Preaching and Painting - Ridley Hall

Preaching and Painting - Ridley Hall





Introduction: Preaching and Painting 3

The Sermons

1 The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son 7

or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis 22:1-19

2 Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife 15

Genesis 39

3 Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy 23

Psalm 59; 1 Samuel 18 & 19

4 The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response 28

Luke 1:26-38

5 The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement 38

Luke 4:16-30

6 Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help 44

Mark 5:21-43

7 Metamorphosis – the Transfiguration of Jesus 49

Mark 9:2-12; Matthew 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36

8 Facing the Music – the Story of the Prodigal Son 59

Luke 15:11-32

9 Defeating Evil through the Cross 62

Draws on various passages

10 Doubting Thomas 77

John 20:19-31


Introduction: Preaching and Painting


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting


This little book has taken me, the author, by surprise. Ever since I was licensed

as a Reader in the Church of England at the tender age of 27, I have enjoyed

preaching – both the preparing of sermons and the delivery of sermons. Many

people have been kind enough to say I have a gift for it. I have regarded words –

the choosing, arranging and articulating of words – as my primary medium.

Since 2004 (around the time I was ordained), my preaching has taken on an

additional dimension. I have come to appreciate the value of the visual, and

have experimented with the juxtaposition of text and image through the use of

Powerpoint. I have used many different types of image, but there is one that I

prize in particular: the judicious and imaginative use of religious art to enhance

the exposition of biblical narratives.

Although I have always had some interest in art, this is a fascination that has

developed apace during the last few years. I can date its beginnings to the

preparation of the final sermon in this collection. While reflecting on the story

of doubting Thomas and scouring the Internet for relevant material I came

across Caravaggio’s magnificent painting of Thomas probing the wound of the

risen Christ. It was one of those great moments of revelation for me. The

painting touched me in a deeper and more exciting way than any of the

commentaries on John that I had read. This is not to say that commentaries are

a waste of time! But ever since then I have made it my habit, when preaching on

a biblical narrative, to research the paintings on the subject as well as to read

the commentaries. I always find this worthwhile, even when I do not find a

painting I wish to use, or when I do not agree with the interpretation offered by

the artist. Disagreement can be stimulating as well as agreement can be

encouraging! So quality art can be helpful in preparation for understanding

biblical stories; it can also be invaluable in delivery for illustrating biblical

stories. The wonder of the Internet is that it makes much of this art easily

accessible and the value of Powerpoint (or its variations) that it makes the same

art eminently useable.

This book is a collection of ten sermons, all preached within the last five years,

where I have made use of paintings in my preaching. They are sermons where

people seemed to find such use helpful. I am convinced that there are a sizeable

number in our congregations (and outside) who are as much visual people as

verbal people – whom we need to address through their eyes as much as

through their ears. Painting was after all used to communicate biblical stories

long before many people had the Scriptures in their own languages. Even

Preaching and Painting Richard Higginson



though I come from an evangelical tradition which prizes, with good reason, the

preaching of the Word, I do not see why that should exclude other means of

communication. The Bible is, after all, replete with images, metaphors, symbols

and parables – page after page conjure up pictures in one’s mind. Above all, it is

full of vivid and powerful stories which lend themselves to artistic portrayal.

Biblical scenes used to vie with scenes from classical mythology in forming the

basic stock-in-trade for all aspiring artists. While some artists painted them

simply because they were expected to, a considerable number were informed

and inspired by their own personal faith; and although many followed stylistic

conventions about how a scene should be portrayed, the more diligent went

back to the biblical text to check what was said and the more creative were not

afraid to depart from these conventions.

Within the vast corpus of biblical art readers will rapidly discover that I have a

particular bias. A high proportion of the paintings that I use are from

seventeenth-century Western art – notably the artists of Italy and the

Netherlands. My own view is that though the 16 th century Renaissance (with the

likes of Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian) may justly be seen as

representing an artistic peak, as far as biblical art is concerned the 17 th century

reaches even higher. This is a view completely at odds with the Victorian art

critic John Ruskin, who once said ‘there is no great or truly sincere art in the

17 th century’. I believe that to be so serious a misjudgement that I thought it an

equally serious misjudgement when the institution that used to be Anglia

Polytechnic University re-named their university after him!

Ruskin was wrong. The seventeenth century produced many paintings of

superb quality, especially those which demonstrate the ‘earthiness’ of the Bible.

They show enormous insight into portraying what was going on inside people,

the strength of their emotions, whether that be – for example – love, hatred,

devotion or amazement.

Among the seventeenth century biblical artists, two stand out: Caravaggio and

Rembrandt. Readers will therefore find more of their paintings than those of

any other artists in this book. Both were geniuses in the matter of chiaroscuro –

the juxtaposition of darkness and light. No biblical phrase is more appropriate

to sum up their craft than light in the darkness (see John 1:5). Darkness is their

primary medium, but there are always parts of their paintings that are lit.

Where the light comes from and what is shines on are highly significant.

Alongside Caravaggio and Rembrandt, however, there were a whole host of

other talented artists, examples of whose work you will find here. But I have not

limited myself to the seventeenth century. The sermon on the transfiguration,

for instance, takes its inspiration from the fascinating, two-part painting by

Preaching and Painting Richard Higginson



Raphael; and in the sermon on the annunciation I reject seventeenth century

interpretations in favour of a much more modern one. I would ask readers not

to base their judgment on whether art is a useful aide to preaching by my own

particular taste of artists; if you prefer a different age or a different style, fair

enough, and I hope you will be stimulated to explore it – to see what riches it

may offer.

I need to say a word about the context in which these sermons was preached.

Throughout this period I have combined my main job as lecturer at Ridley Hall

with being first curate and then associate minister at St Philip’s Church in

Cambridge. The majority of these sermons were preached at St Philip’s, which is

the Anglican church in Romsey Town, a socially mixed area to the south-east of

the city centre. Unlike some of the more central and affluent parts of Cambridge,

it does not contain a lot of academics and professional people. The glory of St

Philip’s, which has a regular congregation or about 100 people, is its

‘ordinariness’; it has a fascinating cross-spectrum of good-natured folk who give

a friendly welcome to all and sundry. So these sermons have a down-to-earth

quality; you will not find here sermons that are sophisticated intellectual

exercises, though I always try to make people think and to extend their

knowledge, understanding and horizons.

In collecting these sermons together, I have resisted the temptation to make

many changes; these have been kept to an absolute minimum. I am aware that,

in relation to any passage, there is always much more that could have been said.

But I have been content to let the sermons stand as they are, or rather as they

were, retaining their local colour, delivered to a particular people at a particular

time, and usually kept within the expected confine of a twenty minute duration.

I have however allowed myself the luxury of adding some notes, where I have

provided some references, notably in giving details about when the pictures

were painted and where they can be found.

There are three exceptions to the St Philip’s context. One sermon was preached

at the neighbouring church of St Matthew’s, and two were given at Ridley Hall.

Of these one, Defeating Evil through the Cross, is rather longer than all the rest,

and has a slightly different character. It was a forty minute address given during

the course of Holy Week, which we celebrated together as a college when Easter

fell unusually early in 2005.

Within this range of sermons I hope that I have given some idea of the variety of

ways in which paintings can be used. As with everything else, this is something

that can be done both poorly and to good effect. Mine has been a voyage of

learning through experimentation. With regard to the way I have handled the

Preaching and Painting Richard Higginson



paintings no two of these sermons are quite the same. In The Death and

Resurrection of the Beloved Son, I have used two equally powerful paintings to

bring home the shock and horror of what is being described. Faithful in Hard

Times features paintings which offer two different but equally plausible

interpretations of what was going on. In Kept Safe, and to some extent Two

Frantic People, I use a painting which initially I found unsatisfactory, but whose

appropriateness ‘grew’ as I reflected further on the story and the painting. In

The Annunciation I follow the development of a stylised artistic tradition which

eventually culminates in something powerful and lifelike. The painting in The

Nazareth Manifesto is not about the Gospel passage, but serves to illustrate an

Old Testament story to which Jesus alludes. In Metamorphosis I reveal a picture

in two halves, the one portraying the central scene and the second a key event

which follows shortly afterwards. In Facing the Music I have drawn on Henri

Nouwen’s immensely powerful reflection on Rembrandt’s painting of the

parable of the prodigal son. Doubting Thomas uses a painting which portrays an

incident we are not told actually happened, but have good reason to believe

could have happened. So there is no one model for use of art revealed in these

sermons; rather, a careful attention to whatever best serves the art of


In my enthusiasm for the use of painting in preaching, I am aware that there are

temptations involved. It is important not to mistake the medium for the

message, or for fascination with art to distract from serious exegesis of a

passage. Good art, properly used, has a servant role; and for a preacher it should

be subordinate to the proclamation of the Gospel, the good news about Jesus

Christ to which the whole of the Bible ultimately points. My experience is that

God can use it to just such an effect. I offer these sermons in a spirit of modesty,

but with an eager hope that they may inspire others who have the responsibility

and privilege of preaching to explore the riches that twenty centuries of biblical

art have to offer.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son

or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac Genesis 22:1-19 1

When as a preacher I am confronted by a choice of lectionary readings my

instinct is usually to go first with the Old Testament passage and second, the

more difficult passage. 2 So it is with my choice of Genesis 22 tonight. Let me say

at the outset: I do not like this story. It is a story I find disturbing on many

different levels.

It’s a story I find disturbing as a father. Three weeks ago we rejoiced in the

baptism of Isaac, the dearly beloved son of Toby and Amy. 3 Tonight we’ve heard

of Abraham being told to kill his dearly beloved son Isaac. A prospect repugnant

to any father. Yet Abraham is surprisingly acquiescent – he doesn’t question

God’s command. He argued with God over the destruction of Sodom and

Gomorrah, but not over this. It’s all incredibly matter of fact. Look at verse 3.

Abraham receives the command, ‘rose early the following morning, saddled his

donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac…’

It’s a story I find disturbing as a feminist. You may laugh at my describing myself

in this way, but if a feminist is understood as a person sensitive to the injustices

perpetrated on women, why can’t men be feminists too? You may ask what

injustice I’m talking about – no woman is mentioned in Genesis 22. Exactly! If

the acquiescence of Abraham in this story is shocking, so is the silence of Sarah.

As far as we can tell Abraham never consults her or tells her what he intends to

do. After all that waiting and giving birth to a son at an advanced old age, can

you imagine her assenting? Can you imagine the scene if Abraham had killed

Isaac and returned to tell Sarah what he’d done? The thought makes me


It’s a story I find disturbing as an ethicist. Kierkegaard focuses on this story in

his famous essay Fear and Trembling about ‘the teleological suspension of the

ethical’. 4 His point is that ethics is suspended in favour of a superior good, that

of being faithful to the will of God. The ethicist in me wants to protest: how can

ethics and God’s will be in contradiction? Killing your own son goes counter to

1 This sermon was preached in Ridley Hall Chapel on May 18 2006.

2 The New Testament passage set was Luke 24:13-35.

3 Toby and Amy Hole – Toby was then an ordinand at Ridley.

4 There are many editions of this important work. See e.g. the Penguin Classic version translated

with an introduction by Alastair Hannay and published in 1985. Part of Caravaggio’s painting is

reproduced on the front cover.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

all our standard moral instincts and presumptions. Surely God doesn’t break his

own rules?

It’s a story I find disturbing as a theist. I believe in God, a loving God, but the God

in this story doesn’t make much sense. God had led Abraham to expect so much

from his son Isaac – the birth of a great nation. God’s command appears to be a

shattering of his own promise, a sabotage of his own plan. This doesn’t just

seem unloving or cruel; it seems illogical. How can I defend such a capricious


Perhaps you feel yourself rushing to God’s defence. God never really intended

Abraham to kill Isaac, you say; he was just testing! Well, all I can say is it was a

jolly dangerous test. As the Duke of Wellington said about the battle of

Waterloo, ‘a damn close-run thing’ – too close for comfort. 5 Look at verse 10:

‘Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son’. It’s a

good job he heard the angel’s voice – a second later, and Isaac could have been


The horror of the moment is brought out vividly in two paintings by Caravaggio

and Rembrandt, which were displayed side by side in the recent Rembrandt-

Caravaggio exhibition in Amsterdam. 6 At the exhibition there were lots of

paintings where a shared theme was juxtaposed. Violence perpetrated by a

woman, in Rembrandt’s Samson with Delilah and Caravaggio’s Judith with

Holofernes; a moment of stunning revelation, with Rembrandt’s Feast of

Belshazzar and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. But this story is the only one

where there is a direct comparison, the two artists depicting the same scene.

5 In fact, reputed to be said by Wellington may be closer to the truth – but it is such a well-known,

memorable and apposite quote that I am content to let it stand.

6 The Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition took place in the Van Gogh Museum from 24 February to 18

June 2006. My wife Felicity and I were delighted to attend it – the best art exhibition I have ever



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

This is Caravaggio’s painting. 7 We see an Isaac who is absolutely terrified,

squirming, aghast as he realises what his father is about to do. The ram who is

destined to take Isaac’s place looks on benignly, his head extraordinarily close

to Isaac’s head.

7 This painting belongs to the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Caravaggio painted The Sacrifice of Isaac in



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

And this is Rembrandt’s painting. 8 We see Abraham’s hand smothering Isaac’s

face, the boy’s neck exposed, and the knife that his father has dropped flying

through the air but pointing towards his neck. In both versions, we have a sense

of the angel rescuing Isaac in the very nick of time.

8 This painting belongs to the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Rembrandt painted The Sacrifice

of Isaac in 1635. Simon Schama, in his brilliant book Rembrandt’s Eyes, Penguin, 1999, comments

that ‘Rembrandt gives Abraham’s wrathful, anguished face the look of a madman unexpectedly

paroled from hell’.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

Now let’s have the two paintings side by side.

So, there is no doubt about the horror of the story. But though I find it a

disturbing story it is also a powerful story. I can’t dismiss it. I can’t just say: God

never told Abraham to kill Isaac, that it was just a delusion of his imagination.

That is too easy a way out.

This story illustrates in the most dramatic way something most of us know. God

is love but his love is a tough kind of love. He sometimes asks us to give up

things very dear to us. It may be a special relationship; the prospect of

marriage; the reality of parenthood; a well-paid job that brings great

satisfaction; a glittering career. Some of you may have given up one or more of

these things as part of your call to ordained ministry. Jesus talked about ‘those

who had left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or

fields for my sake’. 9 His call can be tough.

Just as in this story, it’s quite often the case that if we respond in obedience and

faith, God ultimately gives back what he has called us to give up. I have lost

count of the number of people resigned to a life of singleness for God who have

ended up getting married! But there is no guarantee of this. Certainly at the

point when we are responding to God’s demand, we cannot assume that he will

give back what we give up. Abraham really thought he was going to kill Isaac.

9 Mark 10:29.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

I’m indebted to Philip Jenson for lending me Jon D. Levenson’s The Death and

Resurrection of the Beloved Son. 10 This opened me up to the world of Jewish

interpretation of this story. Rabbinic Jews had great deal to say about the

aqedah – the binding of Isaac, which is their name for this story. In the history of

Jewish interpretation three remarkable developments took place.

First, the story acquired Paschal connotations. The near-slaughter of Isaac, who

was replaced by a ram, foreshadowed the literal slaughter of lambs in the

Passover – a ritual which averted disaster for the Israelites and brought them


Second, Isaac, who appears a passive victim in the original story, came to be

regarded in a much more active light. He was willingly involved and offered

himself as a sacrifice.

Third, and this is the most extraordinary – some rabbis refer to the ‘ashes of

Isaac’. They believed Abraham actually did kill Isaac, but that God brought him

back to life. Isaac was resurrected.

Although I believe these developments are fanciful embellishments of Genesis

22, I also think there is something providential about them. For they provide a

stepping-stone or bridge to the fulfilment of this story that we as Christians can

see in Jesus. The three aspects that nearly happened in the case of Isaac actually

did happen in the person of Jesus. What was projected on to Isaac becomes

reality with Jesus.

There are few direct references to Genesis 22 in the New Testament, but there

are passages whose language resonates with this story. John 3:16: ‘For God so

loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ harks of ‘Take your son, your only

son Isaac, whom you love’. Romans 8:32: ‘He who did not withhold his own Son,

but gave him up for us all…’ Paul uses the language of giving up, of

abandonment. God did not of course literally kill Jesus, but he launched him on a

collision course with his contemporaries which led to a bloody, gruesome death

at the hands of the Jews and the Romans. Jesus was killed by a combination of

evil forces: envy, malice, legalism, cynicism and expediency. But behind all these

very human elements lay the will and purpose of God. The God whom Jesus

knew so intimately as a loving heavenly father abandoned him in the depth of

his agony.

10 Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child

Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, Yale University Press, 1995. Philip Jenson is my Ridley

colleague who teaches Old Testament.


It’s time for another picture. 11

Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

11 This painting is in the parish church of Le Mas d’Agenais in south-west France. It is the only biblical

painting by Rembrandt which now hangs in a church. It was rescued from oblivion in 1959 when

Rembrandt’s signature and the date 1631 were discovered when the painting was carefully



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son or The Near Sacrifice of Isaac

This painting by Rembrandt of the crucifixion shows a thin, frail Jesus, crying

out in a yelp of pain. Rembrandt probably intended to capture the moment

when Jesus shrieked ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ 12 His sense

of god-forsakenness is best understood as a consequence of his assuming the

entire burden of the world’s sin on the cross.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians.5:7, Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed

for us. John portrays him as dying on the day that the Passover was

celebrated. 13 His death, not Isaac’s, averts disaster for us. His death brings


And Jesus’ sacrifice was a willing sacrifice. He knew what he was doing when he

set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. 14 He knew the trouble that lay in store

for him there. He didn’t have to die, but he chose to die. Even when he was

arrested he claimed that he could have called on twelve legions of angels to

rescue him – ‘but then how would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must

happen in this way?’ 15 Isaac is most unlikely to have understood what was

happening to him. Jesus did.

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus is the beloved son who was raised from

death. God vindicated the victim of all those evil forces that put him to death. He

showed that Jesus was the righteous one. As Paul says in Romans 1, he

proclaimed him to be Son of God with power by the spirit of holiness through

the resurrection of the dead 16. Isaac came close to a death and resurrection

experience – agonisingly close. One can even say, as Hebrews, that he had a

figurative experience of these things. But with Jesus, it really happened: nothing

figurative here. A real, gruesome death; a genuine, joyful resurrection.

Our other reading is the story of Jesus talking to his disciples on Emmaus road.

We are told that he interpreted to them all the things about himself in the

Scriptures. I have often wondered what particular passages he expounded. In

preparation for this sermon, I found myself wondering for the first time

whether Genesis 22 featured in that Bible study. The beloved son who was so

nearly sacrificed points to the beloved son who for our sakes was sacrificed. A

deeply disturbing story that is difficult to understand on its own – which makes

a lot more sense when we consider it in the light of another, greater story.

12 Mark 15:34.

13 John 19:31.

14 Luke 9:51, 53.

15 Matthew 26:53-54.

16 Romans 1:4.



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Faithful in Hard Times

– Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife Genesis 39 1

The early life of Joseph is like a game of snakes and ladders. It is full of ups and

downs, a real rollercoaster ride. This is how it looks:

LADDER The favourite son, the many-coloured cloak, dreams

suggesting that he was special

SNAKE He provokes his brothers’ jealousy; they nearly kill him and

throw him down a well

LADDER Just when he was in danger of dying from thirst, he is pulled

out of the well

SNAKE He is sold into slavery in Egypt – Joseph, his father’s

favourite son

LADDER He does well, wins favour with Potiphar and is put in charge

of this leading Egyptian’s household

SNAKE The incident with Potiphar’s wife: he is falsely accused and

thrown into prison

LADDER Again he does well, works his way up the prison hierarchy

and correctly interprets dreams

SNAKE The chief cupbearer, whose dream he interprets favourably,

forgets to put in a good word for him.

By the end of Chapter 40 Joseph is not in a much better position than in the

middle of chapter 37. He is simply stuck in prison rather than stuck in a pit. A

bit like someone playing snakes and ladders, and after half an hour they’re still

stuck on the bottom row. How frustrating is that!

Is the story of your life a bit like that? As you look back perhaps you see a game

of snakes and ladders:

A wonderful relationship which blossomed for a while and then went

sadly wrong

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on June 12 2005.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

A once happy family, now split into different factions

A job in which you achieved rapid promotion and from which you

reaped much satisfaction; then you were made redundant

For many years you enjoyed excellent health; then you were hit by

chronic illness or an accident which has left a lasting injury

You used to have a lot of money, but lost most of it in investments or a

business deal which turned out different from expected.

Life has a habit of throwing up some very slippery snakes.

The snake Joseph encountered in our story today took the form of a randy,

manipulative woman. Potiphar’s wife was the Mrs Robinson of her day.

Remember The Graduate, the 1967 film in which a bored middle-aged woman

seduces a young graduate, Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman? The

actress who played Mrs Robinson, Anne Bancroft, actually died this week.

It’s time for a little musical rendition:

‘And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson,

Jesus loves you more than you will know

Wo wo wo

God bless you, please, Mrs Robinson,

Heaven holds a place for those who pray,

Hey hey hey…’ 2

Sexual temptation is something that comes the way of most of us some time in

our lives. It may be in the heady days of youth, when sexual desire is so strong

and everyone else seems to be doing it, so why not me? It may be later on when

we’re married – or maybe still single – and we can be tempted by the allure of

an affair or the thrill of a one-night stand. It may be something that affects us on

our own – the temptation to stimulate ourselves with erotic images and indulge

in pornography. Whatever form sexual temptation takes, it leads us down

routes which cause us shame and drag us away from God.

You may say: sex has never been a temptation for you. Instead you may be

vulnerable in other areas. Actually, sexual sin is often not just about sex but the

abuse of a power relationship. Potiphar’s wife was effectively saying: ‘I hold

power here. I will do whatever I want.’ Bill Clinton displayed much the same

attitude when he had his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But abusing power –

2 Lyrics from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

manipulating people, bullying them, using the opportunities and resources of

your position for your own selfish ends – is something that also happens quite

apart from sex. Those who abuse power usually get their comeuppance

eventually. It can happen to presidents, company directors, teachers, vicars… Is

that a snake that you’ve fallen down?

Your situation may be different again. You’re not someone who’s held much

power in your life. For you temptation may take the form of envy, bitterness,

grumbling about others, or wanting to take short cuts to improve your lot. You

may need to heed the words of Proverbs 30:7-8: ‘Give me neither poverty nor

riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and

say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my


Whatever our position in life, it has its temptations. There are snakes waiting to

bite. It’s the same with the men and women of the Bible. There’s a an interesting

contrast between David, who starts off as a delightful youth, but falls into sexual

temptation along the way, and Joseph, who begins life as an obnoxious youth,

but manages to resist the sexual temptation which comes his way.

There are two ways of reading this story in Genesis 39. And there is no way of

knowing which of them is correct. That is because we’re not told what Joseph

thought and felt, only what he said and did. Did you notice that as the passage

was being read? We are simply told the bare events; we are left to guess what

was going on beneath and behind them. 3

3 The same is true of the Genesis 22 saga: we are told what Abraham did, not what he felt. The

compiler of these ancient stories leaves great scope for our imaginations!


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

This painting shows one way of interpreting the story. It is by the 17 th century

Italian artist, Guido Reni. 4 This takes the view that Joseph was attracted by

Potiphar’s wife.

Note how Joseph puts his hand up to say no, but it’s not very convincing. He

looks at this Mrs Robinson of her day with a mixture of longing and horror. In

short, he’s attracted by an insistent woman who’s pulling hard at his cloak and

he finds it a real struggle to say no. It would be no surprise if Joseph was a

young man with strong sexual urges who was flattered by Mrs Potiphar’s

attention – indeed, there’s a suggestion that he flirted with danger by going into

the house when no-one else was there (v.11). But those who flirt with

temptation do not necessarily succumb. Being a young man of high principle, he

somehow found the strength to resist her advances.

4 This painting belongs to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Reni painted Joseph and

Potiphar’s Wife around 1630.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

The second painting I’m about to show you is very different. It is by Guercino, a

near contemporary of Reni’s whom Reni despised but an equally talented

painter who succeeded him as Head of the Academy of Art at Bologna. 5 This

takes the view that Joseph was not attracted by Potiphar’s wife.

In this painting Potiphar’s wife displays her charms shamelessly. Guercino was

a devout believer, but he was no prude; he leaves little to the imagination. But

Joseph won’t even look at this brazen woman. With one hand he repulses her

and with the other he fends her off. He has the look of a desperate man,

horrified at what is happening but determined not to give in.

This too is a plausible scenario. Joseph may well have found Mrs Potiphar

repulsive, though that is more likely if she was less attractive than Guercino

portrays her! We are told that he was handsome and good-looking (v.6); no

description is given of her. She was an older woman and he may not have

fancied her at all. However, he didn’t want to alienate her, because he respected

5 This painting belongs to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Guercino painted Joseph and

Potiphar’s Wife in 1649. It was one of a pair of paintings undertaken by Guercino, using the same

man and woman as models. The other is the story of Amnon and Tamar, which makes an

interesting comparison with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: there the seducer (Amnon) gets his way

and rapes his sister. See 2 Samuel 13.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

her husband and wanted to go on serving him. So Joseph was caught in a very

difficult position.

Whichever way you read the story, the end result is the same. Joseph says no to

temptation. It may have come easily or it may have been a struggle, but the

important thing is that he refuses to do a wicked thing, wrong his master and

sin against God. The same is true with us. The key thing is not whether or not

there’s a struggle – often there will be – but what is the end result.

Saying no to temptation can be costly. No one is more dangerous than a scorned

lover. And so we come to our third painting of this story, by Rembrandt. 6

Understandably, most of the sixteenth and seventeenth century artists who

painted this story focus on the dramatic episode when sexual temptation was at

its height. Rembrandt knew all about sexual temptation in his personal life but

in his art often departs from tradition in what he chooses to highlight. So it is

here: he depicts a later stage in the drama, the moment when Potiphar’s wife

accuses Joseph in front of Potiphar.

6 This painting also belongs to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. There is a very similar

version of the painting by Rembrandt in the Gemäldegallerie, Berlin; the most significant

difference is that in the latter Joseph raises a hand in apparent objection.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

The atmosphere here is one of tranquillity and calm, in striking contrast to the

pictures we saw earlier. No dishevelled clothes, no rumpled bed-sheets; instead,

a respectably dressed woman making a serious accusation against the chief

man-servant. You might expect Joseph to look indignant about the pack of lies

she’s telling, but he simply hangs his head; he seems resigned to his fate.

The fact is that Potiphar was put in a very difficult position by his wife. We’re

told that he ‘burned with anger’ when she told him her trumped up story. It may

be that he burnt with anger against Joseph; after all, he doesn’t give him the

chance to defend himself. But it may be that he was angry about the situation in

which he found himself. It’s possible that he harboured some doubts about his

wife’s story (if he’d been wholly convinced he would probably have put Joseph

to death or sold him back into slavery) but he didn’t feel he could publicly

question it. So Joseph ends up in prison, a rather elite section of the prison

where the king’s prisoners were held.

Joseph was faithful in hard times. There is no indication of him cursing his luck,

Pharaoh’s wife or his God. What a contrast from the spoilt, boastful brat of

chapter 37! Here is a high-principled young man who accepts the rough with

the smooth. He will not do the wicked thing that stares him the face, even when

she is tugging at his cloak. He is faithful.

But this is not just a story about Joseph being faithful. It is also a story about God

being faithful.

Selina 7 pointed out last week that God is curiously absent from the events of

Genesis 37. We’re not even told that the dreams Joseph had came from God.

‘The Lord’ isn’t mentioned even once. How different is chapter 39! Four times

we read that ‘the Lord was with Joseph’ (vs. 2, 3, 21 and 23); twice that ‘the

Lord gave him success’ (vs. 3, 22); once that ‘the Lord blessed the household of

the Egyptian because of Joseph’ (v.5). What about the middle of the chapter, you

may ask? Certainly God allowed a difficult challenge to come Joseph’s way, in

the shape of the slithering snake represented by Potiphar’s wife, but we can be

confident God was still with him. God was faithful in helping Joseph to be


Let’s return to the place where we started – snakes and ladders. Thinking of our

lives in terms of a game of snakes and ladders is actually inadequate. This is to

measure life simply in terms of favourable circumstance, whether things work

out as we would like. The more fundamental issue is whether we are faithful to

God, whether we are growing in godliness, whether we become more like God

7 Selina Garner, a member of the St Philip’s congregation. She is now an incumbent in Devon.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Faithful in Hard Times – Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

in the process of being obedient to him. If you measure Joseph’s life in terms of

snakes and ladders, he was no better off stuck in a prison than he was stuck in a

pit. But in terms of character development – in terms of his walk with God – he

had travelled a long, long way. He’d made steady progression up the ladder that




Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

Psalm 59; 1 Samuel 18 & 19 1


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

A wonderful thing about the psalms is that they cover such a wide range of

human emotions. They express, very honestly, all sorts of different feelings:

love, hatred, praise, anger, doubt, confusion. We can identify with the psalmists

very readily. But there is one type of psalm I have always found hard to relate to

my experience – psalms like this one, number 59, where the psalmist talks

about the experience of being encircled by enemies. What a dominating theme

this is:

‘Deliver me from my enemies, O God’ (v.1)

‘Deliver me from evildoers and save me from those who are after my

blood’ (v.2)

‘See how they lie in wait for me’ (v.3)

‘They are ready to attack me’ (v.4)

‘They return at evening, snarling like dogs’ (v.6)

This is an individual’s very deep, very profound, very real experience of being

surrounded by enemies – people who are out to get him.

I wonder how we relate to this. What about us? Do we have enemies? Do we feel

in physical danger from our enemies? There may be some streets where we feel

a bit wary walking late at night, but few of us probably fear assault from specific

people. So identifying with these psalms can be difficult. I think this psalm

makes much more sense – and we can start to make connections – when we

note its particular setting. Psalm 59 is described as a psalm of David, composed

‘when Saul had sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him’.

Let’s think about the story of Saul and David. Saul was David’s enemy because

he was jealous. Originally, Saul was delighted with David. After all, David had

saved Israel from the threat of Goliath. Saul thought David was a splendid young

man and invited him to stay in his own home, the royal residence. 2 Then Saul

was affected by David’s success and popularity. What really got to him was the

song of the dancing women: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on July 20 2006.

2 See the unfolding story in 1 Samuel 17.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

thousands’. 3 This rankled. We read that ‘Saul was very angry. The refrain

displeased him greatly’ (1 Samuel 18:8). Note that the song was not actually

criticising Saul. In terms of a military assessment, the women were saying that

Saul had done well – but David had done even better. Saul was a hero; David

was a super-hero.

The women’s innocent comparison fuelled feelings of fear within Saul. ”What

more can he get but the kingdom?” he thought. ‘From that time on Saul kept a

close eye on David.’ 4 Saul’s fear of David led to attempts to kill him. In fact, it

became an obsession with him.

Saul tried to kill David in an astonishing variety of ways:

‘By the hands of the Philistines in battle’ (1 Samuel 18:25). He offered

his daughter Michal as wife to David if he killed 100 Philistines, but the

plan misfired – David and his soldiers were successful.

By the hands of his son Jonathan and his attendants (1 Samuel.19:1).

That didn’t work because Jonathan loved David – he was his special


By the hands of men sent to David’s house (1 Samuel 19:11). That didn’t

work because his new wife Michal got wind of it, let David down

through a window and put a dummy in his bed as a pretence, to buy him

some time.

By his own hand, with a spear, trying to ‘pin David to the wall’. Saul

attempted this twice, on both occasions while David was playing the

lyre (1 Samuel 18:11, 19:10). Each time Saul missed. Either he was a

poor shot or David was a good dodger.

3 1 Samuel 18:7.

4 1 Samuel 18:8-9.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

Guercino’s painting 5 is colourful, but it has a slightly artificial feel to it. Saul’s

posture looks frozen. Yet there may be something appropriate about that.

Perhaps Saul had difficulty releasing his spear and throwing it straight because

he was consumed by guilt about his attitude to David as well as by animosity

and fear. But he was also frozen, in the sense that he could not escape from this

sorry complex of emotions. On more than one occasion he repents of his

hostility to David 6 and then reverts to the primitive and powerful force of


We may well think that Saul was thoroughly unreasonable, over the top and out

of order. But jealousy is something that we all know about. It’s a feeling with

which we can all identify. Jealousy is annoyance or anger that someone else has

got something I haven’t – or got more than I have. Is there anyone you feel that

about? Is there anyone who feels that about you?

It’s interesting that jealousy is a feeling that can divide people on the same

‘side’. You see, David and Saul shouldn’t have been enemies. They were both on

the same side – fellow-Israelites, worshippers of the same God, locked in

combat with a fellow-enemy in the Philistines. Yet jealousy makes fresh

enemies out of those who should be friends. That’s the tragedy of jealousy.

5 This painting is owned by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Guercino painted Saul

Attacking David in 1646.

6 See I Samuel 19:6, and later, when David spares his life in the caves of En Gedi, 1 Samuel 24:16-21.

Let’s look at some examples of jealousy:


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

Brothers and sisters, who can be jealous of each other’s good looks,

good fortune, success at school or university. I think of a family where

there are twins, and one twin is more attractive and brighter than the

other. I don’t know this, but I guess it’s difficult for the second twin not

to feel jealous of the first.

Friends who are jealous over a man or woman that they both love. On

holiday I was reading a novel about two school friends who used to be

incredibly close. Then they discovered that they loved the same girl –

one felt jealous of the other, and that had momentous consequences.

University lecturers – yes, it happens among them too! They can get

jealous over who is the more popular with students, whose are the

lectures that people rave about, who gets the better book reviews.

Sportsmen, jealous over who is having more success or receiving more

attention from the fans or the media. Many teams contain individuals

who have difficult personal relationships, who frankly do not like each

other. This can happen at any age or level of sport, from the primary

school football team to a World Cup squad.

Shakespeare’s play Othello is a tale of two jealousies. Iago is a soldier who is

jealous that he hasn’t been promoted. He stirs up trouble for the Moorish

general Othello by spreading rumours that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful.

This in turn makes Othello jealous. It is the stuff out of which tragedies are

made – on stage and in real life.

Let’s think about what it’s like to be the target of jealousy. This can seem very

unfair. I’m sure David felt that way. ‘I have done no wrong’, he cries in Psalm

59:4. In 1 Samuel 20:1 David says to Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my

crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?” It is a

sad fact that doing your best and making the most of your talents can make

other people envious. This can happen in church circles as well as many others.

If we are targets of jealousy then it’s well worth asking if we’ve done anything

to provoke it unwittingly. We need to be sensitive, to avoid being boastful or

flaunting our success – if successful we are. But sometimes we may have acted

perfectly properly and we can still be the target of jealousy. Jealousy is a very

powerful emotion and it’s not always very rational.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Kept Safe – Coping with Jealousy

How do we cope with jealousy? Well, it helps to have a good friend, as David did

with Jonathan. Take a look at 1 Samuel 19:1-6. We need a friend who is loyal to

us but can also be objective, who can tell us how things really are. Ironically,

Jonathan had more reason to be jealous of David than did Saul; David’s

popularity was a threat to Jonathan’s own chances of succeeding Saul as king.

But Jonathan doesn’t seem to have had a thread of jealousy in his body – he was

a great help to David.

Ultimately, though, our security lies with God. That is so in two ways.

First, God knows who we are and what we’re truly like. It is God’s opinion that

matters most. It is God who knows our innermost motives. He knows whether

we have acted to provoke jealousy or have just been an undeserved target.

Second, God protects us from the hatred and anger of the jealous. Personal

enemies may conspire against us; they may try to destroy our good name and

reputation; but usually the truth will ‘out’ in the end. God has a habit of

vindicating those who are faithful to him – just as he did with Jesus. God has a

habit of showing they were in the right. We need to ask for that protection and

call on that protection.

And that brings us back to Psalm 59. God is often described in the psalms as a

rock and a fortress. So it is here:

‘You are my strength, I watch for you;

you, my God, are my fortress,

my God, on whom I can rely.’ (Psalm 59:9)

‘But I will sing of your strength,

in the morning I will sing of your love;

for you are my fortress,

my refuge in times of trouble’. (Psalm 59:16)

If you feel you’ve made some enemies because they’re jealous of you, I hope that

this is what you’ll find.

‘You are my strength, I sing praise to you;

you, my God, are my fortress,

my God, on whom I can rely. (Psalm 59:17)



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

Luke 1:26-38 1

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard Robbie Williams’ song

Angels. You know, the one that has the line ‘I’m loving angels instead’. It

reminded me that ten years ago angels were very much at the centre of

contemporary culture. Not only was Williams’ song a hit single 2, but there was

the film City of Angels 3 which we remember going to see. It is set in Los Angeles,

which is of course Spanish for ‘the angels’ – so named because the early settlers

had visions of angels there. The film’s story is based round a young doctor who

falls in love with a mysterious stranger who turns out to be – yes, an angel. Then

in 2002 a book 4 came out which included interviews with no less than 350

people who believe they’ve experienced angels – messengers from God who’ve

surprised them, protected them or spoken to them.

Whatever we make of these claims, we can say with some certainty that angels

are at the very heart of the Christmas story. Wherever you look in Matthew and

Luke’s accounts, they keep popping up all over the place. The angel Gabriel and

his colleagues were clearly working overtime a little over 2000 years ago! And

there is no more momentous angelic encounter in history than the visit made

by the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be

married to a man named Joseph – the virgin’s name being Mary. It’s a story

known as the annunciation – a fancy word which means ‘announcing’. It’s also a

story that has loomed large in Christian art. And because it’s a while since I’ve

had the opportunity to preach on a biblical story that has attracted the attention

of artists, I thought I’d make up for lost time this morning!

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on December 21 2008.

2 It remains Robbie Williams best-selling single to date.

3 The film was directed by Brad Silberling and starred Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.

4 Emma Heathcote-Jones, Seeing Angels, John Blake Publishing, 2002.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

Artists inherit and develop traditions about how to depict biblical stories. Here

is a fairly conventional painting of the annunciation from the 17th century by

the French artist Philippe de Champaigne. 5 We have cherubs and a white dove

floating above, an angel who looks like a girl with wings just coming in to land,

holding a white lily which she’s about to give to Mary. The lily symbolises her

purity – Mary who’s wearing a blue dress and looks slightly surprised but still

suitably serene.

5 This painting belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Champaigne painted The

Annunciation in 1644.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

This is another 17the century painting by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi. 6

Again we have the white dove, the white lily and Mary looking pious in a blue

cloak. But this time Gabriel looks more like a boy with wings and is kneeling in

front of Mary pointing upwards.

6 This painting belongs to the Galleria Sabauda, Turin. Gentileschi painted The Annunciation in 1623.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

If we now jump a couple of centuries to the 19 th century, we see some

interesting developments. This is by Dante Gabriel (what an appropriate name!)

Rossetti. 7 Still we have the white lily – it’s amazing how persistent that symbol

is. Anyone would think that a white lily is mentioned in the biblical story. But

now we have an angel without wings, and both the angel and Mary are dressed

in white. Mary looks as if she’s just woken up and is trying to make sense of

what she’s seeing.

7 This painting belongs to the Tate Gallery, London. Rossetti painted The Annunciation in 1849-50.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

And now for the fourth painting which is the one I like most. It’s by the

American African artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. 8 We no longer see the figure of

an angel, simply a vertical line of white light. And Mary? Well, she just looks like

an ordinary girl, in pretty ordinary surroundings. The flooring is rough and the

wall plaster is cracked. What’s happening is still extraordinary – you don’t see

shafts of light like that ever day – but the setting is much more the stuff of

everyday life. I’ll come back to that painting later.

Most of the familiar reading we’ve just heard (Luke 1:26-38) is taken up with

the angel’s announcing something that is going to happen to Mary. But at three

points Mary interjects – she responds to what Gabriel says. And it is these three

responses that I want to consider this morning.

First, there is Mary’s reaction to the angel’s greeting. Gabriel announces his

presence with a ‘Hail’ or ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured. The Lord is

with you.’ 9 This seems innocuous enough – it sounds like an angelic equivalent

of G’day. Great to see you!’ But Mary was greatly troubled. The Greek word used

means ‘deeply agitated’. She wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The

8 This painting belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tanner painted The Annunciation in


9 Luke 1:28.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

interesting thing is that Mary is deeply disturbed before rather than after

discovering the disturbing news that the angel has in store for her. This first

indication that she has been singled out as someone special makes her nervous

and panicky.

Maybe we have felt the same when we’ve sensed God’s special call on our lives.

‘What me, Lord?’ ‘No no, you can’t possibly mean me.’ ‘Please don’t shake me

out of my comfortable rut.’ Yes, it’s flattering in one sense for Mary to be told

she’s highly favoured, but where’s that going to lead? How often have we heard

those words ‘I wonder if you could do me a favour.’ Our suspicions are

immediately raised. Doing favours usually means being disturbed from our

peaceful existence, facing new challenges, fitting an extra thing into our busy

schedule. Mary hears the polite and flattering greeting, and she smells a rat.

Rightly so. God had serious designs on her life.

And so the angel goes on to spell out to this frightened teenage girl what the

nature of God’s favour is. She is going to conceive and give birth to a son, a son

she is to call Jesus, a son who will be great and who will be called son of the

Most High. Gabriel describes his future in terms that would give Mary the clear

message that this son was none other than the promised Messiah. Mary also

gets the impression that this is going to happen imminently. The angel isn’t

telling her something about the outcome of her future marriage: conception and

birth are going to happen alarmingly soon.

And so we come to Mary’s second response to the angel. She finds the message

difficult to understand, so she questions it. ‘How will this be’, she says, ‘since I

am a virgin? 10’ Mary is a teenager who is definitely not into pre-marital sex, nor

does she intend to be. She does not understand how she can become a mother,

and she is probably embarrassed at the prospect: the gossip, the scandal, the

slur on her reputation as a respectable girl, the hurt which would be caused to

her fiancé. Mary legitimately questions what God is up to. Has the angel

mistaken his bearings? Has he homed in on the wrong girl? Mary’s lack of

understanding is entirely understandable.

It’s interesting that when – earlier in this chapter – Zechariah questions the

surprising news about having a baby that is told to him, Gabriel rebukes him for

lack of faith. But not with Mary. Sometimes our questioning God is the sign of

lack of faith; but usually there’s a proper place for questions, and God is big

enough to listen to them and answer them. If we feel surprised about the new

job, the new task, the new challenge we sense God is calling us to, by all means

10 Luke 1:34.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

question it, discuss it, talk it through and tease it out – but if the call really does

come from God, he’ll leave us feeling uncomfortable until we’ve responded.

For Mary, the confirmation comes quickly from the angel’s mouth, and the news

takes an even more startling turn. Not only is this promised son going to be very

special; the way he is created will be very unusual. ‘The Holy Spirit will come on

you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ 11 God is going to

work a miracle in her. And as evidence of that miraculous power, Gabriel tells

her that her relative Elizabeth has already conceived in her old age. ‘For nothing

is impossible with God.’ 12

And so we come to Mary’s third and final response. This time it s very different.

It is remarkably accepting. Mary quietens her troubled mind, calms her

questioning spirit, and accepts. With a positive affirmation of the will, she

consents to the destiny God has for her. ‘I am the Lord’s servant’, Mary says.

‘May it be to me according to your word.’ 13 Embarrassment may lie ahead, pain

and difficulty will lie ahead, but Mary realises that there is no point in resisting

God’s will. It’s actually an immense privilege to be the mother of God’s son.

Mary says she s ready to saddle the responsibility which goes with that. She

consents to the idea of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, making his home within

her. In Joyce Huggett’s memorable words, she becomes the selfless space where

God could become man. 14 She accepts Jesus into the very core of her being – the

relationship of an unborn child to its mother is one of the most intimate and

profound imaginable.

Now in one sense, all this sets Mary apart as utterly unique. One of the titles

given to Mary by the early church was Mother of God. None of us – obviously

the men but also the women – can ever emulate Mary in the physical

relationship she had with Jesus. But the interesting thing is that the New

Testament refuses to set Mary on a pedestal apart from us. Jesus himself didn’t.

It is the similarities rather than the differences between Mary and ourselves

which shine through most of the Gospel references to her. Mary had to go

through the same steep learning curve of discipleship just like the rest of us. 15

11 Luke 1:35.

12 Luke 1:37.

13 Luke 1:38.

14 Although I have heard this quote attributed to Joyce Huggett, I have been unable to track down a

reference for it.

15 Former Ridley Principal Christopher Cocksworth comments on this in Holding Together: Gospel,

Church and Spirit – the essentials of Christian identity, Canterbury Press, 2008, p.121: ‘Mary’s slow,

gradual movement towards maturity in faith, her faltering steps towards discipleship (which may

have included some backward ones), her apparently ambivalent relationship to Jesus’ community

of disciples in the early stages of his ministry, does not make her any less of a model of the faithful


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

In an incident at the end of Mark 3, Jesus refuses to pay special deference to his

mother and says ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and

my mother’. 16

And when it comes to responding to God’s call many of us have to go through

the same pattern that Mary did. We are disturbed. We are questioning. We are


Something I like about this painting is that you can read all three of those

responses into Mary’s expression. We can imagine ourselves sitting on a bed

feeling all of those things. Acceptance of God’s surprising design on our life is

rarely instantaneous. Initially we’re upset; then we wonder if we’ve heard the

message correctly; when the message is confirmed, we realise the only sensible

course is to fall in with God’s plans, not rail against them. Mary has forged a

route it makes sense for us to follow.

follower of Christ. Rather, it authenticates her and makes her a genuine pattern of Christian


16 Mark 3:35.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

But I want to conclude this talk by bringing in the passage from Philippians as

well. It is indeed a wonderful thing that Mary accepted Jesus. But even more

wonderful is the fact that at this moment in time Jesus accepted Mary. As the

hymn we’re going to finish with says, ‘Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. 17

Philippians 2 tells us that he who was in the form of God, he who was present at

the creation of the world, emptied himself. He made himself nothing. Jesus

started life on earth not as a baby but as an embryo – strictly speaking, it wasn’t

a virgin birth but a virginal conception. At the beginning of life an embryo is

virtually nothing – it’s a tiny blob of a cell like this:

And this is what the embryo looks like 5 weeks later:

In those early stages not only is the embryo tiny, but its chances of survival are

quite small. We talk sentimentally about the warmth and security of the womb,

17 A familiar phrase from the hymn ‘O come all ye faithful’.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Annunciation – Mary’s Threefold Response

but the fact is that life as an embryo is extremely hazardous. The chances of

abrupt termination, whether natural (through a miscarriage) or artificial

(through an abortion) are high indeed – and abortion was carried out in a

primitive way in the ancient world. But quite apart from the physical perils,

there is the utter dependence, the loss of control, the loss of consciousness, the

being stripped down and starting at the very beginning, which assuming the

form of an embryo represents. Jesus made himself nothing. Are we humbled by

God’s great act of humility? I am.

The wonder is that from that fertilised egg in the fallopian tube, from that

embarrassing event of a teenage girl pregnant before her time, from that

frightened, bewildered young woman bending her will to God’s purpose, there

emerged the boy and finally the man – who became the Saviour of the World.

Your Saviour, and my Saviour. That is the miracle of Christmas.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

Luke 4:16-30 1

One of the odder habits I have is collecting company mission statements –

statements in which companies set out their core purpose and values. Here are

a couple of examples. Tesco have been in the news this week because the Office

of Fair Trading have set up a full-scale competition inquiry into the practice of

the four leading supermarkets. 2 Tesco’s mission statement is to create value for

our customers to earn their lifelong loyalty. 3 So be warned, folks: they want you

for life! GlaxoSmithKline, the huge pharmaceuticals company, are dedicated to

develop the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and

live longer. 4 I like this: that surely is what a pharmaceuticals company should be

all about. It’s easy to be cynical about these mission statements but we need to

ask: how would we feel if others were as cynical about church mission

statements? It’s an interesting fact that a higher proportion of companies have

mission statements than do churches, but churches are beginning to catch up.

Let me remind you about our church mission statement. We have agreed that

the purpose of St Philip’s and St Stephen’s is to:

Worship God in all we do

Grow together as disciples of Jesus Christ

Serve the local community

Enable others to know Jesus 5

It’s something the church leadership has been taking a fresh look at recently.

You’ll be hearing more about it soon!

In our Gospel passage we have what might be described as Jesus’ Mission

Statement. It’s sometimes known as the Nazareth Manifesto. Allow me to set the

scene. Imagine it’s Saturday morning in the Galilean town of Nazareth. As a lawabiding,

respectable Jew you are attending the local synagogue. The synagogue

services are organised by an official 6 who might invite anyone of learning or

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on March 12 2006.

2 See

3 See

4 See

5 See

6 Note mention of the attendant in Luke 4:20.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

reputation to take part. The reading from the law was set; a reading from the

prophets was optional. The person who read from the Hebrew Scriptures would

then comment on the passage before sitting down.

Imagine you are there as Jesus is invited to read and chooses the passage Isaiah


‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

This is Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus didn’t need to invent a mission statement

– he finds one ready-made in the Old Testament. This passage from Isaiah will

do very nicely for him, thank you very much. It is a mark of how highly he

regarded the Hebrew Scriptures.

But the Old Testament is rarely quoted in the New Testament without

something interesting being done with it. It is hardly ever used in a way that

your conventional Jewish rabbi would use it. So it is here. There are three twists

in the tale – three interesting ways in which Jesus tweaks this passage.

First, Jesus breaks off in mid-sentence. Look back to Isaiah 61:2, and you will

see that he omits the words from the second half of verse 2, ‘and the day of

vengeance for our God’. This is surely no matter of chance. His hearers were

probably expecting Jesus to read on – maybe to read the whole of Isaiah 61 –

but Jesus doesn’t. It was a very short reading, and that was intentional.

By stopping where he does, Jesus wishes to emphasise the good news of God’s

grace. In this respect it is interesting to compare him with John the Baptist, who

emphasised God’s judgment. John and Jesus both proclaimed that ‘the kingdom

of God is at hand’ 7 but with different emphases. Both are important, and the one

is a prelude to the other: John’s message of judgment and repentance from sin,

then Jesus’ message of mercy and God’s welcoming acceptance. So Jesus reads

the first verse and a half from Isaiah 61, suddenly rolls up the scroll and sits

down. He leaves the words’ to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ ringing in

his hearers’ ears.

7 Cf Matthew 3:2 and 4:17.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

I wonder how you would have felt at that point. Well, the people of Nazareth

were clearly fascinated. What’s the man up to? ‘The eyes of everyone in the

synagogue were fastened on him’ (v.22).

Second, Jesus says that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in him. ‘Today this Scripture

is fulfilled in your hearing’. 8 What that meant was that the promise of good

times was no longer relegated to the future. The Jews were used to dreaming of

a Golden Age that lay ahead – and in the light of their current circumstances it

probably seemed a long way off. Jesus says: No! The passage was being fulfilled

in the present – today – and it was being fulfilled in his person. He was the

Lord’s Servant that Isaiah talks about; he had been anointed by the Lord’s Spirit.

It is he, speaking in the first person singular, who is the subject of Isaiah 61:1-2.

If you were in that congregation, what would you be starting to feel? (Imagine

that I read an Old Testament prophecy, and then said ‘this is about me!’) Their

reaction is actually in two stages. Initially they are impressed. They are ‘amazed

at the gracious words that came from his lips’ (v.22). You can imagine them

saying ‘He speaks well, doesn’t he?’ This is the local boy come good. But then

their mood turns to one of questioning. ‘How come he’s saying this? Isn’t this

Joseph’s son? He wasn’t that special as a boy, was he? OK, we’ve heard

spectacular reports about what he’s doing in Capernaum – but why hasn’t he

performed any miracles here?’

Jesus detects the questioning in their puzzled expressions and the muttered

comments being passed from one member of the congregation to another. He

decides to treat them to a little history lesson from the Old Testament. And this

brings us to another line in novel interpretation.

So third, Jesus gives a wider understanding of God’s kindness. He seeks to

broaden his townsmen’s horizons of who God is concerned about. Isaiah 61,

taken in full, is a chapter about a restoration of national fortunes – of Israel

being back in charge. So verses 6 to 8 say ‘They will rebuild the ancient

ruins…they will renew the ruined cities. Strangers will shepherd your flocks;

foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.’ The picture is one of Israel once

again being supreme, of other nations serving them. But this is not what Jesus

wants to emphasise.

Instead, Jesus points to Old Testament examples of God’s kindness being shown

to unexpected people – Gentiles, not just Jewish people. First he cites the story

8 Luke 4:21.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

of the prophet Elijah being sent to the widow of Zarephath, which you can find

in 1 Kings 17. Here is a charming picture of a charming story 9:

Elijah visited this widow at a time of famine, when people were struggling

desperately to find enough food to eat. At first it seems rather harsh for Elijah to

impose himself on a poor woman who scarcely has sufficient to feed herself and

her son, let alone a visiting prophet. But during the time Elijah stayed with her

there was food every day for the three of them: ‘the jar of flour was not used up

and the jug of oil did not run dry’. 10 You can see both the jar and the jug in the

picture. Jesus comments that there were many widows in Israel in the time of

Elijah, but God picked out this widow who lived outside Israel for his special

favour. Zarephath lay 12 miles from Sidon, north-west of Israel, in the area that

was then known as Phoenicia.

Jesus then cites another example, one perhaps that’s better known. This is the

story of Naaman, the Syrian general who had leprosy, and was cleansed through

immersion in the river Jordan. As we read in 2 Kings 5:14: ‘Naaman went down

and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God (Elisha) had

9 This painting is by the Italian artist Bernardo Strozzi. It is owned by the Kunsthistoriches Museum,

Vienna. Strozzi painted The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath between 1630 and 1635.

10 1 Kings 17:16.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

told him, and his flesh was restored’. Jesus comments that were many lepers in

Israel in the time of Elisha, but God picked out this leper outside Israel, someone

who was a potential enemy of Israel, for his special favour. Syria lay north-east

of Israel.

I wonder how you would have felt, sitting in that synagogue, when Jesus cited

these two stories, drawing attention to God’s unexpected favours. The people of

Nazareth were furious. Theirs is such an extreme reaction that they nearly kill

Jesus. The explanation must be that they wanted God’s favour reserved for

them. They didn’t want to be reminded that God loves Sidonian widows and

Syrian generals, not just solid upstanding citizens of Nazareth.

So there are three twists in the tale of Jesus’ application of the passage from

Isaiah. And there are three questions for us by way of application.

1. How closely does our mission statement as a church conform to

that of Jesus?

I don’t think it has to be exactly the same. There’s clearly a sense in which Jesus’

mission was unique. But there should be some correspondence, some overlap,

some continuity, between what he was up to and what we’re up to. So we need

to look more closely at what is in that Nazareth manifesto, and ask:

2. Are our actions consistent with Jesus’ mission?

Most of the statements in that Isaiah passage can be understood at a literal level

and more broadly. Take the phrase ‘Good news to the poor’. Poor people are

those who don’t have much money. They may have to beg, borrow and

scrounge; they’re not sure where the next meal is coming from. The poor are

also those who are poor in spirit, those who feel wretched, have low selfesteem,

and don’t believe that anyone loves them. The good news is that God

loves those who are poor and those who feel poor – and so should we. We

should proclaim the good news in word and action. Let there be no rift, no

divide, between evangelism and social action: the two belong together.

Jesus proclaimed freedom for the prisoners. Here he probably was using

language metaphorically – as far as we know, people were not released from

literal prisons as a result of Jesus’ ministry (apart from Barnabas). He did

release men and women from the chains of sin, fear, self-loathing and social

marginalisation. We should be in the same business as he was. But perhaps we

need to recover the literal force of the word ‘prisoners’ as well. There are

people who are imprisoned unjustly and treated abominably – think of the

horrors going in Guantanamo Bay. We can support organisations like Amnesty


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

The Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ Mission Statement

International or Barnabas Aid, which seeks to help persecuted Christians. And

visiting prisoners who are being punished for genuine crimes is a very

worthwhile thing to do. 11

Jesus proclaimed recovery of sight for the blind. Last week I heard about a

doctor who’s offering a new type of glasses – he’s developed some high tech

equipment which offers real hope for blind people. Recovery of sight was of

course a prophecy that Jesus did fulfil literally: he opened the eyes of the blind

so that they were able to see. But it was also true on a spiritual level as well. He

helped people to see the truth about themselves, about God, and about their

condition before God. Are we in the business of opening people’s eyes – helping

them to see more clearly what is going on?

The message is clear. What we should be about is a mission which liberates

people from oppression in the fullest sense of the word. This is a mission that is

holistic and many-layered. It includes serving cups of coffee on Friday mornings

and running Alpha courses on Wednesday evenings. 12 These are things we’re

doing already but our Development Project should enable us to do more and do

things better.

3. Are we ready to have our vision widened?

In particular, to have our vision widened of who God cares about. Do we know a

widow of Zarephath – someone in a state of poverty who has been richly

provided for? Do we know a Naaman the Syrian – someone who has been

healed of a rare illness? I’m not just thinking of Christians here. Just as the Jews

in Nazareth wanted to restrict God’s favour to them, so we must beware of

wanting to restrict God’s blessing to Christians. Think outside the box – include

everyone you know within the span of God’s love.

One of the values on which we’ve prided ourselves at St Philip’s is being

inclusive. We seek to welcome people of many different types, including those

who might not find a welcome in many places. I simply want to say: let’s keep

this up! Keep on being inclusive. That is how we can be true to the Nazareth

Manifesto, the mission statement of Jesus.

11 Visiting the prisoner is a strong New Testament imperative. See e.g. Matthew 25:36 and Hebrews


12 Two regular occurrences at St Philip’s Church.




Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help

Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help 1

Mark 5:21-43

I wonder what your early morning ritual is. Mine is to get up at about ten to

seven, go downstairs and make a cup of tea for Felicity and myself. When our

middle son Peter was doing a joinery apprenticeship at Coulson’s a couple of

years ago, I used to find him in the kitchen making sandwiches. He became an

expert sandwich maker, wrapping two slices of bread round some appetising

contents – ham, cheese, lettuce, cucumber.

This story in Mark 5:21-43 is a bit like a big juicy sandwich. One story is

contained inside another. The outer slices of Jairus and his daughter are

wrapped round the contents of the woman with the issue of blood. We can be

confident this is not a matter of Mark using an artificial device in telling the

story; Matthew and Luke have the two stories intertwined in exactly the same

way, though they tell the stories in less detail than Mark. 2

Jairus and the woman make a fascinating pair. On the one hand they have much

in common, much that unites them. Both of them come to Jesus in a frantic state.

This is a story of two frantic people who are desperate for help. They reach out

to Jesus at their point of need.

But in many respects Jairus and the woman are quite different. They actually

make a fascinating contrast. And it may be that in one or the other, you can

recognise someone a bit like yourself.

Jairus is a man whose 12-year-old girl has fallen ill. Seriously ill – an acute kind

of illness. We can imagine her sweating in bed with a rising temperature, the

agonised household, mother crying, father distraught, hope slipping away like

sand through a sieve. What can they do?

Jairus is a synagogue official. We know that Jewish synagogues of the time had a

board of elders with a President, and that is probably who he was. The

President organised services but didn’t take a leading role in them himself. He

worked out rotas and allotted duties – a cross between a church warden and a

church administrator. The president of the board of elders was a respected man

in the community; the post carried some status. The town where this was

happening was probably Capernaum, and Jesus had already made a mark in the

1 This sermon was preached at St Matthew’s Cambridge on 8 June 2008.

2 See Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 8:40-56.


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Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help

synagogue at Capernaum, teaching and healing uninvited. For a synagogue

leader Jesus was an exciting person to have around but rather an uncomfortable

one. Jairus may have had mixed feelings about him.

But when your daughter is dying you’re willing to do anything. So desperate is

Jairus about his daughter that when he hears Jesus has returned from a journey

across the lake he rushes to see him, he swallows his price, he falls at Jesus’ feet,

and he pleads for help. Imagine the loss of dignity, but Jairus doesn’t care. ‘My

little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will

be healed and live’. 3

Notice that Jairus sought help publicly – he was open about his problem. He did

this in front of the crowds and the crowds followed.

Are you a bit like Jairus? You have a problem and you believe Jesus can help. It

may be an acute illness. It may be the breakdown of a relationship. It may be a

crisis at work. Or the problem may not be directly yours but, like Jairus,

someone dear to you: your daughter, your husband, your best friend. So eager

are you for the problem to be resolved, so desperate for help, that you’re quite

uninhibited about asking. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who comes straight

up at the end of a service seeking someone to pray with you.

The woman in the story is very different. She suffered from an embarrassing

condition. The technical term for her illness is menorrhagia, a gynaecological

condition where women suffer from near constant periods – the periods never

seem to stop. It’s messy and unpleasant. She didn’t suffer from an acute illness, it

wasn’t life-threatening, but she suffered from a chronic condition. A chronic

condition is one that goes on and on. The woman had suffered for twelve years, the

same length of time that Jairus’ daughter had been alive. Doctors had made her

condition worse. There were some curious old wives’ tales about how this

condition could be cured: carrying the ashes of an ostrich egg in a linen rag, or

carrying barley corn found in the dung of a white she-ass! 4 Because of her condition

the woman was considered ritually unclean. We know this from Leviticus 15:25.

What is more, anything or anyone she touched was considered unclean. If a person

was known to have an issue of blood, the condition could be as isolating as being a

leper. That meant the natural tendency was to keep quiet about it.

So this woman too is desperate. She too has heard about Jesus. So desperate is

she to be well that she creeps up behind Jesus in the crowd, reaches out, and

3 Mark 5:23.

4 See William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, St Andrew Press, 1954, p.128.


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Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help

tugs his cloak. Jewish men typically wore robes with four tassels, one on each

corner. The woman probably had a little tug at one of these tassels.

So she seeks help in a different way to Jairus. The woman sought help secretly –

she was furtive. Understandably so, in view of her condition. Who can blame her?

Are you a bit like this woman? You too have a problem and you believe Jesus

can help. But yours may be a chronic condition, not an acute one. An

aggravating pain that’s ground you down over the years. A physical condition

that it’s rather embarrassing to talk about. I suffered from one of those several

years ago. A bad habit which makes you ashamed, so you’re afraid to tell anyone

else. You too want to be cured; you’re desperate for help. But you may find it

very difficult to come forward for prayer at the end of a service. You’d rather

seek Jesus’ help in secret. Your prayer is an odd mixture of fear and faith,

perhaps with a dose of superstition thrown in.

When the woman touched Jesus, something peculiar happened. He realised that

power had gone out of him. He sensed that the touch was not accidental, and

something decisive had happened as a result.

When I investigated how biblical artists had treated this story, I made an

interesting discovery. There was only one painting I could find. It’s by the 16 th

century Italian artist Paolo Veronese, and here it is 5:

5 This painting is owned by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. Veronese painted Christ and the

Woman with the Issue of Blood between 1565 and 1570.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help

At first I didn’t like this painting. Jesus looks rather cross with the woman.

There’s a hint of ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ about his expression. But

maybe his initial reaction was to be cross. ‘Who touched my clothes?’ he asks.

The disciples think that’s a ridiculous question but Jesus persists: ‘Who touched

me?’ 6 He wants to find out.

The fact is that Jesus confronted the woman. He made her come clean about

what she’d done; he refused to let her sneak away in secret. ‘Who touched my

clothes?’ And so the woman, like Jairus, now falls at his feet. Trembling with

fear (what a powerful phrase) she tells him the whole truth. All is revealed.

Jesus’ tome then changes completely. Now he encourages and reassures her.

Now he speakers to her with words of TLC – tender loving care. ‘Daughter, your

faith has healed you. Go in faith and be freed from your suffering.’ 7

Note that Jesus brought the secret seeker into the open. Initially, it might seem

rather unkind that Jesus exposed the woman, that he forced her to tell her story.

But how much better she must have felt in the end. What an encouragement,

what reassurance, to depart with those words of Jesus ringing in her ears!

Meanwhile, what about Jairus? I bet that he felt highly frustrated while this

interlude with the woman was taking place. Valuable time was being lost as far

as his daughter was concerned. I imagine him hopping around with impatience.

And then his worst fears are confirmed. People come from his house with the

terrible news that his daughter was dead. You can imagine the lurch in Jairus’

stomach. And then maybe a surge of resentment. Why couldn’t Jesus have come


But Jesus is completely unfazed by this. He calms Jairus down: ‘Don’t be afraid.

Believe’ 8 – and the tense of the verb has the force of ‘Just go on believing’. Jairus

had shown faith by asking Jesus to help. He must simply continue to believe,

difficult though that might be. And so the story continues. The group reaches

Jairus’ house. Jesus ignores the mourners who had already launched into their

wailing rituals; Matthew mentions flute players who would pipe a lament. 9

Jesus takes Jairus aside with his wife and three closest disciples. He then

absolutely amazes them. Before their eyes a dead child is raised to life.

‘Talitha koum’ 10 says Jesus – the original words he spoke in Aramaic. Why does

Mark quote Aramaic here? Perhaps because Peter remembered these words

6 Mark 5:30-31.

7 Mark 5:34.

8 Mark 5:36.

9 Matthew 9:23.

10 Mark 5:41.


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Two Frantic People, Desperate for Help

very vividly. Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s recollections, and Jesus’ precise

words must have printed themselves deep on his memory of the event. ‘Little

girl, get up’.

So Jesus brings joy to Jairus just as he did to the woman earlier. But he does so

in a different way. Jesus brought joy to the open seeker in private. The raising of

Jairus’ daughter is not done in front of the crowds. Three disciples, the parents,

the girl and Jesus himself – these were the only people present. He even told

them not to tell anyone about it, which must have been well-nigh impossible.

But the contrast between these two stories is striking. Jesus brings the secret

seeker into the open. He brings joy to the open seeker in private.

What is the lesson for us? Well, I suggest you think long and hard, that you do a

bit of soul-searching about the way that God wants to deal with you. We can be

sure of one thing: Jesus certainly wants us to come to him with our problems.

But it may be that his way of dealing with us will not quite be what we expect or

even what we want. Those of us who are quick to come forward, who are keen

to request help publicly, may find – like Jairus – that Jesus wants to do a mighty

work with us in private. He may meet with you in a dramatic way in the quiet of

your own study or bedroom. And those of us who are shy about coming

forward, who want to seek help privately may find – like the woman – that Jesus

wants us to come out into the open. He wants to show us that he loves us

publicly, in the full glare of other people’s attention. Either way, there’s no need

to be scared. Jesus desires the best for you.

Jesus’ way is full of surprises; it’s decidedly topsy-turvy. Are we prepared for

the unexpected? Are we prepared to let Jesus have his way with us? Is Jesus

wanting to deal with you more like Jairus, or is he wanting to deal with you

more like the woman? That’s the question I want to leave with you.



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

Mark 9:2-12; Matthew 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36 1

I wonder what the word metamorphosis means to you. Maybe it’s not a word

that features in your vocabulary. I looked it up in the dictionary and found that

it is a biological process through which an animal develops, involving a

conspicuous and abrupt change in the animal’s form or structure. Think of a

tadpole becoming a frog, or a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar

develops into a pupa, inside which a miracle happens: the worm-like caterpillar

turns into a beautiful butterfly!

The Greek word for transfiguration is metamorphosis. The ‘meta’ bit of the

word means change and the ‘morpha’ bit of the word means ‘form’. The

transfiguration is a story about a dramatic change in Jesus’ appearance. You

may find it hard to believe. Perhaps you’re wondering: did the disciples just

imagine it? Well, one of them might have, but it’s unlikely that three disciples

would have imagined the same thing. The transfiguration is very solidly rooted

in the Gospel accounts. The story is told in three of the four Gospels. There are

slight differences in these accounts but not contradictions; each has some

details not found in the others. Today we’ll be drawing on all three accounts:

Mark 9:2-12, Matthew 17:1-13 and Luke 9:28-36.

The event took place up a mountain. There has been considerable speculation

about which mountain. Some think it was Mount Hermon, which rises 9000 feet

above the Golan Heights, a snow-capped peak on the range which now divides

Israel from Lebanon. Both Mark and Matthew say it was a high mountain 2, so

that could well be right. Others think it was Mount Tabor, which is much

smaller, 1800 feet. It is situated at the eastern end of the Jezreel valley and west

of the sea of Galillee. Mount Tabor now has two Arab villages at the foot of it,

and is crowned by the Church of the Transfiguration. We don’t know which of

these two suggestions is correct – it doesn’t really matter!

It’s interesting to read the description of Jesus’ transfiguration in all three

Gospel writers:

‘There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling

white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.’ (Mark 8:3)

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on February 18 2007.

2 Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:1.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

‘There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and

his clothes became white as the light.’ (Matthew 17:2)

‘As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes

became as bright as a flash of lightning.’ (Luke 9:29)

The change affected both his face and his clothes. They were bathed in the

brightest of light.

One of the most notable depictions of the transfiguration in Western Christian

art is by Raphael. It was actually his last painting before his death. 3

Here we have an elevated, exalted Jesus. The figure on the left is Elijah, the great

prophet. The figure on the right, holding the tablet which contains the ten

commandments, is Moses, the great lawgiver. Both of them were associated

with mountains: Elijah with Mount Carmel and Moses with Mount Sinai – so if

3 This painting belongs to the Vaticano Pinacoteca, Vatican City. Raphael painted The

Transfiguration between 1518 and 1520. In fact, it was unfinished at his death on Good Friday

1520 and was completed by his students.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

anywhere was a natural place for these two long dead characters to meet up

with Jesus, a mountain was. Beneath them, cowering on the ground, are the

three disciples Peter, James and John. Raphael’s painting captures the moment

when ‘a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered

the cloud’ (Luke 9:34).

The overwhelming message that this experience conveyed to the disciples was

glory. This is especially so in Luke’s account. The two men, Moses and Elijah,

‘appeared in glorious splendour’ (verse 31). When Peter and his two

companions became fully awake, ‘they saw his glory’ (verse 32). Peter himself

wrote an account of the transfiguration, a rare example of a story about Jesus’

life outside the Gospels, in the rest of the New Testament. See 2 Peter 1:17. And

how does he describe the experience? He says that our Lord Jesus Christ

‘received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him

from the Majestic Glory’.

What is glory? It’s a difficult word to pin down. It is hard to define but we can

say what glory is associated with. In the Bible glory is often associated with:

Light – an effusion of light round someone or some place. So it is with

Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain.

Majesty – the royalty, dignity and honour that go with someone in an

exalted position

Divinity – glory belongs to God. In the transfiguration God is showing

the disciples that glory belongs to Jesus as well. The voice from the

cloud confirms who Jesus is, as at his baptism: ‘This is my Son, whom I

have chosen; listen to him!’ 4

A Manifestation of God’s Presence – God is showing his presence –

decisively, unmistakeably – in the person of Jesus. Moses and Elijah are

there as signs that the Old Testament promises are being fulfilled. Jesus

is the one to whom the law points and to whom the prophets point. He

is carrying on their work and bringing it to completion.

The transfiguration is a one-off event. It is special, it’s unique, and yet the New

Testament also speaks of our transfiguration. That may come as a big surprise.

Where else does the word appear, you may ask? Well, it’s not there in our

English translations, but it’s there in the Greek: the same word, metamorphosis,

in two different places in Paul’s letters:

4 Luke 9:35. Cf the words at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:22.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

First, Romans 12:2 : ‘…be transformed (literally transfigured) by the renewal of

your mind’. Paul is saying we should be open to the prospect of God completely

changing the way we think.

And second, 2 Corinthians 3:18: ‘…we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate

the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (transfigured) from one degree of glory

to another, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. This is one of the New

Testament verses which most inspires me, that I come back to again and again.

It gives me hope of progress in the Christian life. But I have to admit: it doesn’t

always feel like that!

Are we really being transformed from one degree of glory to another? I find it

hard to believe when I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, can’t get back to

sleep, and start thinking about the failings and weaknesses of the church along

with my own failings and weakness. No, it doesn’t always feel like we’re being

transfigured, but it’s a truth we need to hold on to. Let me remind you of a

couple of things Pam 5 said last week. She spoke about resurrection people, of the

new life that there is in Christ. She spoke about hidden gems in a previous

congregation that she was in – like Mrs North who spoke so naturally about

Jesus her Saviour. We don’t have anyone called Mrs North here but we have

people like Mrs North.

We are being transfigured as the Spirit changes us more into Christ’s likeness –

as we become more Christ-like so that the glory that belongs to him also

attaches to us. I asked Felicity whether she’d seen any change in me over the

years and she said I’d become a calmer person, much less liable to get rattled,

upset and angry. If that’s true, I claim no credit: I believe that has ‘come from

the Lord, who is the Spirit’. A Ridley colleague recently reminded me of the

Church Father Ireneaus’ statement that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully

alive’. 6 That’s a wonderful phrase. A human being fully alive – vibrant, alert, in

touch with God and sensitive to people around, enjoying abundant life just as

Jesus did and Jesus promised.

What glory and transfiguration don’t mean is that everything in life is hunkydory,

that it’s all plain sailing. For this story also speaks very clearly of suffering.

As they come down the mountain Jesus says to his disciples:

5 Pam Costin, an ordinand from Ridley Hall who was then on attachment at St Philip’s and had

preached the previous Sunday. She is now a curate in the diocese of Lincoln.

6 St Ireneaus was Bishop of Lyons. The quotation comes from his work Against Heresies, 4, 34, 5-7.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

‘…the Son of Man must suffer much, and be rejected’ (Mark 9:12)

‘…the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands’ (Matthew 17:12)

And on the mountain top Moses and Elijah ‘spoke about his departure, which he

was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:31) – it is significant that

soon afterwards Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, knowing that he must die

there. 7

So the transfiguration is a story about glory and suffering. It is significant that

Peter is in on this. A week earlier Peter had acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah

(Matthew 16:16), and was blessed and praised by Jesus for doing so. But then

Peter was told that the Messiah must suffer and die (Matthew 16:21),

something Peter found difficult to accept – so he is rebuked by Jesus for

rebuking him. The fact was that Jesus had to suffer and die for our salvation.

We need to realise that for us, too, being transfigured is not plain sailing. It has

times when we suffer and carry a cross. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must

deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. 8 Being a follower of

Jesus may expose us to laughter, mockery and persecution. In some parts of the

world it is physically dangerous to be a Christian. Or we may suffer in other

ways – the pain of a broken relationship, a chronic illness, a personal tragedy.

Being transfigured also has times when we stumble and go backwards. Let’s be

honest – we all mess things up from time to time. Sometimes we foul up big

time. We commit a sin of which we’re deeply ashamed. We seriously hurt

someone we love. Like Peter, we may deny Jesus or keep quiet about the fact

we’re a follower of his when the going gets tough. Don’t despair! That doesn’t

necessarily mean you’re not being transfigured.

The point is that transfiguration is about progress – the change is real – but it is

rarely smooth uninterrupted progress. We need to take a long-term view (what

God’s Spirit is doing in us in the long haul), not dwell on the blips and setbacks

and stumbles that happen along the way.

I have a confession to make. What I showed you earlier was not the whole of

Raphael’s painting! It’s an amazing painting because it’s actually a picture in

two halves. Here it is with the bottom half as well as the top half:

7 Luke 9:51.

8 Mark 8:34.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Metamorphosis – The Transfiguration of Jesus

The full painting shows not only Jesus in glory on top of the mountain, but what

was happening at the foot of the mountain, which we read about next in the

Gospels. 9 It is the encounter between the other disciples and the father of a boy

suffering from violent fits. These disciples cannot heal him. The bottom half of

the painting is a scene of consternation. There are expressions of surprise and

disappointment – people who are very upset. Amidst it all, two disciples are

pointing upwards in the direction of Jesus.

So here in one painting we see both glory and suffering. We see the awesome

mountain=top experience and a messy, untidy situation happening at ground

level. It seems to me that we are called to do two things. 10

One is to recapture our vision of Jesus, the transfigured Jesus, bathed in glory.

That may come through going apart with Jesus to pray: a retreat, a conference, a

parish week-end. The second is to let that glory inspire us and infiltrate and

radiate through us when we return to our normal existence, as we come back to

earth which may include coming back to earth with a bump. We are called to

show that Jesus makes a difference in the midst of pain and suffering and


If we just had the top half of the painting, the transfiguration might be mistaken

for a piece of religious escapism. Because we’ve got the second half, we see that

it’s good news for a broken and hurting world.

9 Mark 9:14-29; Matthew 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43. Note how all three Gospel-writers have this story

immediately following the transfiguration. Mark’s is much the fullest account.

10 In these final thoughts I have drawn on Vanessa Herrick’s reflections on Raphael’s painting in her

very helpful book on the transfiguration, Face Value: God in the Place of Encounter, DLT, 2002,




Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son 1

Luke 15:11-32

This parable is, quite simply, one of best stories ever told. It is a story that gets

called by different names, most frequently The Return of the Prodigal Son. But it

is sometimes known as the Lost Son, as in the New International Version, to fit

in with the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin which come earlier in the

chapter. 2 Or you can switch the emphasis and call it The Welcome of the

Waiting Father. 3 There again, what about The Resentment of the Elder Brother?

A less common title, maybe, but he is an important character in the story: the

more so if we appreciate the context in which Jesus told it. Look back to the

opening verses of the chapter, Luke 15:1-2: ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners

were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the

law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”. ‘ In the elder

brother we see something of the attitude of the Pharisees.

This has always been one of Jesus’ best-known parables, but it seems to have

redoubled its popularity since the publication of Henri Nouwen’s book The

Return of the Prodigal Son. 4 It’s a book which has taken on the status of a

spiritual masterpiece. It was inspired by Nouwen’s seeing a reproduction of

Rembrandt’s painting, which prompted him to go and view the original in the

Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia 5. Nouwen was so captivated by this

painting that he spent a whole two days studying it and meditating upon it. The

museum guards couldn’t understand what he was up to! He entered one by one

into each of the three main characters in the story: younger son, elder son,

father. The result is an incredibly rich reflection, one I encourage you all to read

if you haven’t some so already.

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on 19 September 2004.

2 Luke 15:1-10.

3 Notably by Helmut Thielicke, the great German preacher-theologian, whose book of sermons on

the parables of Jesus is named The Waiting Father (James Clarke, 1960). I did my doctorate on the

ethical writings of Thielicke, but it was his sermons that first attracted my interest.

4 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, DLT, 1994. Nouwen was a

Roman Catholic priest who became pastor to a L’Arche community for mentally handicapped

people. He died in 1996.

5 Rembrandt painted The Return of the Prodigal Son during the last year of his life, 1669.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

Like Nouwen, I shall look at the three main characters in turn. I have three key

points to make about each of them.

First, the younger son. What strikes us at the start of the story is how impatient

he is. His attitude is one of ‘I can’t wait’. The ‘Insulting’ sketch we watched

earlier gets it right. In that culture, asking for your inheritance early was a way


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

of saying ’I wish you were dead’. 6 The son could not have found a more pointed

way to insult his father. We need to wake up to the fact that sin is not just a

failure to reach our potential – it’s an insult to God. We live in a society that

increasingly seems to wish God was dead, or is determined to live life as if he


Second, the younger son is wasteful. That is the meaning of the word ‘prodigal’.

Having been given his inheritance, the son travels to a far country and

squanders it in no uncertain terms – he wastes the whole of the inheritance in

‘wild living’. That’s not unusual for someone who arrives by a large sum of

money suddenly. I remember a Yorkshire woman called Vivian Nicholson who

won £152,000 on the pools in the early 1960s. In those days that was a vast sum

of money – equivalent to about £5 million today. She vowed to ’Spend, spend,

spend…’ and that’s exactly what she did. A few years later, none of the money

was left, she had a serious drink problem, and her first of four husbands had

been killed in a car crash. 7

Are we like the prodigal son? Probably not in that excessive, spectacular way.

But we are, every time that we seek ultimate satisfaction in things other then

the father’s love. It may be wine, women and song. It may be the more subtle

temptations of fame, power and success. Yes, we can be Christians and

churchgoers but still live lives like the restless son, seeking satisfaction a long

way from God.

Third, the son was humbled. I deliberately say humbled rather than humble. He

‘came to his senses’ (v.17). He owned up to the mess he was in, to the pig’s ear

he’d made of things – seeing a lot of pigs’ ears and eating their food may have

helped. Look at Rembrandt’s picture: the shaven head (perhaps because he’d

caught lice?), the broken sandals, no fine clothes but simply an under-tunic. He

realised that even the humiliation of returning home was better than starving in

a pig sty. So he decides to go home to face the music. He rehearses the speech

that he will make: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no

longer worthy to be called your son…’ That is a wonderfully realistic detail –

just what we do when we’re anticipating an encounter that we know is

necessary but we’re actually dreading!

6 This is emphasised by New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern

Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, SPCK/IVP, 2008. He draws on extensive experience of living in

Middle Eastern countries.

7 See her account in Vivian Nicholson and Stephen Smith, Spend, Spend, Spend, Fontana, 1978.

8 Luke 15:27, 30.

9 See The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp.20-21.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

If we’re a waster and a wanderer how important it is that we come to our

senses, that we face up honestly to the truth of our condition rather than live in

a state of continuing self-denial. It is very hard for us to accept and receive the

fullness of God’s love if we’re forever trying to justify ourselves and make

excuses. The younger son had many vices, but he displayed one key virtue: the

virtue of facing reality.

Now let’s turn to the elder son. Let’s not underestimate his virtues. First, he’s a

very dutiful son. No waster him! He does his duty obediently; he’s reliable and

hard-working. He keeps his father’s estate in good shape by living resourcefully,

respectably and responsibly.

But he’s very judgmental. The painting captures this well – there’s the elder son

on the right, looking down disapprovingly. Rembrandt takes some liberties with

the biblical story, in that the elder son wasn’t actually present when the

younger son arrived home, but he deliberately telescopes the action to make the

painting as comprehensive as possible. The elder son is a party pooper. Notice

the way that, in Jesus’ story, he disowns the younger son as his brother: the

father says ‘your brother’, but the elder son replies ‘this son of yours’, a

deliberate way of asserting his distance. 7 He assumes the worst about his

brother, alleging that he has ‘squandered your property with prostitutes’. 8 This

may be true, but we haven’t actually been told that earlier in the story. The

elder brother comes over as a very cold man. In Rembrandt’s painting, notice

how light falls on his face, but it doesn’t spread over his body.

Third, the elder son is resentful. He’s appalled at his father throwing the

extravagant party. Why all this fuss? Why have I never been given a party like

this? Isn’t this celebration more than a mite premature? Shouldn’t the other son

have to do a year of hard labour to prove himself before a party is appropriate?

Are we like the elder brother? It’s interesting that Nouwen at first identified

with the younger son; then a friend gave him a shock by telling him that he was

more like the elder son. He came to realise there was a lot of truth in this

insight. 9 It’s easy for us Christians to be like him, especially if we’ve been

Christians since childhood, never rebelled and have never been through a wild

stage. It’s all too easy to bask in our respectability, passing judgment on others

and looking down our noses at them. All too easy to make comments like ‘What

are young people doing these days, drinking themselves silly, wasting money,


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

sleeping around?’ Robin Nelson 10 told me last week that he grew up in a church

that was full of Christians who were like that: strict and judgmental. It put him

off Christianity for many years. I said to him that they sounded a bit like the

elder brother in this story. 11

Last – but far from least – we come to the father. Let me identify three striking

features about him.

The father allows freedom. Although it must have broken his heart, he allows his

younger son the freedom to insult him and take his share of the property –

doing what he liked. You see, God wants our love but he doesn’t compel it. The

amount of freedom he gives is actually quite terrifying. It’s a freedom that

includes the possibility of leaving home, going to a far country, and losing

everything including ourselves.

But then the father waits eagerly. He does not forget his son. ‘While he was still

a long way off, his father saw him’. God is on the look out for the first small

inklings of repentance. The father is filled with compassion, throws his arms

around him and kisses him. He doesn’t make his son earn his repentance the

hard way by keeping him waiting as he knocks at the door. No, the father takes

the initiative in going out to meet his son. He cares about the elder son as well.

Notice how, later on, he leaves the party to go out to see him – trying to

persuade the reluctant brother to come and join the party. The father longs for a

change of heart there too.

Finally, the father welcomes warmly. The warmth of the father’s welcome is

awesome. We see that in Rembrandt’s painting. In his book Nouwen draws

attention to the difference between the two hands. The left hand grips the son

firmly, as if to say ‘I will not let you go’. The right hand caresses him tenderly,

assuring him of the parent’s love. Nouwen thinks the left hand is a father’s hand

and the right hand is a mother’s hand. 12 God is like a father and a mother.

I love too the way that the son’s head is turned to one side against the old man’s

chest. It’s as if he is listening to his father’s heartbeat, telling him how much he

is loved.

10 A member of the congregation at St Philip’s – at the time, churchwarden.

11 Rembrandt himself experienced something of this censorious attitude from Dutch Calvinist

Christians in Amsterdam – notably in relation to the fact that he was never formally married to

Hendrickje Stoffels, the woman with whom he lived for 15 years from 1648 until her death in


12 The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.99.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Facing the Music – The Story of the Prodigal Son

I remember a scene that happened in Neighbours last year. Perhaps you saw it

too. Libby, then working as a young teacher, tells her father Karl that she’s done

the unthinkable. Under pressure she has slept with one of her pupils. She deeply

regrets her action, and expects her father to be angry and reject her. Karl

Kennedy is certainly no saint, but in one of his finest moments he takes Libby in

his arms and says: ‘Whatever you have done, I am still your father, and I love

you’. That is the model of parenthood we find in this story.

We need to understand the joy that God takes in just a single person who

returns to him. Yes, there’s a terrible amount that’s wrong in this world. We

often wonder why God allows so much evil and suffering, why he lets younger

sons mess things up so much and how he puts up with elder sons who do

damage by being so judgmental and resentful. But don’t underestimate the joy

there is in heaven over every repentant sinner, every turning to God which

represents a coming home.

What is the challenge for us this morning?

To repent of our rebellious wanderings, our looking for satisfaction

outside of the love of God?

To repent of our resentments and our hardness of heart?

Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Or is it

To share in the joyful welcome God gives to all his returning children?

To be compassionate as God is compassionate? To kneel at his feet and

listen to the heartbeat of God?


Defeating Evil Through the Cross 1

Draws on various passages


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

In September 2003 several of us Ridley staff attended the National Evangelical

Anglican Congress at Blackpool. You may know the poem Albert and the Lion

which starts 'There's a famous seaside town called Blackpool, that's noted for

sunshine and fun'. 2 Well, we didn't see any sunshine (it rained solidly for the

first 48 hours) and to be honest, there wasn't that much fun either! The reason I

mention the event is because some of the teaching on the cross left me with the

same sort of uneasy feeling about missing out on the Gospel story that Jeremy

and Paul 3 mentioned in the opening part of their talks. It wasn't that speakers

were presenting a dodgy wishy-washy theory of the atonement, more that they

talked about the cross in a way curiously divorced from its historical context. It

was as if the cross was a metaphysical transaction God carried out with himself,

and when and where it actually happened wasn't particularly significant – a

historical abstraction, if you like. My unease came to a climax when a senior

evangelical clergyman, who shall remain nameless, said 'The cross wasn't a

tragedy. It was a triumph.' I know why he said that, and half of me agrees with

him. As I hope to make abundantly clear in due course, the cross did turn out to

be a triumph. But that doesn't stop it being a tragedy as well. Wasn't it a tragedy

that Jesus, the eternal Word, 'was in the world, and the world came into being

through him; yet the world did not know him' (John 1:10). Wasn't it a tragedy

that 'He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him'

(John 1:11)? As Jeremy said on Monday, we must beware the temptation to pass

too quickly on to the victory of Easter Sunday. We need first to savour the

events that went before, the better to understand the nature of that ultimate


I want to think about the events of Passion Week in terms of the conflict

between darkness and light. This is a key metaphor which is deeply embedded

in the New Testament texts. We still connect darkness with danger, menace and

an increased opportunity for disorderly, sinister and criminal behaviour. How

much sharper that sense was in societies before the onset of electricity! St Paul

in Romans 13 says 'let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour

of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness,

1 This talk was given in Ridley Hall Chapel on March 23 2005, during Holy Week.

2 The poem was written by Marriott Edgar. See

3 My colleagues on the Ridley teaching staff, Jeremy Begbie and Paul Weston. Together we gave a

series of three talks during Holy Week.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy'. In

Ephesians 6 he talks of the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places as 'the

cosmic powers of this present darkness'. In Colossians 1 he rejoices that God

has rescued us from the power of darkness to share in the inheritance of the

saints in the light. In John 8 Jesus says 'I am the light of the world. Whoever

follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.'

So it's very interesting that there are points in the Passion narratives when the

fact of physical darkness has huge spiritual significance. In John 13 we're told

that after Judas received his piece of bread from Jesus at the Last Supper he

immediately went out. 'And it was night' (John 13:30). William Temple

comments in his Readings in St John's Gospel: 'There are no more pregnant

words in the whole of literature than these – and it was night.' 4 You may say –

isn't that reading in too much? The fact was that the meal took place in the

evening, so of course it was night. But John surely intends us to make a

connection between Judas' dastardly deed of betrayal and the pitch blackness in

which he now immersed himself. Judas goes from the presence of the Light of

the world to the outer darkness.

And when Jesus hangs on the cross, there is the extraordinary fact, recorded by

all the synoptic gospels, that darkness came over the land for three hours. Luke

says 'the sun's light failed'. 5 Wasn't that hugely symbolic? Didn't this darkness

that engulfed the land indicate that something truly momentous was happening

and something truly evil? Those three hours of darkness culminated with the

absolute nadir of Jesus' experience – the heart-rending cry, the gut-wrenching

scream: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' 6 That was the dark night

of the soul – experienced at a time when it should have been broad daylight.

Allow me to take you on a little artistic excursion. Not all great artists seem to

have taken on board this dimension of darkness in the crucifixion. I'm grateful

to Alyson 7 for drawing my attention to this painting by Raphael – the crucified

Christ with the Virgin Mary, saints and angels, often known as the Mond

crucifixion. 8

4 William Temple, Readings in St John’s Gospel, Macmillan, 1970, p.211.

5 Luke 23:45.

6 Mark 13:34.

7 Alyson Lamb, then a Ridley Hall ordinand.

8 This painting is owned by the National Gallery, London. Raphael painted The Crucified Christ with

the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (known as The Mond Crucifixion) in 1502-3.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

Here we see Jesus dying under a blue Mediterranean sky, with verdant

countryside in the distance. Two angels are floating effortlessly in the sky. The

four mourners look sad about what is happening, but it is a rather ritualised,

routine sort of sadness. Even Jesus looks relatively relaxed as crucified figures

go. It's a beautiful picture, but there's not a lot of anguish, and there's certainly

no hint of darkness coming over the land for three hours.

A century after Raphael, his fellow-Italian painter Caravaggio depicts the events

of Passion week in a precisely opposite way. Whether for theological reasons,

psychological or simply because he wanted to experiment artistically,

Caravaggio makes darkness his primary medium. The lit up parts of his

paintings are the exceptions – but all the more significant for that. A fortnight

ago I had the wonderful experience of visiting the current exhibition of

paintings from the last four years of Caravaggio's life at the National Gallery. 9

It's a cavernous experience – like descending into a dark cave with a few shafts

of light like miner's lamps indicating the way. Here are some of his paintings:

The Arrest of Christ 10

9 The exhibition Caravaggio: The Final Years took place in the National Gallery from February 23 to

May 22 2005.

10 This painting is on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Caravaggio painted The Taking of

Christ (as it is more frequently known) in 1602-3.

The Flagellation of Christ 11


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

11 This painting is owned by the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. Caravaggio painted The

Flagellation of Christ in 1607.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

Curiously, Caravaggio never painted the crucifixion itself. But he did paint The

Entombment of Christ 12

12 This painting is owned by the Vatican Pinacoteca, Rome. Caravaggio painted The Entombment of

Christ in 1602-3.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

Caravaggio also painted two great resurrection masterpieces, The Supper at

Emmaus and The Incredulity of St Thomas, but now is not the time to look at


As I have studied these paintings of Caravaggio, as I have marvelled at the

intensity of emotions which he portrays Jesus as inspiring in people –

aggression, hatred, love, devotion, amazement, curiosity – I've been prompted

to go back to the Gospels to try and understand afresh why it was that Jesus

died. What made people want to kill him? What was the particular nature of the

forces of evil that conspired against him? And are these forces of evil which

continue to impact our lives and personalities, of which we need to repent? As I

read over the Gospel stories again there seemed to be five key factors.

Back to the Gospels

The first evil force which pinned Jesus to the cross was the power of legalism.

The fault-finding begins at a very early stage in Mark's Gospel. The Pharisees

and scribes say: 'Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?' 13 ''Look, why

are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?' 14 ‘Why does this fellow speak

in this way? It is blasphemy!' 15 Jesus infuriated the religious establishment of

his day because they saw him as a lawbreaker. His free reinterpretation of the

law about the sabbath, his willingness to spend time eating with notorious

sinners, the claims he made directly and indirectly about his own person – not

all of these actions constituted a technical breaking of the law, but to those

determined to find fault, that was the image he conveyed. They could not

appreciate the new work that God was doing in Jesus of Nazareth and refused to

praise God for it. When he cured men and women on the sabbath, they refused

to rejoice with the people who were healed but moaned that he'd done it on the

wrong day. When he cast demons out of souls who'd been tormented for years,

they perversely attributed his power to Satan. 16 They were legalists. That

represents a very real bondage to the power of evil, as Paul's letter to the

Galatians makes clear. 17 The Jews said to Pilate: 'We have a law, and by that law

he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God' (John 19:7).

Do you ever fall prey to the sin of legalism? There's not as much of it about in

the evangelical world as there was a generation ago. The old evangelical taboos

have largely gone. We're not as uptight as when I was a lad about drinking

13 Mark 2:16.

14 Mark 2:24.

15 Mark 2:7.

16 Luke 11:14-23.

17 See e.g. Galatians 4:8-11.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

alcohol, going to the cinema or playing games on Sunday. But legalism is a

perennial problem which afflicts the church in new ways at periodic intervals.

So we need to beware. Legalism can easily attach to things like how we pray,

how we worship, using the right phrases and mixing with the right people.

Legalism is present every time we are more concerned with catching people out

than including people in. Do we have eyes to see how God might be at work in

unexpected people, the apparent misfits, the kids from the rough home or

unconventional family background? People a bit like Jesus of Nazareth, in fact.

The second evil force we see at work in the events of that momentous Friday is

a malevolent spirit of envy. Pontius Pilate was perceptive enough to see that:

'for he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him

up' (Mark 15:10). The religious leaders were furious with Jesus, not just

because they disagreed with his understanding of the law, but because he was

popular with the people. Again, we can trace the roots of this envy back to the

early days of Jesus' ministry. When he taught in the synagogue at Capernaum

the people were astonished at his teaching, 'for he taught them as one with

authority, and not as the scribes'. 18 A comparison not likely to have brought

overflowing joy to the scribes. The difference was that Jesus spoke with a

directness and a certainty that the teachers of the law could not match. When

they taught, the opinions were always second-hand; they would quote 'Rabbi

this' and 'Rabbi that', whereas Jesus spoke as if he had a hotline to God himself.

This was a sure breeding-ground for envy. The crowds listened to Jesus and

hung on his every word; they went to him with their illnesses and their

ailments; and they gave him a right royal reception on his arrival in Jerusalem.

In short, Jesus displaced the religious leaders from the centre of popular

esteem. Envy seeps through the verses from Matthew 21 which we heard read

on Monday: 'when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that

he did, and the children crying out in the temple, 'Hosanna to the Son of David!'

they were indignant, and they said to him 'Do you hear what these are saying?' 19

Let's not underestimate the element of bitter personal jealousy in the events

which led to Jesus' crucifixion.

Envy is a sin we can fall into all too readily. Envy is sorrow about another's

good. Instead of rejoicing at another's gifts or good fortune, we say 'if only I

could do that; if only that could have happened to me'. Whenever we say that he

or she is sickeningly good at something – preaching or essay-writing or music or

sport – we reveal that we're slaves to envy. Envy is felt not only towards those

18 Mark 1:22.

19 Matthew 21:15-16.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

we might consider our opponents or enemies, but also those who are family or

friends. You can be envious of a colleague or companion that you really like. I

felt just a touch of envy as I sat at the feet of Jeremy and Paul these last two

days. One of the marks of a true leader is that they aren't concerned to corner

credit for themselves but take delight in the performance and achievements and

development of potential in those they lead. But even when you think you're not

prone to envy, it has a habit of popping up and taking you by surprise.

The third evil trait which led to Jesus' death was the simple force of expediency.

Jesus' popularity posed a threat to civil disorder. John 11:47: 'So the chief

priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said "What are we to do?

For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will

believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and

our nation"'. That same concern to avoid trouble ultimately decided the actions

of Pontius Pilate. One can almost see Pilate figuring the odds as he shuttles

between Jesus and the priests waiting outside. To let them have their way with

Jesus will lead to an obvious miscarriage of justice involving the death of an

innocent man. To refuse them their wish could lead to a riot, with many killed in

Jerusalem and Pilate in trouble with his superiors in Rome who expected him to

keep the lid on that potential trouble-spot. In the end, expediency wins. Easier

for Pilate to sacrifice Jesus than his own political reputation.

Expediency too can be our moral downfall. As some of us observed when

looking at workplace dilemmas last week, the world's way of making moral

decisions is typically pragmatic. As Christians we feebly go along with this much

of the time. I know that the decisions are often difficult. The decision Pilate

faced must have seemed pretty difficult. There is a place for prudence, for being

wise as serpents, for calculating consequences. But Christian ethics should

never solely be about expediency. There is also a place for principle, for staying

true to your convictions, for refusing to sacrifice justice to utility. History

records all too many cases of innocent men and women sacrificed to satisfy the

blood lust of an angry mob. That was the fate Jesus befell.

And that brings us on to a fourth evil force revealed on Good Friday, that ugly

streak of human viciousness. This was the aspect that Mel Gibson highlighted in

his film The Passion of the Christ 20, with the result that no less than three

quarters of the viewing time shows Jesus being beaten almost to pulp. Even if

Gibson exaggerates the extent of Jesus' scourging – and the jury is still out on

that – it's obvious his physical sufferings were severe. Jesus was struck at his

trial before the Sanhedrin; he was scourged by the Roman soldiers; he was

20 This film had then recently been produced, in 2004.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

mockingly clothed in a purple cloak, his head crowned with thorns, struck and

spat upon and treated with contempt. The fact that Jesus needed help in

carrying his cross, and that he died on the cross unusually early, are indications

that he experienced more than the usual roughing up for a crucified man. The

Roman soldiers had no reason to feel any personal malice against Jesus – what

had he done to hurt them? – yet they treated him viciously when they got the

opportunity. No pity from them for an innocent man wrongly convicted; instead

they put the boot in.

Looking round this chapel you don't seem to me a particularly vicious lot, but

who knows what we might be capable of in a different environment? We've had

plenty of recent stories of soldiers with fine records of honourable service

resorting to acts of vicious abuse when the pressure gets hot. 21 I don't think of

myself as a vicious person but one thing that really annoys me as a cyclist on the

streets of Cambridge are bus drivers and taxi drivers who cut me up and

squeeze me against the kerb. You might be surprised by the ferocity of the

language with which I shout at them. I surprise myself! We can be vicious with

words even if we're not vicious with weapons.

A fifth evil force we see as Jesus hung dying is the spirit of cynicism. I detect

cynicism in the way that Jesus' opponents ask for a sign. Surely he gave them

enough sins, for heaven's sake! Consider the mocking words which rang cruelly

in his ears as he died: ''Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in

three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!' 'He saved others; he

cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the

cross, that we may see and believe. 22 This is the ultimate in snide talk. Jesus'

onlookers and opponents display that cynicism which is essentially a love of

exposing human weakness and revelling in it.

I have come to the conclusion that cynicism is one of the worst aspects about

contemporary British society. We find it very difficult to consistently believe

good things about other people. When we do put celebrities on pedestals it's

only a prelude to finding excuses for knocking them off. Reading the leading

articles in the Sunday papers often feels like one elongated exercise in cynicism.

In my engagement with business I'm not sure what I find more depressing – the

cynicism of some people within the business world or the cynicism of others

about the business world. 'It's just a PR exercise'; 'they're only in it for the

money'. But the same attitudes can be just as prevalent in the church. The

attitude of 'That will never work' or 'He's only doing it to be noticed' or 'I told

21 At the time, notably in Iraq.

22 Mark 15:29-30, 31-2.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

you so' when things go wrong. Why can't we give people the benefit of the

doubt, why can't we believe the genuineness of their motives a bit more often?

So here we have five factors that took Jesus to the cross and pinned him to the

cross: legalism, envy, expediency, viciousness and cynicism. They don't cover

the whole gamut of human sinfulness, but they provide an unpleasant enough

sample. Taken together, they seemed to enjoy a field day when Jesus died. The

legalists could be satisfied because Jesus hung a on a tree, a sure sign that he

was cursed by the law (Galatians.3:13). The envious could be satisfied because,

in the end, the crowds deserted Jesus; the spell of his hold on popular affection

was broken. The expedient could be satisfied because a riot was averted and no

recriminations need be feared from Rome. The vicious could be satisfied

because they had been able to give full vent to their sadistic impulses. The

cynics could be satisfied because there was no sign of God vindicating Jesus by

coming to his rescue. A crushing victory for the forces of darkness? It certainly

looked that way.

Snatching victory from defeat 23

Those of us who follow the fortunes of England's major sports teams have

become familiar with the phrase 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory'.

Matches that appeared to be well and truly won somehow ended up as

exasperating defeats. It used to be something at which England's cricketers

were truly expert – though less so recently. In the last few months we have seen

the mantle assumed by England's footballers – in Euro 2004, leading France 1-0

after 90 minutes, then conceding two goals in injury time – and then England's

rugby players – losing a match to France by one point that they seemed to have

well and truly sown up by half-time. What Jesus did on the cross was the precise

opposite of this distressing habit of England's sportsmen. Jesus is the one, not

who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but who snatched victory from

the jaws of defeat. The truth of the matter is that Jesus delivered a knock-out

blow to the forces of legalism, envy, expediency, viciousness and cynicism. That

was mostly hidden on the Friday that he died, but it was true nonetheless. Let's

see how he did it.

First, legalism. In Colossians 2:14 Paul says that God 'cancelled the bond which

stood against us with its legal demands'. The Greek word for bond means an

IOU, the acknowledgement of a debt to be paid. Human sin represents one vast

mountain of bankruptcy. 'Forgive us our sins' meant originally 'forgive us our

23 In this part of the talk I have re-used some material from my book Called to Account (Eagle, 1993),



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

debts'; the Germans have kept the link more closely because their one word

Schuld means both guilt and debt. 'This he set aside, nailing it to the cross'

(Col.2:14). Here we have a vivid picture of the IOU comprising the debts of the

whole human race being hammered into the cross on which Jesus died. Jesus

takes upon himself the full weight of our sins, sins that loom large and sins that

seem small, sins of commission and sins of omission. He satisfies the demands

of the law, and by doing that breaks the power of legalism, once and for all.

Legalism seemed to have triumphed when Jesus went through the terrible

experience of knowing God's curse, an experience indicated by those heartrending

words: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Yet the truth of

the matter is that Jesus having experienced that curse once and for all, the curse

then lost its sting. The law became a spent force. 'There is now no

condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (Romans.8:1).

Second, envy. Yes, the Jewish leaders succeeded in turning a fickle public

against Jesus. His hold over the crowds was badly shaken when he died on the

cross. Many of his closest followers deserted him. But even then the spell was

not entirely broken. A faithful nucleus remained. A few women stayed huddled

around the cross. For one pagan Roman centurion witnessing the whole event,

it was absolutely clear that this was no commonplace execution: 'Truly this man

was the Son of God!', he marvelled. 24 Those words contained a hint that the high

priests had not heard the last of Jesus. History since provides many examples of

a leader's violent death providing fresh impetus and inspiration for a struggling

movement. Jesus' death is the example which dwarfs all others.

Third, expediency. This too was turned on its head. As Jesus himself foresaw,

the day of Jewish revolt and Roman repression was only delayed for a

generation: 'daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for

yourselves and your children' (Luke 23:28). And Caiaphas spoke truer words

than he realised when he talked about one man dying for the people. John

comments: 'He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year

he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only,

but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad' (John

11:51-2). In the marvellous economy of God, the immoral expediency of

Caiaphas and Pilate was turned into saving good news for the whole human


Fourth, viciousness. So often vicious acts create a vicious cycle: they are

designed to provoke violence in return, which then gives the original

perpetrator the excuse to be even more violent. Jesus refused to comply with

24 Mark 15:39.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

that wretched pattern of behaviour. He passively put up with the very worst

that human beings – Romans and Jews – could throw at him. He refrained from

reviling those who reviled him; he said 'Father, forgive them, they know not

what they do' (Luke 23:34). On Good Friday Jews and Gentiles appeared to be

united only in a shared hostility towards Jesus, in an unholy conspiracy to get

rid of him. But unknown to them, his death achieved unity at a far deeper level.

In the words of Ephesians 2, it broke down the dividing wall of hostility

between Jews and Gentiles and made peace between them.

Fifth, cynicism. The passers-by and the chief priests scoffed at the idea of Jesus

being vindicated – the accused man being shown to be right after all. But that is

exactly what God did reveal in the event of the resurrection. Jesus' death did not

mean that God had abandoned him for ever. God the Father was simply biding

his time. But there was a striking demonstration of God's power even on Good

Friday. 'The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom' (Mark

15:38). There was sufficient evidence in that symbolic event that the cynics

were being put to rout.

Yes, the forces of evil really were put to rout by the cross. The title of this talk is

defeating evil through the cross, but defeat is almost too tame a word; it's an

understatement for what happened. Look what Paul says in Colossians 2:15.

Behind the forces of sin and evil he sees the work of spiritual powers and

authorities. Verse 15 says 'Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he

made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross'. The sense

of this verse is that far from being defeated by the powers and authorities, God

actually made a fool of them. The significance of Paul's image is twofold. First,

part of the horror of crucifixion was the public spectacle involved. Cicero, the

Roman orator and politician, regarded crucifixion with such distaste that he

said 'Even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the

citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears'. 25 The

horror of crucifixion lay not just in being strung up on the cross but in being

paraded for all to see through the busiest streets of the town. Second, the image

is one of a Roman general humiliating his captives by stripping them of their

armour and parading them through the streets in a procession at the end of a

foreign campaign.

Paul turns these ideas on their head and says Jesus' victory was actually that

impressive. It wasn't a narrow, hair's breadth victory over the forces of evil,

rather it was a humiliating triumph. That conclusive, that decisive. The forces of

evil thought they'd won, but they hadn't; they were taken for a ride. They had

25 Cicero, Against Verres, 2.5.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

their noses rubbed in the dirt. We can therefore see why Paul says in 1

Corinthians 2:8 that if the 'rulers of this age' had understood all this, 'they

would not have crucified the lord of glory'. They would have had more sense!

I have almost finished. But before I do so I just want to go back to Caravaggio.

The tragedy is that despite all his wonderful paintings, Caravaggio himself lived

a violent and tempestuous life. He had a vicious temper. He was forever getting

involved in pub brawls, he was arrested at least 11 times, he killed a man whom

he accused of cheating in a bet over a tennis match. He had to flee the city of

Rome and spent the last four years of his life on the run, in Naples, Sicily and

Malta. 26 The paintings displayed in the National Gallery exhibition all come from

that last period. He died alone of fever on an Italian beach at the age of 39. The

last painting he did was this one – David with the head of Goliath – and the head

of Goliath is Caravaggio's own self-portrait. 27

26 See Helen Langdon, Caravaggio, Pimlico, 1999, for a very readable life of this tempestuous artist.

27 This painting is owned by the Galleria Borghese, Rome. Caravaggio painted David with the Head of

Goliath in 1609-10.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Defeating Evil Through the Cross

He identified with the defeated Goliath rather than the victorious David. We do

not know if he died in a state of salvation and with an assurance of salvation;

my fear is that he didn't. He was once urged to wash in holy water and repent of

his venial sins but dismissed the idea by saying 'my sins are all mortal' 28. It

sounds as if he didn't believe that he could be forgiven. I find that very sad. He

paints the stories of the Passion with enormous emotion and incredible insight,

yet he himself couldn't seem to escape the grip of the forces of darkness.

Caravaggio's life, along with that of many others, presents an important

challenge to us. The challenge is not just to empathise with the characters in the

story, not just to assent to the truth of Jesus' victory in the cross, but to claim it

as a reality in our lives. To recognise forces like legalism, envy, expediency,

viciousness and cynicism which spoil our lives; to repent of them, thoroughly

and whole-heartedly; and to realise that Jesus has dealt with them definitively

on the cross. Jesus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Let us share that

victory with him.

28 Helen Langdon, Caravaggio, p.372.


Doubting Thomas

John 20:19-31 1


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

Only the Gospel of John tells us anything particular about Thomas. Matthew,

Mark and Luke record his name as one of the twelve disciples, but that is all. In

contrast, John mentions him on three occasions. The first is John 11:16, when

Jesus decides to set out for Judaea on hearing that his friend Lazarus is dead.

Thomas, fearing danger, says to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let’s go as well, that

we may die with him’. They’re revealing words about Thomas – they suggest an

interesting mixture of loyalty, courage and pessimism. The second mention is

John 14:5. Jesus has been talking about the fact that in his Father’s house there

are many rooms and he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas is clearly

out of his depth and says, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can

we know the way!’ These words suggest a practical, down-to-earth mind, a man

who found the rather abstract and symbolic language used by Jesus in John’s

Gospel difficult to understand. The third, and most famous mention of Thomas

is in the passage we have just heard.

I understand that the German people give Thomas a hard time. Their day of St

Thomas is the day of the winter solstice, the year’s longest night and shortest

day. Thomas is remembered then because he is the disciple who stayed in ‘the

night of unbelief and doubt’ for the longest time. In Westphalia, the last person

to get out of bed or the last student to appear on that day is called a

Thomasfaupelz or Domesel – which means lazybones or donkey of St Thomas

Day. 2

But with lots of other people Thomas is rather a popular figure. If you type the

words ‘Doubting Thomas’ into an internet search engine it’s fascinating what

comes up. Doubting Thomas is the name of a Canadian rock band. It was a

phrase used in a sporting headline a few years ago when the Swedish tennis

player Thomas Johannson won the Australian Open. He’s disappeared into

obscurity since, but at the time the press acclaimed his new-found confidence

with the words ‘No More Doubting Thomas’. Doubting Thomas is the name

adopted by a humanist organisation which is aggressively anti-religious and

alerts the public to Christian plots to overthrow modern science. One member

has posted an internet article called ‘Why doubting Thomas should have kept

doubting’. He writes ‘Even if the being that Thomas questioned looked like Jesus

1 This sermon was preached at St Philip’s Cambridge on April 15 2007.

2 See

and bled like Jesus, that is no proof that it was Jesus.’ 3 Clearly a hardened



Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

Thomas is a prolific patron saint. He is the patron saint not only of people in

doubt (no surprises there!) but also of blind people, architects, builders,

construction workers, stone masons, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. You may

wonder why such specific occupational and geographical connections. The

explanation is found in ancient Christian tradition concerning what happened to

Thomas later in life. Apparently the risen Christ told him to spread the Gospel

east. He was so reluctant to heed this command that he had to be taken into

slavery by a merchant in order to head that way, but eventually Thomas was

freed and he then preached the Gospel in Parthia, Persia and India. Along the

way he founded and built many churches. 4

Yes, there’s no doubt that Thomas has aroused and continues to arouse a lot of

fascination. When I asked a couple of friends what they thought about Thomas

they seemed to regard him as quite a hero. They could identify easily with him.

They shared his doubts. Perhaps you do too. You may be someone who is

reaching towards faith in a gradual, stumbling sort of way, and you still have

lots of questions that are unresolved. Some days it seems easy to believe; other

days, much less so. Or maybe your faith has taken some hard knocks recently –

there are tough things that have happened to you or people who mean a lot to

you. Again, you may have been a churchgoer all your life or a committed

Christian for many years, but there are still doubts which surface from time to

time, doubts you find it difficult to admit to those around you. If that’s the case,

don’t despair. You’re certainly not alone, you’re in some very good company.

Doubt is a hallmark of our present age. In this country agnostics probably

outnumber both atheists and committed believers. Claims about universal truth

are distinctly frowned upon – as are people who feel certain about what they

believe. The phrases we’re comfortable with are ‘it may be true’, ‘it’s possible’,

‘that’s plausible’, and ‘I suggest’ – I know, because the bit of me that’s a cautious

academic often uses them myself. There’s no more politically incorrect verse in

the Bible than John 14:6, the claim that Jesus makes immediately after Thomas

saying he doesn’t understand: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one

comes to the Father except through me.’ These words sound far too definite, far

too exclusive, far too intolerant for a society that revels in doubt.

3 This article was on the internet at the time I gave this sermon. I must admit that I’ve been unable

to trace it since, so I presume the article has been removed.

4 For information on the well established Thomas traditions see George Menachery (ed.), The St

Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, BNK Press, 1973.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

My father used to say ‘it’s good to doubt, so long as you doubt the doubt as

much as what you’re doubting.’ Wise words which I’ve often thought about. We

may deceive ourselves in the act of unbelieving quite as much as in the act of

believing. So is Thomas a disciple we should emulate? Is there a positive

message to be drawn from the man who initially did not believe his fellowdisciples’

report that Jesus was a live again? I believe there is.

First, Thomas didn’t bow to peer pressure. Peer pressure can be a very

insidious and intimidating thing, whether at school, work, in the local

community or even in the church. It can lead people to say and do things that –

deep down – they’re just not comfortable with and don’t believe. ‘We have seen

the Lord!’ the disciples tell Thomas excitedly. We can imagine them repeating

this again and again, trying to pressure Thomas into accepting that the risen

Christ had indeed appeared to them.

But Thomas refuses to run on someone else’s petrol. As those of us who are

children of Christian parents or have grown-up children know, you cannot

survive on someone else’s belief on a long-term basis. There is a kind of belief

which is believing because your parents, grandparents or friends believe. That’s

fine for a limited time (I’m not knocking the unquestioning faith of a young

child) but it can’t go on for ever. You need to make your faith your own, and that

means you have to face up to questions of doubt.

Second, Thomas sought a personal experience of the risen Christ. He wanted to

see Jesus for himself, refusing to settle for the second-best of someone else’s

encounter. He verbalised his doubts and stated exactly what would lead him to

believe. Effectively, he laid down his conditions for belief: ‘Unless I see the nail

marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand

into his side, I will not believe.’ 5 Fair enough.

Third, by issuing a challenge in this way, Thomas helped establish the truly

physical nature of the resurrection. He’s not going to be convinced by a Jesus

who’s a ghost. He’s going to be convinced only by a Jesus who’s clearly the Jesus

who died on the cross. CK Barrett, author of a great commentary on John’s

Gospel, writes this: ‘Thomas required the grossest and most palpable evidence

that the body he knew to have been killed in a specific manner had indeed been

brought back to life. He would be satisfied neither with a substituted body

which was not the body of the Lord who died upon the cross, nor with a

spiritual body or apparition. The risen Christ must be both visibly and palpably

5 John 20:25.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

identical with the old.’ 6 We have reason to be grateful for that. The story of

Thomas having his doubts removed is one of the biblical stories I turn to when

doubt raises its ugly head. It establishes the continuity between the Jesus who

died on the cross and the mysterious figure who appeared to the disciples

afterwards. The Anglican collect for St Thomas day highlights the fact that his

doubting actually helps establish our faith: ‘Almighty and eternal God, who, for

the firmer foundation of our faith, allowed the apostle Saint Thomas to doubt the

resurrection of your Son till word and sight convinced him, grant to us also, who

have not seen, that we also may believe and so receive the fullness of Christ’s

blessing; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and

for ever. Amen.’ 7

So yes, let’s give credit to Thomas and be grateful for him. But it would be a

travesty to finish this story with the focus on Thomas rather than Jesus. I love

the way that, in this story, Jesus graciously accepts Thomas’ challenge. He isn’t

angry with Thomas. Instead, he meets him on his own terms. Jesus loved

Thomas, and satisfied his need for a personal experience of himself in all the

risen glory of the crucified one. So he doesn’t stand on his own dignity, but

submits to a physical investigation. He condescends to Thomas examining him

like a prize exhibit: ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand,

and put it into my side. Stop doubting, and believe.’ 8

We see Jesus positively inviting Thomas to touch him, even guiding his hand

into his wound in this remarkable painting of the scene by Caravaggio. 9 In fact,

if you want to know how I got interested in illustrating preaching with paintings

of biblical stories this is the one that got me going – I was so excited to discover

it when I preached on this passage five years ago. There’s a remarkable

intensity about the painting: four heads concentrating furiously around the

same focal point, with the forehead of Thomas the most furrowed of them all.

6 CK Barrett, The Gospel According to St John, SPCK, 1960, p.476.

7 See Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, CHP, 2000, p.436.

8 John 20:27.

9 This painting belongs to the Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany. Caravaggio painted The

Incredulity of Saint Thomas in 1602-3.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

As you can see, Caravaggio shows Thomas actually reaching out and touching

Christ’s wound – indeed, probing painfully inside the wound. It’s enough to

make you wince. We don’t know from John’s account whether Thomas actually

did that. The painting depicts something that we do not know for certain took

place. 10 But we can be confident that if Thomas had touched him, he would have

felt a real wound. Jesus invited Thomas to touch him; all we know is Thomas’

awestruck reply: ‘My Lord and my God!’ 11

What a thing to say! Thomas salutes Jesus not just as his Saviour, not just as his

Lord, but as God in the flesh. ‘My Lord and my God!’ Why don’t we think of that

when we think of Thomas? He deserves to be remembered not only as the

disciple who doubted, but as the one who ended up confessing who Jesus was

and is in the most dramatic and powerful words imaginable. And I hope that his

doing so may help you with any doubts that you have. May Thomas’ words

resound through our whole beings this Easter season. My hope and prayer is

10 Interestingly, Rembrandt departs from artistic convention in portraying Thomas not as reaching

out to touch Jesus but as reeling away from him, as though the sight and sound of Jesus was

sufficient. His Doubting Thomas, painted in 1634, is in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

11 John 20:28.


Richard Higginson Preaching and Painting

Doubting Thomas

that we live as disciples who recognise, acclaim and worship Jesus as My Lord

and my God. Even if we haven’t seen Jesus for ourselves, we can take assurance

from one who doubted, saw and was invited to touch the risen Lord. And in the

act of belief, Jesus tells us we will be richly blessed.

Revd Dr Richard Higginson, MA, DipTh., CertEd, PhD, is Director of Studies, Lecturer in

Christian Ethics and Director of Faith in Business. He taught in a boys' grammar school

before studying for a doctorate at Manchester University. He then taught Christian Ethics

at St John's College, Durham for seven years before joining the Ridley staff in March 1989.

He is the author of Dilemmas: A Christian Approach to Moral Decision-Making, Called to

Account: Adding Value in God's World, Transforming Leadership: A Christian Approach to

Management, Mind the Gap: Connecting Faith with Work, and Questions of Business Life:

Exploring Workplace Issues from a Christian Perspective.

Richard is particularly interested in the theology and ethics underlying

business practice. He and his wife Felicity have no less than five children!

An avid reader, he enjoys walking, cricket, golf and seventeenth-century

art. The latter interest is amply reflected in this book! Richard is

Associate Minister at St Philip's Church in Cambridge.

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