This is the text of a sermon I gave at Victoria Methodist Church in Bristol on Sunday, 27th January, 2013, based on the lectionary readings for that day: Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a, and Luke 4: 14-21.
We live in turbulent and challenging times when all our established meanings, values and institutions are in flux, in the Christian church no less than in the rest of society. The old securities and fantasies have gone. We find ourselves cast upon what the poet Matthew Arnold referred to as the ‘naked shingles of the world’, as we listen to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of ‘the Sea of Faith’ (On Dover Beach). Times like these invite us to look differently at creation and our place within it.
I want to reflect on today’s readings in the context of a lovely book written by the Anglican hermit and theologian, Maggie Ross, called Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding. I’m moving towards the suggestion that today’s readings triangulate the relationship between nature, scripture and community. The mystery of God continuously unfolds within that relational triangle. It is the space of revelation that opens up when we interpret life from the perspectives of nature, scripture and our relationships with one another.
Ross focuses on the significance of what it means ‘to behold’, as a form of contemplative attentiveness which goes far beyond simply looking or seeing. It’s a way of being focused so as to remain open to the grace of God in all the created wonder of the world. Beholding enables us to perceive what Gerard Manley Hopkins describes as ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’, or in Blake’s words, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower’.
Ross points out that in Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible, the imperative form of the world ‘behold’ occurs more than 1300 times. She observes that ‘After God has blessed the newly created humans, the first word he speaks to them directly is “Behold” (Genesis 1:29). By contrast, in the New Revised Standard Version the word ‘behold’ appears only 27 times in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and not at all in the New Testament.
Ross writes that
Silence and beholding are our natural state. … It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have (mis)managed it. As the pace of contemporary life accelerates and the rising tide of noise degrades the biosphere, the need to recover and, more especially, to teach and practice silence and seeking into the beholding becomes even more critical.
Contemplation is a doorway into the most profound freedom and fullness of our humanity which is our response to that command, ‘behold’. It comes about through a quiet receptivity to God’s grace beyond all the rules and regimes of institutional religious life. It asks of us the hardest thing of all, for it asks nothing of us. It asks us to do nothing, to be nothing, to say nothing, to achieve nothing. It asks us simply to be, and to discover that our being is nothing except insofar as it is a participation in God’s being. This requires a disciplined attentiveness to the creation of which we are a part, and a way of listening which enables us to hear what George Eliot described as ‘that roar which is the other side of silence.’
I want to suggest that the first of today’s readings suggests to us something of what we discover when we learn this discipline of silent, focused attentiveness. It’s a discipline that’s difficult to master in a world so saturated with the noise and jangle of technology.
Sara Maitland, in her aptly named Book of Silence writes that
In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos. Organic growth is silent too. Cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without a murmur.
When we learn how to attend to this deep silence at the heart of things, we discover the meaning of today’s psalm, which is an eloquent testimony to the contemplative beholding of creation within which we discover God:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2 One day tells its tale to another,
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language,
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has gone out into all lands,
and their message to the ends of the world.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
In the psalm, reflection on the wordless revelation of God in creation prepares us to discover the laws of God within our own hearts, and guides us along the pathways of virtue and truth. But if our human understanding of God and the good life is informed by our contemplation on nature, this serves to remind us that the true life of faith is far removed from the kind of moral complacency that so often sustains the Christian status quo.
Creation reveals to us both an order and a mystery. On the one hand, by understanding the laws of the natural world and our own place within an orderly universe, we are able to bring intellectual and spiritual meaning to our lives – which is what the natural law tradition teaches. The author of nature is the author of scripture, and together they reveal the creator in a way which gives meaning and purpose to the world. That’s why, whatever people like Richard Dawkins say, there can ultimately be no conflict between the veiled truths of scripture and the manifest facts of science. When such conflict appears, it’s because of human finitude or ignorance – a failure to interpret scripture or a failure to interpret nature correctly. But the language of scripture is not the language of history or science. It’s a complex weaving together of language around an unsayable mystery. Creation speaks to us beyond what words can say, without words or language, and it speaks to our hearts in ways that science alone cannot. As we reflect on the glory of God encrypted within the wonder of nature, the frenetic calculating business of our minds is stilled, and we rest in the silent wonder of being.
But the contemplative life is not frozen in time. Our path to the doorway of eternity always leads through the time and place of our bodily belonging in the world. Today, we approach the eternal mystery of God with new crises and questions. Like every generation, we come bearing fundamental existential questions about suffering, injustice, poverty and sorrow. But we also come with questions that are different from those that our ancestors asked. We come in the knowledge that we are destroying the very planet upon which our lives depend. We come knowing that the modern worship of Mammon has brought us to the brink of social disintegration. We come knowing that our technological and scientific mastery has far oustripped our capacity for wisdom and goodness, so that our human genius is too often used in the service of death and destruction rather than in the service of life and creativity. We come as men and women who mistrust and question even our most fundamental experiences of identity, sexuality and relationality.
These are new challenges and issues, and this brings me to that second reading from 1 Corinthians. Here, we’re reminded that the community of the Church is a community of unity in diversity – and if that’s true of the Church, it’s true of all human life. We flourish best when we recognize and celebrate difference, and see that our human diversity – cultural, religious, racial and sexual – has to the potential to enable us to work harmoniously together for good. The environmental crisis alerts us to the interdependency of different species and forms of life. Those of you who are watching David Attenborough’s Africa might marvel at how intricately interwoven life is in its relationships, dependencies and interactions, and what is true of nature is also true of human culture. Thomas Aquinas argues that all of life participates in God, and life needs to be as abundant and diverse as possible in order to awaken us to the mystery of God. In every single thing that lives and breathes and moves, in every river and mountain, in every pebble on the beach and every bird in the sky, there is a revelation of God which is unique, fleeting, never-to-be-repeated, and the same is true of human individuals, communities, races and nations. If only we could see that, how much of our xenophobia and racism and militarism and violence would be overcome?
But so far, so good. We know that in culture as in nature, life is not an orderly and benign revelation of a sentimentally or morally good God. Before Darwin threw a spanner in the theological works, our Victorian ancestors had their own interpretation of natural law. Not only did God create all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, God also created the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly, God ordered their estate. Today, we know that the living world is governed by evolutionary dynamics which, from the point of view of human morality and reason, can look violent, wasteful and extravagant. Perhaps we need to rethink of the creator God, not as the rational philosopher measuring out the universe with compass and set square in hand, but as a creative genius pushing against the frontiers of failure and collapse in order to achieve the very greatest work of art. In this turbulent and mysterious creation, we are the most violent of species and the most tragic of life forms. However we explain evolution and the processes of life, we know that in the struggle to the top of the evolutionary ladder, we have lost some of the fundamental attributes that would allow us to be at peace in the world and with one another. This is what Christians call original sin, but we can call it by other names – alienation, being towards death, existential angst. So this brings me to the Gospel reading, where I want to suggest all these different perspectives I’ve talked about this morning are woven together.
The Gospel tells us of Jesus’s coming out – a coming out that was as scandalous to those who heard him as any coming out would be today. Jesus reads the word of God, and it’s a word of good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed. In the second century, the theologian Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a person who is fully alive. Jesus is the fully alive person in whom the glory of God is fully revealed, and that glory is inseparable from the justice that inspires us to seek to be a community of diversity, compassion and attentiveness to one another. It’s a community which turns the values of politics and economics, power and domination, inside out and upside down, then as now. It shakes us up, calls us out of our lonely isolation, and opens our eyes to the silenced, the marginalised, the forgotten and the hidden. In a phrase sometimes used by preachers, this is a Gospel that not only comforts the afflicted, it also afflicts the comfortable. As we listen to the silence of creation, our ears are attuned to the silence of the suffering and the forgotten in whom God is revealed. Both are exercises of listening to silence. Both require of us a disciplined attentiveness to voices and meanings that are muffled and overlaid by the noisy clamour of our everyday lives. That’s why true contemplation of nature is never a kind of solipsistic New Age indulgence. It’s a rocky and rugged adventure along the pathways of truth.
Immediately before this Gospel reading, Luke tells us of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, and that’s why I speak of a triangular relationship that weaves together nature, scripture and community. In the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t go into a kind of nature-loving idyll where God’s beauty is revealed in the rivers and mountains. Jesus goes into the wilderness and faces the demons that await him there. Beholding is not comfortable. It calls us to an encounter not only with the beauty of nature but also with its horror, not only with the wonder of our own being but also with the terror of our own being. Only when Jesus has endured this radical confrontation with creation in the raw, with all its angels and demons unleashed, is he able to read and proclaim the Word of God with authority in the midst of the community, and to usher in a new way of being a community shaped around the poor, the captives, the widows and the orphans upon whom God’s favour rests.
The challenge we face today is first and foremost a question of meaning and interpretation. What does it mean to exist, and how do we interpret the creation of which we are apart? Such questions arises from the depths of the human condition. They invite us to recognize the Christ who dazzles and dances throughout the atoms and quarks of matter and in every human encounter. They invite us to behold, and in that beholding to recognize what the poet means when he says: