A Sermon from Sherborne

Eyes to see

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 4 February 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


As you know, Sandra and I returned last Sunday from my annual “busman’s holiday” – a cruise chaplaincy, this time to West Africa. It was, to say the least, eventful. Heavy weather and taking shelter in an unscheduled little Spanish harbour; broken bones and the odd stroke and heart attack amongst the passengers; an outbreak of Norovirus which felled both passengers and crew, including the Captain; the doctor invalided-out with stress; the Chaplain and his wife in pastoral overdrive, and resisting all known germs – and so on. It was great! But there was one frustration. Whenever someone shouted “whale” or “dolphins” I never seemed to be able to see them. Despite the new specs, those elusive sightings defeated me. And I realised once again how precious is the gift of sight.

It’s so important, in fact, that we use the verb “to see” to cover a vast range of human experience. Consider the tones of voice in which we use the words. If you are wrestling with a problem, such as filling in your Income Tax return or checking your bank statement, and you have made a mistake somewhere and you just can’t find it, and then at last you realise where it is, you say I see! If, on the other hand, your wife says she’s simply got to have a new dress before she can go to that function, and you know from the look on her face that it would not be wise to object, or if your husband comes home and says he’s terribly sorry but he has to go to Paris for a week on business and you can’t go with him, then you say I see, rather grimly. Or if you are out in the countryside, and a friend is trying to show you something like a steeple a long way away or a bird in flight, and at last you spot it, you say I see! – meaning that you are able to see what someone else has already seen.

“Seeing” is so much more than a purely physical faculty, done with the eyes. The physically blind “see” with every other sense and faculty, and often see better than those of us with physical sight can be bothered to do. In other words, “seeing” describes the whole of our response to the world around us. There is seeing things and people, seeing with our intellect, seeing with our imagination and seeing with our moral judgement. We see ideas and concepts. We see the significance of what people are doing. We see meaning. Seeing is you responding with all your faculties to the world in which you live.  In today’s Gospel [John 1. 1-14], and throughout the book which bears his name, John the Evangelist is particularly concerned with the distinction between seeing and not seeing, between darkness and light. The Word comes as the life which is the light of men, a light shining in darkness – but the world does not see it or comprehend it. Only those with the eyes to see and the hearts to understand see the glory, “full of grace and truth”.

Think of the ways in which Jesus bring light onto the human scene. First, he enables us to see God. Now the biblical writers often insist that God cannot be seen, and there are two reasons for that. One is that God is spiritual not material: physical sight can never see him anywhere. If physical sight could see God, that would lead to idolatry. And the other reason that we cannot see God is that we are not fit to see him. Moses dared say “Show me, I pray thee, thy glory”, but the reply was “You cannot see my face and live.” It is the sheer holiness of God and the unfitness of you and me to be in his presence that makes it impossible for us to see him. And so, in one sense, the invisibility of God is a great biblical doctrine. Nevertheless, Jesus brings the vision of God, and he says to Philip in the Upper Room, “He that has seen me has seen the Father”. Looking at Jesus we find the authentic image of God, so that not only do we know that Jesus is divine, but that God is Christlike. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say, “God is like Christ, and in him is no unchristlikeness at all.” God in his love and understanding sent Jesus so that we should have a real vision of himself. Our concept of God must always be adjusted in the light of knowing that Jesus is his true image.

And then, second, in this life the light of Jesus enables us to see ourselves. Left to ourselves we tend to see ourselves wrong. Every single one of us likes to be the centre of our own circumference, and we see ourselves as being far more important than we really are. But the light of Jesus shows us that we are sinners who perpetually wound the love of God by our sinfulness and self-preoccupation. The light of Jesus shows you yourself as you really are: see yourself in that light. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:8.9]

Then, third, the light of Jesus enables us to see other people as they really are. We all tend to see other people through the distorted spectacles of our own likes, dislikes and prejudices. But in the light of Jesus, our likes and dislikes no longer determine what we think of other people because now we can see them to be created in God’s own image like us, and sinners like us. We can see others as Jesus sees them.

Then, fourth, the light of Jesus shows us the needs of humanity. We are so often blind to human suffering, human need. We see it a little; we do not see it with a really imaginative, caring sight. The love of Jesus enables you to see human need in all its starkness, and to stir yourself to do something about it knowing that in doing so you are serving Christ himself. When you see with Christ’s eyes you cannot look upon the suffering of another without feeling compassion, and the precise meaning of “compassion” is “suffering with”. To see with the eyes of Christ means that, when you see the suffering of others, however far away, then you will suffer with them too, and be moved with compassion to help them.

And then, last, the light of Jesus enables you to see God’s presence in the world. Our world is full of division, tragedy, grief and heartbreak. But in the light of Jesus we see God’s presence in the world in two ways. First, God is there in judgement, because a world that turns aside from God’s righteousness brings judgement upon itself. But God is also there in the lives of those men and women in whom he works so wonderfully. Time and again I have met people who suffer terribly, and at one level their suffering seems inexplicable and unfair. Yet by their closeness to God it has been transformed, and what could so easily fill them with bitterness and anger instead fills them with patience and courage and love. By their closeness to God, the suffering is transformed, transfigured.

All we need is the eyes to see. Come and see. Give Jesus the opportunity to show you how your eyes can be opened. Sleeper wake, rise from the dead: Christ shall give you light. Then you begin to see God by faith. You will begin to see yourself with all your illusions about yourself shaken and your pride shattered. You will begin to see other people as they really are, through eyes like those of Jesus. You will begin to see the world and its need with a new awareness, and know that to serve others in their suffering is to serve Christ himself. You will become free for possibilities for which you would never otherwise have been free. Less of self; more of Christ: that is the proof of what we believe. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 04/02/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne