Michael Volland's sermon on Stanley Spencer's 'The Scorpion'

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March 2022

Spencer's 'The Scorpion': The whole Christian story is here

Last month Ridley Principal Michael Volland was invited to preach at St Catharine's College. He took the congregation on a journey through The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer's inspirational Christ in the Wilderness paintings. The whole Christian story is here, along with an invitation to renew our trust in Christ.

The Readings

Genesis 3: 8-15

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

Mark 1: 9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The Sermon

I invite you to look at the image below. The painting is by Stanley Spencer. Titled 'The Scorpion', it was made in 1939, and intended, along with a number of other images of Christ in the Wilderness, to occupy panels in the roof of Cookham parish church.

Stanley Spencer. The Scorpion. 1939. (c) Stanley Spencer (reproduced here under the guidelines of Fair Use)

Stanley Spencer. The Scorpion. 1939.
One of eight paintings in the ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ series
(c) Stanley Spencer. Reproduced here under the guidelines of Fair Use.

I wonder what you see?
What particularly catches your eye?
What interests you?
Does anything make you uncomfortable?
Jesus fills the frame.
His face appears tired and drawn.
In his left hand he holds a scorpion.
Behind him clouds are gathering.
His clothes billow; reflecting the undulating hills behind.
Jesus’ hair and beard are unkempt and straggly.
His feet are bare. His right forearm appears scratched.
The ground beneath is scattered with stones.
The large toenail on Jesus’ left foot is blue-grey, as if badly bumped.
We notice a second scorpion beside his right heel.

I wonder if these scorpions count as the ‘wild beasts’ mentioned in the reading from Mark’s gospel we heard earlier?

In this painting, as in Mark’s gospel, the wilderness is a place of threat and vulnerability as well as solitude and discovery. Spencer’s painting is a wonderful help to us as we seek to grow in our own lives of faith. I suggest it is possible to read the entire Christian story in this image. In fact, this is the heart of what I want to say this evening: that it is possible to read the whole Christian story in this image. And that in this painting, Spencer is inviting us to place our trust in the person – Jesus – at the heart of that story.

"It is possible to read the whole Christian story in this image. And in this painting, Spencer is inviting us to place our trust in the person – Jesus – at the heart of that story."

Like all good stories, the Christian story has a beginning. In Genesis we read, ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’. We go on to read that ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good'. And, from the famous opening of John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’

So, we see that Jesus, the Word, was with God in the beginning and everything that exists came into being through him. Here, in this painting, Jesus, the Word of God, fills the frame, he has stepped into the creation for which he was responsible. He has taken up residence within it. Spencer has given us the creator and the created order; the first movement of the Christian story.

But, the Christian story has movements beyond a ‘very good’ creation.

In Genesis 3 we read about sin coming into the world through the disobedience of human beings. The result of the choice to go our own way is separation between God and the created order. One of the consequences of this separation is enmity between human beings and other forms of life with which we share this world. And so, we hear God saying to the serpent,

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.

Notice the scorpion at Jesus’ heel in the image; poised and ready to strike. And, perhaps, the possibility that Jesus is in a position here to strike the head of the scorpion in his hand. Spencer’s painting references the enmity of Genesis 3; this discord between humans and the creatures with which we share the world.

In the painting, we’re conscious of the possibility of the scorpion stinging Jesus’ heel or hand. We know that one of the ways in which the Christian tradition has spoken of death is as having a sting. As we continue to look at the painting, we become painfully aware of the presence in it of sin’s ultimate consequence: that is, the presence of death.

And so, we can say that Spencer’s painting references the ‘good’ of creation and the calamity of the fall, bringing with it discord and death. But the Christian story has more movements. And these are also present in Spencer’s painting. In the book of Genesis we learn that God calls a person, Abram, and makes a covenant with him. Abraham’s descendants become a multitude. They are enslaved in Egypt and eventually freed. God uses Moses to lead them to freedom through the wilderness. During their journey God gives them the law. A law which points the way to righteousness.

In our painting we see Jesus in the wilderness. The place of encounter with God; the place in which God’s people receive the law. The law precedes the coming of Jesus, who is the One who fulfils the law.

The next movement in the Christian story is the Word of God stepping into his creation; a movement we call the incarnation; God himself, coming among us, as an embodied human being.

Jesus’ body, as we see in the painting, can be tired, and hungry, grazed and bumped. It is a body that’s vulnerable to the sting of scorpions. To the sting of death! Spencer’s painting attempts to help us understand the incarnation in the context of all that went before and of all that will come next.

"Spencer’s painting attempts to help us understand the incarnation in the context of all that went before and of all that will come next."

In the painting Jesus contemplates what he has created. He reflects on the enmity resulting from the disobedience of human beings. He considers the journey towards rescue, the making of a people called by God to be His own, the giving of the law, and the coming of the One who will fulfil this law. The One who will make a way for the sting of death to be defeated and the created order brought back into right relationship with God.

Here Jesus contemplates what is to come if this next movement in the story – redemption – is to be achieved. To defeat the sting of death, Jesus must allow himself to undergo death. To submit to death. To endure death.

Note that the scorpions, which represent the sting of death, and contemplated by Jesus, are placed where nails will be driven at the time and place of execution. Hands that have created. Feet which have walked among us. Both will be pierced. In Isaiah, the words of a prophet with which Jesus would be been deeply familiar, we read,

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

These words will have shaped Jesus’ own understanding of what God was doing through him in the world. He is the one wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. On him will be laid the punishment that makes us whole and it’s by his bruises that we are healed. Spencer has us contemplate this even as we study Jesus contemplating the direction his life and ministry must take.

And Spencer tries to help us understand Jesus’ inner wrestle. The billowing clothes, and tired, strained face, the gathering dark clouds and the presence of the scorpions. All these leave us feeling jarred, uncomfortable, disturbed. And rightly so. Here Spencer shows us the maker of all that exists, contemplating the way to defeat sin and death; to redeem the whole created order; and to offer restoration of relationship with God to humankind.

Wow. That’s a lot to squeeze into a painting. But Spencer manages to do it.

Spencer’s painting is an invitation. The painting invites us to contemplate the movements of the Christian story; from creation and fall; to the calling of a people; the giving of the law; the incarnation of Jesus; his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and to look forward to his coming again in glory. The painting invites us to place ourselves in this story. To locate ourselves in relation to Jesus and to what he has done for us and on our behalf. I wonder what your response is to this invitation?

"Spencer’s painting asks us a question.
It asks whether we want to place our trust in this Jesus."

Spencer’s painting asks us a question. It asks whether we want to place our trust in this Jesus. Shown in the painting bruised and bedraggled. But known now through faith as the one who sits at the right hand of God and who is pleased to come and make his home with those who reach out even in the most wavering faith to accept his invitation of life in all its fulness.

I encourage us to accept the painting’s invitation to place ourselves in God’s story of redemption. And I encourage us, in faith, to place our trust once again – or perhaps for the first time – in this Jesus, creator, redeemer and lover of all that he has made, including each of us. Including you.

Glory to God.

The Revd Dr Michael Volland

Principal of Ridley Hall

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