Sunday, 23 February 2020

Transfiguration and Encouragement

Transfiguration and Encouragement

Here we are on top of a mountain again, where we know that something important is about to happen. We will not be disappointed. To try to understand our Gospel of the transfiguration let us go back a bit to Matthew 16 (the previous chapter) and verse 21, only six verses before our reading begins.

“From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day to be raised.” This comment is immediately after the conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the stylistic artistic and actual turning point in Mark’s Gospel where Peter, asked who he thinks Jesus is says: “You are the Messiah, son of the living God.”  This is faithfully also reported by Matthew, in his chapter 16. So, Jesus’ closest disciples comes to the right realisation of who Jesus is, having followed him for months and lived the highs of the ministry of teaching, healing and miracles and then …. And then is told that Jesus is going to die.

Why we may ask, now quite late in Jesus’ time, does he take only three of his disciples with him and not all twelve? After all he has been teaching them all, they should be close knit by now. I want to suggest that these three were his closest friends, Peter, James and John and that Jesus moved by their despondency at the news he has been giving them took them with his to the top of the mountain to encourage them.

And what encouragement it was.  They all three know the detail of Moses going up the mountain to receive the commandments: That he took only his closest assistant, Joshua, (who also was designated his successor), that the mountain covered with a cloud showed the glory of the Lord like a devouring fire, and they would of course like us remember that Moses on reappearing was radiant.

See how many elements were shown now in real life to Peter, James and John. The mountain, Jesus’ face transfigured so it shone like the sun, his white garments, a bright cloud, the voice of God reiterating those words at Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the beloved, ith him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

I suspect you see that the disciples found it all too easy to believe that Jesus could die at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes after all these folk had not hidden their anger at Jesus and they were living in a brutal world, where becoming an enemy of the state courted such consequences.” But whether they could so easily believe “and on the third day be raised” I doubt.

So Jesus, knowing all this, takes them to a mountain and surrounds them with symbols they perfectly comprehend. And then he adds something else  - they know all about Elijah, how he did not die but was taken up in a chariot of fire and there he is , the prophet alongside Moses the lawgiver so clearly actually there that Peter is moved to make a shelter for them. Look Jesus is saying here is proof for you that there is life after death. Look and listen to me.

We all need encouragement, even Peter the rock. We have heard in Peter’s letter how good it was:

“We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” and then Peter refers to this special occasion:  “we ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on his holy mountain.”

So don’t be tempted to parcel up the transfiguration as something difficult and apart but ponder upon it and try to see it as an encouragement now for the whole church and a demonstration of those things which we believe.


Sunday, 9 February 2020

Religious leaders can be wrong

Isaiah 58: 1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

Our three readings this morning, Isaiah, Corinthians and Matthew have I think something in common. Each of them is critical of religious leaders. Isaiah, robustly, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”  How is it he says, that day after day my people seek me and delight to know my ways, fasting overtly in sackcloth and ashes, yet have misunderstood?  How do you not see that I want you to fight injustice with effectiveness, to look after the poor and the hungry, find shelter for the homeless?

Paul writing to the church in Corinth criticises them for their worldliness; your faith is not to rest on worldly wisdom, he says, but on the power of God. “I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God to you in words of lofty wisdom.” No I came in weakness, fear and trembling relying only on the life and death of Jesus Christ. “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.”

An idea amplified by Jesus teaching the disciples: Look he says, through what I am teaching you, you are the light of the world, do not, now your lamp is lit, hide it. No, put it on a lampstand where all can see it. And do not misunderstand, I have not come to abolish the law or previous understanding but to build upon it and to fulfill. Your righteousness, your good works must exceed those of the scribes and the pharisees, the religious leaders of the time.

The people of Israel and their leaders were wrong, those expecting to find God through Greek, logic, rhetoric and philosophies were wrong, the disciples had misunderstood and we know they will continue to misunderstand, they were so frequently wrong and so we might not be so surprised that Bishops can be wrong.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

As Paul reminds us, what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived - this is what God has prepared for those who love him. Humans he tells us, know human things.

Well, actually, I know only very imperfectly what I think I know. I say imperfectly because my mind has changed in more than sixty years and I am not ready to stable it away yet, hoping that it remains open to run with new ideas. Maybe they will come from good arguments, from my mind’s  own energies but hopefully mostly by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The house of Bishops got itself in hot water last week, and a number of people mentioned it to me, many more mentioned it to them and so they came with an apology. The pity of it is, that the statement was unnecessary, it simply reaffirmed the views expressed before. So where are we?  A while ago the Bishops committed to prepare a teaching document called “Living in Love and Faith” which is now to be presented to the Lambeth Conference in July. I expect that General Synod may debate it after that.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

So: we wait and see, and pray that this report or range of resources will in Paul’s words speak God’s wisdom secret and hidden, that  in Isaiah’s words the ruins will be rebuilt and that in Jesus’ words “our light may shine before others.”


Happy is the person who reads the Psalms

Psalm 1

As always it depends on the translation you use whether the first word of the first Psalm is blessed or happy. Either way it seems significant to me that a worship song book begins in this way. The NRSV has “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” which is not so poetic as Coverdale’s “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly” but I would like to keep hold of the word “happy” as we look more closely at this piece. The Psalm contrasts the Godly in its first half with the ungodly in the second. Notice that the beginning talks about not walking in the counsel of the ungodly nor standing in the way of sinners. This is not about the unhappiness of sinning (this comes later) but about avoiding the lure of the siren voices, it is saying something about not exposing ourselves to the word or images of temptation. Rather, as verse two goes on to say, instead we should take delight in the law of the Lord and in meditating or musing on it day and night. Some translations use the term Torah of the Lord and this is helpful in directing our thoughts for we know the Torah was seen as guidance from the creator on the meaning of creation; it was to be studied and the point made is that life is lived fully if we can discover its meaning. Important then that this is told us in the first Psalm; it is like a preface to a modern book it is telling us why we should read on, why we should read the Psalter. Verse three explains that we who do read the Psalms, we who study God’s word shall be like a tree transplanted to flowing and healthful streams, we will flourish and our leaves will not wither an image of constant freshness. This is not eschatalogical, the Psalm is not speaking of the eternal promise of heaven and the after life but of now: this healthy, happy and hopeful state is now, it is a result of our meditating not a distant reward to be waited for. Happy is the man who reads the Psalms.

By contrast in verse five we see that this shall not be so for the ungodly who seek  not deep understanding  but temporal things. The winnower throws the scythed wheat into the air and while the heavier grain falls to the ground the lighter frivolous chaff flies away in the wind. The image not only forecasts the impermanence of the ways of the wicked but underlines the lightness and the scanty substance of these things. Again this is not about the afterlife, although it may apply. The way of the ungodly shall perish not as a punishment but as a result.

Now I am sure that this evening I am preaching to the choir, that you have worked out the truer values the things that make you happy such as praying, coming to church being generous and kind, taking lessons from God’s creation and a long list of others  but to remind you this is Psalm one. This is all important for here at the beginning of the Psalter is a sort of evangelism that exhorts us not to be swerved by the words of the wicked, not to be scornful, not even to place ourselves within earshot of the temptation but by doing the right things to be delighted and happy - here and now. Think of that, not scripture that some see as saying follow these rules of denial and you will be blessed and the same scoffers say “can you be sure?”  but a message that says this is the way and if you follow it you will discover blessing and happiness in your lives,. This is  a message we should take joy in sharing with those who seem not to have discovered it yet.


Tuesday, 4 February 2020

On the steps of the Temple

Luke 2:22- 39

There is a moment at the end of this passage from Luke’s Gospel which I would like to draw. I imagine Mary and Joseph with the 40 day old baby Jesus standing at the top of the Temple steps looking at one another and in that exchanged look we see an audible, palpable long sigh of relief. I need an artist to encapsulate that instant somehow in that crucible of vision everything must melt:  “We’ve done it, we can go home now, back to our own town of Nazareth.”

From the instant of the angel Gabriel their lives have been shaken up. An angel after all, do not tell me that it was not terrifying. Looking past those renaissance pictures of Mary in blue, meek and mild, sitting comfortably and accepting lilies, imagine the suddenness, those huge wings, the news, planning to tell Joseph, telling Joseph, the pregnancy, the visit to Elizabeth, her reaction, the awe of it all. Then travel to the chaos of Bethlehem, more pregnancy, a birth shepherds, angels again, wise men, fear threats, doubts. And even now a strange man who has been waiting, waiting for Him,  and who taking a close intrusive look at her new born less than seven weeks old prophesies about him, only partly reassuringly and more mysteriously in words of swords that will pierce Mary’s heart and soul.

Now they are on the steps setting out, a poor family just managing the Temple offering of two pigeons, on the top step about to walk down. Can we capture that moment?

It is a little like looking at your eldest son or daughter as you leave them in their college or hall of residence room. There has been a flurry beforehand, the anxiety of the forthcoming exams, the cramming (or not), then the  exams, the waiting for the results, the gathering of the possessions, the books the music the kitchen utensils, the clothes drier (there is always a clothes drier it seems) and a long drive somewhere to a registration and some confusion of where to go - and then a moment when you leave and they stay - and you go back to your own home and something has changed - they have become a proper student and you have a boy or girl at college.

Mary and Joseph have become proper parents now - they have come full circle. Jesus was given to them by God and they have been to the temple this morning and dedicated him (back) to God they have done everything customary.  And this is the important point - up until now Luke has strained everything in his account to relate the divinity of this child we are in no doubt that he is come of God. Gabriel said:

“Do not be afraid Mary, and now you will conceive in your womb - he will be great and will be called, The son of the most high, he will reign over the house of Jacob and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

But now we are assured of Jesus’ humanity. It is a liminal moment - literally, on the threshold, Mary and Joseph leave the Temple portico to start to be with their baby, to take him home, to enjoy him, to teach him, to be together. We do not know anything of their time in Nazareth, which seems to me to be both helpful and essential to our understanding of Jesus as a man. We need these years of calm, of ordinariness for we need to deeply see that Jesus has come to be one of us.

So come with me, with Mary and Joseph, to their home, away from the pressure, the fervour and the noise  and let us exchange a glance there towards the altar that says “Yes we have come to your house, to know you, to be with you, to know that you are God but as well that you are with us and in us just as you were there in the home of Mary and Joseph.”