When words fail …

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Lent 5 (B)
18 March 2018

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This week the Sunday lectionary offers us three serves of text, each of which centres around a particular—but different—metaphor.

At first glance I wondered what exactly I would do with those texts for the sermon this morning, but on reflection I want to suggest that the readings invite us to embrace metaphor as the most valid way of speaking about God and faith.

All of our speaking about God is necessarily poetic and metaphorical. After all, human language developed for communication between persons about events, places, relationships and feelings in our world and in our lives.

When we attempt to speak about God using human language it is as if we are pushing our human language up to the red line, and even beyond the red line. We should not be surprised if words fail us when we seek to speak about realities which are beyond everyday human experience.

So let’s get into the metaphors!

 

Melchizedek

My first reaction during the week, when I saw that Hebrews 5 was providing our second reading this morning, was to comment to Roger about the occurrence of the word Melchizedek in that passage.

It is an odd word to our ears, and for many people to our tongues, but to Jewish ears it is not such a strange word at all.

This ancient Hebrew word is built from two other words: the word for king (melek) and the word for righteousness (zedek). When put together these two terms create a name which simply means king of righteousness.

Until a few decades ago we had no idea why this mysterious character with the odd name was so significant the author of Hebrews. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know that Melchizedek was one of two symbolic characters with great significance in those ancient scrolls.

The opposite character to Melchizedek was an evil and dark character with the delightful name Melchiresha, which means king of evil. So Melchizedek and Melchiresha were to Jews in the time of Jesus, what Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are to fans of the Star Wars series today.

These two poetic and symbolic characters reflect the deep underlying tensions in human experience: we know ourselves to be called to the light, but we find ourselves drawn to the darkness.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

New heart, new covenant

Our first reading from the book of the Jewish prophet Jeremiah has its origins in the years just after 600 BCE. Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of Babylon who were about to capture and destroy the city. That much was politics and history, and archeologists have even picked up the arrowheads on the grounds outside the ancient city walls to verify the reality of those hard times.

But Jeremiah seeks a deeper truth for people in dark times, and he imagines a new covenant, a new relationship between God and the people of Jerusalem. He imagines a new covenant written not on blocks of stone, but etched on the human heart.

This is a powerful invitation for us as we prepare the rituals of Holy Week and Easter, to remember what matters most is what is happening in our hearts and not the ceremonies the rituals we may be performing.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

A grain of wheat

The gospel of John offers us a third poetic image, and this is one of my personal favourites: the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and seems to have died, but in fact gives rise to an abundance of new life.

This metaphor penetrates deeply into the mystery of life and faith and it is especially relevant in these final two weeks of Lent.

This is the wisdom by which Jesus lived.

This is the wisdom we are invited to embrace.

This is the wisdom into which we will baptise Lachlan later this morning.

This is the spiritual wisdom our city and our nation needs to hear.

This is the wisdom of life that we need to share with our children and grandchildren.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

Metaphors abound

Life is full of metaphor—and so is the church and especially our rituals.

The life of faith is a life informed by the wisdom we discern in metaphor, poetry and symbol.

We miss the point – and we totally miss the deep spiritual wisdom available to us — if we argue about the historicity of the metaphor. This is an essential lesson as we approach Easter.

Instead, today and during these next two weeks as we turn towards the cross, we are invited to embrace the deep wisdom that is available to us if only we will open our hearts to poetic truth in metaphor and symbol.

 

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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2 Responses to When words fail …

  1. Richard says:

    Good stuff Greg, thank you. Now, what about the Greeks in John 12 last week?

  2. gregoryjenks says:

    Hi Richard: Presumably “Greeks” in this context refers to “Greek-speaking Jews (from the Diaspora)” rather than pagans. This would be consistent with the linguistic diversity reflected in Acts 6. It is an oddly precise bit of information, as is the reference to Bethsaida as the home city of Phillip. The Gospel of John often preserves what appear to be historical nuggets amidst a sea of post-Easter theological discourses attributed to Jesus but never spoken by him. The most famous example is the description (in John 5) of the five porticos of the massive reservoir installed to provide a water flushing system for the Temple. Greg

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