Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Louis Armstrong and the Power of the Gospel

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Wednesday, 28th March, 2012, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Daniel 3:14-20 & 24-25 & 28

And They Had A Very Good Time In the House of Babylon

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.


One of the benefits of being an anachronism is that you sometimes find out about things that others don’t. I doubt that those who listen to contemporary popular music have ever heard a song which was a commentary on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but that is precisely what Louis Armstrong (who died the day after my fifth birthday) sang.

The story is too absurd to be meant to be taken literally, so we don’t have to think of anyone actually being thrown into a furnace, which would be a vicious crime and a sin, although we know from history – and maybe still in our own day – that appalling things like that are possible. So, the combination of the story itself, with Mr Armstrong’s wonderful charism of endless cheerfulness, is thoroughly uplifting.

If I were a better man, or maybe a worse one, I would sing it to you, but best not, and I leave it you to judge which I might be.

Three things come to mind, having listened to it afresh last night.

The first is that Mr Armstrong is obviously a theological liberal, adding the trombone and the clarinet to the hilarious list of instruments that the king wants played when his new idol is to be worshipped. Doubtless he thought that although they didn’t exist in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, if he had known about trombones and clarinets, he would certainly have included them.

Then there is the marvellous “Hey there!”, when King Nebuchadnezzar sees the four figures walking unharmed in the middle of the furnace. This is about as close as we can get to the A-word that we don’t say in Lent. His “hey there!” is for Nebuchadnezzar the beginning of a journey, the opening up of a new understanding, taking him from the making of idols to the worship of God.

And there are those final words of the song “and they had a very good time, in the House of Babylon”. Well, the Israelites were certainly not expecting to have a good time at all – they were captives in a foreign land, and being land-less, they had thought they would be God-less too, because God would have been left behind with the land and homes and flocks they had lost. But no, God had come with them, and here God was, in Babylon. They too were on a journey of discovery, one which must have appealed to Mr Armstrong, with his roots in the American South, where so many people had been taken captive into slavery until only a generation before his own.

We all have our Babylons, the choices and decisions we don’t want to make, the journeys and treks we dread going on but are forced by circumstances beyond our control, but “the power of the Gospel” as Mr Armstrong puts it, is that if God goes with us, these things can go well, and we may yet “have a very good time in the House of Babylon”, which we weren’t expecting. Amen.


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

1 comment:

  1. Louis Armstrong as a theological liberal!

    New concept to me. But I loved his music and voice. Need to dig out some old music and play it.

    Not sure I'd want to walk through a furnace waving at the King though. It might have been OK in the past, but Health and Safety would have something to say about. Proper protective clothing needed, Perhaps the Armour of God as Paul puts it.

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