Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Grasshoppers’ eyes and Eagles’ wings

‘its inhabitants are like grasshoppers’ (Isaiah 40: 22) ... the grasshopper on the Chronophage or ‘Time Eater’ at Corpus Christi ... the clock is accurate only once every five minutes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [Sunday 5 February 2012], the Third Sunday before Lent, are: Isaiah 40: 21-31; Psalm 147: 1-11, 21c; I Corinthians 9: 16-23; and Mark 1: 29-39.

For this semester, we have decided in our tutorial group, to look at the Old Testament readings provided in the lectionary. The Old Testament reading for that Sunday is Isaiah 40: 21-31.

Isaiah 40: 21-31

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Making connections:

The other lectionary readings for the day are:

Psalm 147: 1-11, 21c: The Psalm begins by praising God, and goes on to echo our Old Testament reading, telling us how the Lord builds up Jerusalem, gathers in the outcasts, heals the broken-hearted, lifts up the down-trodden and casts down the wicked; and telling us how his glory is reflected in the stars and all his creation, how he continues to work through that creation, and is reflected in the beauty of that creation. You might want to notice too, if you are preparing these readings, that the verse numbers for the Psalm follow the versification in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), and not that in other versions, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

I Corinthians 9: 16-23: In the New Testament reading, the Apostle Paul reminds us of our duty to preach the Gospel, not for ay reward we may receive, but for the sake of the Gospel itself.

Mark 1: 29-39: The Gospel reading continues the story of Christ’s visit to Capernaum. He goes from the synagogue, where he has been teaching, preaching and casting out an unclean spirit, to the house of Simon and Andrew, accompanied by the first four who have been called as disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John. There he heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and then cures the sick, and casts out demons and silences them.

Then, early in the morning, he gets up and goes to deserted place where he prays. Simon and the others search for him and tell him everyone is searching for him. And so, they head off to the neighbouring towns, proclaiming the Good News and casting out demons.

Reflecting on those readings may help those us who want to preach on the Old Testament reading that Sunday morning.

Looking at the text:

‘What do you hear?’ ...Master Po (Keye Luke) and Kwai-Chang Caine (David Carradine) in the original Kung-fu movie

In our workshop on Monday morning, John Bell was encouraging us to apply a child-like imagination to our approaches to reading Scripture.

I remember – but was a little too old to get childish or even teenage pleasure from – the mid-1970s television series Kung-fu (1972–1975), starring David Carradine. The weekly episodes followed the adventures of a Shaolin or Chan Buddhist monk, Kwai Chang Caine (Qián Guānchāng), portrayed by David Carradine (as an adult), Keith Carradine (as a teenager) and Radames Pera (as a young boy), who travels through the American Old West armed only with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts, as he seeks his half-brother, Danny Caine.

The regular cast included Keye Luke, as the blind Master Po, and Philip Ahn, as Master Kan. Throughout the series, there are flashbacks in which the blind Master Po calls his young student “Grasshopper” in reference to a scene in the pilot episode:

Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

The Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Temple is a Chán Buddhist temple at Song Shan, near Zhengzhou City in Henan Province in China. The monastery is, perhaps, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries in the world. It was founded in the 5th century and is known in the West for its association with Chinese martial arts, particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu. The monastery and its famed Pagoda Forest were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 as part of the “Historic Monuments of Dengfeng.”

In recent years, as secretary and then chair of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I have visited a number of Buddhist monasteries in China. But in the mid-1970s, I had little knowledge of the issues that arise in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, and I was too old to get childish pleasure out of this series. On the other hand, my younger brother, who was ten years younger than me, enjoyed – like many young teenage boys of his generation – squeezing table tennis balls into his eye sockets as he went around asking us: “Grasshopper! What do you hear?”

Grasshoppers and Eagles

The Eagle and Child in Saint Giles’, Oxford, is nicknamed the Bird and Baby and was a favourite meeting place for the Inklings ... eagles’ wings grasshoppers are engaging images for a child’s imagination (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The images of grasshoppers and eagles’ wings in the reading for Sunday week offer some interesting potential for images to illustrate children’s talks. But what do you think of when you hear of grasshoppers and eagles in a Biblical context?

Perhaps grasshoppers remind you of the locusts and the plagues in Egypt in the Book Exodus. Perhaps eagles remind you of the soaring heights reached in Saint John’s Gospel and in the other Johannine writings in the New Testament (I, II and III John, and the Book of Revelation).

Grasshoppers and eagles have very different wings, eyes and flight patterns, and represent very different things in our minds. Would you rather be a grasshopper or an eagle?

It is easy in a child’s mind to imagine soaring above the earth, swift and strong like an eagle, with a bird’s eye view of all the grasshoppers below. But putting imagination and dreams apart, the truth is that so many of us often feel that we live our lives as grasshoppers (verse 22).

Yet, grasshoppers are not like locusts. They are more prey than predator. Today, we generally have a negative view of grasshoppers as pests that eat more than their fair share in the food chain. But in Aesop’s fables, the grasshopper is a lazy, playful bug that has nothing for the winter and must beg the industrious ant for food and shelter. In the movie, A Bug’s Life (1998), Hopper the greedy grasshopper and his allies torment the ants like a street gang.

While grasshoppers cannot soar like eagles, they can leap 20 times more than their own body length. For a human such a feat would be a flying leap of 40 metres – and that would change how we line up for a throw-in in rugby or or think about hitting for six in cricket.

Perhaps it was something about grasshoppers that speaks of playful adolescents trying to come into maturity and that informed the lines in that series. They look like their tongue is perpetually sticking out, they are quick to leap away and hide in the grass, and they have an in-built genetic disposition to play away the day. Grasshopper might well be an excellent name for a spiritual novice, but in this passage they also represent humanity.

Looking at the bigger picture

Grasshoppers also have five eyes. Part of their adaptability and survival comes from their ability to see everything around them in a great panorama. This ability to see the bigger picture can take us beyond being a spiritual novice. If we only see the next blade of grass in front of us, we will not grow and thrive. As long as we remain in the grass, content to only look in front of us, we quickly become weighed down by trivia, annoyed by other people’s attitudes, caught up in our own struggles, wondering why the grass does not taste better or whether we are going to run out of grass soon.

In this passage, perhaps Isaiah is saying to us: “Look grasshopper … Have you not seen, have you not heard? Look around at the big world. Behind it all is your creator, who has the expansive power of life, a power that can make a small grasshopper soar like and eagle.”

The capacity to look at the bigger picture, at the vast expanse of the world, with a sense of awe and wonder is one that can lift us to new heights. Seeing things with the eyes of amazement, seeing ourselves as part of God’s majestic creation, strengthens our faith to the point that, with God’s help and strength, we have the ability to “mount up with wings like eagles … run and not be weary … walk and not faint” (verse 31).

Putting the passage in its context

In the cycle of readings for Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have already read from the beginning of this chapter, (40: 1-11). But that was many weeks ago [4 December 2011, the Second Sunday of Advent], and the flow of readings has since been interrupted by other passages from Isaiah (61: 1-4, 8-11, on the Third Sunday of Advent; Isaiah 9: 2-7, the Christmas Day; Isaiah 61: 10 to 62: 3, the First Sunday of Christmas), never in sequence, and the continuity was interrupted too by passages from other books of the New Testament.

But you already know from your Old Testament modules, the Book of Isaiah can be divided into two – possibly even three – parts:

1, Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, between ca 740 and ca 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah, which had fought a disastrous war with Syria. The Assyrians had conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah sees the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemns and against which he fights valiantly.

2, Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile.

3, Some scholars say Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin and for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part of the book speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.

This passage reflects Isaiah’s thinking about God who is the supreme as creator, in same way as he is supreme over history. For God as creator, the earth’s inhabitants “are like grasshoppers” (verse 22), but this is the same reality that brings the rulers and princes of the nations to naught and makes them nothing, returning them to their original emptiness (verses 22-24). God’s breath blows them away, along with their power (24). Indeed, this truth returns us to the origins, the beginning of things: “Have you not understood [this] from the foundations of the earth?” (verse 21).

For Isaiah, the people have always known that God’s original creative work is something very different from the way they actually experience life on earth. But what is God’s power that it reduces princes to nothing, or the breath or spirit that blows them away? Will it be the same supreme violence that they themselves are so adept at using? If we leap forward in Second Isaiah to the theme of the Servant we find that it is because of him, the “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations abhor, the slave of rulers,” that “Kings shall stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful” (49: 7).

God’s power in history to overcome and transform human culture is attached throughout this prophecy, obliquely at first but then more and more insistently, to the paradoxical yet amazing subversive figure of the Servant.

Jacob is not to despair, is not to give up because of its impoverished, helpless situation (27). God is the eternal God, the creator of the ends of the earth precisely in this way:

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless
– (Verses 28-29).

Because the God of Israel is engaged in a continuous historical journey to overturn the preconditions of human culture, the conditions that create the weak, those lost to human importance, then for that very reason the weak, those who are o longer seen as having human importance, are given strength. In this is the birth of hope, is strength for the weak, is light despite all darkness, for “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (31).

In this reading, we are reading in the first chapter of the section of Isaiah commonly called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40-55). People from Judah and Jerusalem had been in exile in Babylon for almost half a century. With the Persian Empire on the rise, the fall of Babylon is drawing near. There is hope for the peoples who have been held in captivity. But the Judeans among them are not always ready to embrace that hope.

Throughout Isaiah 40 and in the following chapters, the prophet tries various arguments to encourage his people. In Isaiah 40: 12-31, he stresses the sovereignty of God and his ability to save his people.

Chapter 40 is divided into five sections, each introduced by a question (verses 12, 18, 21, 25 and 27). If we read this passage in the context of the exile, then we can imagine the people’s insecurity and their lack of faith. Their grandparents have experienced the horrors of military conquest and forced removal from their homeland. Their parents and this generation have only known oppression and the rule of the Babylonians. The prophet has the task of moving a tired and numbed people from passivity to action. But in their plight they cannot imagine that God has any regard for them (verse 27).

In the two sections that come immediately before this reading, one stresses that the nations are as nothing compared to God who is creator of all; even their wealth is insufficient for him (verse 12-17). The second asks what are idols compared to the one true God (verses 18-20). Even the very best of human endeavours are pitiful in comparison to God. We might think the point here is to highlight the human propensity to trust in “false” gods. But we ought to remember that for people at that time, their idols were representatives of real divine powers. The prophet is not just lampooning the people and their choices, but also the divine powers themselves.

Verses 21-24 begin with another series of rhetorical questions. Do the people not know that it is God who sits above earth? The creation language carries with it implications of kingship, sovereignty and might. The last verse in this section (verse 24) comes back to a series of “negative statements” comparing the rulers of the nations with plants that have scarcely taken root before God blows and they wither. The image picks up the thoughts in verses 6-7 that speak of the people in general as grass. Rulers are no different to the community in general. All of this underscores God’s power to deliver his people.

Verses 25-26 come back to God asking to whom he can be compared (see verse 18). The people are asked to lift their eyes to the heavens and observe their completeness. In the ancient world, the host of heaven were considered deities and heavenly creatures. God does not let one go. This is a point about power, but it should be one of comfort for God’s people too.

Finally, verses 27-31 address the people of Jacob or Israel, who are asked why they think their way is hidden from God. The people’s lack of trust and faith is now confronted and dismissed, not in terms of the insecurity, which is what the prophet is at pains to address, but in terms of there being any truth in their statement. Have they not heard of his power and ability to give strength to the weak? The question in verse 28 repeats in part that in verse 21. The prophet proclaims that those who wait for Yahweh will be renewed, picking up a theme from Isaiah 5.

The repetition of the words “knowledge,” “hearing” and understanding in verses 14, 21 and 28 reminds us of the problem in Isaiah 6: 10-13, which is the people’s lack of understanding. However, now it is not a point of judgment. The people’s lack of knowledge of God arises from their insecurity and lack of willingness to enter into faith, not from their wilful rejection of him. But they need to grasp that God’s understanding is unsearchable and that he grants his power to the weak (verses 28-29). In spite of the people’s inability to comprehend God’s way or to see any confidence in the future, God moves to deliver them. They will find both new energy and new hope in waiting for God (verse 31).

Some questions

This passage from the Book of Isaiah holds two thoughts in tension. The proclamation of what seems impossible to believe is held in tension with the truth of what is impossible to deny. The prophet announces that the truth is impossible to deny. It has been told from the beginning. The NRSV translates the third part of verse 21: “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

The Hebrew text, though, may read: “Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?”

And so, the final rhetorical question is actually the climax in a short series of staccato lines:

● surely you know
● surely you have heard
● surely it has been told to you
● surely you understand the foundations of the earth.

And if we understand the foundations of the earth, how can we believe in the possibility of any other god at work in our world? This God, and this God alone, stands above the world, creating a place for us, even though we may sometimes feel we are as easily dismissed as grasshoppers living in the circle of the earth (verse 22). This same God is intimately involved in the historical and political courses of life, for it is he “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (verse 23).

If we are to make some connections between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading this morning (Mark 1: 29-39), then we should think about the way these episodes can help the reader to recognise who it is who proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God.

The stories in the Gospel reading, in their own ways, continue the theme of divine power which lies beyond the realms of earthly experience, but which is to be seen by those who hear and understand, by those who wait.

At the start of Christ’s ministry in Saint Mark’s Gospel, we are reminded of the one who is sovereign over all creation, who can strengthen the weak and faint, whose word is one of promise and hope, and who is present in Christ’s proclamation and activity, his mission and his ministry.

Leonard Cohen on stage at Lissadell House, Co Sligo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In an interview with Dorlan Lynskey in the Guardian last Friday [20 January 2012] to mark the release of his new album, Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen was asked about hard work. “Well, you know, we’re talking in a world where guys go down the mines, chewing coca and spending all day in backbreaking labour. We’re in a world where there’s famine and hunger and people are dodging bullets and having their nails pulled out in dungeons, so it’s very hard for me to place any high value on the work that I do to write a song. Yeah, I work hard but compared to what?”

We have every justification for hope and confidence in the coming of God among us. But, as with Isaiah’s audience in our reading, realising the hope that is also a promise in our Gospel reading is not always easy. Think of the many things that hold people captive in our society today: the fear of pension cuts, health cuts, welfare cuts, education cuts, job cuts.

Think of the many “powers” in our governments, in politics, in the global and national economies, in the media and in society that continue to take possession of us and to play on our insecurities and our hopelessness so that we are overwhelmed by another kind of exile in which it is hard to see a future or to hear the call of God to welcome in his kingdom.

God is concerned for all who are weary and exhausted, all who feel abandoned by their God. But the poet-prophet suggests that such weariness does not deny God. This is “the everlasting God” and “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (verse 28). This is the God who not only created, but creates, the one who not only brought nations into existence, but who remains in control of world political affairs.

The promise of an end to their exile and of renewed strength seems impossible for the people to believe, for their current plight is impossible to deny. What seems irreconcilable is, in fact, not because of the identity of the one in whom they confess. While “his understanding is unsearchable” (verse 28), his identity is undeniable. He is the Creator who recreates, who is shaping and reshaping the world and all who live in it (see verse 28).

It is tempting to identify easily with the biblical people and to overlook the way that God grinds to dust our own contemporary “sacrificial” systems. Over whom is it comforting or self-serving to see God standing as the creator-other? What sacrificial systems are we in fact still using to “direct” or “enlighten” the Lord?

How does our science co-opt nature now in ways that support or authorise our violence against one another – whether this is physical, spiritual, or economic violence?

We may say that Common Sense shows how irresponsible it is to be passive in the face of oppression and injustice, not to act on behalf of the downtrodden. But, apart from speaking the truth, are there other ways to act so that we can reconcile action with the call to wait?

Closing image

The Eagle in Bene’t Street, Cambridge ... across the street from the grasshopper on the “Chronophage” or “Time Eater” on the Corpus Christi clock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I asked earlier which you would rather be – an eagle or a grasshopper. The grasshopper and the Eagle are curious neighbours in Cambridge. The Corpus Christi Clock, in a former bank window on the corner of King’s Parade, Trumpington Street and Bene’t Street, is a remarkable piece of time-keeping technology, a wonderful timepiece in which the grasshopper really looks like it is eating time.

The clock – the “Chronophage” or “Time Eater” – was unveiled by the physicist Stephen Hawking in 2008. The name Chronophage means “Time Eater.” But the clock is unusual not only because of its design but because it is accurate only once every five minutes.

A few steps away, across the street on the north side of Bene’t Street and opposite Saint Bene’t’s Church, is the Eagle, the pub where James Watson and Francis Crick often had lunch while they were working on the structure of DNA, and is the first place where Watson publicly presented the double helix model.

Together, the Eagle and the Grasshopper in Cambridge present two very important truths about life. The grasshopper reminds us how we can all let our time be consumed by the small things in life, when we should be more focussed on the more important priorities. And the Eagle reminds us of the soaring heights of beauty in God’s creation, explained not even in the marvellous and wonderful discoveries in science.

Collect:

Almighty God,
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
Give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise;
that, among the many changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life,
that those who come to him should never hunger.
Draw us to our Lord in faith and love,
that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom,
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Next week: The Second Sunday before Lent, Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31; or Hosea 2: 14-20.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group of MTh students on Wednesday 25 January 2012.