Jesus, David Livingstone and Robert Burns
Many people admire Jesus. But nothing like as many think or agree that He was the divine Son of God. There are many in the Church of Scotland who follow a kind of Christian humanism which emphasises the lifestyle example of Jesus without taking on board the supernatural, eternal baggage that the Church has spoken about for nearly 2000 years. But when you compare Jesus with other people, He stands out as very different. Human lives, no matter how distinguished, successful and influential always show character flaws, limitations and usually significant failures alongside their merits.
There was a TV programme a few days ago about David Livingstone from along the road who lived from 1813 - 1873. Neil Oliver gave a ‘warts and all’ account of one of Scotland’s greatest heroes. In his lifetime Livingstone was regarded as a truly great explorer for crossing the sub equator area of Africa from west to east. He was honoured and feted in London and throughout Britain. Livingstone was one of the most popular national heroes of the late 19th century in Victorian Britain, He had a mythic status, which operated on a number of interconnected levels: that of Protestant missionary martyr, that of working-class "rags to riches" inspirational story, that of scientific investigator and explorer, that of imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial empire. The qualities and approaches which gave Livingstone an advantage as an explorer were that he usually travelled lightly, and he had an ability to reassure chiefs that he was not a threat. Other expeditions had dozens of soldiers armed with rifles and scores of hired porters carrying supplies, and were seen as military incursions or were mistaken for slave-raiding parties. Livingstone on the other hand travelled on most of his journeys with a few servants and porters, bartering for supplies along the way, with only a couple of guns for protection. He preached a Christian message but did not force it on unwilling ears; he understood the ways of local chiefs and successfully negotiated passage through their territory, and was often hospitably received and aided.
On the other hand Neil Oliver told us that Livingstone physically chastised his children for misbehaviour. He left his wife to bring up the children for years while he became the great and famous explorer. Livingstone was a hard taskmaster and uncompromising employer. He sent back false reports of the how navigable the upper waters of the River Zambesi were. Livingstone exaggerated the suitability of what we now know as Malawi for the European expansion of Christianity, commerce and civilisation. Livingstone hardly made a single convert to Christianity. He watched his wife die of malaria. Stubborn and driven, he died after four years of illness wandering about central Africa - what we know today as Zambia, trying to find the source of the Nile. But - Neil Oliver put Livingstone’s failings in perspective. David Livingstone all his public life - campaigned for, struggled for, and argued for the abolition of the slave trade. He did so on Christian grounds.
Of Robert Burns achievements much has been written and of his human faults and failings equally so. He is a cult hero to this day. He has his own world wide following. He has his own semi-sacramental commemorative meal with its unique character. His poems and songs are read and sung everywhere. He is the ‘heaven taught plough boy’ who overcame disadvantage to find literary recognition and greatness. He was the fiery critic of class and privilege. He loathed and satirised religious hypocrisy.
'Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate you! When I must skulk into a corner, lest the rattling equipage of some gaping blockhead should mangle me in the mire, I am tempted to exclaim--"What merits has he had, or what demerit have I had, in some state of pre-existence, that he is ushered into this state of being with the sceptre of rule, and the key of riches in his puny fist, and I am kicked into the world, the sport of folly, or the victim of pride?”'
'Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord, Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that; Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a coof for a' that: For a' that, an' a' that, His ribband, star, an' a' that: The man o' independent mind He looks an' laughs at a' that'.
'O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear, When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear, An' singing here, an' dancin there, Wi' great and sma'; For I am keepit by Thy fear Free frae them a’.
No-one can deny the beauty and feeling and humanity of Burns’ best thoughts.
'Had we never loved sae kindly, Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted, We had ne'er been broken-hearted'.
'But pleasures are like poppies spread: You seize the flower, its bloom is shed; Or like the snow fall on the river, A moment white - then melts forever'.
'I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion An' fellow mortal'!
'Then let us pray that come it may, (As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth, Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that, It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that'.
But Burns is an alternative messiah for some Scots. He is an approachable fallible all too human genius who allows people to think noble thoughts usually accompanied by a good dram. Many of his most beautiful love poems and songs were written for other men’s wives. He left his wife and family often and played away from home. He fathered many children out of marriage. He drank excessively and this caused his premature death. He glorified alcohol in poem and song and thus is the anti-prophet of many of Scotland’s continuing social and personal ills. Later in life to earn some money Burns hypocritically became a government excise man even though he was a social rebel. He nearly went to the West Indies to become a sugar plantation manager - an overseer of slaves. He played a canny below the parapets game amid the radical politics of his age (1759 - 1796) which included the American War of Independence (1775 - 1782) and the French Revolution (1789 - 1799).
Like Livingstone though, we place Burns faults and failings and large hypocrisies in the context of his literary greatness and breadth of vision and humanity - these derivatives of the Christianity he was raised with and expressed in a special way.
Jesus is seen in contrast to these two great icons of Scottish identity, culture and achievement. In the reading from the New Testament for today, we were reminded of certain temptations that visited Jesus before he began his public ministry. We should not underestimate the power and force of these imaginative suggestions. Jesus was not tempted to have a second chocolate biscuit with his tea. What he was presented with were alternative life strategies. The first was to end his fast prematurely before it had fulfilled its purpose. He was not on a diet. He was not trying to lose weight - this was a prayerful spiritual journey to make sure that when he began his public ministry he got it right from the start. Jesus lived a human life albeit that he was the Son of God. He needed spiritual discipline as we ourselves do if we are to be true Christians. The second temptation was to become a spectacular miracle worker, magician and illusionist. This would give him all the social prestige, influence, fame, popularity and wealth that he would ever want. The third was to become a political and military leader who would conquer the known ancient world. Jesus overcame these temptations because during the process of temptation his inner nature grew stronger and his mission and purpose became consummately clearer. It was his personal relationship with God His Father that would direct and drive him and nothing else. He would initiate in the human community a new covenant - a new relationship of forgiveness and grace and eternal salvation and a new everlasting community to embody these - the Church - of which we are members - you and me. He would be a suffering Messiah and he would rise in victory from physical death.
The difference between Jesus and Livingstone and Burns is that Jesus does not show evidence of succumbing to human frailty, weakness, bad judgement or wrong doing. For sure, critics would have found evidence if it had been there. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a family. That story ends with their descendants meeting up at Roslin Chapel and this suggests that they have been living for years in the area of Penicuik. If Jesus had been an ordinary person without divine nature, this is possibly what might indeed have happened. No shame to marry and have children. Most Jewish people did so. But that is not what happened. There is no explanation for what did happen other than that Jesus was the Son of God. In his nature he was able to overcome the human condition and triumph in resurrection and the Church was born.
If you are tempted to think of Jesus as just a very good man, a very great man, a great moral example and a superb spiritual leader - just put him beside the best that we can be according to our own nature. Put him beside Livingstone and Burns - and rejoice in the salvation He won for you.