Friday, 26 February 2010

Lent 2 Yr C/ Epiphany 3A Behold the beauty of the Lord...

A sermon for Sunday, 28th Feb, 2010.
Based on Ps 27.

What is beauty?

Apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder;
Beauty is only skin deep.
Or there’s the alternative version:
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone!
A Beauty Parlour, according to the old joke, is apparently a place where women curl up and dye…
And in response to that, there’s the question:
if love is blind, why is the cosmetic industry still making so much money? 
What is beauty?

How do we measure it?

As I’ve looked over the bible readings we heard earlier, one phrase in particular has stayed with me over the course of this week…
it comes from Psalm 27, verse 4:
The Psalmist says:
One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:
that I may be constant in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple
And the phrase I’ve been thinking about?
‘To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.’
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord? 

Beauty is not a word that’s often used to describe God.
In fact, when beauty does get a mention in the bible, it's normally associated with warnings about vanity,
or with describing the house of the Lord – the temple. 
Not of God…

Beauty, as a descriptive word, is more associated with 
sunsets or sonnets,
or songs and symphonies.
Beauty can be detected in the scent of a perfume
seen in the shimmering of sunlight on snow,
or the strands of colours that make a rainbow…
But God…?  

When we think of God is this the automatic description we’d apply?
And so I’ve pondered over this idea of God’s beauty through the week and I’ve gone back to reading the Psalm several times for some clues to help answer the question.  

In the translation of the Bible I use, the Psalm has a wee preface noting the theme.  It states that the Psalm is a ‘triumphant song of confidence’.  Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve read the Psalm this week the words ‘triumphant’ and ‘confidence’ don’t quite fit with the way it comes across. 
I sensed the Psalm spoke more of vulnerability and yearning,
and perhaps because of that, it has a powerful and strange beauty.  

Listen to the description of God throughout the Psalm:
The Psalmist describes God as his ‘light and salvation’…
his ‘refuge’. 
It’s followed by the question ‘whom shall I fear?’
And he makes statements about ‘my heart shall not fear,
‘I will be confident’
Now, I strongly suspect that those who are triumphantly confident don’t tend to feel the need to remind themselves about not being afraid.
The Psalmist further describes God as the one who will hide him,
shelter him,
conceal him under the cover of His tent…
who will raise him beyond the reach of distress.
God is seen as his helper,
the One who is faithful,
and who acts in the present –
God is not just the ‘pie in the sky when you die guy’…
And …he describes God as …beautiful….  

And there’s a yearning in that description.
In the midst of feeling surrounded by enemies ready to destroy him, the Psalmist expresses the deep-felt yearning to live in God’s house,
to seek God,
to talk with God,
to look upon God …
who in comparison with all other is utterly beautiful. 
His response as he thinks of the faithfulness of God, in who he can trust…
is to realise that God is wonderful.
His response is…
to worship.  

All through the centuries, Jewish people, and then Christians, in response to God have done just that:
And have tried, as they’ve talked about God, to convey a sense of God’s wonder,
God’s faithfulness,
God’s … unutterable beauty, 
so that others might behold God’s beauty, might get a glimpse of heaven.

I’m hoping, at this point, that you all received a small picture when you came into church this morning… and if you haven’t, I’m sure the person sitting next to you won’t mind you looking at the picture with them… so, this is your cue to find where ever you put the picture you were given because we’re going to talk about it for a little bit!  

This is an icon created in the early 15th century by a Russian monk called Andrei Rublev: 
Rublev was a man captivated with the idea of the beauty of God, so much so, that he tried to convey that beauty with paint.  It is part of what was a set of icons that were created for a Cathedral in town called Zvenigorod – about an hour’s journey from Moscow.

Now as some of you know, I seem to spend a lot of my time with a certain Mr John Knox as he’s a major part of the thesis I’m working on…
I have a strong hunch that John would be a little disturbed that we’ve got an icon in church, and that he’d possibly use the word ‘idolatry’…
but I think that’s a tad harsh on John’s part, so let’s live a little on the edge today.
It’s important to remember that as we look at icons, we are definitely not worshipping them…
an icon in itself is not a god, it merely points to God…
Icons are aids that can sometimes lead us to a deeper prayerful conversation with God,
Or another helpful way of thinking about icons is that they have been described as ‘windows’ to God…
as we look at an icon, we are meant to be drawn beyond it…
it is designed to help bring us into God’s presence,
to think on God’s beauty…
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. 
So, with John Knox’s reservations aside, let’s think a little more on this particular icon.  

The icon tells a story of 'lost and found'.
It was hidden away in the middle of the chaos of war when the Napoleonic French forces were marching through Russia. 
A wise move, as the French apparently camped in the cathedral itself and caused quite a lot of damage in the process. 
But in the aftermath of war,
in the chaos that followed,
whoever had hidden it away disappeared or died and the icon was lost…
A generation came and went and another war came –
A war and a Revolution….
In 1918, in a dusty barn in Zvenigorod, a man happened to trip over a stair, which came loose, turned over…
and in that dingy, dusty barn, he gasped with amazement at what he saw:
he gazed upon the beauty of the Lord. 
He found himself held by this face, these eyes. 
Rublev’s long lost icon of Christ the Saviour. 
Also called ‘the Peacemaker’.  

And so, quietly, let’s really look at this picture…
As you look at it, what is the first thing you notice?
That strikes you?
Look at the surrounding, …
notice the colours, …
the clothing – the red underneath representing Christ’s divinity
the blue representing his humanity.
Look at the way Rublev has positioned the body:
there’s movement to it, as if Christ has been walking and, noticing you, turns his gaze upon you.

Finally, look at the face…
under the eyes there is almost a heaviness…
perhaps a weariness and sadness caused from seeing so many terrible things and from the carrying of the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And as you gaze into the eyes,
eyes that are looking back at yours…
they search you,
they know you,
they see you for who you are,
and love you with such compassion…
They see you as beautiful too – created in the image of God.  

The writer, Henri Nouwen, says of this icon that when he saw it for the first time, that what struck him initially was how damaged it was. 
The discolouration around the edges,
the cracks and tears on the face and the chest…
And yet, the more Nouwen gazed upon Christ the Peacemaker
the more he realised that is was as if ‘the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos…
a sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of our world…
a face that expresses the depth of God’s immense compassion in the midst of our increasingly violent world.’

This is what the incarnation is about:
God made flesh,
who walked among us as one of us…
getting dust-caked feet from travelling along so many roads,
to so many places,
meeting folk where they were,
loving them.
Teaching by word and action what it was to live fully,
Eating, laughing,

Many icons have faces that look stern, almost severe - meant to evoke awe and fear:
this face is calm, quiet, human and humane.
Something different is happening here, something new…
It’s as if Christ comes down from his throne,
touches our shoulders
invites us to stand up
to look at him
to gaze upon his beauty.  

The icon is drawn to evoke love not fear.
To evoke within us a desire, as we gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to worship.
To evoke a little glimpse of heaven so that we might realise, as Paul does in his letter to the Philippians, that we are citizens of heaven…
to remind us that while we know that this life is a gift and a joy, that there is so much more…
and that our inner restlessness, our inner yearning is there because our lives, like Abraham’s, are spent travelling:
travelling towards that promised land,
travelling to that place where we will be with God,
where we will see him as he is,
where we will gaze upon his beauty forever
and worship face to face. 

One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:
that I may be constant in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple

Let us pray:
Holy God
Source of all beauty
Lover of us all
Kindle the yearning deep within us
Reminding us that you are our true home…
Inspire us to seek for you
So that we may gaze upon your beauty
In worship, awe and love
In Jesus’ name

based upon a meditation by Henri Nouwen, from his book 'Behold the Beauty of the Lord'


Danny said...

Nik I love this... may shamelessly plunder it sometime as am planning to do a summer thing on psalms later in the year.

Can I ask where you got the pictures of the icon to hand out - did you just download and print or did you buy postcards?

Rosa said...

Nik, you don't know me. I am an Episcopal priest who ministers to recently immigrated Latinos in Southeast Florida (Ft Lauderdale to be precise). I have been struggling mightly over these past few weeks with how to preach to a community that is devastated by poverty and suffering. This sermon is brilliant. I would like your permission to use it's themes and the reflection on the icon (with attribution) for the liturgy of the Word in today's service with my small, broken community. You have made God's love real to me in a very holy way today. Thank you.

Nik said...

Hi both - thanks for your helpful comments as I wasn't sure it worked or not!
Danny - I've facebooked you with the info. mate.
Rosa - of course!! It's based on some of Henri Nouwen's thoughts.