Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 24th August 2011
We will have encountered the name of Joachim Neander without even being aware of it. Neanderthal man, the fossilised man found in the early nineteenth century, takes his name from our hymnwriter.
Born in 1650 in Bremen in northern Germany, Joachim Neander was the son of a Latin teacher. In the 21st Century, when Latin has almost disappeared from the syllabus, it is easy to forget that Latin was at the very heart of education and culture. The family name had been “Neumann”, which would be “Newman” in English, but there was a fashion to change one’s surname to a foreign equivalent, and Joachim’s grandfather had changed their name from “Neumann” to the Greek “Neander”.
His father died while he was a teenager and Joachim could not afford to go to one of the famous German universities, so studied theology in his home city, from 1666 to 1670. again, when theology, like Latin has become a marginal subject, it is easy for us to forget that in the seventeen century, it would have been at the heart of the life of a university. Neander seems to have been rather half-hearted in his studies, for he gained the name of having a wild lifestyle. The story goes that it was during these carefree student days that he and two friends went along to Saint Martin’s church in Bremen with the intention of making a joke of the whole occasion. He was so touched by the words of the sermon that he decided to visit Theodore Undereyk the preacher afterwards.
The sermon marked a turning point in his life and he became noticeably less wild, though he still enjoyed hunting game. Following prey one evening, he wandered far into a steep and rocky hillside, and realized himself to be both completely lost and in physical danger if he tried to make his was in the dark. His stumbling around without any light to show him the way nearly carried him over a precipice.
Suffering what I suppose we would now call a panic attack, Neander prayed to God that if he would lead him to safety, then his future life would be dedicated to God’s service. He felt as though a hand were leading him, and following the path he felt he was being shown, he reached his home in safety.
Joachim Neander kept his promise and his life changed completely. He became a teacher in a school in Heidelberg in 1671. A visit to Frankfurt in the company of some rich merchants’ sons brought him into contact with Philipp Spener, who was a founding figure in a movement called Pietism, a movement that took personal prayer and devout Christian living very seriously and a movement that in later years would be an inspiration to John Wesley.
The term ‘Pietist’ was intended as a form of ridicule by those critical of the movement, as the term ‘Methodist’ would be a century later. Spener was to publish a book in 1675 called Earnest Desire for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church. He made six proposals for restoring the life of the Church:
(i) Bible study in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”)
(ii) The priesthood of all believers allowing the laity a share in the spiritual government of the Church
(iii) a knowledge of Christianity being insufficient unless it is lived out practically
(iv) instead of attacking those who disagreed, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
(v) giving more prominence to the devotional life in theological training
(vi) a different style of preaching, in place of rhetoric, an emphasis on the fruits of the Spirit in people’s inner lives
Neander was to remain a friend of Spener’s for the rest of his short life. Spener’s ideas were to influence Christians for centuries to come.
In 1674, still only 24 years old, Neander became headmaster of the Latin School at Dusseldorf, a school that belonged to the Reformed Church. When living there he liked to go the nearby valley of the Düssel, the natural beauty of the place being the inspiration for his poems. Neander was one step away from being ordained as a pastor and would hold gatherings and services in the valley, at which he preached sermons. There is a strong echo of the Gospel story in such meetings, echoes of Jesus preaching at the lakeside or on the mountainside.
The influence of Spener was very evident in both the holding of the meetings and in the content of what Neander preached and he ran into trouble with the church authorities. In 1679 he was deprived of his teaching post and forbidden to preach. Neander had been very popular amongst those whom he taught and they wanted to defend him, but he prevented them from doing so.
It was summertime and he went to live in a cave in the valley for some months. In his rejection and isolation, he did a lot of writing, including the words of Praise to the Lord, the almighty the king of creation and All my hope on God is founded.
In later times, the valley was renamed in his honour, formerly called “Das Gesteins” “The Rocks”, it became Neanderthal, the Neander valley, and so when a fossilised early man was discovered there in 1856, it became Neanderthal man.
Neander left his valley later that summer and went to become pastor in his home city of Bremen. He was invited to Bremen as unordained assistant to Undereyk, the man whose preaching had made such a difference to him. The post was hardly prestigious, being seen as step towards something higher. The Sunday duty was a service with sermon at 5 a.m. Had Neander lived, he might have been appointed to the pastorate of a church in the city, but he died of tubercolosis on 31st May 1680, aged just 30.
Thinking of Neander sitting in his cave, rejected by the authorities and uncertain about the future, I thought of Elijah hiding from Jezebel, but Elijah feels sorry for himself, whereas Neander is supremely confident.
Neander knows from Scripture not to trust human authorities for throughout the Bible there are tales of those in authority failing to live up to what is expected of them. He writes in the hymn All my hope:
Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust.
Neander is aware from his own situation that sometimes it’s hard to fathom God’s purposes, there are moments which are beyond all our thought and we just have to trust in God’s goodness and God’s wisdom :
God’s great goodness aye endureth,
deep his wisdom passing thought
The great strength of Joachim Neander’s faith is shown in his confidence that God’s great blessings are with us every day, that in every moment we receive wonderful gifts. I think I find that the hardest bit about being a Christian, there are days that seem very blessed and other days when God seems very far away. Not so, says Neander:
Daily doth the almighty giver
bounteous gifts on us bestow
He must have felt great hurt and disappointment at being thrown out of the teaching post where he was loved by his students and being barred from even talking about his faith to the people of the city, but never mind, as he sits in his cave, his hopes are in God who never fails.
When Neander died the following year there were probably people who breathed a sigh of relief, probably others who thought his life had achieved nothing, yet what would Neander have thought? Perhaps that spiritual riches were infinitely more important than worldly success? And what he wouldn’t have known was that three centuries later in a little corner of Ireland, people would still be remembering him.