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PERSPECTIVE Isaiah 2:1-5 Matthew 24:36-44

“Sleeping Beauty has to be kissed to become conscious; Snow White finds happiness doing the housework for seven working dwarves. You won’t find many feminist messages in Disney.” So goes an editor’s column this weekend. She goes on to describe how a move in one direction has been attempted by Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter films) in a new version of Beauty and the Beast. The reason why Belle has so much time on her hands is because she now has a washing machine! Perhaps not as radical as you’d want it to be. Even if Hermione Grainger was a strong female character created by J.K. Rowling’s magical imagination, most of the main characters are all male! I know, I’ve ruined all your enjoyment now! Like me, I never saw the Disney versions nor the original fairy tales as male- dominated and full of non-feminist princesses. Why? Because I never looked at them like that. Now I’ve been enlightened or blighted (depending on your perspective) by a different way of looking at them.

Different Perspective
“They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away!” says Jesus, commenting on the story of Noah and the Flood. There’s another fairy story ruined! Isn’t it all about the animals going in two by two? It’s a favourite children’s story with appealing pairs of toy animals. But wait a minute – that’s only a small part of a larger story. It all depends on how you look at it. Jesus’ point was that life, ordinary life was going on around Noah, when he went and built an extraordinarily large ship, and on dry land miles from the sea. Oh yes, we know the story really, as grown ups, don’t we? What was really about to happen was an enormous flood and it was Noah who had the last laugh (so to speak). The silly sinners who mocked his outlandish creation were drowned. But even then things are not quite what they appear to be. Jesus isn’t just making a preacher-style comment about an ancient story out of the Hebrew Bible. He’s applying it to the lives of his hearers. “As it was in the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” An unexpected tsunami is about to come and sweep all the unprepared away. Rapture films love the drama of the Christian faithful being taken away into heaven and their sinning partner being left to face the final curtain. But that’s not the way Matthew meant his readers to take it. The one taken away is the one who is judged wanting and the one left is the blessed one. Isn’t that more the way it happens in the world today? Two children are cowering in a house in Aleppo. The barrel bomb drops. One is killed, blown away, whilst the sibling escapes with her life. It all depend on your perspective.

Reverse Perspective
It takes awhile to appreciate an icon. At first sight, Rublev’s Holy Trinity might seem like three rather effeminate men gazing longingly into each other’s eyes and sitting awkwardly round a weirdly shaped and impractical table. Behind them are a couple of very oddly shaped features: a tree that might look more at home in a Harold Pinter play and a Roman house with the verandah ceiling showing tiles. However, once you understand the highly stylised way that icons were (the correct word is “written”), the way you look at them can alter. Icon writers use reverse perspective, suggesting that the vanishing point of the lines converges not in the far distance but in you, the observer. The idea is to draw you into the icon, into the life of God. Hence the oddly shaped objects and unnatural poses of the figures in the frame. Three Angels, visiting Abraham and Sarah – who stand as a figure of the Christian perspective on God: the Holy Trinity.

It may help to understand the reverse perspective implied in today’s Bible readings to begin to see them in ways that make more sense. Jesus’ warnings about Noah and the Flood might have been referring to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD70 when the rebellion of the Judeans was finally and brutally put down by the might and cruelty of the Roman armies. Jesus was making the point that the people of his generation were complacent, as they were in Noah’s generation. It wasn’t the time nor the place for Isaiah’ prophecy about the world flocking to Jerusalem’s door to be fulfilled. Some of his followers might even have been hoping that this Messiah, in whom they had staked their lives, might indeed be the one to lead them into freedom and (to steal a phrase from you-know-who) “make Jerusalem great again!” That wasn’t going to happen. So Matthew, compiling his story of Jesus with a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience in mind, puts in this memorable saying of Jesus and wisely leaves the differing perspectives of time to make Jesus’ words relevant in each generation afterwards. From another perspective, this might be about the end of the world. It might be about the final judgment – but that isn’t necessarily the same as, nor at the same time as, the end of the world as we know it. Hindsight might help us see that there are, in fact, two different things in the telescope image. They look as if they happen at the same time. But if you looked at a time-line sideways on, you might see them separated from each other by any distance.

Advent Perspective
Advent is a season of preparation. As December wears on, Christmas is anticipated in so many ways all around us. It seems humbug not to join in. But we may feel uneasy inside ourselves. It’s not Christmas yet, and we want to try and prepare in our hearts. That pull between the way of the world and our inner, spiritual lives, is the sign that we live with two perspectives at once. The world’s perspective is that of the days of Noah: eating, drinking, marrying – what most people take to be ordinary life. The spiritual perspective gives us a different view of the ordinary world. This is not all that there is. What is to come, what, in fact came in Jesus Christ, is the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our world. This different perspective works in different ways depending on how the life of the world is set. The people of Isaiah’s day were weighed down with despair. In exile far away from Jerusalem they were tempted to give up. But Isaiah’s vision encourages them to see things with a different perspective. Jerusalem may be in ruins, far away and neglected in a corner of the Babylonian Empire. But God’s purpose is that one day it will be the centre of attention. It may seem that our world is filled with conflict and warfare. One day our weapons will be forged into welcome signs (as the Iona liturgy puts it). So when God’s people are depressed, the prophet reminds them that God has a bright future for them. But when God’s people are complacent, thinking they have it all sewn up, the prophet reminds them that judgement is on its way. Those are the days of Noah.

Fulfilled Perspective
How do we envisage the fulfilment of these prophecies? What exactly should we be looking out for? Is it almost the end of the world? We ask such questions, a little like the disciples when faced with Jesus’
warning about the destruction of the Temple that had only just been re-built. If our faith perspective means that we are watchful, looking out for the signs of the times, what exactly should we expect? The answer is simply, “Keep awake! Be ready!” Perhaps the hint is, “you’ll know it when you see it!” There are other hints, not in detail, but general descriptions. The people in Isaiah’s day longed for peace, and he reassured them that God would fulfil their desire. All he could envisage were the nations streaming in peace to the centre of their faith: Jerusalem. For Christians, it is not a physical Temple in an earthly city, but a baby lying in a manger who is our peace. Just as the Temple was meant to stand for the presence of God amongst his people, for us Christ is that holy and peace-giving presence. Many have already streamed to him, recognising the sound teaching he gives, being attracted to him. But here’s the surprise: you are to be that peace-giving presence of God on earth. You are God’s temple in the midst of the complacency and the strife of our world. Have you ever seen yourself from that perspective? If we long to spend Advent preparing our hearts to receive the Christ child, do we not believe that the Christ-child accepts the cradle of our heart? Keep a look out – it is easy to sleep for a hundred years trying to stay awake on the night duty! The Spirit is searching for you. The Spirit will find you. The Spirit will kiss you, awaken your conscience, stir you to life!

Perhaps it’s about having the right things in place in the event of a happening. We recently installed monitored alarms to protect the metal of our roof being stolen. We agreed that it might be possible that the lead and copper might be pinched. It is hard to imagine the sacrilege and the risk to life and limb. But we have taken the encouragement of our insurers seriously. We have put things in place in case. Our heavenly perspective on this world will cause us to put those things in place in our hearts and lives which will respond when the Thief-Lord steals into our sensors. Prayer, pondering the Scriptures, doing good works, living always with the perspective of heaven influencing our values. The gifts of faith, hope and love will help us to be ready for the Son of Man who comes at an unexpected hour.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.


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