save these huge but gentle pachyderms. At sunset each day the elephants were enticed to a viewing area with bags of oranges. Our recent visit was very different. The park has been expanded enormously as successive governments have recognised the urgency to conserve and preserve unique eco-systems along with the fauna and flora. Not only are the elephants which give the park its name important, but the garbage disposal expert, the flightless dung-beetle has right of way on all roads!
In a national park such as Addo the humans are in cages, confined to their cars. So we drove slowly along the well-formed roads, marvelling at how green everything was, and stopping frequently to watch, photograph and wonder. One such stop will stay with me forever. Recent rains meant plenty of water and plenty of mud. For hours we videoed and photographed a herd of elephants – from the great bull and matriarchs of the herd, to the young mum shepherding her little one into the cool mud, to two lanky teenagers (my favourites) splashing, gurgling, squirting and rolling around in the mud. If you come and look at the photo later you can feel the joy and youthful exuberance of these two young ones.
In the strange way that connections work, I thought of this particular incident when reading today’s passages from the Bible, and the hymns set for us to sing – especially the first one and the line quoted in my Welcome: “Come, Holy Spirit, dance within our hearts today.” Michael Forster, the writer of the hymn, grew up an Anglican, studied for the Baptist ministry and then joined the United Reformed Church in the UK. A skilled musician he has written prolifically, including a hymn for every Sunday following themes of the Revised Common Lectionary – the one from which our bible readings are based. “Come, Holy Spirit, come” was inspired by Forster’s reading and interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12 – a chapter in which St Paul celebrates the unity and the diversity of gifts given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. As many of today’s hymn-writers do, Forster wrote his words to fit a well-known and much-loved tune. The connection may be far-fetched, but the joyful abandon of those teenage elephants in the mud reminded me of a congregation that really gets into a good sing with a strong tune and meaningful words.
But of course there are other connections if we look for them. I have found myself wondering what it was like for those worshippers in the synagogue who heard Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. They are thrilling words:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4: 18 & 19a)
This was a dream nurtured by God’s People for centuries. It goes back to the time of Exile – that darkest of times in their history when, having endured years of captivity at the hands of the Babylonians, they found themselves on their way home. Truly it had been – and continued to be – good news, as the captives were released, as if they could see again. On the holy day of the week, Jesus chose to read about the holiest of holy days – that ushered in as the Year of the Lord’s favour.
The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah are difficult to date but it is thought they come from the post-exilic period. Perhaps a hundred years after Nebuchadnezzar had done his worst, the people of God found themselves coming together to listen to the reading from an ancient book – the law of Moses. We can feel the sense of hushed excitement and expectancy as the people, all who were of an age of understanding, gathered to listen to the priest Ezra. Somehow I can’t imagine this congregation listening so attentively all morning as the Dean reads – but that is the picture. (Is it going too far to suggest that they wallowed in it with the passion and pleasure of a young elephant in a particularly good mud hole?) More than just reading it, Ezra, and others, unpacked what they were reading, giving the people understanding. This was not simply listening to the words, but seeking for the meaning, making sense of it all. What a privilege it is for me and my colleagues who preach, week after week, to study the scriptures, to pour over them earlier in the week, and then expound them, making connections with the words written so long ago into our lives lived today.
And it is so important to have a guide when reading the scriptures. So much damage has been done by people picking up a bible and reading without understanding, without context, background or interpretation. Even simply realising that the Bible is a collection of books written by many different people, over a period of a thousand years or more, will alert us to the need to read with discernment and intelligence. An understanding of the different types of literature found in the Bible will go a long way; as will some knowledge of history and awareness of the difficulty in translation of finding the right word in another language.
I am interested in the reaction of the people to Ezra’s reading. They listen attentively, they bow their heads in worship, faces on the ground, they mourn and weep – quite why is not clear, perhaps a realisation that they have missed so much of the richness of God’s gifts in not hearing and reading the Bible. But then they are told to celebrate – to eat the fat and drink sweet wine – and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared – for ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ (Nehemiah 8: 10)
This joy in the Lord, this revelry in understanding God’s way and will, is reflected in Psalm 19. The psalm begins stating boldly that the heavens declare the glory of God. No speech, language or voice is needed – just open your eyes and see God’s glory in creation. Last Thursday night Christine and I sat at Henley Beach for hours as the sun sank in a fiery glow and the clouds gathered, spitting lightning and thunder, and eventually blessed rain. It’s not difficult to find a sense of worship in such beauty. But then the psalm changes tack. This same sense of awe and wonder and worship which creation evokes, is found in the law of the Lord. It’s life-giving in every sense, just as awe-inspiring as the perfect sunset. The law makes wise, brings joy and gives light. This is something to be desired – more than gold, sweeter than honey in a world of pre-sugar-loaded food. It’s from this psalm that we get the prayer often used by preachers as they start a sermon.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19: 14)
And so back to Luke’s Gospel and Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because …” St Luke records only one line of words uttered by Jesus after the reading: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How did they react, his listeners from his home town? The Lectionary makes us wait until next Sunday to hear – though you can take a sneak preview for yourself in Luke 4. For Jesus, at least, the passage he had just read was very much relevant, very alive to his day and age.
Luke’s Gospel, and his other work the Acts of the Apostles, is full of references to the Holy Spirit. It was Elizabeth who, filled with the Spirit, proclaimed Mary blessed among all women. That utterance led to Mary’s great outburst of song in the Magnificat, in which God is praised as the one who lifts up the lowly. It is the Spirit of God which opens Simeon’s eyes to who Jesus is, and helps him realise that in Jesus the glory of the Lord is fulfilled. In Acts it is Luke who records the events of Pentecost, that outpouring of the Spirit as foreshadowed by the prophet Joel. And it is left to a colleague of Luke’s, St Paul, to unpack the true glory of the Spirit – that liberal dispenser of gifts to the Church, all different, all enriching, all needed for the building up of the Body of Christ. Truly it is the Spirit who dances within our hearts who teaches us, as hymn-writer Michael Forster concludes, “to desire, all other things above, that self-consuming holy fire, the perfect gift of love.”
But that too, is part of next week’s readings.