Saturday, 24 January 2009

A Worm's Eye View

Better late than never... (Or not, you judge.) One of the things we are meant to do at least once in training is preach a short homily to the college at Morning Prayer on a Thursday. My turn came on 27 November last, when the set readings were Isaiah 41:8-20 and Revelation 16:12-20.  (We generally use the New Revised Standard Version, some of the references may be more obvious from there. If you like, you should find the exact text here and here.)

There are some interesting discussions on the precise translation of a couple of the words in the Isaiah passage in commentaries, and common Bible versions take slightly different  lines. Nothing very evidently at stake theologically, and I resisted every temptation to get involved in that...

Here's what I said:

There’s nothing glamorous about a worm. If they’re famous for anything, it’s their propensity to mistake almost any vibration for rain, bringing them to the surface. The world record for charming worms – bringing them to the surface by thumping a garden fork with a lump of wood – is 511 worms in a three by three metre area in thirty minutes. So they’re not famously intelligent and they’re not celebrated for their value in battle. “A worm, a worm, my kingdom for a worm.” I don’t think so.
“Do not fear, you worm Jacob,” says the LORD in the Isaiah reading. Well, it’s hardly flattering, is it? At a time of great political change, when empires are on the move and nations are falling, Israel is small, weak, pathetic, divided, irrelevant, a worm. Perhaps that’s how they are being made fun of; perhaps that’s how they’ve started to think of themselves.
Perhaps that’s how we’ve started to think of ourselves: “You worm, Ridley. What can you possibly achieve, huddled in here day after day with your prayer books? No-one wants you, no-one is listening to you, you aren’t going to command wealth, or power, or even respect. You worm.”
It’s in the moment of desolation that God’s voice speaks most clearly. “I have chosen you and not cast you off... I will strengthen you, I will help you... Do not fear, you worm... your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,” says the LORD.
It is because you are of no account, because your pride in who you thought you were or who you thought you would become has been shattered by the bitter experience of reality, because you have given up the illusion of importance, that God will once again choose you, that God will comfort and change you, that God will strengthen and use you. 
This spineless worm in God’s hand will crush mountains, and will see the thirsty drinking from clear streams, and the dispossessed dancing as the desert bursts into life.
“I am a worm, not a human being,” says the Psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When it seems to all the world that the promise has failed, that your hope is hopeless, be patient. In a little while – a hundred years, or a lifetime, or three days time – God will turn everything upside down.
When that happens, when that surely and certainly happens, when after days or after years or after a lifetime you see the desert flowering before your eyes, nobody will be able to say it was because of you. 
No. They will marvel on that day. They will curse or they will bless God, but they will see and know, they will consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.