Brothers and Sisters,
I started off calling these letters, Letters from Exile, but I’ve decided to change that – because it does sound as though I have been banished to a penal colony – the image that many Brits still have of Australia. We think of it as a far away place ‘down under’. It amazed me to read Augustine speaking of Australia! As early as the 4th Century the Latins spoke of Australis – the great land to the South.
I suspect that for most people the centre of the world is where they are just now. To Brits the UK is the centre of the world (to the Chinese it is China, to Europeans, Europe and to Americans America). Strangely enough I have come across a kind of inferiority complex (except in sport) from some Australians with a European heritage – who have adopted the view that Europe is more ‘civilised’ and central. But there is a different way of looking at the world.
So I’ve renamed these Letters from Australia. Some of you will remember the wonderful Letter from America – the radio show presented by Alistair Cooke from 1946 to 2004 – so let’s go with Letter from Australia.
One of the images that defines Australia for many people is that of the Sydney Opera house. It is a stunning building in an amazing setting. I see it every day (my office is a couple of minutes away) and it’s still a wonder to me. It has always been one of my bucket list ambitions to go to an opera in the Sydney Opera House. A couple of weeks ago that ambition was fulfilled. Sometimes you have such a sense of anticipation that when the event arrives you are invariably disappointed. Not in this instance. We saw Pucini’s Madame Butterfly. It’s almost impossible to describe how wonderful the whole experience was – the setting, the music, the story, the costumes, the voices, the orchestra and the sheer, spine tingling beauty of it all. I was utterly transfixed. Some people speak of a transcendent experience – this came so close to that.
Here is a wee taster…
This song is the best part known part of the opera – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything so beautiful
Now I realize that for some Christians that sounds like a wee bit blasphemous – because surely transcendence has only to do with God? Exactly. But just as the glory of God is seen in his creation, so his glory is reflected in the creations of his creation. When I see a sunset over the Scottish Highlands I admire the work of the Creator. When I hear Bach I admire the work of the Creator who enabled one of his creations, made in his image, to produce such beauty. Likewise with what we experienced at Sydney Opera House – it is a superb apologetic for the Good News. The apologetic of beauty. The God of beauty shows us the beauty of Christ, and gives us the beauty of Christ – he gives us beauty for ashes.
I thought of that again when I was at a lawyers breakfast where the noted historian, Professor Edwin Judge, was speaking. At 94 years old he was brilliant – hugely informative, stimulating and challenging. However I did disagree strongly with one assertion he made – that Paul and the Bible never commend beauty. Even though he was referring entirely to physical beauty, I think he was wrong. I asked him if his view was more of a Platonic view than a Christian one – to a classicist such as Prof Judge that was like the ultimate insult! He said he will answer me at the next lecture this coming week. I look forward to my comeuppance!
Our God is the God of beauty. Psalm 27 urges us to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. Although Sydney Opera House was a wonderful experience – it is an experience I have had to a higher degree many times (though not always) when we gather as the church for the worship of God, to seek him in his beauty. I was reminded of that listening to last Sunday’s morning service from St Peters – it was not just Sinclair’s sermon, but also David Miller’s prayer, the praise and especially the singing of the psalms (that by the way is the thing I miss most here – I long for the psalms). Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zions children know.
We are so privileged as the Lord’s people – we don’t need the equivalent of the Sydney Opera House to worship God – we can worship him in a field – and experience a depth and transcendence that the opera-goers can only dream of.
May the Beauty of the Lord our God be upon you all this Lord’s Day. May you be transfixed and transformed by his beauty…