Sermon – next before Lent 2020

Sunday 23 February 2020  8am, 9.30am, 10.45am

(Exodus 24.12-18  2 Peter 1.16-21)  Matthew 17.1-9

Mark Hart

One of my regular tasks is to proof read orders of service for weddings and funerals. The most common error is in the last line of the first verse of the hymn ‘Morning has broken’, a popular choice because it’s well known to many from school days. The correct words are, ‘Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!’

The verse is talking about the birds and the singing, so to many it seems to make so much more sense to say ‘fresh from the world’. After all, they are made out of the stuff of this world aren’t they? But Eleanor Farjeon wrote ‘Word’ with a capital ‘W’, not world.

She saw the glory of the morning and the glory of the birdsong as shining directly from the Word, the one who, says St John, was with God, and was God, and through whom all things were made. The Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.

We were eyewitnesses of his majesty, says Peter’s epistle, in a direct reference to the Gospel account of the transfiguration of Christ.

It makes quite a difference whether we sing ‘Word’ or ‘world’. Is glory in this world something which must be achieved? Do we have raw matter which is a bit dull and boring, and then something wonderful must be created, either through natural processes or human ingenuity? That’s what it’s like if we sing ‘world’.

On the other hand, if we sing ‘Word’, then we are suggesting that everything is intrinsically glorious, whether we can see it or not. Each element carries its own meaning and glory because its very being is freshly sourced in God, every morning, every moment.

Put like that, we begin to see natural resources not as material just to be put to use or discarded, but as conveying something of the wonder of God, if we could but see it. True, the world isn’t God, and we don’t worship the earth, but we owe all things a kind of reverence because of their direct participation in the light and energy of God’s life.

On the mountain, Peter, James and John were given a brilliant vision of the glory of Jesus of Nazareth. Peter made the mistake of thinking this was something he could be in control of and perpetuate. It’s as if he’s discovered a wonderful spiritual experience, and he’s going to manufacture it to happen repeatedly by setting up some tents.

It’s like singing ‘world’ instead of ‘Word’. He’s thinking, ‘We’ve got to organise stuff so that glory happens’. But the glory is God’s, and it’s simply there, whether perceived or not, and it certainly can’t be manipulated by our religious ritual.

Peter, James and John were being prepared for what would follow. As we are about to enter Lent and journey towards Holy Week, so the disciples, with Jesus, will come down from the mountain and follow the path to Jerusalem.

The same three will be in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is in agony and grief. They see no glory and they fall asleep. There’s nothing they want to hold onto now. And when Jesus is arrested, they all desert him and flee.

Jesus moves on to Golgotha where he is flanked, not by Moses and Elijah, but by two thieves. Instead of his face shining, there’s  darkness for three hours. Instead of dazzling white clothes, he is stripped. Instead of a private moment of honour he faces public disgrace.

It takes Easter and Pentecost to happen for the disciples to begin to make sense of it. At the Transfiguration, they had seen the veil removed, and the glory of God fully present in Jesus. In Gethsemane, they had seen Jesus coming to a point of total self-giving, ready to pay the ultimate price for the world.

From our position we can recognise this as two sides of the same coin. What does it mean for Jesus to be full of glory and majesty? It means that he is so full of love that he is prepared to go into a place of abandonment and offer himself. Do we just see shame and dishonour when we look at Jesus on the cross? No, we also see glory, for here is the love of God most fully revealed.

So the experience of the visible glory of the Transfiguration is far from something to hold onto and control. The essence of this glory is a willingness to give, to take risks, and go into the desert.

And the experience of the weight of the cross, the way of suffering, is a place to remember that at the heart of the darkest moment this world has known was unquenchable light and glory.

How do you look at your life or the world at the moment? Are you in a comfortable place, with things generally in order? Is the world ticking along ok for you? Are you in a happy position regarding your health and wealth and relationships? If so, that’s wonderful.

But if that’s where we are, the danger is we become rather satisfied and settled, happy just to hold onto that position as long as possible. Christ’s call is to sacrifice and our comfort is always challenged by the question of how the blessing we’re enjoying can be shared with others. How can we step out into a more risky, deserted place.

That applies to our church and prayer life also. And that’s partly why we’ve written in the magazine about the challenge to consider putting yourself out a bit in Lent by attending a different or additional service. We can be settled into our familiar ways but often growth can best happen when we allow ourselves to be disorientated.

The desert has long been a metaphor for that kind of spiritual growth which happens by going out into places where we’re not in control, where it’s trackless and uncertain. Opportunities to serve, to attend courses, to read new books, to meet with new people – all of these can be significant paths to growth precisely because they are not familiar, trodden paths for you. You can’t know in advance the risks, the change, and the cost they may bring.

Alternatively, your life may be far from comfortable at the moment. It’s enough just to manage each day, let alone be thinking of new challenges or sacrifices. Or you may be in despair about the world, the direction in which we’re heading or the global disasters which are threatening.

Then we must remember to live with hope, knowing that glory is at the essence of all things. All things are springing fresh from infinite love, morning by morning. That’s an awful lot easier to say when you’re watching the dawn and listening to the birds, than reading the newspaper. But it’s true of everything, everywhere, always.

Sometimes our job is to hang on, to trust, and to be faithful – but with an underlying sense of joy. That’s what Peter’s epistle is calling us to, saying: ‘you will do well to pay attention to [the word], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

So as we move into Lent, with its call to sacrifice, we must hold onto the vision of glory. A glory which is a given, an intrinsic reality, a divine presence. You will not win glory in Lent by maintaining some impressive discipline. It will be better for you if you fail in Lent, if you uncover dark places in your soul that you didn’t know existed. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th century French priest, said, ‘rejoice every time you discover a new defect’. Rejoice because it’s a place where dawn may break, a place where the glory has yet to shine through.