Sunday, 25 April 2010

Easter 4: What kind of heroes...?

Acts 9.36-43, John 10.22-30

As you may know I grew up in Exeter. Like all Devonians I knew the story of our great local hero, Sir Francis Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada in the time of Elizabeth the first. We learned Henry Newbolt’s poem, Drake’s Drum, at school. “Drake he’s in his hammock and a thousand miles away/ ‘Capten art thou sleeping there below” and we all knew the legend that poem referred to. If there was trouble, all we had to do was beat the drum, which is still kept at his Devon home, Buckland Abbey, and he’d return from his watery grave to defend us again. “Take my drum to England” he says in the poem, “hang et by the shore/ strike it when your powder’s runnin’ low. / If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port of Heaven/ and drum them up the Channel as I drummed them long ago.”

The idea of the hero who’ll one day return wasn’t just a Devon thing, though. Later on I lived near Glastonbury, where, of course, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lie sleeping in the centre of the Tor waiting for the call to arms, when the hill will split open and they’ll ride out to the rescue – allegedly.

We all seem to need heroes. It’s true now, and it was just as true in the time of Jesus. The people we meet in our Gospel reading were in the grip of heroic dreams like these. That’s what lies behind the question they ask Jesus. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

It wasn’t just any hero they had in mind, though. They were thinking of one particular man – a hero from their history - and the clue to who that was is in the opening words of the reading. “At that time, the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.”

The festival of the Dedication. What’s that about? It’s called Hannukah in Hebrew, and it is a celebration of a victory won by Judas Maccabeus about 170 years before Christ. (1 Maccabees) 
Israel was under the control of a foreign empire. It was the story of their nation’s life. Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks had all ruled over them. Now it was the turn of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids had inherited the Eastern part of Alexander the Great’s empire when he died. Their power stretched from the Mediterranean shores right to the edge of India, lands where there were people of many different cultures and faiths. The Seleucids were basically Greek in their outlook, though, with a Greek model of what civilisation should look like. They didn’t mind people worshipping their own gods and following their own ways, so long as they accepted Greek gods and Greek ways of organising their societies too, just as we tend to assume that everyone would be better off with our models of Western democracy, and a McDonalds on every corner.

To many people, even among the Jews, this sort of cultural imperialism was fine. The Greeks were seen as sophisticated and modern. But there were some Jewish groups who were having none of it. They stuck rigidly to their principles, their ancestral faith and customs. There was only one God, one right way of living, and it was the Jewish way. They weren’t remotely interested in multi-culturalism or Greek ideas of progress. The Greek world could do what it wanted; they weren’t going to bow down to it.

The Seleucid king Antiochus IV saw trouble looming, and he decided to get tough. He sent troops into Jerusalem, right into the Temple. They looted its treasures, desecrated the altar, set up an altar of their own to the Greek God Zeus complete with statues, which Jewish law forbade. They even sacrificed pigs in the heart of the Temple; it couldn’t get worse than that for traditionally minded Jews.

One of those Jews was a priest called Mattathias. He had five sons – Judas Maccabeus was the middle one. The nickname, “Maccabeus” means “the hammer” which probably tells you all you need to know about him. Mattathias was appalled at what was happening in Jerusalem. So he withdrew into the mountains, with his sons and his followers, to wage a guerrilla campaign on the occupiers.

To do this, though, they had to have the support of the local people, and not all of them saw things Mattathias’s way – some of them weren’t even Jews. So Matthatias used force. His followers compelled the local people to keep their very strict version of Jewish faith. They made them circumcise their sons. They destroyed the places of worship of other gods. They savagely punished anyone who stepped out of line. If that sounds familiar, it should do. These are exactly the same tactics that the Taliban are using in Afghanistan today.

Finally Judas Maccabeus came down from the mountains, leading his army, and marched on Jerusalem. Against all the odds, somehow, they prevailed. His troops took back the city, and the first thing they did was to go to the Temple, tear down the statues of Zeus, clean up the mess, put things back to rights. When they had done that they held a festival to re-dedicate their sacred space. The people of Israel never forgot this great triumph. They never forgot Judas Maccabeus, the hero who’d brought it about. Every year they told his story again at the festival of the Dedication, Hannukah. And when they were conquered by the Romans – their independence didn’t last long – it was Judas Maccabeus they looked back to, Judas Maccabeus they longed for.

When the people in today’s Gospel meet Jesus in the Temple, where all this happened, at that festival of Dedication it is this story they are thinking of; the story of a hero, the story of deliverance. It stirred and excited them, but it is a story that is profoundly disturbing to modern ears. Many liberal Jews today feel ambivalent it. Judas Maccabeus’ victory was a victory for a very narrow, nationalistic view of God’s kingdom, and it was a victory won by oppressing others.

It’s clear that the story disturbed Jesus too because he refuses to buy into the model of heroism it offers. These people want him to be their Messiah, their deliverer. He’s charismatic, popular, brave, with an authority which feels as if it comes from God, “How long will you keep us in suspense…?” they ask. But he knows he can never be the new Judas Maccabeus they long for. His vision of God’s kingdom is very different and his way of bringing it about is different too. If this is what they want, he is bound to disappoint them.

He’s not a military leader. He hasn’t got a band of guerrilla fighters, just a handful of ordinary fishermen, an ex tax-collector who has probably collaborated with the Romans, a random assortment of women. And instead of enforcing the law, as the Maccabeans had, he often seems to challenge it, or even break it - working on the Sabbath, consorting with unclean people. There are no stirring speeches urging his followers to defend their national identity or smash their enemies. Instead he speaks words of love, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and a welcome that extends to everyone, deserving or undeserving.

As he points out to his questioners, what he says and does should tell them all they need to know. What you see is what you get. This is really it – there’s no military conquest around the corner, just a movement of love and justice. And it will end on a cross, with him forgiving those who crucify him, not mustering his armies or calling down the wrath of God on those who oppose him. My sheep hear my voice, he says. They might be good sheep or bad sheep, lost sheep or found sheep, Jewish sheep or Gentile sheep; what matters is just that they want what I want. If you want a new Judas Maccabeus, you are looking in the wrong place.

This is a good story to hear as we approach a General Election. It asks us to consider what we are looking for in our leaders, and what we really want for our world. It is easy to fall for spin, for external appearances, slick presentations, and those who organise political campaigns know it. It is easy to fall for appeals to our own narrow self-interest too. It is much harder to ask what the substance is, and to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others.

But perhaps, as well as that, this story asks an even deeper question about our need for heroes in itself. Isn’t there a danger that we are looking for others to build the world for us, rather than seeing our responsibility for the way the world is and the way it will be? Leaders have a part to play, but ultimately it is what each of us does, in our own families, workplaces and neighbourhoods which makes the difference. In the first reading we heard today we met Tabitha, or Dorcas in the Greek. She knew this well. She didn’t wait for someone else to act. She was, says the Bible, devoted to good works and acts of charity. When she died her friends appealed to Peter for help. And what is it that they point to as proof of her heroic virtue? Not conquered nations or powerful positions in the state, but needlework. “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made.” It’s not what you would call dramatic stuff, but this is clearly a lady whose practical love for others has transformed lives. We can all do something, and what we do matters, the story tells us. In the coming General Election we can at least turn out and vote, for example, because to do so shows that we care about our communities.

Handel wrote an oratorio about Judas Maccabeus. That great Easter hymn “Thine be the glory” is set to a tune from it. He didn’t write an oratorio about Tabitha; it’s probably hard to come up with a rousing piece of music about sewing. But in the end, who did the most good? Perhaps it was Tabitha with her needle, rather than Judas with his sword, as she created God’s kingdom one stitch at a time.

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