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Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Holy City of vision and imagination

I’m starting with two things that I’ve seen this week. The first is the rather portly, ungainly and garish giant illuminated peace dove on a 10ft pole surrounded by symbols of world religions that is currently outside Seven Kings Station. The multi-faith lights have been chosen by Seven Kings and Goodmayes councillors to celebrate all the religious festivals between now and Twelfth Night, including Eid-Ul-Adha, Diwali, the birthday of Guru Nanak Dev Sahib, Christmas and Hanukkah.

The second is a painting entitled Holy City by Brian Whelan which I saw when I was at St Martin-in-the-Fields for a meeting earlier in the week. The first of his ‘Holy City’ paintings resulted from a discussion in a community art workshop about the ‘Holy City’. One participant had been to Jerusalem but it was not her memories of the actual Jerusalem that the group used to create their ‘Holy City’ painting, instead, they created the Holy City, not as remembered, but as imagined! 

‘Freed from the encumbrance of memory they were able to create a city which was vibrant in every manner of diversity. Church nestled into the side of mosque [and synagogue], contrary shapes yielding to one another, colors bright and radiant as no building committee would have ever allowed, all flowed from [their] hands as they playfully built their city on the foundation of silver and gold candy wrappers, which are a distinctive element of Brian Whelan’s work.’

The member of the group who had been to Jerusalem said that “The Holy City she had experienced did not look anything like the artwork” the group were making. What they made was ‘a city that looks nothing like what we have ever seen, but is exactly that … which we have longed to discover.’
In Isaiah 25. 6 – 8, we read: ‘Here on Mount Zion [in other words, in the Holy City, Jerusalem] the Lord Almighty will prepare a banquet for all the nations of the world — a banquet of the richest food and the finest wine. Here he will suddenly remove the cloud of sorrow that has been hanging over all the nations. The Sovereign Lord will destroy death forever! He will wipe away the tears from everyone's eyes and take away the disgrace his people have suffered throughout the world.’
These verses are part of a series of prophecies in the Book of Isaiah setting out a vision of a time when the Holy City, Jerusalem, will be a focus for healing, reconciliation and peace. So, for example, in Isaiah 2. 2 – 4 we read:
‘In days to come
    the mountain where the Temple stands
    will be the highest one of all,
    towering above all the hills.
Many nations will come streaming to it,
     and their people will say,
“Let us go up the hill of the Lord,
    to the Temple of Israel's God.
He will teach us what he wants us to do;
    we will walk in the paths he has chosen.
For the Lord's teaching comes from Jerusalem;
    from Zion he speaks to his people.”

  He will settle disputes among great nations.
They will hammer their swords into ploughs
    and their spears into pruning knives.
Nations will never again go to war,
    never prepare for battle again.’

These visions then connect with the final book of our Bible, the vision given to St John, which we call Revelation. There we read (in Revelation 21 and 22):
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: “Now God's home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.”
Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” …
The angel also showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, and coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb
and flowing down the middle of the city's street. On each side of the river was the tree of life, which bears fruit twelve times a year, once each month; and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.’

In these visions the Holy City, Jerusalem, is the place where disputes are settled between the nations, where swords and spears are reshaped and reused as tools for growth instead of death, where even the leaves of the trees bring healing to nations, where there is no more death, no more grief or crying or pain, where reconciled peoples of all nations sit together the richest of banquets.
The person who had been to Jerusalem in that community art workshop said that the picture of a diverse and harmonious Holy City was nothing like the Jerusalem she had visited. She was right! ‘During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.’ It is central to both Israeli and Palestinian nationalism yet, while both the Jews and Arabs of this region clearly have painful histories (and histories which have often made more painful by the actions of Christians), history cannot and should not be used as an excuse to sustain the conflict. For the situation to change there must be justice, reconciliation and forgiveness. In other words, the Holy City of Whelan’s painting and of Isaiah’s vision is needed, in place of the conflict between peoples, nations and religions that has characterized the history of Jerusalem.
We will hear more of this at the end of the month when at St John's Seven Kings we welcome a speaker from Christian Aid to talk about their Breaking Down The Barriers project which is all about working for peace in a Holy Land.
In his teaching, Jesus told many stories of banquets. Through his ministry he invited all around him to taste and share the banquet of the richest food and the finest wine for all the nations of the world. On the night before he was betrayed he initiated a shared meal of bread and wine for all who follow in his way of healing, reconciliation and peace. The bread and wine that we share together whenever we celebrate this meal is a reminder that Jesus lay down his life, as his body was broken and his blood was shed, to bring forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and peace to all. He died that all people everywhere might live.
When we come together as people from many nations – Barbados, England, Ghana, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, St Kitts and Wales, among others – to share the special meal that Jesus gave us, we are not simply looking back to all he did for us on the cross. We are also looking forward to the vision of the New Jerusalem, the diverse and harmonious Holy City, where justice, reconciliation and forgiveness are found. What we experience as we share together is a little foretaste of the Kingdom of God come in full on earth as it is in heaven. 

With that vision in mind, we go from this place to bring little foretastes of the Kingdom of God to others by the respect and tolerance and understanding and love that we can show in our everyday lives to those who are from another nation, part of a different culture, or believers in a different faith. That is also why, although it is ungainly and garish and replaces the Christmas Tree that we have had in previous years, it is a good thing to have festival lights celebrating all religious festivals between now and Twelfth Night in the form of a Dove of Peace.  
As a little known hymn by Joseph Swain says: 
How sweet, how heavenly is the sight,
When those that love the Lord
In one another’s peace delight,
And so fulfill His Word!


Elvis Presley - Peace In The Valley.

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