Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened

This coming Sunday is Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael and all the angels.

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
the piper’s calling you to join him.
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know,
your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
~ Led Zeppelin, Stairway to heaven

“He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!” ~ Monty Python, Life of Brian

I think that Tom Wright is right when he suggests that the key to understanding the encounter between Nathanael and Jesus is humour.

A group of enthusiastic young men think that they have found the Messiah, in Jesus of Sunderland Nazareth. Philip tells his friend, Nathanael of Newcastle Cana - to which Nathanael responds, with friendly banter, “Sunderland Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” But he is happy enough to come along and see.

As Nathanael approaches, Jesus declares that he is a man of true character; to which Nathanael responds, “What makes you say that?” Jesus replies, “I saw you earlier on.” I’ve observed you.

“Amazing,” says Nathanael, with a grin. “You really must be the Messiah to have such insight!” Again, banter: not sarcasm, nothing cynical – Jesus isn’t wrong when he says there is nothing false in Nathanael’s character - just, you’ll have to do more to convince me…

With a glint in his eye, Jesus responds to banter with banter: “Are you convinced so easily? Well, you’ve seen nothing yet…”

There is another joke here: John’s favourite form, irony. The irony is not that the Messiah is standing in front of Nathanael and he doesn’t know it. The irony is that his friends haven’t found the Messiah at all. At least, not the Messiah they have been expecting.

And then the hook, addressed to Philip and Nathanael: “If you stick around, you’ll see what it looks like when heaven and earth connect.” And they do stick around (see John 12:20-22 and 21:2).

That hook takes us back to Genesis. Or rather, it moves us on within Genesis, because John has already taken us there. The opening of his Gospel echoes the unfolding of “In the beginning…” starting with LET THERE BE LIGHT! and continuing through a recurring “The next day…” (John 1:29, 35, 43).

Light // Jesus, the light of the world

Sky // the Spirit come down from heaven

Land // Peter, the rock

Sun and moon, as markers of time and seasons, and the stars // an itinerant rabbi - referencing a homeless wanderer who is promised many descendants - and his disciples

So as not to labour the point, John skips over the fifth and sixth days and takes us straight to the seventh day, when God rested // Jesus does nothing other than celebrate God’s goodness and love for his creation, and water is transformed into wine simply by his presence.

Here is yet another level of humour: joking banter, built on irony, built on a great literary pastiche. Steps on a stairway?

I wonder whether humour isn’t also the key to the encounter between Jacob and God.

Jacob is running for his life. He runs until the sun has already set and he can run no further, for now. So he takes a stone for a pillow, and tries to get some sleep. But his subconscious keeps running…

In his dream, he sees a stairway from earth to heaven. From failure to success. An escape route, to be grasped? Or an impossible challenge, to fail to overcome? And climbing up and down the stairway, angels: creatures of ancient legends, from before the Great Flood; sons of God who had walked the earth and taken daughters of men to be their wives, and fathered giants and heroes (Genesis 6:1-4) (far to the north, the exploits of these beings and their demi- offspring will inspire whole mythologies).

And God. Where? Ambiguously, both above the staircase – higher than the heights – and beside Jacob – in the place of failure, defeat. (This God is un-pin-down-able. Have you ever noticed how Jacob starts out by failing to wrestle his brother Esau into submission, yet demands Esau’s blessing; and ends up by failing to wrestle God into submission, yet demands God’s blessing?)

And God said, I am the God of your past: the God of the family you are running so hard from. I don’t mind how far you run, because I know that you will end up back where you started…

…because I am also the God of your future: and I will give you a future, centred in the very place and the very family you are running from…

…and because I am the God of your past and the God of your future, I hold your present in my hands. My angels will report back to me on your progress, will come to your aid in time of trouble.

It is farcical: Jacob gets himself further and further into a mess – and God is content to watch, a knowing shake of the head, smile on his lips. But there is nothing mean-spirited about the humour: this is no overbearing god belittling a puny mortal.

I have a set of assumptions about what God is like, about who Jesus is. So do you. And Jesus mischievously responds, “Are you convinced so easily? Well, you’ve seen nothing yet…”

I have a set of things I am running away from, and another I am grasping for. And so do you. God enjoys a good farce, has an appreciation for irony. And loves us: past, present, and future.

That might be worth throwing a party over. Or joining in the party Michael and All Angels are already enjoying.

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