Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
15th Feb 2015
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
“And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Mark 9.4
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Mark a theatrical effect, but a reality which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For here we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. The Transfiguration is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes, and to see such things is to experience God’s glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ who is the fulfiller all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and also within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is purposefully set before us as a key text for the coming of the penitential season of Lent. In this context, the mountain of Transfiguration is the place of amazing appearances, and yet also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the essential gravity of our existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. This is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. Its message comes as a double-edged sword, the one which the Letter to the Hebrews describes as
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder then, that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. Instead comes the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world and of its brokenness’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential gravity. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need if life is to be transformative. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a necessary point of departure.
I once went to the Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris. At some point all visitors head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore the resonance of what is being photographed and its real presence. The photographer is very unstill. There is the attempt to put an atmosphere or an object in the pocket. To capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. And it is more than matched by the matchless mercy of God. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Edwin Muir (1887-1959)
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
8th Feb 2015
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Lent Year B
“The Word became flesh and lived among us” John 1.13
At the Queen’s coronation she was presented with a Bible upon which she was to make a solemn oath to defend the Church and these words were said by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. They glory in the Word made flesh and call us as The Church to proclaim the Word of God in our own age:
We present you with this Book,
The most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom;
This is the royal Law;
These are the lively Oracles of God.
There are certain written documents or evidences which have emerged in history which speak most eloquently of the human condition then and now. I am thinking of the 800 year old Magna Carta (June 15th) and The 239 year old American Declaration of Independence,
‘The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the Middle Ages. It was written in Magna Carta’. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, (1941 Presidential Address).
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, (1776)
These documents are indelibly printed on our human history and they stand to speak once and for all of our greatest human aspirations, and above all the dedication of the life of true liberty. So much more today’s Gospel which speaks then, now and for ever of God’s being and purpose. It is more than a declaration : it is the expression of the God who is the Word made Flesh. What then does it mean when John describes Jesus as ‘The Word made flesh?’ How do we read this phrase? Here ‘The Word’ or, Greek word ‘Logos’ means all that God does, and we learn from Genesis that what God is and does is to be known in what he actually speaks. And the creation narratives have God speaking creation into being (‘Let there be light, and there was light’). God the Father’s Word is essentially and always creative. But John the Evangelist goes further when he says that Jesus is one with the Father and existed with him before time ever began. Theologians call Jesus ‘the pre-existent Logos’. Jesus comes to the world in human form to deliver the spoken word of God to the world. He is God-in-the-flesh, as John says, ‘he lives among us’. In relation to the God who speaks and makes himself known, Jesus IS THE One who makes God legible.
I remember having to learn New Testament Greek and not knowing quite what to make of it! Someone once said ‘he who has another language has another world’ but perhaps this one was a bit strange. However, the setting of Greek texts for translation brings the strong reminder that Christianity as we know it did not emerge within a Judean bubble. The Christian scriptures were written in Hebrew and in Greek, even though Our Lord Jesus would have spoken in a form of Aramaic much as they do today. First century Palestine, like contemporary London, was multicultural and multilingual. And it was out of this social melting pot, this world of languages, that the Gospel writer John can say, using distinctly Greek emphasis, that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’. The appeal is couched not in the form of the local but of the universal. The Word of God is for all humankind and not just for the chosen few. When John says that the Word became flash and dwelt among us he is saying that before anything else Christianity draws sustenance from the Christ who is THE LIVING WORD. And for the Christian, this is a Word which is to be proclaimed in every age. Good words, great literature oxygenate our lives as surely as do trees. The spreading of the good word is for their pollination.
The reassuring part of my learning New Testament Greek was the study of the First Letter of John, which was not difficult to translate because very repetitive. Its simple, repeated phrases are very beautiful. They describe the coming of Christ in a way which is very striking and touching in its appeal to the senses:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our[a] joy complete. I John 1-4.
The complete joy of this letter lies in its direct appeal to the passion with which faith is received and known. Christian faith is seen not as a pious past time but life’s true enjoyment and enrichment. And this is to be shared, and ‘made complete’ in the sharing. And in this way we begin to answer a question that emerges out of this text, and it is this: ‘How are we, The Church to show that The Word of God has become flesh in our own time?
The answer lies in ourselves and a new discovery of our own understanding and ownership of the written and spoken word of God. We must not be afraid, in a world where the English language has been abbreviated and compressed, to own the faith of Jesus and put that faith into confident expression. We may not find it easy to speak openly about our faith, but the Gospel commits us to do this. Of course we might be afraid that we are being boring, we might feel very self-conscious, but this need not be the case. Our experience of worship in this church will grow our self-confidence. We must proclaim the faith we profess and not ‘hide our light under a bushel’.
How else is the Church to live? We must not be afraid to testify. This has been thought to be the preserve of more evangelical Christians, but Anglo-Catholics are called. Don’t tire of telling others what you find here at Holy Cross, of how you find it and what it means to you. Own the faith of Jesus and the wonders of his Word! This is Good News, and it is what many who seek God (without knowing it) want to hear. The opposite of this is that the Word of God lies dormant and your Christianity becomes an awkward kind of thing. Don’t let this happen, for God’s sake.
Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
1st Feb 2015
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2015
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will enter his Temple’. In his prophecy is the meeting in the promised One of past and present realities. Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The profound meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus -- In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This is a meeting which provides an ending and a beginning. It involves the greeting and the blessing and the cleansing ceremony which is taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New is being revealed in the one time and the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel, The Old Testament Man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meet the new born baby and witness the outcome of his life’s longing. He sees salvation. And TS Eliot marks in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets it alongside Simeon as one whose life has come to completion:
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
As the hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’ tells us, the child is for us and for Simeon and for Anna:
Fulfiller of the past
Promise of things to be
We hail thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
Today for the Church is a Feast Day of Candles; Candlemass. In it there is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple, and in the carrying of candles, bring to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and the holding in our hands as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people. As the Christ was presented to Simeon and to God and the world, so we in the procession present ourselves to Christ as his lights. We as the Church revivify the echoes of passion and of prayer that echo down to us from the Temple chamber. The fulfilment of the past is granted in the utterance of Simeon, and in this happening there is another thing, which is the interlocking of human destinies. If Simeon is right, then ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ is a light which is the Creator’s light, shining on all people, and not just the chosen few or a hidden minority. All life is here.
This is the sensational message which Candlemass, the Feast of Candles offers us. That Christ is both fulfiller of the past and hope of things to come, and that all of us in Christ are set on a shared destiny. The light is the light of holiness and of truthfulness for us all. Like a bell, it rings for us and it rings true. In Christ we throw in our lot with one another and share a God-shaped destony. In this we may find peace, as time marches on and waits for none of us.
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris.
For us in the Church, the effect of the Presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple has been to provide identity for the church and to draw us together with our interrelated fortunes and our experiences of the real in the here and the now of our existence. And in this we see the glory which has been prepared for us from long ago. In this we are given in Jesus the present moment that is in Him the fulfilment of the past and the hope of things to come.