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Home » Sermon 11 February 2024

Sermon 11 February 2024

    Sunday next before Lent

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    Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9

    Today we keep the Sunday next before Lent, and the gospel reading for this day is always the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the holy mountain – Mount Tabor we believe, though some scholars have also suggested Mount Hermon as the location. Jesus’ three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, momentarily see his full glory. He appears in the company of Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, representing the prophets.

    For the Old Testament reading we have the account of Elijah’s ascent into heaven. In the Jewish scriptures, people tend to view death as the natural conclusion to a life, rather than as some feared enemy. Today’s story about Elijah, from which a faith in resurrection later develops, gives the sense that God is a God of life, and that there is existence with him beyond the confines of our earthly living. For those who looked for the Messiah in the time of Jesus, it was to be Elijah returned from heaven who would announce his arrival. So that Elijah appears with Jesus at the Transfiguration signifies that Jesus is the Messiah who is to come.

    The story of Elisha watching Elijah ascending to heaven is certainly strange to 21st-century thinking, but there is a message we can take from it. Faith in God is something that is inherited and handed down. I imagine all of us here were encouraged in our Christian discipleship by somebody — parents, teachers, friends; whoever it may be. We have a duty to pass on the truths that have inspired us through life to another generation. Who can we encourage in Christian understanding?

    But back to the Transfiguration. One of the inescapable things about climbing a mountain is that at some stage you have to come down again. Uplifting moments in our lives cannot continue for ever, and after some sublime, joyful or special experience we have to return to the hum-drum and the ordinary. In today’s story the disciples soon come down to earth with a jolt. For no sooner have they returned to the foot of the mountain than they encounter a crowd and a man from the crowd begging Jesus to heal his son, and complaining that the disciples weren’t able to do it.

    Jesus despaired at the ‘faithless and perverse generation’ he was set amongst. But the episode of the transfiguration proved to be a watershed in Jesus’ ministry. He had been seen in his true glory on the mountain, but now he was back amongst it all, and facing the turbulent road towards Jerusalem, with opposition to his ministry building up, and the inevitability of his arrest, suffering and death becoming clearer by the day. So, with this account of the transfiguration, we are assured of Jesus’ true glory and identity, but now we have to walk with him for the next six weeks on the road to Jerusalem, and follow the account of his sufferings and death during Holy Week.

    We embrace the weeks of Lent both to reflect on our Lord’s sufferings, and what he did for us, and on our own shortcomings as his disciples. But Lent is not really about setting out to achieve something; it’s not intended to be our personal course of self-improvement, as contemporary society might understand it. For one of the fundamentals of our faith is that we achieve nothing apart from God’s grace. We need him at every point of our lives. Sometimes we forget that we are his creation, and we misunderstand our place within it. In one parable, Jesus asks, in the setting of his time, if the master thanks the slave for doing what was commanded of him? He has the slave responding “We are slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.”

    At a meeting of local clergy this week, I was quoting some words from Richard Hooker, the 16th-century Anglican thinker and priest. In an age where we seek to explain everything; comment, predict and speculate, these words of Richard Hooker are an antidote to the torrent of words that typifies daily life:

    “Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High, whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his name, yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not indeed as he is, neither can know him: and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, his greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.”

    For many of us, we seem to come within reach of God best when we draw closer to Jesus, who came to show us what the divine can be like in a human being. The voice from heaven on the mountain of transfiguration confirmed this, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” That was the divine response to Peter’s impulsive words during that intense spiritual experience. We’ve all blurted out things at significant moments which later seem crass, inappropriate or just intrusive, when it would have been better just to listen.

    This year the Church of England’s Lent theme for 2024 is “Watch and Pray”. The words, of course, come from Jesus’ instruction to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, as his arrest was imminent, and the darkness, physical and spiritual, hung heavily over him. So “Watch and Pray” invites us all to wait expectantly for God this Lent, in search of new wisdom and hope even in times of struggle and trial.

    Part of the inspiration for “Watch and Pray” comes from the spirituality of black churches. As you know, across the country (let alone worldwide) there are hundreds of distinctively Black — especially Pentecostal — congregations. They have, as part of their tradition, the practice of “tarrying” — a bit of a quaint word for these days, but very biblical. Tarrying is a time of waiting on God which involves the whole community. It encourages us to watch; paying attention to matters we might push under the rug to deal with ‘another time.’ Doing so might feel overwhelming. But, as the material says, “As we sit in the presence of God who looks upon us with delight, we find ourselves waiting with and for Jesus, who is familiar with our weaknesses.”

    Sometimes, when our problems overwhelm us, we hardly know how to pray and what to say. But “Watch and Pray” reminds us that prayer is not necessarily an outpouring of words, but an attending to the Lord, waiting on his time. Richard Hooker would approve. Remember that he said “Our safest eloquence concerning God is our silence…..He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.” And T.S. Eliot, in his poem Little Gidding, also talks about prayer. He wrote “Prayer is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the mind, or the sound of the voice praying.”

    So I invite you, in these weeks to come, to find time to ‘Watch and Pray.’ In silence, maybe without words, hold our troubled world before God and consider the outstretched arms of Jesus, who we believe to have died for the salvation of the world, and everybody in it.

    This week’s prayer, from the ‘Watch and Pray’ material:

    Lord, grant us the faith to wait together in darkness and uncertainty — for it is there we will find you. May we come to know you this Lent in ways we have not yet discovered or even imagined. Amen.

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