Jerusalem has been in the news this week. President Donald Trump entered into a very sensitive area of international politics by backing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its “united and eternal” capital city. This is highly contentious, disputed by the Arab and Palestinian populace and not recognized by the international community. The dispute goes back a very long way, not least to 1948 when the city was separated into a western Israeli section and an eastern Jordanian one. In 1967 Israel annexed the eastern section, an act still not recognized by the United Nations. East Jerusalem is also claimed for a future independent Palestinian state and most nations recognize the dual claims with Jerusalem as a place of special significance for both Israelis and Palestinians. So President Trump has trodden into a volatile space. And of course the city has sacred significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, it has been fought over for millennia. The religious aspects add to its sensitivities.
Jerusalem has an iconic significance in Christian thought and imagery. We are used to hearing Old Testament readings, like today’s (Isaiah 40:1-11), which hold it up as a representative of the Hebrew people; the focus of its vocation and identity. It is comforted with tender words of hope. It is given a vocation to ‘herald good tidings’. Jerusalem stands for the people of God, for God’s presence and favour, and its fortunes are synonymous with the fortunes of the people.
In the Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8), Mark begins his gospel with the people from Jerusalem going out to hear John the Baptist proclaiming the Kingdom of God and to be baptized by him. The people of Jerusalem means the people at the heart of the national life, the people around the city of David, the people who would expect to greet the Messiah and indeed the people who did do so at Jesus’ triumphal entry – which we remember on Palm Sunday. It is not accidental that John parks his metaphorical tanks on the lawn of the capital city to begin his warm up act for Jesus to follow, and he points towards Jesus as the one who is to come.
Later in the New Testament Jerusalem is used as the symbol of hope and salvation. The New Jerusalem is the image of the heavenly city and the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, ends with this vision. So it is very much the focus of identity, the home of the Messiah and the symbol of the redemption he brings. It, therefore, stands as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, of the place of justice and salvation, of peace and good fortune for all.
Enter then the reality of Jerusalem as the contested city, the multi-cultural and multi-faith city. Enter Jerusalem the place of conflict and tension. Jesus weeps over this city (Luke 19:41-44), referring to it as the place that rejects prophets (Matthew 23:37-39). It is the place of so much promise and focus, and yet so much falling short. It is a place of conflict, in the time of Jesus it was under Roman occupation, and had been built and destroyed several times over a thousand years before hand. After its destruction in AD 70 the Temple was never rebuilt again and all that stands today is the Wailing Wall, a place of prayer. The Temple was cleansed by Jesus for its corruption (Luke 19:45-46). Jerusalem is where he goes to confront the power structures and false allegiances which led to his crucifixion. It is the place where he is condemned and outside it he is crucified. It is the place where the resurrection takes place, where the New Jerusalem is brought about. Jerusalem is a place of high significance and stands as a symbol of so much.
One of the most popular hymns is known simply by the name of this city, Jerusalem. Set to Parry’s stirring tune William Blake’s 1804 poem has great resonance, even if the words are somewhat perplexing. Some of the imagery is biblical, for instance the chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:11), and some comes from Blake’s fantasy and imagination. The suggestion that Jesus’ feet might have walked ‘upon England’s mountains green’ is an Arthurian legend, with no basis in fact. The answer to all the questions in the first verse is ‘probably no’ and to the demands of the second verse ‘get them yourself’. There are two main interpretations of the hymn. One is as a lament against 18th and 19th century industrialization with the ‘dark satanic mills’. It is also a clarion call for a ‘mental fight’, an intellectual appeal against a narrow and cold rationalism, making a plea for intuition and imagination. Both of these, industry and rationalism, are seen by him as being soulless. The second interpretation, more commonly held, is that it is a radical hymn calling for social justice. Both interpretations have a valid case: the dark satanic mills, the mental fight and the building of Jerusalem as a symbol of hope for all.
That second interpretation, as a radical hymn for social justice, has connected with movements for liberation. The poet Robert Bridges asked Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 to write his tune so that it could be sung at meetings of ‘Fight for the Right’, a movement set up to campaign for a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return home after the First World War. A land fit for heroes, if you like, where the New Jerusalem image is one of justice and freedom ‘builded here’. (Memo to self – remember this for Remembrance Sunday next year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.) This hymn was sung at a meeting in March 1918 at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the granting of the vote to women. Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragette, said to Parry that his hymn tune ought to become the Women Voters’ Hymn, and he responded with enthusiasm. It has become an anthem for women’s groups, not least the WI. It is an anthem of liberation and equality. It asks what kind of society do we want to be and holds before us the image of Jerusalem as a symbol of justice and peace, equity and dignity.
So Jerusalem has profound resonance for us. It has deep roots as the focus for identity, being the home of the Messiah, and the symbol of redemption. It stands as the place of justice and peace, flourishing and salvation. As a city today it is a contested city, a multi-cultural and multi-faith city. And so when we sing of it and pray for its peace we have to hold the challenges of what it means to live with difference and find the ‘much more that unites us than divides us’, for the common good. Justice and peace, equity and dignity do not rest on annihilation of another. The Old Testament is littered with the corpses from that. In Christ the New Jerusalem is a place for everyone, but also one where God’s kingdom reigns. That always brings surprises and challenge, the need for wills to bow. So when we sing of wanting to build Jerusalem in our ‘green and pleasant land’ we are praying for a nation where all are honoured and valued and treated with the dignity they are due as citizens of the eternal city, all created and redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is then that words of comfort can be found to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she can be a place to herald good tidings.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2 – Sunday 10th December 2017