Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 5 March 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Genesis Ch 12: v 1 – 4a; John Ch 3: v 1 – 17)
I can remember as a child living in a Devon village, that the Sunday service at the nearby church always began five minutes later than advertised. This was because we all had to wait for the local squire to arrive. No doubt he wanted to establish how important he was! One day a new Vicar was inducted and we waited with eager anticipation for his first Sunday service. Sure enough it began on time so that the squire’s arrival five minutes later was somewhat embarrassing. However, words must have been said because the following Sunday and thereafter the service began after his arrival – five minutes late as it had previously done.
This can’t have been that unusual because one of my favourite stories concerns a different village where a similar delay to the start of the service normally took place. The new vicar also began on time and used the opening sentence for Mattins: “When the wicked man …” “Stop”, shouted the churchwarden. “He hasn’t come yet.”
These opening sentences for Mattins and Evensong put together appropriate verses from the Psalms and the Bible more generally and the psalms are indeed full of memorable phrases such as psalm 139 v 14 where the author speaks of the human condition: “I will give thanks unto thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” – a striking phrase that sticks in our minds.
Human beings seem to have been created by God to be a mixture of the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual – a wondrous yet uncomfortable mix. Some people trail clouds of glory and are perceptibly focussed on the spiritual, though they would be the first to speak of their own unworthiness. No such self-doubt troubles those at the other end of the spectrum. They immerse themselves in this world and may be corrupted by it. They steadily snuff out human fellow feeling and become selfish and greedy beings. I guess most of us are at various points between those two extremes.
But even those who come to Church are tempted to put their religion at the service of their earthly existence seeking comfort and gratification and expressing disappointment or even criticism of God when he fails to provide it. It is much more difficult to put our material interests at the service of our faith than it is to put our religious interests at the service of our material well-being. It should, of course, be the other way round. We shouldn’t be praying for more and bigger barns to store our goods but looking for ways to use what we have for the good of others.
Jesus was one who subordinated his whole life to God’s will and strove always to be obedient. He made such an impression on his contemporaries because clearly the spiritual, the heavenly, the divine, took total precedence. Perhaps that is why some of what he said and did seemed contrary to worldly wisdom. Today’s Gospel shows us Nicodemus wanting to find out more about Jesus but, as a member of the Jewish council he was clearly concerned that his fellow council members would take a dim view of such a consultation and so visits Jesus at night.
When St. John, in his gospel, writes about things being done at night this is always flagging up that the person concerned was doing something in secret. The roads were not lit by streetlights as ours are today and so a night-time excursion gave the visitor a cloak of darkness. It might signify some dark deed as when Judas Iscariot went out at night to organise the betrayal of Jesus but it could also signify incomprehension as it does for Nicodemus who wanted to understand Jesus but found his words difficult and could not make sense of them.
Jesus explains some of his spiritual standpoint to Nicodemus in our Gospel today but uses earthly images to help. Just as we are born into this world into a human family so, spiritually, we enter God’s kingdom through a process analogous to birth. Nicodemus, though, affects incomprehension and so takes it all much too literally. Jesus rebukes him, or maybe he is teasing him with “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Jesus was at home in God’s kingdom but at the same time was living as a man on this earth. He was a very special link between those two worlds – you could say that he was a cross over point and likewise the special ceremonies which Jesus instituted which we call sacraments provide similar cross over points. Baptism is compared to a spiritual rebirth and reminds us of this conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus when he speaks about the necessity for us to be born from water and spirit. We baptise babies, children and adults of all ages even very old ones in the hope and expectation that this will mark the beginning of their spiritual journey through life. The newly baptised are at the beginning of their pilgrimage, not the end and can be supported on the way by parents, godparents, church members and friends.
Then the sacrament of Holy Communion is not merely a shared meal but a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The service tugs us for a while into the heavenly domain. With God’s help its effect will last over the coming week as we order our earthly lives by that spiritual perception. Arriving late like my Devonian squire is not the best preparation though if we are delayed it is considered sufficient to join the Communion service by the beginning of the Gospel.
Human beings seem to have an innate desire to seek the divine, the spiritual, because they know inwardly that the important gifts lie in God’s grace: his blessing, a confidence in his forgiveness, a new strength and the knowledge that God is with us. We may struggle but we can see that for Jesus this spiritual dimension was second nature.
May you find in this service that understanding and that blessing and may this grace stay with you now and always “for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”