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God Who Created The Moon And Stars
In the early sixteen hundreds George Herbert wrote a poem called “The Elixir.” It opens with these words:
Teach me my God and King
And later he places this thought:
A servant with this clause
Like Paul in his letter to the Philippians, Herbert opens with theology and then relates his understanding of God to the implications for our world and the way we live. He begins with the acclamation “my God and my King”, acknowledging, as Thomas did in the upper room, that there is at the same time God-ship and Lordship.
This is important. Very often we spend time considering, rightly considering the Gospels and their account of Jesus’ life on earth, analysing his sayings, thinking over his actions, without that due and full recognition that he was and is God.
Paul is going on to extort us to be humble, to care for others, to be servants but this is not where he begins; his argument begins by describing the nature of Christ:
“though he was in the form of a God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient [to the point of death, even death on a cross]."
It is really worth, I think, reminding ourselves of that overwhelming infinity sized gap between God and mankind. One of the Psalms used regularly in Morning Prayer puts it this way:
I ponder your heavens, the work of your fingers,
That you should even be mindful of them says the Psalmist and yet God sent his only son who finding himself in human form humbled himself and came to be our servant. Note the word, a servant, not a facilitator, counsellor, mentor or helper but a servant. A helper helps when they want to, when it is convenient, a servant though serves others even when they do not want to, when it is inconvenient. We help, most often, the people we like, a servant helps everyone whether they like them or not.
Paul says we should be humble because Jesus was, in proper humility we should regard others as better than ourselves and each of us should look to the interests of others before our own because Jesus was like this. Now we know that instinctively this is alien to us, look for example at our children, from the moment of birth they struggle to look after themselves. First, they make demands on parents that work for them, and indeed sometimes survival depends on it. I notice that my teenage boys still have this idea by the way!
But to return to George Herbert, he understood the gap between God and man is large: “Teach me”, he prays,” in all things Thee to see and what I do in everything to do it as for Thee.” Nothing that we could be asked to do could be so humbling as the idea that God himself should become human. That he should become what he created and that he should die for us on a cross.
Not only you see is God so high, as our psalm reminded us, but the cross is so especially and expressly low. In Paul’s day crucifixion provoked unspeakable horror and loathing; the very word was unmentionable in polite Roman society.
So against that comparison, from God to the cross, Paul’s injunctions to look after others, to put them before ourselves, are modest, especially as with His encouragement we are to try to have the same mind as Jesus. As Herbert puts it, if the servant can see God in all things and do them as for God [as Jesus did for his Father] then whatever it is, whatever the drudgery it becomes divine.
An elixir is the quintessence of something. George Herbert entitles his poem well, that we may take joy in whatever we are called to do, and in this be servants to one another knowing that we can dedicate it to God is an “Elixir” indeed.