A Sermon from Sherborne

Verbs, not nouns

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


When I came down to Sherborne in late 1992 to be looked at and vetted and generally inspected for the post of Vicar, I can remember the then Churchwarden Ann Earls-Davis asking me about the priorities of my ministry. And as far as I recall I replied along these lines, that one of them was my passion for building bridges between academic theology and people in the pews.

Whether or not I have succeeded in building those bridges over the last twenty five years only you can judge. All I can say is that what was my passion then is my passion now, and that and the sheer joy of ministering to a community of people in their glad times and their sad times are what have kept me in parish ministry for nearly forty years.

You see, I can still remember the thrill of embarking on the Theology Tripos in Cambridge back in 1975, discovering that all of knowledge is material for theology, and everywhere connections are to be made that suddenly alter our perspectives and increase our understanding, not just of God or of religion but of what it is to be human.

So a particular delight of mine has always been looking for those connections and the light they can suddenly shine on this dimension or that of our faith. Let me give you one example: discovering that many indigenous languages in North America have relatively little use for nouns. Navajo, for example, is spoken by about 150,000 people and is usually regarded as the strongest of the indigenous languages of the United States. It has a small collection of basic monosyllabic nouns, such as words for ‘star’ and ‘fire’. But usually it describes things verbally. So the Navajo refer to fruit as ‘it has matured’ or school as ‘reading is completed’. And when you watch an old western and you come across Chief Sitting Bull or Brave Running Water, you are there in the heart of a language – and therefore a mind-set, a way of looking at the world – which is more at home with the dynamic than the static, the fluid than the concrete, with verbs rather than nouns.

If by now you are wondering where all this is going, the answer is straight to both our lessons for today, from Exodus chapter 3 and John chapter 1. You see, the Hebrew mind, the Biblical mind, has the same preference for the verbal, the fluid, the dynamic. The most common name for ‘God’ in the Old Testament is Yahweh – so sacred it was pronounced only by the High Priest and only in the Temple – and it is a verb rather than a noun in origin, from a root meaning ‘to blow’ or ‘to speak’. And that takes us right back to Genesis 1 and the Spirit of God moving or blowing over the face of the waters, and God’s first action being a command: Let there be light. And from that it is no great jump to the Prologue to St John’s Gospel which we have just heard: In the beginning was the Word. J. B. Phillips paraphrases it well, capturing the verbal form: At the beginning, God expressed himself.  

So, in the Bible, God is primarily the One-who-acts, who goes before the Israelites in the wilderness as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Never an object. Never static. Never an idol to be grasped or possessed. When in Exodus 3 Moses presses God for his name, so that he can tell the Israelites who has sent him, God replies I am who I am or perhaps (a better translation) I will be what I will be. There it is, the name of God. Entirely verbal. I will be what I will be. God cannot be pinned down. He cannot be turned into a noun. That would be idolatry. If his name were more concrete, less fluid, we might imagine we could get a grip upon him. Every school teacher knows the power of possessing a name. My old Headmaster did: Woods, come here boy: dogsbody. But our God is always just out of our grasp, dancing ahead of us, known not by who he is but what he does.

That is why, when John the Baptist sends two of his followers to Jesus to ask ‘Are you he who is to come, or are we to wait for someone else?’ Jesus does not reply with nouns – with titles and dignities. He replies with verbs: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the Good News is preached to the poor; and happy is that man who is not shocked at me. [Luke 7:18-23].

But something went wrong. Something went terribly wrong. You see, as soon as Christianity began to grow, as soon as it moved out of the Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking world, it was translated into Greek, the predominant language of the Eastern Mediterranean, and therefore into Greek concepts and thought forms. And, to simplify horribly, that put everything back into nouns. The dynamic language disappeared. More concrete categories took their place. And that changed everything. It changed the way we think about God. Gradually the living, loving, creator God of the Bible became the changeless, passionless perfection of Greek philosophical thought. And instead of a God here, and now, a God with us – which is what ‘Emmanuel’ means – and a God in us – which is what the coming of the Holy Spirit means – we got stuck with a God out there. A God ‘uncreate and incomprehensible’, to quote from the so-called ‘Athanasian Creed’: The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate; the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible … yet not three incomprehensible, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.’ ‘The whole lot incomprehensible’ says the wider world, and with wholly understandable impatience throws it all into the recycling bin.

But tonight we are reminded that Jesus – ‘the image of the invisible God’ – has been sent by the Father to enter our world as one of us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. He has come to revive amongst us a knowledge of God, who still enters into our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties, our flaws and our failings, our loves and our joys. Here is no abstract noun, but the visible Word of God speaking in the events of Jesus’ life, and death, and resurrection.

God takes the initiative in coming into history, into your story and into my story. St John, a poorly educated fisherman from Palestine, searched for a way to express it and in atrocious Greek declared that the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us, and that everything depends on whether or not you can understand the significance of that life-changing event. Another John, in the last book of the Bible, said that what had happened was that Christ now stands at the door of your home and your heart, and longs to be invited in – to be invited in, not as a temporary guest but to live forever with you and in you, as friend and brother and as Saviour.

We live in a world searching for certainties, for hard, concrete nouns. We live in an age that permits of no doubt, from the pious platitudes of politicians to the arid arguments of atheists. I can offer you nothing of that. I am not interested in rigid righteousness, any more than was Jesus. Thank God there is no sign in the porch of Sherborne Abbey demanding that you leave your minds at the door, any more than there is one offering you cheap grace or the easy solution of life’s problems. But there is the promise that here, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the minds to engage and the hearts to understand, you will find Christ. And for that, thanks be to God.

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