“Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back” (George Herbert)

Epiphany 4

Mark 1:21-28

Marian Free 

In the name of God who welcomes us into his embrace no matter what our faults or our weaknesses. Amen.

I’d like to begin this week with a poem by George Herbert – the same George Herbert – who authored a number of hymns including three in Together in Song – “Let all the world in every corner sing”, “King of Glory, King of Peace” and “Come my way, my truth, my life”.

This poem is titled “Love”.

Love

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’

Love said, ‘You shall be he.’

‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on Thee.’

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.’

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’

‘My dear, then I will serve.’

‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’

So I did sit and eat.                                                                         George Herbert

It is difficult to really understand what people in the first century meant by an unclean spirit. In a culture without the sort of medical knowledge that is available to us today all kinds of explanations were provided for a person’s ills. Unclean spirits bore the brunt of the responsibility. They – whatever they were – were responsible for what we might now call epilepsy, for mental illness and other inexplicable medical phenomena. It is no surprise then, that Jesus, like many other healers of his time, exercised his ministry of healing, by casting out the unclean spirit or spirits from a person who suffered from an affliction. This view presumes of course, that there is an entity separate from the person, which resides in and causes harm to the person – something that, with our advanced medical knowledge, we would reject today.

The simple matter of Jesus’ healing the sick, while miraculous, is not too difficult to come to grips with. What is intriguing in many of the accounts of exorcism is the negative reaction of the unclean spirits to Jesus’ presence such as that recorded in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel. Even before anyone has asked for or even suggested healing, the unclean spirit within the person recognises Jesus and calls out in terror: “What have you to do with us?”

What is going on here? Are we observing a power struggle between good and evil or a fierce desire for independence on the part of the person who is sick? Are there really such things as unclean spirits who, having taken up residence in a person do not want to lose their comfortable abode? Is it possible that the person who is suffering from the illness resists Jesus’ compassion because they have become dependent on the income that they receive from begging – an income they will lose if they become well?

According to our gospel writers, this reaction is not unusual. In Jesus’ presence, the unclean spirit/s often express fear and a wish for Jesus to go away and leave them alone.

I’ve spent some time contemplating the reaction of the evil spirits. Why would anyone resist or refuse healing? Why would anyone shrink from Jesus’ love and compassion? Why would anyone demand that Jesus go away? I imagine that there are many answers to such questions. The poem with which I began provides me with one solution. The author of the poem, George Herbert, was one of six children raised by their widowed mother. He was very bright. He achieved distinctions in his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and was appointed a Reader and then an orator at Cambridge University. These positions could have led to even greater things, but Herbert gave up all ambition to become a priest in the Anglican Church. He served in a Parish church for the remainder of his life, helping to repair the parish church with money from his own pocket. He was not someone whom you would associate with the guilt and sin of the first line of the poem, with the “unkind and ungrateful person” of the second verse or with the “shame” of the third verse.

Why then does he feel the need to draw back? Why does he feel that he has to refuse the welcome offered by Love?  There was surely no evil spirit to hold the poet back or to reject the advances of Love.

In the modern world, the reluctance to accept Jesus’ invitation has nothing to do with what those in the first century called evil spirits. The hesitancy, the drawing back, the sense of unworthiness comes instead from an awareness of our weaknesses and inadequacies compared with the absolute goodness of Jesus.

It’s a difficult concept, but I am sure that many of us have had the experience of feeling that we do not deserve the affection or attention of someone whom we love or admire. Or, having done something that we know we shouldn’t have done, want to hide ourselves away so that our misdeed not be discovered an ourselves be rejected as a result.  Like the child who has broken a valued possession and who cannot make eye contact with the adult who has discovered her, or the pupil who has disappointed a favourite teacher and who drops his eyes to the ground rather than look the teacher in the face – none of us like to be found out, least of all by those whom we respect and whom we hope will love and respect us.

There is a kind of wisdom in this sort of self-knowledge that makes embarrassed and ashamed and leads us to want to shield our sins from God. It is a recognition that God is goodness itself and that despite all our striving, we will never attain a standard that makes us worthy of God. It means that with the Psalmist we have “the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom”. The difference between the person in Herbert’s poem and the evil spirits, is that having at first withdrawn, filled with shame, that person opens themselves to Jesus’ love and forgiveness and allows themselves to be drawn in instead of pushing Jesus away.

On our own, none of us is perfect; none of us is worthy to stand in the presence of God. Knowing this enables us to retain an honest view of ourselves and a healthy awe of God. However, it is important always to remember that God’s love is unconditional and that as the poem says: “Jesus’ bore the blame.” When at last we come face to face with God, we may cast our eyes to our feet when we think of all that we have done, but let us be sure not to ask God to go away or to ever turn our backs to God’s  welcoming embrace.

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