Monthly Archives: February 2015

0 Shades of Grey

This sermon was preached at All Saints 10:30am Eucharist and St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong on 15th February 2015. The readings were 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.

Over the past couple of weeks a certain book, which has also been made into a movie, has made headlines across the country. This has been great for me, as the book in question is one of my all-time favourites, and the media talk has put me in mind of some of my favourite moments, inspiring me to watch the movie last night.

I am of course talking about “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and the shock announcement that the ‘lost’ manuscript for the sequel has been found and will be published in July.

I’m sure many of you here are familiar with the tale, if only from the film version starring the amazing Gregory Peck, but in case you are not it’s the story of a small town lawyer called Atticus Finch, his young son Jem and daughter Scout. Set in the rural south of the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Atticus is raising his children aided only by his black housekeeper. To begin with, the children just see Atticus as a normal father, enjoying a close relationship despite referring to him by his first name, and vaguely aware of how some of his eccentricities affect their lives (not playing in the local Methodist baseball team and his respect for the black community, for example). But one day, their understanding of Atticus is changed, altered, by the arrival of a mad dog, which is spotted foaming at the mouth in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are amazed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county.

Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. Only after dispatching the dog, and later through the main crux of the book which deals with deeply-ingrained Southern state racism, do Scout and Jem come to see him for who he really is. He is, in effect, transfigured in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.

Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus is the hinge point of the Gospel, marking the transition from Jesus life & ministry to His death and resurrection. Just after Peter has hit the nail on the head by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, then been hugely chastised for suggesting the passion could be avoided, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, away from the others.

We as readers know a key incident is about to take place – the “high mountain” is the place nearest to heaven, and throughout scripture Godly incidents happen on mountains. So it is here when, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured and his clothes shine so bright, become so dazzling, that it can only be the glory of God shining out from Him – there’s no shades of grey here! Think of the light that blinded Paul on the Damascus Road, or of Moses receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved, also on a mountain, & the way his face shone with the reflected glory of God when he descended. And speaking of Moses, there he is with Elijah chatting to Jesus.

Of course, Elijah himself as no stranger to meeting with God on a mountain – his experience of the “still small voice” on Mount Sinai was arguably less dramatic, but no less profound.

So with all this going on is it any wonder the three disciples don’t know what to do! Then Peter, dear Peter, tries his best to grasp the situation & offers to make shelters for the three Holy men – maybe to keep their glory safely in one place, maybe because the only way he could deal with such an amazing, intense experience of God was to safely box it up separately from the rest of his life, to try to do something practical with it.

Then the voice from the cloud – the revelation to those there of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah who has come in Glory and Power; not in battle dress to crush the Romans but, as Jesus will allude to shortly after they come down from the mountain, as the suffering servant who will give His life as a ransom for many.

This is what I mean by the hinge – this is the second of three instances where Jesus is declared “Son of God” in Mark.

The first is by the Father to Jesus Himself when He is baptized, as He begins His earthly ministry and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The third is at His crucifixion – itself almost a reverse transfiguration as Jesus hangs abandoned, beaten, bloodied and dying right at the end of the Gospel, leading a Roman soldier to cry out “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

So here God almost parallels and affirms Peter’s confession from the previous chapter, while also showing the reality of that which Peter tried to deny – Jesus upcoming passion. When read as a whole with verses 9-13, this middle section of Mark shows glory and suffering, lowliness and majesty.

Obviously things can never be the same again for these three disciples. They have witnessed something that will only make true sense after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but even before that such an encounter changes a person – just like our encounters with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit should change, have changed, us.

Some of us will be able to put our fingers on moments when we have had such encounters with God – some of us may find that more difficult.

So I guess the question is… where on the mountain do you feel you are today? It’s possible some of us are still summoning up the courage to take a few steps higher, knowing that folk say there are great things to be seen and experienced but hesitant of what it might mean, how it might change things. Some of us carry the experience of seeing the blinding light of the transfigured Lord at some point, or at least have the conviction to keep seeking it. It’s possible though, that this in itself complicates things – because like Peter we’re not sure what to do with what we’ve found, and are not convinced anyone would even believe us if we told them! So in our confusion we find ourselves looking to build shelters, trying to find a way to package up, to keep inside this revelation as our special thing, in our special place.

Because it can be a difficult thing, sustaining the reality of God’s love for us in our lives.

Despite all we’ve seen over the years, all we have experienced, we still forget, or lose focus, especially in a world so damaged by fear, greed and oppression. But take heart. As I said earlier, just before the transfiguration Peter had made his profession of Jesus as Christ – rapidly followed by the “get behind me Satan” incident. Not long after today’s Gospel passage the disciples, including James and John, argue over who the greatest. Mark is not afraid to show those closest to Jesus were constantly messing up – yet He corrects them, helps them move on – and moves on with them. As he does with us. We can’t earn our salvation any more than we can put Jesus in a booth, shelter or box, however church-shaped and beautiful it may be.

So I hope I can encourage all of us here to make the full journey up the mountain with me this morning. Let us step out truly believing that, as we celebrate the Eucharist in a few minutes time Christ will come and meet with us again.

That we can glimpse the light of His glory if only fleetingly, then go out into the world with our faces shining as a light to all we meet. That the experience we have this Sunday, and every day we take the time to consciously come into God’s presence, will reawaken our knowledge of who Jesus is and the amazing gift He has given us – the gift of eternal life, of forgiveness from sins and a relationship with He who created us. That through the gift of His Spirit we are renewed and refreshed to further His kingdom on earth, made fully alive by His presence with us.

This all sounds very grand – well, the view from the top of a mountain usually is. But just as Scout & Jem could never look at Atticus the same way again, once we allow Jesus to reveal Himself to us our lives take on a new meaning. So today I want to encourage all of us to keep climbing up the mountain, keep coming close to Jesus & marvelling at his glory, looking for transformation, healing, refreshment & renewal – but then to remember the world around us is crying out for the same light. Let’s have the courage to take all we’ve found out with us, because as Paul so excellently put it,

“the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Amen

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♪ ♫ Got To Get You Into My Life ♫ ♪

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist services on 1st February 2015, as we celebrated The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The readings were Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-18 & Luke 2:22-40.

Nestling safely in my mam’s record collection is something a little special. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you when I say ‘record,’ I mean a proper LP – I think the cool kids call them ‘vinyl’ these days. When I were younger I was flicking through to see what she had, when I came across ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. I’m very fond of The Beatles and, in my opinion, this is one of their best albums, from the opening count in of Taxman (one…two…three…four [cough] one two three four!) to the drum and bass hook of Tomorrow Never Knows, its closing track – though some only remember it for “Yellow Submarine!”

But this particular copy is a bit different. It was recorded in ‘mono,’ not stereo. This means it’s all recorded on one audio channel, unlike a stereo recording which has more than one and can give the effect of movement between speakers or different instruments coming from different sides. Nowadays, almost all the re-releases, beatles-revolverCD’s and downloads of ‘Revolver’ use the stereo mix, so this mono recording, with different versions of some of the songs, is rarer than others available – and so worth a few quid more to those who value this kind of thing. But, apart from the word mono printed on the sleeve in not-particularly-large letters, you wouldn’t know this record was any different by just a glance. If, however, you were to spend time with somebody who knows and cares about the subject, they would help you to realise you have to look at it properly, listen to it, to discover it is actually worth more than you realised.

When I read through the Bible, especially the more narrative works like the Gospels, I like to try & take time to picture the scene, to immerse myself in what is going on around the characters at the time. And as this passage from Luke, which we revisit year after year at this time, is one of those that we could easily just let wash over us through sheer repetition if we are not careful, I think it deserves a little care & thought.

A young couple enter the temple with a six week old baby. They are poor, as Luke talks of a pair of turtle-doves or young pigeons being offered as the sacrifice, which was acceptable in place of a lamb and a pigeon in cases of hardship.

They are just one more couple among many, doing their religious duty according to the Law of Moses, apparently no different to any others there. But an old man spots them through the crowds, and something leaps inside him. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to go across to them, to take the child in his arms and some of the most wonderful words in the New Testament pour out of him – words that have since been used a great deal by the Church in both funeral services and every night in Compline, or Night Prayer, to bring comfort & blessing – the words we now call the Nunc Dimmitis.

They must be in the outer courts of the temple when they meet Simeon as women were not allowed inside, and both parents are present and stand amazed at what they hear. Some call this celebration day “Candlemas,” and it is at this point it seems a light is switched on, the amazing events of the night of Jesus birth are affirmed by Simeon & God’s love blazes into the darkness of God’s fallen world – at least to us.

For all around them, as Simeon sings praises and blesses the Holy couple people go about their business, oblivious to the long-promised Messiah being cradled in their midst. Anybody who had taken the time to listen, to take a proper look, may have discovered the truth. As it is, it seems only one other person does – an old Prophetess called Anna, who comes over to praise God, then spends the rest of her life in the temple “speak[ing] about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

What an amazing sight to behold – the old man & old woman, a life searching for the coming King now fulfilled, the young married couple, just beginning their new lives together and not knowing what to expect from the amazing gift they have been given, and the baby Jesus, the light of the world holding them all together. Four very different people, all united by God’s Son.

So I wonder – as we read this story, as we think about this passage, where do we place ourselves?

As Mary or Joseph, nervously standing in the outer section of the temple, plucking up the courage to take the next steps in our journey with Jesus, to move closer to God?

As Anna, already trying to be as close as can be to God, always in the temple, in fasting and prayer, ready to set eyes on the promised Messiah and tell those we meet about Him?

As Simeon, long in the service of the Lord and continually on the lookout for signs of His kingdom, looking through the eyes of the Holy Spirit at all who we come into contact with and ready to offer blessing and praise to even the poorest and most different of strangers?

Now, there is a chance that some of us may feel more like those wandering around, visiting the temple as they felt compelled to do or out of a sense of duty but completely missing the Son of God in their midst. That’s my biggest fear – that I get so caught up trying to do things ‘properly’ that I miss the Spirit’s prompt to seize the opportunity to experience the living God in our midst. Kind of a Martha/Mary situation, if you will.

So I think the challenge for all of us is to study Simeon & Anna and try to emulate their devotion to the seeking of God’s Kingdom. Because there appears to be no great secret to what they did to spot Jesus amongst all that was going on. By spending time with God the Father & God the Holy Spirit, they recognised God the Son incarnate – Jesus Christ. By spending time in prayerful communion with this amazing mysterious Trinitarian God of ours, Three Persons yet One God, we will find ourselves more able than ever to see the light of God blazing in all who we meet – in the stranger, the outcast and the oppressed, and in the friend, neighbour or, dare I say it, enemy – or, at least, difficult challenging person – closer to home.

This closeness to God can be scary, painful even – as we heard in Malachi the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” We may need to make changes in our own life, be reshaped by our creator, have some of the things that have no place in our walk with him or our dealings with others burned away or scrubbed clean.

But as we break bread and pour wine in remembrance of Jesus, we are reminded of the great hope His life, death and resurrection has brought us.

 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We do not do any of this in our own strength, but fully assisted by He who knows us better than anyone, and who gave His life out of love for us. As I said at the start, sometimes – with the help of an expert – we have to look at something properly, listen to it carefully, to discover it is actually worth more than we realised.

By taking the time to see through the eyes of God’s all empowering, all-encompassing love poured out for each one of us, we can love as we are truly loved, value others as we ourselves are valued, and change the world one person at a time – even if the first person changed is ourselves.

Amen

Presentation Christ 2