“Canon Jenny reflects on a photograph of a kingfisher as an image of God.”
This photograph by Ofer Levy can be found in an exhibition at the SA Museum and on the website at http://www.anzang.samuseum.sa.gov.au/gallery/

Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Today, I think, we might talk about prayer. And the one in whose company we pray. We might spend a little time reflecting on how we imagine this God who creates us, redeems us, sanctifies us and seems to want to keep company with us. We might spend a little time imagining how it is that we pray in this God’s company. For the scriptures give us some images this morning – the prophet Jeremiah speaks of God as a potter moulding his pot from clay, and that most intimate of Psalms, Psalm 139, writes of  a creator who knows us so well that it is as if he knit us in our mother’s womb. Images of God, not always comforting, though. Jeremiah’s potter is portayed working at his wheel and the vessel he was making of clay has been spoiled, and so that potter reworks the clay into another vessel, as seems good to him. (Jeremiah 18:3-4) God, it seems is not always pleased with God’s creation. God doesn’t walk away, though. God engages, and engages, always ready to remould us if we, as clay, will allow that remoulding to take place. God seems to be a persevering God.

I saw this, last week, when I stumbled across an image of God in a photograph.

Our South Australian Museum has on display an exhibition of photographs from a nature photography competition organised by the museum and Australian Geographic. As often happens, one photograph particularly caught my eye. This photograph seemed to remind me of God. The photograph, entitled “Hunting in the Rain”, shows a kingfisher, drenched through, holding a millipede in its mouth. The photographer, Ofer Levy, wrote the following:

I was in my hide photographing a pair of buff-breasted paradise kingfishers bringing food for their hungry nestlings. During the five days I photographed them they didn’t stop bringing food, even in the pouring monsoon rain.[1]

In this photograph, the kingfisher is standing on a large damp log, its bright eyes looking out, its beak determinedly clinging on to the millipede that will feed its young. The kingfisher looks so wet. This determined love, persevering loyalty, this searching for food in the driving rain, seemed to me to be a window into God who will not give up on us in whatever the circumstances in which we, and so God, find ourselves.

It is the photographer, though, that gives us a glimpse of what the life of prayer might be like. That photographer was in his hide watching the kingfishers for five days. In the pouring monsoon rain.

Is that what prayer is? Keeping watch. Whatever the circumstances. Is that what prayer is like? Determindedly keeping watch?

A poet, Ann Lewin, wrote about prayer in this way. She might have known our photographer.

Prayer is like watching for the
All you can do is
Be there where he is like to appear, and
Often nothing happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible signs, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared
But when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.[2]

Seeing or not seeing cease to matter, this poet writes. The life of prayer is not about achievement, not about some measurable God response. It is about trusting what the Psalmist says and giving God quite simply the gift of our time. Trusting what the Psalmist says as he speaks with God.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me:
You know when I sit down and when I stand;
you comprehend my thoughts long before.
You discern my path and the places where I rest:
you are acquainted with all my ways.
(Psalm 139:1-2)

Whatever we sense of God’s presence in our waiting, whether we see or we don’t see, the image of God from this psalm is of a God who searches us out and sees all that we do and knows all our thoughts and is acquainted with all our ways. And knew us, even before we knew ourselves.

We might wish to question this psalmist, though. For sometimes it doesn’t seem like God is close. And sometimes we might ask ourselves if this God is safe? Do we dare keep watch in the presence of such insight? Of such deep knowledge of us and all we are and all we know we can be. And what of Jeremiah’s potter who broke the pot and began again?

The prophet Jeremiah is writing to the people of Israel in exile, when they are not unlike a pot which has been smashed to pieces. They are far away from home, from their land, their place of worship, the king that led them. All has been destroyed. In this strange land of exile, this remnant of the people of God find that they are not abandoned. The prophet speaks of God as a potter who will rework them, will restore them if they will only turn to him.

Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. God pleads to his people Israel in the final verse of our Old Testament reading this morning. (Jeremiah 18:11)

The prophet Jeremiah does not hold back his words. The people of God in exile are just like a pot that has been smashed to pieces. The people will resonate with this description of their plight and so they will hear the hope found in the image of the potter that will change his mind. They will find hope in Jeremiah’s description of a God who will break and destroy and yet who will rebuild if the people turn away from their sins. An image of God who will rework the clay, who will form the pot again.

It is the prophet Isaiah, though, who speaks the words of turning, the words of the people of God begging God for restoration, using the images of potter and clay.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
(Isaiah 64:8-9)

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann writes of Isaiah’s prayer and of the image of God as potter:

“In this prayer it is not denied that Israel the clay has been recalcitrant to the will of the potter. Nonetheless, in the end, this clay does belong to the potter, this people does belong to this God; this child does belong to this Father. So the clay seeks forgiveness – seeks to have Yahweh the potter … move beyond anger in response to the needy pot.  …In the end … Israel bids one last time that Yahweh will act as the potter did at the outset, to make wholeness possible again.”[3]

What matters is that God has not gone away. This image of potter and clay holds a great truth, images a great closeness between God and God’s creation. God waits. The one who longs for us to turn and pray is always listening for our voices, looking out for our approach on the horizon. When the prophets and the psalmist write these words, craft our conversation for us, the ground of all this writing is the presence of God. The abiding determined presence of God – the God who moulds us, knowing that circumstances, and sometimes our own sin, will smash us to pieces like a broken vessel. The God who waits for our cry that he might restore us again.

God waits. And works for our restoration. With a determined love. Love like that of the kingfisher persistently bringing food to its hungry nestlings, in whatever circumstances.

And if God is waiting, perhaps the life of prayer is about waiting too. And so we might be encouraged to view the life of prayer as not unlike the life of the photographer, who, in his hide for five days kept watch for those kingfishers. In the pouring monsoon rain.

[1] http://www.anzang.samuseum.sa.gov.au/gallery/
The photograph can be found on this website.
[2] Ann Lewin: quoted in Lost in Wonder by Esther de Waal p139
[3] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament p 252.