The Revd Margaret Legg
In his opening address to the Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
"God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations."
We don’t make it easy for God! Our fiery readings have been misused in the actions of the powerful, across the centuries. In 64 AD a great fire in Rome lasting 6 days: Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and so retaliated: “After nightfall Christians were burned at the stake in Nero’s garden (human lampstands!). The Roman people who hated the Christians were free to come into the garden, and Nero drove around in his chariot wickedly enjoying the horrible scene" (The Church in History, by B.K. Kuiper, p.8).
In the 16th century in Oxford Latimer and Ridley were burnt alive: “As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”
Or there's “Bloody” Mary, Queen of England, 1553-1558 or Jehadists suicide bombers martyring themselves in fiery explosions as a fast track to Paradise in the name of God. On Friday, 7 activated their explosive vests in Paris, a perversion of the 3 Abrahamic faiths and of the nature of God.
So how are we to understand the nature of God with a Gospel like this evening’s? When Jesus speaks of the weeds, which will be collected and burnt and of the causes of sin and the evildoers, which will be thrown into the furnace of fire?
In America in 1741 Jonathan Edwards painted this vivid portrait of God:
‘The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire’
God’s nature is anger, merciless, cruel?
Recently, again in America, a church convention was held to discuss the qualities of hell. Somehow their researchers had determined that the fires of hell burned at more than 2,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit! Yet no one would die in those flames. Unlike our 3 OT heroes in Daniel, who came out of the fire, they would stay in the flames, burning like candlewicks for all eternity. What type of monster is their God?
This is a cop out and wrong! This kind of preaching speaks of abuse of power, of wielding authority through fear. In our own day, there are prosperity Gospel churches which use a kind of reverse psychology. If you don’t do things their way you will not only miss out on prosperity but you will also probably remain stuck in the poverty trap.
What Jesus is describing is a purification; the field is each person’s life. We are innately good – we are born in God’s image – but we have the capacity each of us to sow both good and bad seeds. We live with this tension, the grain and the weeds within us (Paul in Romans: For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate). At the end of time we will each be purified, cleansed. That within us that does evil will be removed – burnt in the furnace – and we will become shiny, until we shine like the sun. And the God of love who protected the faithful Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, is ready to interact with each of us both in life and at the end, always with mercy and compassion, preparing us to take our place in the brightness of his kingdom.
The weeds take over and run amok: In many parts of the world, through tyranny, sowing terror, inflicting hurt and pain. In these circumstances faith has proved to be not a crutch but a strength, to keep going and to give a wider perspective. From oppression have come the sweetest songs of sorrow and joy, as Martin Luther King put it, songs that speak of suffering and also of faith.
But, Jazz speaks for life: The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
Well, now I looked over Jordan and what did I see?
Comin' for to carry me home,
There was a band of angels a comin' after me
Comin' for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home
Joshua fight the battle of Jericho The walls come tumblin' down, Hallelujah
Don't you know things can change, things'll go your way
If you hold on for one more day Can't you change it this time
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
Jazz speaks for life and for the triumph of faith. Martin Luther King ended his Address with these words: "And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these."