“Glory, glory, hallelujah”—the song we just sang—you’ve maybe heard it called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”? It was first composed as an ode to John Brown, the American abolitionist. John Brown was a Christian; he famously said that he was put on earth to “strike the death blow to American slavery,” to abolish the system that had been instituted and propped up in large part by Western Christian nations.
Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the version we sang this morning. Hers was the second incarnation of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” Her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, was part of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s abolitionist work. The lyrics use biblical imagery, Jesus’ transfiguration and crucifixion front and centre in the lines: “With a glory in his bosom/That transfigures you and me/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make men free.”
The lyrics to “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” appear in many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons. Michael Curry included the chorus in one of his first sermons following his election as the first African American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. (The Episcopal Church is the American equivalent of the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop Curry preached at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, though he’s famous for many other things as well).
In the light of Julia Ward Howe’s hymn and our many songs of hope this morning, I offer two questions for your reflection: What is it that you are holding out hope for? Where is it that you long to be free?
Simeon and Anna—two of the main characters in our reading from the Gospel of Luke—they were holding out hope for something Luke calls “the consolation of Israel.” Given all that is happening in Israel and Palestine at this time, that phrase maybe jumps off the page. I know it did for me when preparing my sermon this week. What might this phrase have meant for Anna and Simeon, for their hopes, for their longing to be free, a longing that Anna shouts from the back of the synagogue all the way down the aisle as Jesus is presented in the Temple?
“The consolation of Israel” is a kind of catchphrase for the freedom that’s promised to the people of God in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew scriptures. The consolation of Israel is described at length in Isaiah 40, a passage we often hear in Advent leading up to Christmas. You remember the words:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Or, maybe you’re better acquainted with the latter part of Isaiah 40, words that get picked up in Ken Riley and Brenton Brown’s popular hymn, “Everlasting God:” You are the everlasting God. You do not faint, you won’t grow weary. You’re the defender of the weak; you comfort those in need; you lift us up on wings like eagles.
In the Bible, “the consolation of Israel” means comfort for the afflicted; strength for the weary; protection for the weak. It’s a vision of a God who feeds their flock like a shepherd; who gathers her lambs in her arms and carries them in her bosom. What’s more, the consolation of Israel is something that extends to all nations. In Isaiah 49, the prophet says that the consolation of Israel will be given as “a light to the nations . . . to reach to the end of the earth.”
As we’re aware, seeing the comfort, strength, and protection of Israel as something that belongs to one single nation-state alone—this is where much of the conflict between present-day Israel and Palestine lies. Perhaps, at least for our purposes today, we can consider whether the biblical vision for the consolation of Israel might extend beyond the preservation of a single nation-state to the care for all people? And, perhaps, we might consider how the consolation of Israel relates especially to God’s concern for abolishing systems of oppression, for “the trampling out the vintage/Where the grapes of wrath are stored” as the old hymn goes?
Simeon and Anna have been waiting many long years for the abolishment of the systems of oppression that plagued their time and place, but they seem to have had a vision for a ruler who would come among them more like a Shepherd than an autocrat or a dictator. Certainly, many people around the world today hope for a similar toppling of power. In the Christian tradition, we celebrate this Shepherd ruler as Jesus. Jesus, the one presented in the Temple by his parents, who will make the uneven ground level, who brings down the mighty and lifts up the weak, but who does so through stories of lost coins; of lampstands and wise and foolish builders; of seeds and weeds, leaven and pearls. Jesus, the Shepherd King, who rules not from a faraway throne, but by walking alongside his sheep in the desert. Jesus who speaks to people in the language of their hearts.
It’s no accident that the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple falls 40 days after Christmas, symbolizing the 40 days and 40 nights the people of God wandered in the wilderness. 40, the number of the days in the season of Lent when Christians, with Jesus as our guide, devote ourselves to wandering our own inner wilderness.
And, did you know, the number 40 is significant for another reason as we remember places around the world where systems of oppression persist to this day? $40,000 is the amount of money required for a refugee sponsorship application. $40,000 is the amount of money the Regional Ecumenical Sponsorship Team of which St Clement’s and St Agnes are a part, has committed to in order to sponsor 11 refugees in Pakistan. The 11 refugees are the family members of Banat, a close friend of Fatemah whose brother Nasruallah was sponsored by St Clement’s some time ago. Banat, who has been waiting many years, like Simeon and Anna, for the consolation, for the rescue, for the comfort and safety of her people.
Wilna and Dave and perhaps Banat herself, can speak later to what this means for her family. I would like to suggest that it exists as a shining example of a candle lit in the darkness with the hope that someday, someone might see it. Whatever it is that you are holding out hope for, whether it’s for the safety of family members living in dangerous conditions at home or abroad, whether it’s freedom from illness or pain, whether it’s waiting for answers to questions that have long kept you awake at night, whatever it is that you hope for, my prayer is that today you would have that hope rekindled, that like Simeon and Anna, that like Banat, you, in the presence of Jesus the Shepherd King, would experience light breaking into the darkness. For, the darkness shall not overcome it.