Lent 2 2020 ~ The God of Abraham Praise
Genesis 12.1–4a; Romans 4.1–5,13–17; John 3.1–17
On the wall behind me, in the inset by the window are two figures, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We often forget that they are there, because we think of our artworks as portraying the angels on one side and the Magi on the other – it’s sort of a Christmas Wall. The prophets in the windows on the North side are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, who are joined by Old Testament patriarchs and kings. Depicted to show Jesus’ human genealogy, the sequence starts at the West end with Adam and Abel, and culminates with Jesse and David at the East end. In their midst is Abraham.
On the South side, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are in the stained-glass windows and in the niches are joined by saints associated with the spread of Christianity to Britain. Alban and Columba are among them. They are placed between appropriate Biblical quotations and are shown with objects symbolising their work and faith.
But in the niches of the main window are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two very significant men. Joseph is the one who asks for the body of Jesus so he can be given a proper Jewish burial. Nicodemus is the Jewish religious leader who, as in today’s gospel, is the first to really question Jesus about what was to become Christianity. He is the original enquirer, the original seeker after truth. Later Pontius Pilate cannot be bothered to seek after truth, asking Jesus ‘what is truth?’, but not waiting for the answer, as it were. Instead he puts Jesus to death. Pilate crucified truth, whereas Nicodemus sought after it.
We don’t have Pilate on our walls, although our sister Church of St Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, being Greek Orthodox, does in fact have a picture of Pontius Pilate. It’s a picture of Mary Magdalene showing Pontius Pilate an egg, who in some traditions is known as Saint Pontius Pilate. I digress – we don’t have Pilate, but we do have Saint Nicodemus. As well as being the one who approaches Jesus by night, to seek after truth, he is also the one who reminds the Jewish council that Jesus has a right to trial. As someone who is interested in real truth, as opposed to propaganda or fake news, as someone who seeks to ensure that another man receives a fair hearing before being condemned, Nicodemus is a man not only for our times, but for all seasons. He is a man of wisdom, justice, integrity and truth. What we call in the church, a good bloke. And he is a saint, certainly in the Roman Catholic Tradition, and his feast day is August 3rd. Saint Nicodemus – and there he is on our wall, often overlooked even by us.
Nicodemus was a Jew who became a Christian – like all the disciples in fact – an intelligent Jewish leader who saw the connectedness of Judaism and Christianity and who recognised Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in his own Jewish religious tradition. He would have recognised Jesus as the successor to Abraham, and might even have connected the death and resurrection of Jesus, which he was party to, as the reworking of the sacrifice that God asked of Abraham, to kill his son Isaac, but spared and restored him at the last minute. Nicodemus was perhaps one of the first to recognise, as St Paul puts it, that Abraham is the spiritual father of us all.
And, as I said, Abraham is also up there on our wall. And our readings today are about it the connection between Abraham and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, you and I, we are all children of Abraham. As is every Jew who died in the holocaust, every Christian who has persecuted Jews in mediaeval Europe, Saladin and his crusader-killers and indeed anyone who professes the faiths of Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Abraham is the father of us all, as it were, and one shudders to think what he would have made of the state of the world today, in which religious intolerance and violence are as terrible as perhaps they ever were. Abraham would lament. And so would Jesus. I don’t know what Mohammed would think, but we can be pretty sure that there are many things being done in his name worldwide today of which he could not possibly approve. This picture of Abraham as father of all three major world faiths, like the picture of him on our wall, is there, but often overlooked.
Yet today we have sung a Jewish hymn. To some extent, Psalms aside, it is the only Jewish hymn in the book. I’m referring to ‘The God of Abraham Praise’. While many hymns began life as or are paraphrases of psalms, this megalithic hymn originates in a text written by Moses Maimonides, 1130-1204/5, and is a medieval Jewish credal statement of the thirteen articles of Jewish faith. It was versified by the Roman rabbi Daniel ben Judah, sometime between 1396 and 1404.
The hymn is known as the Yigdal Elohim chay weyishtabach and was sung in medieval Rome on the eve of the Sabbath. The making of such a paraphrase in Hebrew was a remarkable achievement in itself, yet while the hymn we sang has its origins in a Jewish hymn, and can be used in the context of Jewish-Christian fellowship and dialogue, it is not a translation of the Yigdal, and should not be thought of as such. Rather it is a Christian’s spiritual response to it, employing the same tune.
The author, Thomas Olivers was a Welsh cordwainer (I hope you all know by now that a Cordwainer is a shoemaker, don’t you?!). Having succumbed to ‘profane and impious behaviour’, he headed north for Shrewsbury and Wrexham, where he encountered Methodism. When he died he was buried in Wesley’s tomb in the City Road Chapel, London in 1799.
In 1770 Olivers was staying in London, and one Friday evening decided to attend the Westminster synagogue in Duke’s Place. As was the custom, the Yigdal was sung antiphonally, led by Mayer Leon, whose liturgical name was Meier Leoni. From his name we get the name of the tune. Olivers asked him to write down the tune, and then he wrote the English language, evangelical Christian version so beloved in churches today. He published it as a twelve-verse hymn in a leaflet entitled A Hymn to the God of Abraham. In Three Parts: Adapted to a celebrated Air, sung by the Priest, Signior Leoni, etc., at the Jews’ Synagogue, in London. Very few hymn books publish all twelve verses, and of course singing all twelve would require a very special occasion and a long procession probably!
The tune not only has it a Jewish musical flavour, but with its generally upward rising movement and firm minor tonality it has a dignity which befits the wide and rich depths of faith it expresses. Incidentally, Rossini used the tune in his 1818 opera Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt) as the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea.
The hymn is a three-part journey of and through faith and life. To sing it all would be a musical pilgrimage indeed, carrying the singer from the beginnings of creation through original sin to personal salvation in Jesus’ blood, leading to being uplifted to heaven to worship the Godhead face to face.
And this, in a sense, is the story traced by our readings today. From the faithful act of Abraham whereby he becomes the father of all nations, to the diverse culture and world we live in today, we can trace a continuing story and journey of faith. St Paul reminds us that it is our faith in God, not what we do, that saves us. That was the case for Abraham and it is the case for everyone since. It is relevant to our current attempts to save ourselves from environmental, climate-changed disaster. What we do is an outworking of our faith and a manifestation of our calling, but faith lies at the core. For without faith, our works are meaningless. Not pointless, but meaningless. Faith gives meaning to our lives: purpose and direction.
This is certainly something to remember in a fractured, religiously illiterate, suspicious world in which differences crowd out consonance, fuelling the cacophony of intolerance. So let it be our prayer then, that inspired by our common ancestor Abraham, and by Nicodemus’ quest for truth fuelled by integrity and generosity of spirit, we, and our whole world may be transformed by our faith in Jesus Christ into a community of openness, inclusivity and generosity. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 08/03/2020