“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is JC Jacobsen, and I have been dead for 130 years.”
As openers go, it was a pretty good one. Jacobsen was the founder of Carlsberg. You can see his name on some of the cans and bottles. He appeared as a hologram in Copenhagen in August last year, to give a posthumous presentation about the value of uncertainty. [If you’re interested you can see it on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH8WK2ydUs4]
The talk was entitled “Why You Should Answer Every Question with Probably,” and fits in with Carlsberg’s long-time slogan, “Probably the best beer/lager in the world.”
The actor playing the part of Jacobsen was dressed in period costume, with top hat and frock coat. But the speech, written by a creative agency working with his biographers, was more than a publicity stunt. In the talk, Jacobsen argues for the value of embracing probably, rather than yes or no, as a philosophy for life.
Ambiguity, risk and complexity
We all deal with uncertainty every day. Not everything is predictable, there are coincidences and adventures. There are insecurities, ambiguities, risks and complexities.
The speech points out the differences between optimists, who say ‘yes’ to everything, and pessimists who say ‘no’ to everything. Jacobsen encourages saying ‘probably’ to everything! He argues that this allows you the room to embrace the new and the different and the changing.
For him, saying ‘yes’ to everything is over-simplistic. It doesn’t confront or challenge. It’s great to be positive, and glass half full, but sometimes problems really are problems – rather than ‘opportunities to learn’. And we need to treat them seriously.
And saying ‘no’ to everything may make you feel powerful and self-important. Pessimists are normally right more often than optimists are. Things often do fail. But usually that’s because the pessimism itself causes things to fail. If you think you’re not good at something, or if someone tells you often enough that you’re not, then you probably won’t do it very well.
So, in this made-up speech Jacobsen suggests that ‘Probably’ is saying that our current knowledge is only our best guess, and that a new and better idea might be discovered at any time. Answering every question with ‘probably’ makes you break new ground, to innovate, in business and in everyday life as well.
In real life he took a very enlightened view of business. Jacobsen shared the bedrock on which his business was built – the pure brewing yeast that he had taken years to scientifically develop. He shared that even with his competitors when they had none of their own. He could have taken advantage of their weakness but he didn’t.
And when the Frederiksborg Palace in Copenhagen burnt down in 1859 he donated a lot of money to rebuild it. The castle had become a symbol of unity in Denmark and to Jacobsen it just felt like a good idea to repair it, to reconstruct something beautiful. 150 years before Bill Gates got generous, Jacobsen was already doing it.
As purely economic investments neither of these actions made any sense at all. He couldn’t predict the outcome of donating yeast to a rival or of giving money away to build a castle. But Jacobsen embraced uncertainty and moved on, moved forward.
And that brings us to parables. There are normally few certainties in the world of parables. You’re left to figure out your own conclusions, to take your own learnings, which may be different each time you hear them. Jesus rarely explained them even to his closest disciples, leaving the interpretations open.
Often you get to choose which character to identify with. In the story that we usually call the prodigal son, but is actually entitled ‘a father had 2 sons’, are you the younger son who left and returns, or the father who keeps looking out for his youngest son to come back? Or are you the older son who never goes away and ain’t too happy when younger brother comes back? Perhaps you are the mother who is never even mentioned? In good biblical tradition maybe the 2 sons had different mothers? Are you the mum of the older son or the younger son?
Switching parables, are you the lost coin or the woman looking for it? Are you the person set upon by thieves and left to die or the enemy who cares for the injured one despite all expectations? Perhaps you’re one of those who pass-by on the other side?
Maybe it’s different each time you read them? They speak to you in a new way depending on your situation at the time.
Today parables would probably be called resonant sermons by the people who give these things names. Rather than neatly tied up 10-minute packages with a beginning and an end, resonant sermons are like pebbles dropped into a still pond of those listening, creating ripples which extend beyond the physical ending of the sermon. Words that travel with you as you go home, go to work, live your life through the week.
We’ll never fully and completely understand God or the Bible in this lifetime. We won’t fully comprehend the Trinity, or the extent of Jesus sacrifice. But if we wait till we understand everything then we’ll probably never do anything.
Things in this world don’t fit together neatly like a jigsaw. We’ll never have all the information or perfect knowledge – but we must have the courage to act anyway. To lean into uncertainty and make a virtue of it.
Pursuit of better
Which makes it a bit of a shame that today’s ‘parable’, if we can really call it that, seems to be such a rubbish one! There’s not much mystery or surprise in leaves being a sign of summer coming…
In truth the fig tree has huge symbolism for the Jewish nation and there’s more to it than it seems. But, even at face value, that illustration of leaves on a tree is not a bad metaphor for here, for St James. Things do come and go. They each have their season but there’s always new life around the corner.
You may not know it, but you have something wonderful happening in this church. There’s love and caring – and there’s life. By all normal reckoning the loss of your church building would be a disaster. But perhaps it’s freed you from a burden and allowed you to move more quickly and do different things? To ‘be church’ in a new and more relevant way? You may to have to make it up as you go along, to improvise. But you know, that’s probably OK.
JC Jacobsen had another mantra, another saying – and that was ‘constant pursuit of better’. That’s pretty good guidance for us too.
And on the day that I talk about Carlsberg (& other brands are available), it’s a healthy reminder to see some sage advice in today’s Gospel: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”
Sharing yeast and building beauty
In the presentation, Jacobsen finished with these words: “So be generous and share the yeast in your life, whatever that yeast may be. Rebuild your beautiful castles, whatever they may be for you, simply because they are beautiful.”
Sharing yeast and building beauty are the sort of decisions that don’t have certain results – but they make the world better for today and for tomorrow. They help bring the Kingdom of God more speedily to this place.
So be generous and share something precious to you. Rebuild something of beauty.
At the start of Advent, a time of reflection and preparation, maybe you personally need to take a risk and step out? You may not have all the facts or be certain about your abilities or know where it will end…but go on – give it a go. You’re surrounded here by people who love you and want you to succeed.
And, of course, you can be certain of one thing. That God loves you and He will be there beside you wherever you go.
St James, Heywood. The best church in the world? Probably… Amen
“Probably the best…” was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood on 2nd December 2018. The Gospel reading is Luke 21: 25-36.
- Major thanks to Tim Nudd in Adweek, August 23rd 2017, who inspired the sermon and to the Carlsberg newsroom, from the same day, for the text of the Jacobsen speech.
- Also to ‘Short stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial Rabbi’ by Amy-Jill Levine.