The other day at our Luther study, we were looking at his use of language, and the fact that through his translation of the Bible into German, he virtually invented what we know today as modern German. The conversation ranged over issues of translation but there were a theme of our conversation that struck me that I would like to share with you.
It had to do with the phrases in different languages for people we really do not like! The English say ‘I can’t stand him/her.’ The English also say I can not bear him/her ‘The French though, say I can’t support him/her. The Germans say ‘I cannot keep him/her out'(aushalten) or I can not stand him/her out’ (ausstehen).
So can anything be learned from these expressions? Looking at the English and French, the idea seems to be that the other person has a crushing effect on us. To be able to ‘stand’ someone is to be able to ‘stand upright’ in their presence. If I can’t ‘stand’ or ‘support’ someone it means that the load that they represent is too much for me.
I am reminded of the passage in Isaiah that goes
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Those who are fearful, or loaded down with the cares of this world, or the oppression of other people cannot ‘stand’. But in this case, God is encouraging us by enabling us to remain upright for a while longer.
There are other connections associated with being able to ‘stand’ something or ‘bear’ something: like judgement day. The prophet says ‘But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when He appeareth, for he is like a refiner’s fire.’ Here we are also in danger of falling over or fainting in the
presence of God when God appears as the one who will reveal all the truth about ourselves, for good or ill.
This is the same kind of ‘standing’ that governs our posture in church! When we come into God’s presence our posture is like that of those who cannot ‘bear’ God, or ‘stand’ to be in the company of such holiness, so we fall to the ground. We kneel! (for prayer and confession). But at other times we form the ‘priestly people of God’ who ‘boldly approach the throne of grace’, and ‘claim the crown’ that is ours. Then we do ‘stand’ before God. As Romans Ch. 5 begins ‘Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God, in the sphere of whose grace we now stand.’ This is why we stand to begin the Eucharist, and stand for the great prayer of thanksgiving. It is not just the priest who ‘stands’ to celebrate the Eucharist, but it is the whole congregation who is the celebrant. So that is why we ‘stand.’
It is also worth noting, that because we walk with our heads higher than our feet, that we make ‘up’ a better place to be than ‘down.’ Even though, for example, when some currencies which have a higher value than others disadvantage exporters, we cannot help but be pleased when we talk about a ‘strong’ Frank or Dollar or Pound, as compared with a ‘weak’ currency. Up is good, down is bad. That is why heaven is sort of ‘up’ and hell is sort of ‘down’.
It is also interesting to note that in linguistic terms (ranging from Sanskrit to Greek to English) the two letters ‘st’ indicate the idea of ‘uprightness’. This means that the English word ‘resurrection’ in Greek is ‘histemi’. This carries with it the idea that after Jesus had been crushed by death, he ‘stood up’ again.
The German usage is slightly different. The idea of being able to ‘out-stand’ (ausstehen) someone brings to mind for me the picture of someone facing the enemy. They can ‘stand’ longer than the enemy. They can ‘out stand’ them. Or maybe they can ‘face them out’ by ‘standing’ in their way. The idea that intrigues me the most in the German use however, is the idea of ‘holding out’ (aushalten) as an idea for not liking a person. It might mean ‘I cannot ‘hold out’ against someone, in which case we are in the same realms of meaning as ‘bear’ or support’ or ‘stand’. But it might also mean that a person ‘gets under my skin’, that I cannot maintain my own boundaries in relation to that person. They ‘get in’ and so I cannot ‘keep them out’. Ich kann ihn nicht aushalten!
This is certainly my experience when certain words of accusation are spoken, or people are venomous. Even though I know that the words are not all true, there is enough truth there, or enough sensitivity in me for the words to ‘get in’. There they do their undermining work, and I am laid low (I cannot ‘stand’) for a couple of weeks until I recover.
But God too wants to ‘get in’. The book Revelation has that lovely passage ‘Behold, I stand (again) at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens then I will come into them and sup with them and eat with them.’ Or in the Epistle to the Hebrews, when talking of the Word of God talks about the penetrating quality of God’s Word that ‘separates soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’
There are times when God’s word does ‘get in’ for me, and I feel myself opened up. I cannot ‘keep it out’ because some genuine truth has been spoken about me. This is what a sermon is for. In the last couple of weeks, because the Sermon on the Mount’ has been about ‘letting God in’ I have said ‘This is not a ‘sermon’ but the call to ‘let God in’. At the end I have said ‘Let those who have ears to hear, hear.’ This is not an ‘ending’ for a sermon, but an invitation to ‘let God in’ at the hearing of these words, spoken in God’s name.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he was conducting preaching courses, said to his students words something like ‘I don’t want people criticising other people’s sermons. The proper attitude of the hearer of a sermon is to ask ‘How am I being addressed and questioned by God in these words?’, not ‘Are these words any good?’ When it comes to the word of God the question is not ‘Can we understand it, but can we withstand it’ Again, we come to associations of the verb ‘to stand’. Amazing!