Notes from the sermon by the Rev. Hayley Matthews 5th January 2020 – Epiphany
I was introduced to what3words this week. It’s a little app where the entire world has been marked by a metre square grid that has been given three unique and unrelated words. For example, sat up in my bedroom writing this the three words for my precise location on the bed were disturbing.readjusts.tension* – apt, perhaps, for sermon writing – whereas where I enjoy my morning lemon and ginger tea in the kitchen the three words are insects.performer.taps*. The aim is to help the emergency services locate you so that rather than say, ‘I’m at Bolton Abbey not far from the Strid,’ you can say starting.binds.tutorial and they will be able to locate you and your broken leg much more accurately.
But there’s one Word that covers every square metre of this earth, the universe beyond, and one star that leads us all there, past, present and future, and that word is the Living Word; Jesus born to us as one of us, and yet surpassing us all. But, like all the best things, He is secretly hidden to be found only by the true seeker – and yet hidden in plain sight so that anyone might find the hidden treasure when they least expect to.
Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this perfectly in his poem God’s Grandeur:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
It is a poem that speaks so clearly of the passage in John’s gospel; just as John the Baptist was not the true Light that was to come into the world; just as the good deeds that we do should not point people to ourselves but lift peoples’ attention to a greater Love; just as the glory of the universe scattering the awesome wonder of the Northern lights across our skies is not the Light that brought everything into being; so even the darkness and dirt of life’s journey nor our suffering and sorrows can snuff out the True Light from our darkness, however dark that may be.
Three years ago I was very sick indeed and my recovery was not a given. The treatment was called ‘radical’ and they weren’t joking. Just after my first dose of chemotherapy I was pacing around my garden after midnight in desperate need of fresh air and relief from both pain and sickness. Living alone seemed harder than ever when I felt in such need. Yet it was a beautiful night; the sky was clear and dark, the stars showing off their constellations like diamonds against black velvet. I can still hear the breeze whispering through the many trees that surrounded the vicarage garden. Suddenly I became aware that although I knew it was beautiful, I could no longer feel it; no longer experience it. I realised that somewhere along the road of life the many small darknesses – and some of the bigger ones – had completely dulled my sight.
I could no longer experience or feel the beauty of an exquisite night that surrounded me with all that would once have delighted me. I could no longer see the dearest freshness deep down things – I could no longer experience God. That revelation hit me harder than my diagnosis for it seemed to be saying to me, ‘you may as well be dead, because you are dead to life already; you’re even dead to God’. It was such a shock after so many years of devoting my life to God’s service – how could I have lost God along the way? He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not recognise him.
Fast forward so many weeks of the most arduous treatment. Again, alone on my bed one summer’s afternoon, unable to move my head because the chemo-radiotherapy made me so dizzyingly nauseated I dare not move a millimetre, I said again the only prayer I could manage; ‘Jesus, heal me, protect me, save me’.
These seven words were my mantra for many months and that afternoon they were no different to any other. Yet, at that moment that sun shone in through my bedroom window in one of those piercing shafts of light where the dust dances like a thousand tiny fireflies, glittering in the light. I watched it, absolutely mesmerised by the beauty of those tiny dust particles in the sunshine – and I thanked God; the God who made even the dust able to take my breath away and fill me with wonder – even there, unable to move on my sickbed.
Better still, I knew at that moment that I was healed – not necessarily that I would recover from either the treatment or the sickness, which, praise God, I have – but that I had had my sight restored. Once again I was able to see the light that had always been around me, that will always surround me; we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth… and from His fullness we have received grace upon grace.
No wonder the writer of Ephesians goes into such a paean of praise! He just can’t help himself as he lists all the benefits we enjoy as blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing…
We discover that we are chosen – so important when so many of us are in fact rejected from our own families for one reason or another; that we are adopted into the family of God, sons and daughters of a divine Mother and father who cannot but adore us; I’m not sure I fully realised just what that meant – for me to have been adopted by God – until I adopted my own two children. For God is the One who wills the very best for us and weeps with us over our faults and failings – pouring out God’s very Self on the cross in order to put that right… the forgiveness of our trespasses secured through Christ’s own blood. God’s beloved given that we might be beloved – have you thought about that?
God’s beloved given that we might be the beloved.
Then upon each and every one of us the seal of God’s spirit – that dearest freshness deep down becoming up front and centre-stage; leading and healing us into our futures as beloved sons and daughters of God.
We also discover that we are already part of a plan so much greater than any hope or dream we have had dashed along the way; a plan that in the fullness of time we shall all be caught up in the joy of a redeemed world; a world where all who have sought refuge will find it; where all who have been rejected are welcomed and belong; where all who have been abused or oppressed are freed from the perpetrators that would use and discard them as if they were of such little value when each and every one of us is of such enormous value that Jesus offers Himself that we might be freed – our inheritance is that of the full goodness of God, why Jeremiah writes that even the priests will be given their fill of fatness writing ‘my people shall be satisfied with my bounty’.
And although at times such scriptures have been used to suggest that there is a religious elite, a chosen few, they have been given for all. These gifts are not just for the precious few; for the good and the great and the Godly, although they too shall receive their share; they are also for the poor, the lost and the broken; for the priest who knows only inner darkness and the mother who fears she may have to leave the children she has only just brought to the light; for the woman who has been so badly damaged she fears her life has been ruined and she might never know love and for the man who fears he may never know the security of a living wage; they are for the child who cares for the adults and for the child who does not know care at all; they are for the prostitute using heroin to get through her next trick and for the man hiding a gun in his Mam’s cellar while the police raid the estate; they are for Her Majesty the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and they are for the cleaners of Church House, most of whom barely speak a word of English, and who are delighted when we leave our meeting buffet trays for them because we are all too fat to eat any more.
The promise is of comfort for mourning, dancing where there was sorrow, wine, grain and feasting where there have been foodbanks and fasting; that we shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.
I don’t know about your darknesses, whether you have passed through them, whether the world seems bleak for you right now, or whether you’ve ever seen the light at all.
But this I know, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I promise you, it’s true.
I’m living proof.
[* Just in case you have tried Hayley’s what3words and found that she seems to sleep in the ocean or drink tea in the Australian bush fires we have changed the words to protect her privacy though the replacement words hopefully convey a similar meaning! If you try using what3words please remember that if you share the words connected to where you live you are sharing your home address.]