God only wise
Given on Sunday 15th February 2009 at The Abbey by Revd Graeme Hartley, Assistant Curate
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
These words from Walter Chalmers Smith's famous hymn were inspired by St Paul's words in his first letter to Timothy [1:17]. They are a timely reminder of the elusiveness of God to human enquiry. Our God truly is an enigma: an enigma boundless in every way; inaccessible to human reason and veiled from view. Only the Almighty perfectly comprehends the enormities and complexities of the creation. In stark contrast, human wisdom fades into insignificance compared with that of God's. Often too much worth is placed on human wisdom which has the effect of blighting and stunting humanity's relationship with God. As a result many people journey through life unaware that God is closer to them than their own breath, more intimate that their own heartbeat!
Our two lessons for this evening speak of the awesome power and wisdom of God: a power and wisdom that demonstrate God's freedom to be himself and to do whatever he wills. The first lesson from Genesis recounts the 'second' creation story [2:4b-end]. Here God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. The man became a living being whom God placed into a garden that he created. The garden contained both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which was watered by a river that flowed out of Eden. In the second lesson [Luke 8:22-35] we hear about water again. This time though not as a river bringing life, but as a storm-ravaged lake that threatened to swamp the boat in which Jesus and his disciples were sailing. Jesus calmed the storm and the boat landed on the shores of the Gerasenes where they encountered 'a man of the city who had demons'.
Water for the Hebrews was a contradictory element, to say the least: on the one hand it brought life by watering the land and quenching the thirst of humans and animals; on the other it brought death by flood and by storm. Because Israel was not a predominantly seafaring nation, the sea was viewed as an untameable terror - evident through many Biblical stories like that of Jonah. The Hebrews understood such bodies of water as relentlessly fighting to free themselves, to unleash chaos upon the earth: a chaos that only God's almighty hand and wisdom could stay.
With this in mind it is clear from our second lesson what Luke is implying about Jesus in the story of the calming of the storm. Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to cross Lake Galilee. Jesus falls asleep during the voyage. He is seemingly untroubled by the dangers of travelling over water. But the coming of a squall threatens to sink the boat and prompts the disciples to beseech him to save them. With a rebuke the winds and the waves are calmed and the voyage continues. The amazed disciples say to one another, 'Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?' [Luke 8:25b] 'It is the Lord our God!' the reader is invited to answer.
What of the next part of the story where Jesus and his disciples reach the shores of the Gerasenes? With the boat landed the party disembark and they are met by a man with 'demons' who is living in the city tombs without a thread of clothing to his name. Many times the man had been shackled, bound and guarded but always managed to break his fetters and escape into the wilds. When he saw Jesus he fell down at his feet and cried 'What have you to do with me, Jesus Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.' Jesus asked him his name and he replied 'Legion'. What is going on in this disturbing and mysterious encounter?
Let us take closer look at how a person in the ancient world might view this part of the story.
Jewish religious law disdained the touching of dead bodies or anything that had come in contact with them. Anyone who did so would become ceremonially unclean. Hence the man afflicted by the Legion was unclean because he lived amongst the unholy pollution of the tombs. Cemeteries were clouded in superstition and with talk of ghosts and spirits. They were places of mystery, where seen and unseen touched. Unclean spirits were feared and this man was not just afflicted by one such spirit but by a whole legion of them. Without a doubt Luke deliberately uses the Greek word legion (a word used only to refer to a large detachment of Roman soldiers) to show that this unfortunate crazed and naked man was entirely overwhelmed and oppressed. Yet far from being weak, Luke paints us a picture of a shackle-breaking strong man who is disgracefully naked and who is powered by the might of a formidable army. The carpenter from Nazareth who stood before him seems far from being a match for him. But with Jesus, appearances are always deceptive!
From the start the Gerasene man submits to Jesus: he kneels before him in an act of homage and pleads for mercy. It is the Legion that begs Jesus to allow them to enter a herd of pigs (again unclean animals) rather than be cast into the 'abyss'. Jesus concedes and the Legion enters the pigs before the herd charges down a steep bank and is drowned in the lake. What is happening here? Luke is keen to show us that these unclean spirits enter other unclean creatures which in turn perish in the waters of dissolution. Chaos is banished from the midst of order; evil is cast down from the presence of good. Only now can the Gerasene man sit decently clothed and in his right mind at the feet of Jesus, purified and healed. The carpenter from Nazareth has triumphed gloriously!
Now we can see how these two stories from the second lesson reinforce one another. In the first, where he calms the storm, Jesus is revealed as Lord of creation. In the second, when he commands the Legion to depart from the Gerasene man, he is the one stronger than a powerful army. He is the one who does not become tarnished by the unholy. He is the one who has authority over all things seen and unseen. He is the one who brings order out of chaos and in whom divine wisdom is personified. He is none other than the Lord!
Evicting God from his abode in 'light inaccessible' and hauling him down to a human level is something humanity endlessly attempts to do. In one way this is an innocent grappling with mystery: how can we describe God the indescribable or fathom God the unfathomable? On the other hand we should never attempt to reduce the divine mystery to a set of formulae. Instead we must humbly confess that mystery is God's domain. God is present in all things - we are not. He sees all things - we do not. And he understands all things - we do not. Considering this we can take comfort that God commands our destinies and that we are in the safest of hands! But we all have the tendency to pull away from God's hand. Like wilful children we often try to do things our own way. So when we are tempted to elope with imprudence we would do well to recall that he who dwells in 'light inaccessible', being 'hid from our eyes', is our 'God only wise'.