Reading the Bible from Below – an Introduction: the Views from Above and Below. (Or: Grasshoppers from Above and Below.)

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2015-02-08 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
8th February 2015
Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31,
Philippians 2: 6-8, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The first sermon I ever preached at WGMC, in the summer of 1993, was on King David and Bathsheba, and it was all about looking down from above. David, on the roof of his palace on a spring night, looks down and sees Bathsheba on the roof of her rather more humble and lower building, and from his vantage point he thinks he has power to do whatever he wants with her. I’d just been on a balloon flight as a belated 40th birthday present (because you can’t really do ballooning in January) and I was reflecting on different ways we can look down, some positive, some negative.

This has come back to my mind reading today’s lectionary passages, because the extract we’ve just heard from Isaiah 40 is about God looking down on us. “It is he,” says verse 22, “who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers”. And it goes on to remind us how easily God can destroy earthly authorities and blow them away like tumbleweed. This language of God being above and us being below is primitive, of course, and we no longer have that three tier world view: heaven above, earth in the middle (from which Tolkien gets Middle Earth) and hell below. Nevertheless, it still speaks to us in powerful terms about God’s power and our vulnerability.

There’s something here that reminds me of the famous scene in The Third Man where the main protagonists are up in a carriage of the Riesenrad, Vienna’s equivalent of the London Eye, and Harry Lime gives a speech about how the people he can see on the ground are just like ants, so what does it matter if one of them gets squashed as a result of his trade in black market adulterated penicillin?

the-third-man-harry-lime-carousel

dots

But God is not Harry Lime. However much the inhabitants of the earth may look like grasshoppers from a God’s eye view, to God they are not grasshoppers but beloved human beings, made in God’s image. So God’s response is not to squash us below a great foot rather like that bit of the Monty Python opening titles. Rather, God is in the business of lifting up the oppressed and the exhausted: v29 “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

This is a God who may threaten judgement on the oppressors and the exploiters, as we noted in our study on Amos in home group on Tuesday, but it is also a God who gives new strength to the weary and hope to the jaded: v30-1 “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

So the view from above, in God’s case, is not a question of God looking down God’s nose at us, taking a position of superiority or managing us like a puppet master pulling the strings. Rather it is a high point from which God can see every detail of the life of creation, a point from which to exercise oversight of our lives and those of all creatures. God is above only in order to get a better view. God is, you might say, our overseer.

That’s the view from above, but we know that this is not God’s only available viewpoint. Philippians 2 tells us about Jesus:

Philippians 2: 6-8

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.

This is what theologians call the ‘kenosis’, or self-emptying of God in Christ, but we could equally call it God choosing to take the view from below – from, if you like, the grasshopper’s viewpoint. Which brings us to our second reading, from 1 Corinthians, where Paul in his service of Christ adopts a similar angle of viewing:

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!
17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.
18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.
21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.
22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.
23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

How many people here have seen the Woody Allen film Zelig? In it he plays an insignificant little Jewish man who somehow manages to be present at every major event and gathering of the 20th century and to appear in the background of every historic photo. It’s a bit like the later film Forrest Gump, except the point about Zelig is that he has absolutely no personality of his own, and so where Forrest Gump remains his simple self in every circumstance, Zelig, like a chameleon, takes on the colours of his surroundings and finds himself agreeing with the viewpoint of whoever he’s with.

Is that what Paul is saying here that he does? Not exactly. He is not compromising his commitment to the gospel or indeed his own personality. Nor is he in any sense ‘coming down to the level’ of whatever group or culture he is visiting. Rather, he’s sitting alongside them, seeking to identify with them as far as is possible, so that the fact that he is a well off, highly educated Jew does not get in the way of other cultures hearing the good news in their own terms. So:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law …. so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law …. so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

I can’t help wondering how difficult it was for him to become as a Jew to the Jews, since he was himself a highly trained rabbi – it can’t have been much of a stretch! But the point is, he is imitating Jesus in surrenduring a position of superiority, in abandoning the view from above. So he becomes not the great spiritual giant with precious morsels of truth to drop down on the general populace, but rather, in a well known saying, “a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”.

It’s interesting that both in, the passage I referred to from , and in this one from 1 Corinthians, the idea of slavery is introduced: Philippians tells us Jesus came to us “taking the form of a slave”, and Paul says “I have made myself a slave to all”. Neither Jesus nor Paul were actually in the position of a slave, which was the lowest grade in society – both in fact had some social standing. But Jesus, and Paul in imitation of him, has chosen to take the lowest place. What would the equivalent be today? An unemployed person on benefits, portrayed as a scrounger? An illegal immigrant? A rough sleeper?

Next week we begin our new sermon series on ‘Reading the Bible from Below’. It’s not going to be easy for those of us who preach in this series, because whichever way we look at it, we are in fact all highly privileged people: Western, affluent in world terms, educated. We have our own vulnerabilities, some of us experience various forms of oppression, but essential we are not the right people to start reading the Bible from the point of view of the oppressed, the poor, the vulnerable, the despised. We will make mistakes, and perhaps misinterpret what we see. I was in Lombard St the other day, and if you know that area you’ll know that all along the street there are gilded signs sticking out of the wall on brackets, recalling the various old banks and guilds that used to be there from medieval times. I overheard a woman in a tourist group looking up at one of the signs repeatedly saying, “It’s a fish, it’s definitely a fish.” It was actually a grasshopper, and I have no idea how she managed to miss the legs. But it illustrated how even when we try to take the view from below, we may still miss things that are right in our faces.

But I hope it will be a fruitful experiment for us to try to take that view.. And maybe it will help us, when we interpret the Bible for others, when we preach, lead worship and proclaim the good news in future, to set aside our privilege, to listen to the voices of the less favoured both in the Bible and in our world, to sit alongside those in poverty, pain, isolation and to understand what might be good news for them.

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