Posted by: jkirkby8712 | December 21, 2011

Tuesday 20th December 2011 – a Beethoven symphony correlated with the four Gospels, and news from North Korea.

Today’s weather has been quite pleasant actually, and, has really only warmed up considerably during the afternoon. I think I spent about four hours in Sunbury today, with various tasks on the agenda of ‘potential achievement., and I think that by the end of the day, I was feeling reasonably satisfied with progress.  Even managed a  ‘coffee date’ with a friend from the church, who, despite my permanent absences over the past year or so, still keeps me up to date with regular copies of the newsletters, and the UCA’s Crosslight Magazine.  I’m still there [at the Church] in spirit, if not in body!!

In actual fact, the December edition of ‘Crosslight’ which Helen gave me today, contains  an interesting perspective on the four Gospels of the New Testament [from the Christian Bible] describing them as ‘Four movements in the Christmas pastoral symphony  – using Beethoven’s  Sixth Symphony [the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony] as a comparative point. I won’t try and go into that article here, but it is basically talking about the four different approaches of St, Mark, St, Matthew, St. Luke & St John to how they treat and refer to the ‘Christmas story’ in their respective Gospels. Written by Randall Prior and Gary Deverell, the introductory paragraph, puts the subject of the article into a précis style context. While I accept that many readers may not have any interest in the content of what was written,  I’ve discovered that I can share it anyway, as the description of the four different approaches by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, do actually make quite interesting reading in ways that I, for one, had not previously taken much note of.  So from the December 2011 edition of the Crosslight Magazine ass produced by the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, this is the ‘Christmas Reflection’ on that subject.

Four Movements in the Christmas Pastoral Symphony.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’, the sixth of his nine symphonies, was recently performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It is a wonderful symphony. It was inspired by Beethoven’s deep love for nature, experienced on walks through the woods of Germany’s Heillingenstadt. Through the varied movements of the symphony, Beethoven captures nature’s beauty, diversity and activity, so as to evoke in its hearers, that same love for nature which he feels.

We may consider the four gospels of the New Testament as comprising a ‘pastoral symphony’, but pastoral, not in the sense of nature’s varied landscape, but in the sense of the news of God’s life-giving Word spoken into the varied contexts of the early church. In distinctive and different ‘movements’, the four gospel writers have been inspired by the ‘landscape’ of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each in their own unique way has put pen to paper so that readers may also be inspired by a timely pastoral word.

This article considers the Christmas stories of each of the four gospels and how we in our time might be inspired by a pastoral word spoken into our human life and history from the diversity of their unique accounts.

St Mark

It may seem odd to refer to a gospel which, in the case of St Mark, contains no account at all of the Christmas story. However, the absence of such an account and the way in which this gospel writer ‘paints the landscape’ of Jesus is instructive for appreciating the birth stories which appear in the other gospels.

St Mark begins by telling us that he is writing a ‘gospel’, a declaration of ‘good news’. What we therefore find in this writing and, indeed, in the writings of the other three ‘gospels’, is not a biography, telling the life-story of Jesus from his birth to his death. Nor is a ‘gospel’ primarily a history book, recording memorable events of Jesus’ life so that these may be preserved in time. A ‘gospel’ is a declaration of good news, not about who this man Jesus was who lived a long time ago, but about who this man Jesus is as one who is risen from the dead.

The ‘gospel’ of St Mark – as also the ‘gospels’ of Saints Matthew, Luke and John – was written in the light of the Easter event and sets out why people of all generations might therefore consider his story as genuinely gospel for their own lives.

For these reasons, St Mark tells us nothing of the first thirty years of Jesus’ life. After setting Jesus’ life in the context of Old Testament prophecy and John the Baptist, he moves swiftly through the baptism and temptation accounts, to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, announced with the words: ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news’. In other words, what has happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is nothing less than the arrival of the long-awaited coming of the presence of God’s kingdom.

Thus, as St Mark writes his gospel, the events and stories he records set out the ways in which God’s rule brings new life to a world plagued by evil, suffering and death, with the climax coming in the Easter event. The centrality of the Easter event is indicated in the fact that, after omitting any reference to the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, Mark devotes his last eight chapters to record the events of Jesus’ final days.

The particular focus which Mark gives to his record of the Easter event is also important. For Mark, the ‘good news’ about Jesus is that in his life, death and resurrection, God engages with the reality of evil, suffering and death, in its most hellish forms. Thus, Mark records in detail the experience of Jesus’ own suffering and anguish, climaxing in the cry of dereliction from the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The resurrection of this forsaken Jesus becomes God’s protest against, and victory over, the forces of evil and death that plague and dehumanize the world. In other words, in Jesus of Nazareth, God embraces the worst of all human suffering and hell, and determines that the last word is life. He who was raised from the dead was he who descended into hell, says the Apostles’ Creed.

What then of St Mark’s ‘symphonic movement’ and the Christmas season?

St Mark would have us remember that we cannot come to the Christmas stories without seeing them through the spectacles of Easter. It is the good news which is grounded in the Easter event which gives shape to the Christmas stories in each of the gospels. It is artificial and unhelpful then to separate in time the Christmas and Easter stories. They are one and the same.

Therefore, we are invited to hear within the Christmas stories, the symphonic sounds of Easter, which for Mark, is the music which declares that, in Jesus Christ, God has come amongst us to engage with, and to overcome the worst of evil, suffering and hell in human life. That just may be a timely pastoral word for us.

St Matthew

Unlike St Mark, St Matthew gives detailed attention to the birth of Jesus. He opens with a genealogy, not primarily as biographical family tree but as ‘gospel’. Beginning with Abraham, the father of the chosen people Israel, this genealogy traces forty-two generations to Jesus. The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the seventh lot of seven generations, where the number ‘seven’ symbolises perfection or completion. Already we see a glimpse of Matthew’s unique picture of Jesus. St Matthew declares: Jesus is the one in whom the call to Abraham, and the hopes and promises of that call, are finally fulfilled, not only for Israel, but for all nations. The ‘symphonic movement’ which is Matthew’s gospel gives expression to this bold declaration of good news, climaxing in the Easter event which establishes Jesus’ authority over heaven and earth and authorises a mission to all nations.

Dominant in the birth story told by Matthew is the way in which he parallels this with the story of the exodus of the people of Israel. So striking are these parallels that it is clear that Matthew wants to make it clear that Jesus is both a new ‘Moses’ as one who delivers people from all forms of oppressive slavery, and a new ‘Israel’ as one who is uniquely faithful to God’s calling.

Making use of frequent quotations from Old Testament prophecies, Jesus is presented as liberator from sin , where ‘sin’ refers to all things which imprison human life; he is ‘Immanuel’, God with us and for us, not least in very dark times, when it seems we are dominated by threatening powers. The hostile forces represented in Herod, the escape to Egypt under threat of murder, the killing of all male children under the age of two years and the subsequent departure from Egypt are all echoes of the Exodus story of the people of Israel.

Following this Exodus theme into Jesus’ ministry, Matthew records Jesus’ baptism as a parallel to Israel’s passing through the Red Sea, the temptations for forty days in the wilderness parallel Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount parallels Moses’ ascension to Mt Sinai to receive the law. In all this, it is clear that Jesus’ birth and life constitute a fulfilment of what has gone before. Jesus marks a new beginning, not only for Israel, but for all nations. Therefore, the appearance of the wise men from the east is a key element of Matthew’s account. For these star-gazing magi, their life’s journey finds its own form of fulfilment in the birth of Jesus. No wonder they are ecstatic, ‘rejoicing exceedingly with great joy’. These magi represent the wisdom of all the Gentile nations whose wisdom leads them to the cradle of Jesus where they bow down in worship and offer up the riches of their own life and culture.

We cannot hear the symphonic sounds of Matthew’s gospel without hearing the trumpeting  sounds that, in Jesus of Nazareth, there is liberation from all forms of sin and oppression, accomplished for all peoples and all nations, and now to be received as a gift. That just may be a timely pastoral word for us, evoking unimaginable ecstasy.

St Luke

While St Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ origins back to Abraham, St Luke goes further back – to Adam. This is not accidental, it is gospel. For Luke, Jesus is a new Adam; he will mark the beginning of a new humanity, reversing the failures represented in the Genesis account of the story of the first Adam. Jesus will show what it means to be truly human as one who obeys God right to the end, His final words even in death will be, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’.

Not only does Jesus represent what it means to be truly human, but he is the one who makes the gift of this same humanity available to others. The diverse forms of broken humanity, seen as the legacy of a disobedient first Adam, are visited and healed by Jesus in such a way that people are welcomed into a new and hitherto impossible realm of life.  And it comes purely by the graceful embrace of a loving God.

This is the thrust of the whole of Luke’s gospel. It is represented in the many provocative and controversial stories, unique to Luke, in which this new humanity is given to people who have no claims to it, nor any possibility within themselves of acquiring it. The stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan come quickly to mind, each of them depicting immeasurable acts of compassion and grace. The conversation between Jesus and the criminal on the cross is a further striking example whereby the criminal, justifiably destined to death, is welcomed into paradise. Jesus’ words from the cross, praying for forgiveness for the murderous crowd, provide a final example before Jesus breathes his last.

 This same symphonic theme threads its way through Luke’s report of the birth of Jesus. The story as Luke tells it is a story of astonishing grace which makes the impossible possible.  The focus is on Mary, a woman of teenage years, not yet married, who is to become ‘the mother of God’. Her simple and faith-full obedience brings with it the vision of the powerful cast down from their thrones with the lowly being lifted up.

In Luke, there are no wise men from the East but shepherds from sheep-scattered fields. These ordinary rural folk are drawn into the dramatic joy of Christmas and find their lives transformed by the glory of God in the presence of the new-born Jesus. This same glory which is for Jew and Gentile alike brings a lasting peace to Simeon and a deep sense of fulfilment to the ageing prophetess Anna.

The symphonic sounds of this gospel present a spring-like landscape where new life finds its way into the crevices of a broken world and where we discover that God’s fulfilling gift of peace bursts gracefully into ordinary human life, making the impossible possible. In all the ordinary-ness of our own broken world, this word of hope may just be a timely word for us.

 St John

It is St John’s gospel which records the most unusual but most extravagant account of the birth of Jesus. It is rightly the final ‘movement’ of the pastoral symphony represented by the four gospels. In John, there is no mention of a birthplace, no Mary or Joseph, no angels, no shepherds and no wise men.

St John begins his account with his own version of a genealogy, beginning not with Abraham, nor with Adam, but going right back to the beginning of creation. ‘In the beginning’ quotes the very first words of the book of Genesis and reminds his readers of the story of creation in seven days.  In doing so, it opens the way for John’s claim that in Jesus of Nazareth, there is a new beginning for all creation.

Instrumental for this new beginning is the word of God. For the people of Israel, whenever God speaks, it is a creative event, it brings life. In Genesis 1, God brings creation into being with his speaking (‘God said, let there be …’), so Jesus as ‘logos’ will be God’s way of speaking creation into new life.

Equally, the term ‘logos’ addresses the gentiles. For them, ‘logos’ constitutes divine wisdom which provides the foundation, the order and the meaning of life. Access to this wisdom has been limited to a privileged few who are able to scale the ladder to wisdom through special knowledge and insight.

In a most profound and succinct statement of gospel, to both Jew and Gentile, it is this ‘logos’ which ‘becomes flesh’, (where ‘flesh’ is not simply the physical part of our human body but the fullness of our human lives in all their ambiguity and alienation). In making this claim, St John declares that Jesus is both the presence of God’s life-giving speech and the human embodiment of God’s wisdom, available to all. This ‘logos’ takes up residence in the kitchen of our human life. God’s truth gracefully resides with us all.

Thus, through the remainder of this gospel, Jesus is depicted in earthy life-giving forms: he is the bread of life for the hungry, the light of the world for the blind, the living water for the thirsty, the good shepherd for the aimless, the resurrection and the life for those lost in death.

Jesus’ own death becomes the climax of this new creation. It is through Jesus’ death that God’s victory over the powers of evil, sin and death is finally won, and all people are drawn into communion with God and with each other. This is bread, light, water, and resurrection life for all.

These are the particular symphonic sounds of St John’s gospel, resounding in the birth of Jesus, climaxing in the death of Jesus, and now filling the auditorium of the whole of creation.  In the context of a world of uncertainty and fear, that just may be a timely pastoral word for us.

And so we come to the end of the Christmas pastoral symphony – four very different but complementary gospel movements. Each in their unique way have inspired hearers, down through the generations, to attune their own individual and social lives with their rich harmonic sounds. There is an urgency that this happen also in our time, for the sake of the world.                                         [ Randall Prior and Gary Deverell],

 Meanwhile, the international news of interest dominating the media over the past 24 hours, was the report of the death of Leader of North Korea. As reported by Jean H Lee in statesman.com, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69.  Kim’s death 17 years after he inherited power from his father was announced on Sunday by a tearful female reporter, on state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The country’s “Dear Leader” — reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine — was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.  North Korea has been grooming Kim’s third son to take over power from his father in the impoverished nation, which celebrates the ruling family with an intense cult of personality. South Korea put its military on “high alert,” and President Lee Myung-bak convened a national security council meeting after the news of Kim’s death.

In a “special broadcast” on Sunday,, state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train because of a “great mental and physical strain” Saturday during a “high intensity field inspection.”  Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media.   Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. He had been groomed for 20 years to lead the communist nation founded by his guerrilla fighter-turned-politician father and built according to the principle of “juche,” or self-reliance.  In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high. Certainly, as a consequence of this announcement, a new heightened world tension has arisen as the likely outcome of the new leadership is attempted to be assessed by world leaders.  The death of Kim Jong-il even caused markets to falter on fear the North Korea’s leadership may be in question, and that that in turn, could cause unrest in a nation which is believed to have nuclear weapons capability. The US dollar rose against most major peers after North Korean state television said national leader Kim Jong Il died, spurring concern instability may increase in the region and boosting demand for the U.S. currency as a haven.  The South Korean won tumbled to a two-month low as an official at the defense ministry said the nation boosted border and coastal defense after Kim’s death. The yen dropped against the dollar for the first time in three days amid concern a destabilization of the Korean peninsula will dim the outlook for Japan’s economy and security. We will watch all columns over the next few days to try an gauge the direction of the future North Korea >>>>>>>

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