Grace Flying Up
a sermon based on Isaiah 65:1-7
by Rev. Thomas Hall
We Christians have always given lip-service at
least, to the biblical dictum, "we walk by faith and not by sight." The verse
invites various interpretations, but in one very real sense, the faith versus sight
reminds us of a fundamental value of Christian faith: ours is the vocabulary of vision. In
light of our lessons today, we are called to a vision that beholds new heavens and a new
earth. Our macro-faith eyesight strains at what lies beyond Now, beyond our
material-driven culture, beyond the technological, terrorized world that weve
become. Faith sees and yearns for Gods creating fingers to shape a new heaven and
earth that reflects Gods will being done in heaven and on earth.
In his book, Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey explores this vocabulary of
vision in an unusual direction: through The Elephant Man. This man, possibly the ugliest
human being who has ever lived, suffered from neurofibromatosis. The disease had
turned him into such a grotesque spectacle that at the age of four, his mother abandoned
him. A London surgeon who visited the carnival that showcased the Elephant Man, described
in clinical detail what his eyes beheld:
A bony mass protruded from his brow; spongy skin, with a fissured
surface resembling brown cauliflower hanging in folds from his back; a huge, misshapen
head the circumference of a mans waist; the mouth a distorted, slobbering aperture;
the nose a dangling lump of skin . . . his right arm was overgrown to twice its normal
size, its fingers stubby and useless. Flaps of skin in the shape of a paddle descended
from one armpit . . .
The same surgeon, hearing unintelligible splutters from his mouth judged him to
be an imbecile. At the end of his interview, the surgeon gave the man his business card
and left the room. Two years later authorities in Belgium finally closed the carnival for
good; and the Elephant Man was shipped back to London. The mans only ray of hope: he
had kept the card from the surgeon in his pocket the entire two years.
Contacting the surgeon, the Elephant Man was allowed to live in the hospital where the
surgeon practiced. Bringing lunch to this newcomer the first day, the nurse unprepared for
such a sight, screamed, dropped the tray and fled from the room. Yet over time, the
hospital staff got accustomed to this unusual resident.
Eventually the surgeon began to understand this mans speech. The astonished
doctor discovered that the Elephant Man was far from an imbecile, for he was literate and
a voracious reader. He had studied the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and knew Jane
Austen and Shakespeare.
In the final two years of his life, the surgeon and his patient became true friends and
slowly the Elephant Man began to come out of his shell, meekly wondering if he might be
allowed to enter an asylum for the blind. He longed to live among people who wouldnt
scream in horror at his appearance.
The man also spoke adoringly of womeneven though every woman had treated him as
an object of loathing. One day the surgeon persuaded a friend of his, a young woman, to
enter The Elephant Mans room with a smile and to wish him good morning and to shake
his hand. The man bent his head on his knees and sobbed. As he later said, "this was
the first woman who had ever smiled at me and the first woman in my whole life that shook
He grew into a new transformationfrom object of horror to a human being with
dignity. "He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate, and loving creature,"
the surgeon wrote in his journal. With each new experience the patient responded in
childlike wonder. "I am happy every hour of the day." Using only his left
handthe only functional onethe Elephant Man constructed models of buildings,
gluing together carefully chosen pieces of colored paper and cardboard.
Peering out his window in the attic the patient watched in amazement as a new hospital
was being constructed. He soon made an exquisite model of a cathedral by fitting into
place, piece by piece, a cardboard replica of each tiny stone and tile. "This,"
he said, "is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud."
After four years of the only happiness hed every known, the Elephant Mannow
known as John Merrickdied; his huge head fell on his pillow during the night and
crushed his vertebrae and neck. The Elephant Man was no longer and had long since passed;
but John Merrick was the man who had become the gentle, artful human being hidden behind
grotesque shapes and strange deformities.
The story of John Merrick reminds me our lesson in Isaiah 65it is a passage that
is aware of two ways of looking, of viewing our world. Too often our media follows an
Elephant Man, Jonathan Schell trajectory; a horrible vision that views a civilization that
will ultimately blow itself up in global and nuclear conflagration. In his book, The
Fate of the Earth, Schell marshals his evidence of nuclear stockpiles, weapons of mass
destruction, and then adds in our potential to do evil. The resulting vision is clear:
total death and destruction. To live on that kind of diet, is to have a bleak vision
filled with futility and despair.
When were glued to the terra firma and stuck in the Nowthe grotesque shapes
of terrorism, the runaway costs of living, unchecked crime in our neighborhoods, or
pollution on a global scale, we too often see only mud. But the vocabulary of faith opens
our vision to see purpose beyond chaos, joy beyond sorrow, life beyond death, and God
beyond all the muck. Faith allows us to claim with the prophet Isaiah that God is at work
creating new heavens and a new earth. Our vision sees grace flying up and up from the mud.
Gods vision continues to build a new heaven and earth through the Son, Jesus
Christ. As one commentator says, "What God is up to is nothing less than making a new
heaven and a new earth. This is not high-flying rhetoric, but a genuine description of
what God accomplished in Jesus Christ."
If were tempted to equate Gods vision of a new heaven and new earth with
abandonment, the fact is, Christians dont jump shipthe world is going to
hell in a handbag, so Im just going to abandon my involvement on this old world.
Gods vision does not require us to unplug and walk away from the mud. Rather the
oppositewe work in our world and in the relationships of our daily lives as if the
Reign of God is already shaping that new heavens and earth. Our hands, our words, our
efforts and energy, our financial investments to further Gods purpose for the world
become in Gods creative hands, the tools God uses to create new things in the world.
But our sustaining vision frees our faith to look beyond the Now and beyond the images
that seek to counter Gods great vision of health, healing, wholeness, peace, love,
and restoration in this world. Things are not always as they seem. Some may see the
Elephant Man in all its grotesqueness and jarring spectacle. But the vision that sees
higher and beyond the material sees instead of a carnival attraction of hideous shape, a
gifted artist, who with but one hand could fashion beauty and art from ordinary mud.
Such is our upward callto shape beauty from the very mud that we are. Amen.