Becoming a Living Temple of God - Brian Moodie (Luke 19:1-10; Haggai 2:1-9; Psalm 65:1-8)
In our Old Testament passage, the prophet Haggai is speaking to the people of Judah after they have returned from exile in Babylon. They have rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem after it was completely destroyed by the Babylonians. But the rebuilt temple was but a shadow of its former glory. And so the prophet Haggai speaks a word of encouragement to the people of Judah, telling them to be strong, and not to fear, because God is with them. In what follows, Haggai speaks of the promise that God will soon fill this new temple with God’s Glory, and glory that will be greater than the first temple.
The promise of Haggai was never fulfilled in any literal sense. The second temple also was destroyed, this time by the Romans. It’s glory never surpassed the glory of the first temple.
But in a metaphoric sense, it could be argued that the promise was fulfilled. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the real temple is not a building made of stone or bricks and mortar. The real temple was always meant to be human beings in whom God’s Spirit dwells.
As we read the Gospel passage today, we see a glimpse of the real temple, a human being, filled with God’s Spirit, walking through the streets of Jericho. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. And the invitation of Christ, this living Temple of God’s presence in the world, the one in whom God’s Spirit dwelt in all its fullness, was that other’s too could become living, walking, breathing temples in which God’s Spirit could be seen to dwell.
And this was essentially the invitation that Jesus was offering to Zacchaeus when he called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree. In that simple action of calling Zacchaeus by name and inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for a meal, Jesus was in effect inviting Zacchaeus to begin a journey in which he too could realise his potential to become a living Temple in which God’s Spirit could be seen to dwell. And by the end of the story this is indeed what happens.
In the context of the story, Zacchaeus was quite possibly the wealthiest man in Jericho. But he was also quite probably the most despised man in Jericho too. His wealth had come from not only from collaboration with the Roman oppressors, but it had also come from cheating others. Growing rich at the expense of others. He would almost certainly have been looked down upon as one of the worst of humanity, a despicable human being driven by greed, valuing money and riches above his fellow human beings and countryman.
How shocked the crowds must have been to hear that Jesus would be willing speak with Zacchaeus let alone associate with him by visiting his home. Surely religious teachers should not be associating with despicable scum like Zacchaeus? Why this lying, cheating, stealing scumbag? Why of all people did Jesus choose to visit him? Indications are the crowds were not just shocked, but also offended.
I can imagine some around him thinking: How can Jesus share table fellowship with the man who defrauded my grand-parents, or brother or cousin, forcing them to sell the home and leaving them destitute? How many other stories like that could have been be told of Zacchaeus by others in the town?
And so we read in verse 7: When all the people saw this, they began to mutter amongst themselves, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner”.
What was Jesus thinking? It appears that in Jesus eyes, even lying, cheating, stealing scumbags like Zacchaeus remained valuable in God’s eyes. But this wouldn’t have gone down well with everyone in the crowd. It was justice they wanted, not the saving of this man’s soul. In their minds he was unredeemable.
But for Zacchaeus, this was a Damascus moment. It was a moment in which the scales fell from his eyes. In the light of Christ’s perfect love, purity and goodness, he came to see the thing that his heart had longed for the most. He discovered a treasure that was worth more than all the money he had accumulated. In that moment, he surely discovered the real meaning and purpose of his own life, that he too was created to be a living temple of God’s glory in the world. And having discovered his true identity in the overwhelming Presence of Christ’s goodness and love, the chains around his heart were broken and he was set free, free to live a life of love in the place of deceit, free to live a life of generosity in the place of greed.
In verse 8 “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Zacchaeus in this moment discovers the truth of Jesus’ saying: It is better to give than receive! He also reveals that a heart that he been touched by love is a heart moved to put right the wrongs of the past. And not just pay it back, but pay it back with interest on top… “I will pay back four times the amount he says.
And Jesus response in vs 9 & 10: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation is not about the afterlife, it is also about a life of wholeness lived in his world.
In the person of Zacchaeus, God’s Temple had been rebuilt and restored, and it was far more glorious than any temple built of rocks or bricks and mortar.
Isn’t it interesting that the saving of Zacchaeus came not through words of judgement or condemnation, but rather through the presence and the power of love.
Psalm 65:1-8 is also set alongside the readings from Haggai and Luke in today’s lectionary. When one reads Psalm 65 in the light of the Zacchaeus story, the Psalm comes alive in a wonderful new way:
Verse 1 “Praise awaits you in Zion, to you our vows will be fulfilled.” Zacchaeus makes a vow in Jesus presence, a vow that when fulfilled would bring praise to God. “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Verse 2 “You answer prayer, to you all people will come” As Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of the tree, the deepest prayer of his heart is realised and answered.
Verse 3 “When we were overwhelmed by our sins, you forgave our transgressions”. In the Presence of Christ, the Living Temple of God’s presence, Zacchaeus experiences the forgiveness of his overwhelming sins and transgressions.
In verse 4 “Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts. They are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple”. In the story, Zacchaeus is brought near to the living Temple, the Presence of God shining through the person of Jesus and as he is chosen by Jesus and brought near, he finds his heart filled with good things. Filled to overflowing.
Verse 5 “You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds God our Saviour, the hope of the ends of the earth and the farthest see.” In Jesus Presence, Zacchaeus finds the deepest hopes of the earth and the deepest hopes of his own heart answered.
Verse 7 goes on to speak of God stilling the roaring of the seas and the roaring of their waves. In the presence of Jesus, the Living Temple of God’s presence, the storms within Zacchaeus are stilled.
Verse 8 “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” What beautiful poetry: “where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” In the presence of Christ, the Living Temple of God’s presence, God calls forth songs of joy in Zacchaeus’s heart, making him to a Temple in which God’s Presence and love can be seen to dwell. Amen.
May God bless you as these reflections continue to speak into your own hearts.
What is true religion? Isaiah 1:10-17 & James 1 :26-27
What is true religion? There is a tendency within many religious groups to regard themselves as the one true religion. In a world of religions which all claim to be the true religion, how does one choose which one is actually the true religion? Is the true religion that one that I was born into by accident? What is true religion? Is there such a thing?
While I was away, the question of what constitutes true religion was turning over in my mind, sparked two stories:
While was visiting my brother Wesley and his family in Cape Town, my sister-in-law Marcia told me about a friend she had met at their Church. I don’t remember what the friends name was, and so for the purposes of this story, I will simply call her Joy. Joy had been part of a very evangelical Christian church that read the Bible in a very fundamentalist way. But a major change for her happened for her fairly recently when she was admitted to hospital. She was alone, because she had no family. She was in a ward with a Muslim women (There is a fairly large Muslim community in the Cape Town area.) The family of the Muslim women would visit their family member faithfully. Over a few visits, when they discovered that Joy had no family, they began to paying attention to her on their visits, bringing her gifts of food and treats, asking her how she was doing and sharing in conversation with her.
This experience changed Joy’s views quite dramatically. She came to the conclusions that true religion was not believing exclusively in Jesus in the way that she had previously been taught, but rather that true faith and religion was about following in the way of Jesus’ goodness, love, kindness and compassion to others, as she has received from that Muslim family when she found herself in hospital. Before this experience, her faith would have taught her that Muslims were at best misguided and probably at worst, were to be regarded as worshippers of demons or the devil and therefore destined for eternal punishment. But in hospital, she had experienced them as channels of God’s kindness and compassion.
This cognitive dissonance between what she had been taught and what she had actually experienced, led her to try and find a church that would give space for this new religious insight. And so it was that she found herself finding a home in Wesley and Marcia’s Church.
The question of what constitutes true religion is a theme repeated theme across the pages of the Bible. At times it almost feels like a debate that is happening across the pages of Scripture.
In the midst of all of this debate, some of the Old Testament prophets give some interesting perspectives:
The prophet Isaiah lived around 700 BC. In Isaiah chapter 1, speaking on behalf of God, the prophet does not hold back as he criticizes the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. He speaks of them as a people in rebellion against God. He compares them to the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah from their early history. In verse 11, speaking on behalf of God, the prophet tells them how their religion has become meaningless and worthless in God’s eyes:
verse 11 ‘The multitude of your sacrifices –
what are they to me?’ says the Lord.
‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Verse 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations –
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Verse 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Why? Because Isaiah says: Their hands were full of blood, a metaphoric way of saying that they were benefiting unquestioningly from the economic and social injustices that had begun to characterise their society.
After rejecting the religious assemblies, ceremonies and prayers of the people of Judah, Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, then outlines the nature of true religion:
In verse 17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
True religion according to the prophet Isaiah is not so much about taking part in religious services and ceremonies, but rather true religion in his mind is about doing what is right, seeking justice and fairness, defending those who are oppressed, taking up the cause of orphans and pleading the case of widows. In other words, true religion is not about singing the right hymns or reciting the right creeds, true religion is about acting with integrity, kindness, compassion and generosity, especially towards the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
Living 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus faced similar problems in his time. His clashes with the Pharisees almost all revolved around the following questions: Is true religion about following the correct religious rituals and obeying the correct religious purity laws? Or is true religion living in wisdom and compassion towards one’s neighbours?
Is true religion believing the correct things about God? Or is religion living in harmony with the ways of God? And what are the ways of God?
The prophet Micah summarises it in that well known verse in Micah 6:8
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Acting justly towards others, showing kindness and mercy and walking with humility in God’s sight. Making sure that the weak and vulnerable are not neglected, exploited or defrauded or left destitute.
In the New Testament, the letter of James picks up this same theme. It follows on from the passage we read last week about listening and doing. And in these verses, James explicitly uses the phrase: true religion. It could also be translated as pure worship. The word for true or pure is the Greek word katharos and means to be clean, purified and not mixed with anything else, like gold that has been purified in the fire from any impurities. The word the NIV translates as religion is the word threskeia which refers to religious ceremonies and rituals in other words, the activities of religious worship. From these two words katharos and threskeia comes the English phrase: True Religion, or Pure and Undefiled Worship.
And what is the nature of this ‘true religion’ or this ‘pure and undefiled worship’ that James is referring to? In chapter 1 vs 27 he describes it:
“...to look after orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
These words are an echo, perhaps even a summary of the words we read earlier from Isaiah 1 verse 17
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
In closing, I wish to share a second story. It is the story of an Egyptian Doctor, Mohamed Mashally, a man who died in his 80’s two over years ago in July 2020. One could say that he was a practitioner of the true religion or the pure worship as James defines it in chapter 1 verse 27. What perhaps might surprise us, is that like the family in the story I opened today’s sermon with, he too was a Muslim, which again suggests that true religion or true worship might not be the exclusive preserve of Christians:
Dr. Mohamed Mashally, was known as the “Doctor of the Poor”. He graduated from the Medical School in 1967. For over 50 years he visited the poor in his city in Egypt providing medical care to anyone who needed it regardless of background. In his modest clinic, and wearing very modest clothes, he charged only minimal rates for a consultation, and for the poor, who couldn’t afford it, he provided his medical care for free. He also began providing medicines to the poor for free after he discovered one of his patients, a mother, could not afford to feed her family and buy insulin for her son who was a diabetic a story that had ended in tragedy with the young boy dying in his arms. He never owned a car, not even a mobile phone. He walked from his house to the clinic on foot, right to the end of his life, even though he was over 80 years old.
When a wealthy businessman in the Gulf learned of his story, he is said to have given him $20,000 and also a car to get around. But after a year, upon his return to Egypt, the wealthy donor discovered that Mohamed had sold the car to help his poor patients. On another occasion, after being interviewed on TV, Dr. Mashally is said to have turned down a donation worth millions from a TV show, advising them to rather offer such donations to the poor and needy. (In the words of James, he remained unstained or uncorrupted by the world of money).
Reflecting back, Dr. Mohamed Mashally said, "After I graduated, I found out that my father sacrificed his whole life to make me a doctor." Then I promised God that I would not take a penny from the poor and live a life in the service of my neighbour whatever culture or religion he was. "
It is an inspiring story that raises the question: Is it possible that true religion is not confined to one belief system or creed? Is it possible that true religion is to be found wherever acts of selflessness, kindness, generosity and mercy can be seen, whether those acts are done by a Protestant or a Catholic, or whether they are done by a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist, or even a person who may claim to have no faith at all?
James 1:27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
May God bless you ponder these things in your own hearts as you consider what they might mean for you and as you weigh them up in your own minds?
Deep Listening - Sermon - Brian Moodie
Sometimes people can do some pretty extreme things when they feel passionate about something.
During the past week I came across the remarkable story of James Francis from California, who embarked on what would strike most people as a little crazy or extreme.
It all began in 1971 when two oil tankers collided near the Golden Gate Bridge just outside San Francisco Bay which resulted in a devastating oil spill. When James Francis saw the devastation which was left, with oil soaked birds washing up on the shore, it affected him so deeply that he took a vow that day, to give up using motorised transport. Some of his friends probably imagined this would be just a passing phase.
But his decision to give up using motorised transport was not simply a passing phase. It was obviously borne of a deep sense of conviction and passion, because he maintained this vow for a total of 22 years. But in addition to his vow to give up motorised transport a few months later, he also took a vow of silence which he ended up keeping for a total of 17 years. He tells how on his 27th birthday, tired of the constant arguments with friends about how one person walking would make any difference in the world, he stunned his friends and himself, by taking a vow of silence.
Initially it was only meant to last one day, but the experience of taking a vow of silence that day made such an impact on him that he ended up keeping that vow of silence for a total of 17 years.
He said that during that first day of chosen silence, he came to a profound realisation that for most of his life up until that point he hadn’t been properly listening to other people. He realised that he was in the habit of hearing someone only long enough to think he knew what they were going to say, and then he would stop listening and beginning thinking in his head about what he was going to say back to them. He also realised on that day that had been operating from the assumption that other people were wrong and he was correct, and as a result he realised that he had also stopped learning.
And so with this realisation, he made a further decision to extend his vow of silence, a vow that he would keep for a total of 17 years.
In the Bible, you read quite a few crazy stories about Old Testament prophets who did some pretty extreme and seemingly crazy things that make James Francis sound not quite so crazy.
In Isaiah 20, we read of how the prophet Isaiah stripped off all his clothes and went about naked in order to communicate a prophetic message to the people of Israel.
And then there is the prophet Hosea, who married a prostitute in order to communicate to the people of Israel that God loved them despite their religious unfaithfulness.
And then there is the case of the prophet Ezekiel whose ministry initially didn’t involve speaking because according to chapter 3 God had rendered him mute. Instead for a total of 780 days, he acted out a siege of the city of Jerusalem that he predicted was coming. He drew a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet, built a ramp against it and put battering rams around it, and then lay on his one side facing it for 390 days. When the 390 days were up, Ezekiel then rolled over and repeated the whole exercise in the opposite direction for a further 390 days. And so for just over two years and one month, according to Ezekiel chapter 4, this is how the prophet Ezekiel got his day in, lying on his side in the public square facing an image of the city of Jerusalem under siege! It almost makes James Francis sound a little tame.
Reading about James Francis and how his vow of silence made him realise that for most of his life he had not truly been listening to other people, it raised the question for me: How good are we as listeners? Do we have the same tendency. Do we only listen to people long enough to start thinking what we are going to say in return? Do we truly listen to each other.
According to the book of Ezekiel, God warned Ezekiel that the people of Jerusalem were not good listeners, that Ezekiel would speak to them, but they would not listen.
This is a theme that comes up again and again in the Bible, the sense that people are not good listeners. In Isaiah 9, God warns the prophet Isaiah of the same truth, saying “They will be “ever hearing, but never understanding...ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
Jesus seems to have faced a similar problem. When asked by his disciples why he taught in parables, he quotes from Isaiah in his reply as he says to his disciples: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear.’ ...For this people’s heart has grown callous; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” (Matthew 13:13ff)
These passages suggest that learning to become good listeners is not just a good social skill to have, but in fact is necessary in our growth towards human maturity.
We see the same truth in the opening verses of Proverbs. In Proverbs chapter one, within the space of the first eight verses, the instruction to listen happens twice. The first 7 verses of Proverbs are a kind of an introduction to the whole of the rest of the book and the instruction to listen is key! In verse 5 we read these words:
“Let the wise listen and add to their learning,”
And then in verse 8, the first verse of the first major section of Proverbs begins with the simple word “Listen”.
Verse 8 reads: Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
What the book of Proverbs suggests is that the path to true wisdom, and the path to true spiritual maturity is through listening.
Getting back to James Francis: What he learned in taking a one-day vow of silence, was firstly that he was not a good listener, and that secondly, the first step to becoming a good listener, to really listen to and hear another person, is simply to stop talking. To truly listen to another person is to give them space to speak until they are finished. And also enough space to pause and to collect their thoughts if they need to in order to finish saying whatever it is they need to. It means is that if we find ourselves constantly interrupting other people when they are speaking, or redirecting the conversation, or changing the topic, moving the conversation on or thinking in our head the next thing we are going to say, then we are no longer truly listening.
As one reads the Gospel stories of Jesus, One gets the sense that Jesus must have been a really good listener. It was one of the ways people must have felt loved and affirmed in his presence, for to truly listen to another person is in fact one of the primary acts of human love. To not listen, is in effect to ignore another person. Richard Moss writes that “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
For whatever reason, James Francis, after 17 years decided to give up his vow of silence. A few years later he also gave up his vow not to use motorised vehicles. But having given up his vow of silence, he writes that he continues to practice silence each day. Each morning, as a practice, he sits in silence for 30 minutes.
Apart from learning to stop talking, practicing some form of silence, even as little as 5 or 10 minutes, as a regular routine is one way in which we can practice becoming better listeners. If we can be silent with ourselves for short periods, without external stimulation and without distraction, then we will more easily learn to be silent before other people and therefore better able to listen to them. And in doing so, also better able to love them. You don’t need to take a vow of silence for 17 years in order to learn to listen more deeply.
I close with a verse from James 1:19
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
May God bless you as you hear the invitation to a life of deeper listening.
The Significance of the Presbyterian Symbol of the Burning Bush.
How and when did Presbyterians adopt the symbol of the burning bush as their central emblem?
Most other mainline Protestant Churches would have a some kind of an empty cross as part of their emblem. How did it come to be that Presbyterians adopted the symbol of the Burning Bush as it’s central emblem and not an empty cross?
Firstly, as most of us would be aware, the symbol of the burning bush is a Biblical one that takes us back to the Book of Exodus and the story of Moses. Moses had fled his life of luxury in Egypt after he had killed an Egyptian slave driver, to become a herder of sheep in the wilderness. According to the story, one day while herding his sheep, Moses encounters a bush that catches his attention, because it seems to be on fire, and yet not consumed. Drawing closer, he hears a voice telling him to take his shoes off because he iss standing on sacred ground. There in front of the burning bush, he encounters the Living God who reveals the Divine Name to him, and calls Moses into a new vocation to lead the Hebrew slaves of Egypt to freedom.
It is a powerful and a fascinating narrative, and one that over the centuries has invited a great deal of interpretation.
In the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, one of the favourite interpretations of the Burning Bush was as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Aaron Denlinger a Presbyterian professor from Colorado writes that in the Pre-Reformation Church, the image of the burning bush “...served as a type or prophetic picture of Mary, the mother of Christ, who—just as the bush burned but remained whole—gave birth to the Son of God but remained forever a virgin.” In France in particular, pre-Reformation artworks depicting the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ at the centre of a burning bush were very popular in Catholic devotions to Mary.
Although, almost all of the early Reformers held a very high view and an admiration for Mary, as the Mother of God Incarnate, including the notion that she remained a virgin, they felt that the medieval devotion to Mary combined with intercessory prayers to Mary had spilled over into idolatry.
And so with the Reformation, came a fresh, reinterpretation of the image of the Burning Bush. John Calvin in particular interpreted the image of the Burning Bush as a symbol of the Church on earth, which faced many difficulties and troubles, and yet was sustained and kept alive by the Spirit of God. In this sense, he believed the Church was forever burning and yet not consumed by the fire.
As the persecution of Reformed Christians, particularly in France, began to increase, so this image of the Burning Bush became more and more prominent. The French Reformed Church of the Huguenots in the 16th Century indeed felt like they were a Church under fire, and yet a Church that could not be extinguished, sustained, as they believed, by God’s Presence, and their faith in God’s grace made known in Christ.
One of the biggest massacres of the Reformation was in France, known as the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day on 24th August 1572. It took place during the celebration of the king's sister Margaret’s marriage to the Protestant Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris to attend the wedding. In the tragedy that ensued, around 2000 Protestants were murdered in the streets of Paris, which then sparked further massacres of French Protestants in other French cities.
Lest we think that only Catholics were capable of religious massacres during the reformation, we also need to acknowledge that Martin Luther supported the harsh suppression of peasants who formed part of an even more radical reformation than Luther’s in Germany. Ten’s of thousands of radical German Protestant peasants lost their lives to fellow Protestants during this time.
But the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 left an indelible mark on the Reformed Church in France. It caused of waves of immigration and exile of Huguenots from France, which lead many to move here to Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as many to immigrate to South Africa, which is why so many South African rugby players have French surnames. Wendy’s grandmother, who was an Afrikaans speaker in South Africa was very proud of her French ancestry.
The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day of 1572 would also have raised the sense that the Reformed Church of France was a Church under fire, and yet sustained by the grace of God. To this suffering and persecuted church they felt they were like the burning bush, burning, and yet not consumed.
It was eleven years later in 1583 that a small gathering of French Huguenot ministers and elders in the north western French town of Vitré met for the twelfth national synod of the newly established Reformed Church of France. It was at this meeting that they decided that their church needed to have an official seal, that they would stamp on any official Church rulings, thus giving these documents a mark of authenticity and authority as they were disseminated amongst the individual congregations. And so, at that meeting in 1583, it was decided to adopt the symbol of the Burning Bush as their official seal or emblem. From there, as French Huguenots began to flee France and become exiles in other parts of the world, including in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the emblem of the Burning Bush also spread.
The earliest use of the emblem in Presbyterian history occurred 52 years later in Scotland when William Mure included it on the title page of his book ‘The Joy of Tears’ which spoke of the troubles of the Scottish Kirk. But most significantly, it was used in 1691 on official documents of the Church of Scotland. An Edinburgh printer named George Mosman was tasked with printing the records of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and he took the liberty of adding an image of the Burning Bush on the title page. Although it was done without official permission the Kirk authorities, apparently took no exception to this, presumably because they were familiar with the use of the burning bush symbol by the French Reformed Church, and because they deemed it an appropriate emblem for their own church in light of both the sufferings they too had endured.
Almost by accident then, the Burning Bush became the emblem of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. And as Presbyterianism spread around the world it became a world-wide symbol of Presbyterianism, everywhere except the United States.
In Ireland the first use of the burning bush symbol was in Carrickfergus with the first edition of the Presbyterian newspaper called the Banner of Ulster in 1842. The newspaper featured the symbol of the burning bush above an open Bible. Above the emblem were the words ‘Ardens Sed Virens’ (Burning but Flourishing) which remains the official motto of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
It is uncertain, when the NSPCI adopted the emblem, although officially the NSPCI was only constituted in 1910. It is unclear whether the Presbytery of Antrim, the Synod of Munster or the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster used it before 1910. But of particular interest, as my Dad has pointed out in a previous sermon, the NSPCI is the only Presbyterian denomination to have a different motto. All other Presbyterian emblems contain a motto to the effect of ‘Burning but not consumed’, or ‘Burning but Flourishing’. The NSPCI instead chose to adopt the motto ‘Ubi Spiritus Domini, Ibi Libertas’ from 2 Cor 3:17 meaning, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’, speaking of the religious freedom that Non-Subscribers had to come to their own religious conclusions.
I have a sense that the significance of the emblem of the Burning Bush itself might have also had a different meaning for Non-Subscribers than for other Presbyterians. Influenced by new religious ideas and thinking, I wonder to what extent Non-Subscribers might have interpreted the Burning Bush as a symbol of the Presence of God shining through all of creation. Rev. Dr. Alfred Hall, who taught many of our NSPCI Ministers at the Manchester Harris Unitarian College in Oxford used to speak of the whole Universe as a Sacrament of God’s Presence and Glory. Putting it differently he wrote that the visible world is a garment of an Invisible Reality, reminding us of that beautiful verse in Isaiah 6 which speaks of the whole earth being full of God’s glory. In the story from Exodus, standing before that Burning Bush, Moses caught a glimpse of the Presence of God that shines through all creation, just as the disciples caught a glimpse of the Glory of God shining through the human face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, a reminder that human beings, in other words, you and me, are also are meant to be like Burning Bushes, through which the Glory of God’s Spirit shines; shining from our faces, and through our eyes.
As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthian 3:18, just one verse after he states that where the Spirit of the lord is there is freedom, he goes on to say: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This passage reminds us that like the Burning Bush, we were all created to shine! To burn with the love and light of God, and yet not be consumed.
Cain and Abel - The First Harvest Service
Genesis 4 1-16
The story of Cain and Abel in the Biblical narrative represents the first biblical Harvest Festival as the two brothers bring offerings from their produce in thanksgiving to God. But it is a Harvest Service that goes horribly wrong. It begins with what seems to have been some kind of unworthy gift from Cain, descends into jealousy and ends in murder.
The story like so many Bible stories gives us but a bare skeleton. It leaves room for a whole lot of questions. We are not told for example what was wrong with Cain’s offering. It is left open for the reader to speculate.
Some might read this story as history. Other’s might read it as a parable, a story that is true, not necessarily because it happened but rather a story that is true because it happens. It happens in the present tense in people’s lives today. And so it might be regarded as an archetypal story. In other words, a stereotypical or a paradigmatic story that replay itself over and over again in human interactions. It describes a common pattern of human behaviour and in doing so it invites us to see ourselves in the story and in doing so to reflect on our own selves. .
Interestingly, the names Cain and Abel appear to have symbolic value:
Cain seems to be a play on the Hebrew word qanah meaning to acquire or to get. It seems to suggest that Cain represents the destructive quality of greed in our humanity that is responsible for so many of the problems in our world today. Greed, the desire to acquire more, but to what end? At what cost? Until the blood of other’s cries out from the ground?
Abel’s name seems to be a play on the Hebrew word hebel, meaning vapor or breath. It is the word that is used in the book of Ecclesiastes and is translated as meaningless, meaningless. And yes, sometimes life does feel as meaningless and insubstantial as vapour. But it is perhaps better translated as fleeting. Just as Abel’s life is fragile and fleeting, so easily taken by his brothers jealousy, greed and anger, so all of life is fragile, and the older one lives, the more fleeting it seems.
And so the story of Cain and Abel asks a number of questions of each of us:
In what way do the characters of Cain and Abel live within us?
What does it mean to bring of our first fruits to God?
What makes an offering worthy? Is it possible to bring an unworthy offering to God?
Is Cain’s offering unacceptable or worthy because he does not give of his best or perhaps gives begrudgingly or half-heartedly?
What happens in life when we don’t give of the best of ourselves? When we live only half-heartedly? Or when we give only half-heartedly? Does the story suggest that living half-heartedly, in other words with our hearts not really in it, is a way of living that undermines fullness of life. What does it do to the soul, when we might be engaged in a job or even a career where our heart is not truly in it? Rather than bringing life, it may be dissipating or undermining a sense of life?
The story raises further questions...
What happens when jealousy arises within us? How do we deal with our feelings of jealousy and anger? Do they disrupt, destroy and kill our relationships?
And the story goes on to ask yet a further question...
At harvest time, when we celebrate the goodness of God and the blessings of the earth, do we have a responsibility to consider also the welfare of our neighbours? Am I my brothers and sister’s keeper? This is the question that Cain poses to God, when God questions him about their whereabouts of his brother Abel, after Cain has murdered his brother. Cain’s first response is to lie. I don’t know says Cain? And then he follows up with this question: Am I my brother’s keeper? It is a question that is left hanging, unanswered, for ultimately it is a question that each of us must grapple with. Am I my brother’s keeper? What responsibility do I have towards others in life? And who is my brother and who is my sister?
Before my parents moved here to Northern Ireland, they were living in Chesterfield. They had some neighbours who they got on really well with. The family next door were a kind of a bohemian or, one could even say, a hippy family. They weren’t at all religious. Their young pre-teen son, who was highly intelligent had already read Stephen Hawking’s books on physics and the universe, and by the age of 11 had decided to be an atheist like Hawking. The family were not wealthy, with the mother earning money by making croche’d objects that she would sell at festivals during the summer. But there was a genuine human goodness about them. My Dad found it very striking that when lockdown started, the mother left a thank you note on their bins for the bin men who were having to continue working. And they were very friendly, kind and very helpful to my parents, perhaps the best neighbours that my parents had experienced in their 12 years of living in England. When my parents packed up their belongings for their move here to Northern Ireland, the neighbours very kindly offered to help, which was a life-saver in light of my father struggling with his back at the time. Afterwards, my parents gave them a gift of money as a thank you for their help. Their immediate response when receiving the gift was: “We’ll have to give it to a charity.”
For them, an unexpected gift was something to be shared with others who needed it more than they did. My parents had to explain that they would have had to have paid someone to help them and so it was only fair that they should give them something in gratitude for their kindness, time and effort.
On this Harvest Sunday, as we celebrate the goodness of the earth and it’s abundance, and as we bring our own offerings giving thanks for God’s life that sustains all life, I end with a beautiful verse from Hebrews 13:16
‘And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.’
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