Fearfully and wonderfully made
By Alexandra Anderson, February 2020
While I was preparing my sermon on Psalm 139 for a dedication service in my church, I was surprised to rediscover how actual this ancient text is and how much we need to hear these words of affirmation more than ever in our body-image-obsessed culture. Three things struck me in particular; the sacredness of the human body, the psalmists deep trust in God’s presence and his confidence in his God-given identity.
On Monday 27th January the 75th memorial of the closure of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp in Poland was held. Many survivors now in their 90s recounted their terrifying experiences and the world remembered the atrocities committed by human beings against other human beings on a massive scale. The images of hollow-cheeked, sunken-eyed people staring out from behind our TV screens was a haunting reminder of how low humanity can go. We can shake our heads and say that we remember this so that it will never happen again but the reality is that torture, genocide and so called ‘ethnic cleansing’ is going on all the time, all around us. Think Rwanda, Darfur, northern Nigeria, Bosnia, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar… (fill in the gaps!)
When we see another person and think of them as ‘less than’ – we tread on dangerous ground. It is a very quick descent into justifying disrespect, ill treatment and abuse of those who are not like us and to start to think of that ‘other’ as not really human – think of the African slave trade, the subtraction of ancestral land from native American Indians, the elimination of indigenous populations in the Amazon rain forest.... (fill in the gaps!)
As we dedicated the two children on Sunday, I realised that these children are a gift from God. In fact all human beings are a gift from God. This is what we hear in the Psalm 139 when the Psalmist writes of God:
‘For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’
If the idea of seeing human beings as a gift from God were to become the basis for an ethic of war and economics and religion the world would be a very different place because both the bodies of those holocaust victims and the ones who desecrated them were all knit together in their own mothers’ wombs by God. Every human body is knit together by God and fully known by God! For a lot of us a God who knows our most hidden thoughts and desires, one from whom there is no escape is an uncomfortable thought. If I’m honest, there are times that I wish I could go unseen by God. But the psalmist’s God is a God who knows the deepest parts of my soul, and that means a God who sees everything about me – the silly things I do, my mistakes, my shame, my sin. Only when we understand who and whose we are we discover that this is actually good news.
We are made in the image of God, animated by the very breath of God, that the Psalmist knows very well. Our bodies are holy. Now we may want to disagree. The fact is that we are often not happy with our bodies – because they ache, they break and grow old, they get tired, need food, get fat and make embarrassing noises and odours. How many of us would like to change something about the way we look? We may not like to admit it publicly but the statistics speak for themselves as plastic surgeons make millions on ‘fixing’ people’s body problems.
But what better time to consider the sacredness of human bodies than now, at the beginning of February - in this still Newish Year period – a time when many people rush to the gym and go on diets to make up for the previous weeks of over-consumption.
The Psalmist does not have a body-image problem. His confidence comes from a conviction grounded in an understanding of who God is. This brings us to the heart of the Psalm, verse 14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.” The psalmist’s confidence comes from the knowledge that we are all created by God, made fearfully and wonderfully. We cannot understand who we are outside of who God is, has been, and will continue to be. God loves us and that love was made manifest in human form. The son of God, took on human flesh and walked this earth as one of us. He knew what it was like to have a body just like ours.
So let us remind each other that every human body is the same in form as the one taken on by God in the incarnation of Christ. That God put on skin and walked among us as Jesus Christ, that he ate with societies’ rejects and misfits, kissed lepers, drank wine, wept, felt pain and washed the dirty feet of his friends. We see in Jesus that a physical life is a spiritual life. And after his torture and death, Jesus was raised from the tomb not as a disembodied spirit floating around like a ghost but in human form walking along the shore of the lake leaving footprints in the sand, sitting down with his friends, talking and laughing and eating roasted fish.
If your body does not conform to the body-image -obsessed ideal of our culture, know that you are nothing less than a walking miracle knit together by God and animated by God’s own breath. And this is a reason to bless our own and all human bodies with the dignity given to them by their creator. For they are all –fearfully and wonderfully made by God.