God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honor, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.
It cannot vault, or dance, or play;
It never was in France or Spain;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.
It is no office, art, or news;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall:
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee: and Most take all.
Those of you who know me will know that I often turn to George Herbert. Herbert, of course, was an English clergyman in the seventeenth century. What I like about his work is the honesty and vulnerability of it. In the poem we just heard he talks about hus path to God being through his poetry – there are many things which the world would say he might need more than poems but he understands their import – as it is in them that he finds closeness with his maker.
Each of us has a different path to take. Today’s readings are definitely about journeying towards God and towards God’s will. The Israelites are going through a phase of complaining – not surprisingly, they are in the wilderness with inadequate food and are afraid for what will happen next.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night, his journey is secretive, but by coming he begins a journey into a wilderness of his own, he leaves the comfort of his community, the Pharisees, and begins on a new road.
John’s Gospel, where this story sits, is, as we have seen before, a journey of contrasts. Last week we read the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple and this week we hear that God so loved the world that he gave His only Son….. John layers stories and intrigue. Not only is there a contrast between the presentation of Jesus in the two scenes – but also in the presentation of the Jewish authorities. The Temple is the seat of Jewish power and Jesus threatens to destroy it but a single representative of that power comes to speak to Him and he takes time to sit down and listen, to invite and to explain.
John 3:16 has turned up on just about every sort of merchandising but it is chosen with good reason – it sums up both the eternal love of God and the very immanent love of God revealed and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. John has this tension surrounding love throughout his Gospel – he starts with creation, both small and quiet, whispered in the breath of a word and huge and roaring as all that we know comes into being.
God, in John, is both familiar and mysterious and this is a tension which we experience throughout our Christian life, Jesus is both friend and savior – something which we are so used to hearing that I doubt we very often pause to consider its magnitude. Strangely though, this tension between the beginning and the end is not an impossible place to exist in – if we are basing our confidence in God’s love and not our own ability or propensity to respond to that love. Otherwise, when we are too self reliant, Jesus can turn into a nice but ineffective mate or God can get so far away as to make transcendence impenetrable.
Perhaps this is why George Herbert finds God in the tangle of poetry. Poetry is, after all, familiar words with strange rules and this God is a God of both familiarity and strangeness.
Despite all this promise there is also real frustration. The Israelites in the wilderness tangle themselves around and around with their problems. I have no doubt that Nicodemus would have had moments where he wondered whether he had made the right choice as he became an outcast from the elite. George Herbert certainly struggles with his vocation and ministry in his poetry balancing the immense invitation and love he feels from God on the one hand, with his own inclination to reject his priestly collar.
But this is a life on contrasts, we are called to serve a God who is not monotone.
Sir John Stainer set the words of John 3:16 to music. As you listen to it, consider these where your journey leads you – are you a poet, a king or a wanderer? Then as the music ebbs and flows perhaps consider the contrasts of this journey, the highs and the lows, the tension, as the orthodox theologian John Zizioulas says, between the “now and the not yet.”
Hereford Cathedral Choir - God so loved the world (Stainer):