A Sermon from Sherborne

Checkmate!

Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch (1779 – 1857) was a German painter, draughtsman and etcher (and also a winemaker of some note) whose work was praised by Goethe and other German writers who employed him to illustrate their novels, most famously Goethe’s own Faust.  

One of his best-known paintings is an oil-on-panel entitled Die Schachspieler – The Chess Player, though in English it is often known as Checkmate. A saturnine figure, usually taken as representing the Devil himself, is playing chess with a man for the prize of his soul. The man is watched over by his guardian angel, whose dark expression, however, hints that no intervention is planned. Satan’s seat – his throne – boasts the sinister decoration of a fierce, snarling lion’s head, its feet resting on a skull, indicating the likely outcome of the match. The chess pieces themselves represent the struggle. And it is clear from the man’s downcast expression that he thinks he has lost, that it’s checkmate.

Die Schachspieler by Retzsch

The painting was auctioned at Christie’s in 1999, and I have not been able to discover where it is now. But for many years it has been much loved by preachers, because of a story attached to it. Apparently when it was on public display, eminent chess players were all agreed that the man’s position was hopeless, and that the Devil’s half-hidden grin was a grin of victory. But one day a chess Grand Master visited the gallery and spent a long time studying the board as the artist had shown it. Suddenly he startled the bystanders by crying out, ‘It’s a lie! The painter is wrong. There is a way out. The king has another move’. 

It is a great story, though I haven’t been able to authenticate it. No matter. It’s a story which encapsulates what the Christian Gospel is all about. The Bible tells us that man is defeated without God. He is in Satan’s grip. He cannot save himself, and unless someone else can do so he has no option but to resign himself. From a human standpoint there is no escape. Man is like Bunyan’s prisoner in the iron cage: he bemoans his fate, wailing ‘I cannot get out; I cannot get out’. But the Good News of the Christian message is that, though he is unable to escape by his own efforts, God will nevertheless rescue him. There is a way out. The King has another move. God steps in and sends his Son to be the Saviour. 

In my work I am constantly meeting people, young and old, who feel like Bunyan’s prisoner in the iron cage. The causes are many and various, but deep-down there is usually a sense of unworthiness, of being a failure, a no-hoper, a loser, someone defeated by life. Young people who have been constantly put-down and rubbished by their parents almost from birth feel this acutely. Every year I tremble for those leaving school with few or no qualifications, no job and no hope of one – feeling that they are already on the scrap-heap in their teenage.  

But feelings of worthlessness, emptiness and hopelessness can descend upon us at any time. Carl Jung a long time ago said ‘the central neurosis of our time is emptiness’, and that has not got any better since. But, as our second lesson reminds us, God has moved to save us for the simple reason that, in his eyes, we are worth it:   

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10. 29-31]     

The tragedy is that so few people seem to realise that at the root of their malaise is a sense of worthlessness which God has already put right – if they only have the ears to hear, the eyes to see and the hearts to understand. Why is this? Is it arrogance, or a lack of imagination, or is it simply a profound blindness, that makes the vast majority of people think that they have no need of repentance or a new spiritual birth; no need of Christ’s church and his sacraments; no need of the grace and the forgiveness and the mercy of God? I do not know, but I do know this: that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and there is nothing – but nothing – that we can do to make ourselves acceptable to the God who is sheer love, utter holiness, complete goodness – but that this is good news, not bad news, because it means that our faith is precisely not about self-help and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Rather it’s about God meeting us at the point of our need in simple love and acceptance. Christianity tells us simply but confidently that if only we will come to ourselves and realise our need to be reconciled to God, then we will discover that he has already provided the means of that reconciliation. The burden of our sins and misdeeds has been nailed to the Cross of Christ, the penalty we should pay has been paid already by Christ on the Cross, and all that separates us and alienates us from God has been dealt with, on that Cross – because we’re worth it.  

If you ever watch any commercial television, you must have seen one of the countless advertisements from L’Oréal, the cosmetics giant. Everyone ends with the catch-phrase, You’re worth it.  And so you are – worth not a bottle of L’Oréal’s shampoo but worth Christ dying for you and rising for you, because God made you and loves you and keeps you. And all you have to do is to accept that you are accepted. All you have to do is to become what, in God’s sight, you already are.  

For some people, that’s the hardest bit, to accept that you are accepted by God. To take on board the fact that you are already accounted by him to be his son or his daughter, and that all that is required of you is to become what you are. If that’s the hard bit for you, then this final story is for you too: 

One of the largest and most striking figures of Christ ever attempted by a sculptor is by Bertel Thorvaldsen in the Church of Our Lady, Copenhagen. The artist has deliberately designed it that the head is so fashioned that the onlooker cannot really catch the expression of Christ’s face unless he first of all bends low and then gazes up. A man was standing before the statue one day, looking puzzled, until an attendant plucked at his sleeve and said ‘You cannot see His face, Sir, until you kneel at His feet’. Kneel at his feet. That’s all you have to do. But it is all.

The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods 25/06/2011
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton