SERMON FOR THE SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE LENT 23.2.20 at St Mary’s
Many of us will remember a time when we have been on the top of a mountain or a high hill and simply gasped at the sheer grandeur, the width, the depth, the light, the detail and the colour of what we can see. We may see valleys and we may also see a distant horizon. Such places are where our own spiritual horizons may be expanded.
The season of Lent is now just three days away. Now we can begin to see it on our horizon. And as Lent comes over our own horizon, in our first reading we are drawn to look ahead from the mountain with Moses where he began what was really the first Lent. We have heard that Moses’ Lent was like any other good Lent, a time of journeying away from the familiar, and towards clouds of darkness and the unknown. But there followed, in the most dramatic way, light and the fire of the glory of the Lord. There was clarity, the tablets of the law, the guiding principles, the ten commandments, all to be shared with the people,after he had spent forty days on the mountain.
We now look ahead to another and different Lent, with a glorious Easter beyond it. Some, but not all of us have mountain-top experiences in the course of our Christian lives, but our faith is not one which depends on mountain-top experiences. In today’s passage Moses ascends the mountain and alone deals with God, on behalf of everyone else. That typifies the old covenant. All sense of holiness is distant, unapproachable, accessed and mediated through hierarchies, through rituals, through traditions.
We live in the quite different times of the new covenant. Christ, who we can understand as the second or new Moses, does not leave us to find God but comes down to us, in and with God. Remember that Christ comes to a Lent of 40 days and 40 , not on a glorious mountain, but in the wilderness, where we too so often find ourselves to be tempted, lost, shocked, and battered by all that life may bring to us.
Most importantly, Christ does not bring us a complex law, which will separate us from him if we break it. Instead, he brings us a gospel of grace. This grace will seek, find, and lovingly embrace every one of us, even though we have all failed to keep the law. When we look down from a mountain we shall see valleys, full of grace.
In the Second Letter of Peter we are reminded of two key strands of the Christian gospel of grace. These strands formed in the first century and continue to be importnat to us today. Firstly, what we read and reflect upon in the gospels is an account of events in the life of Jesus Christ, in specific places and time periods. Human witnesses heard and wrote down details of the events, as they had perceived and understood them. Their accounts are a testimony to the truth that they perceived. And here Peter does just this in mentioning the events of the transfiguration.
The second strand of the gospels is that of prophecy, foretold and then fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of person Jesus Christ. This fulfilment of prophecy is fundamental to our understanding of Jesus as the promised Messiah. God has spoken to us down the ages through the prophets and, mysteriously, God continues to speak to us, particularly through prayer and contemplation. This activity of God in the current times of darkness and distress in so many parts of the world provides us with an anchor and a light pointing us towards a new dawn.
The story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ Transfiguration on a mountain repeats the experience of Moses in encountering God. Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, and Jesus fulfils this with the new covenant, on a mountain. We may note here a second parallel: this light-filled event in one high place is to be followed by Jesus’ death in another high but dark place – the hill of Calvary. A hill of glory is followed by a hill of shame. In the first he is flanked by two prophets, Moss and Elijah, while in the second by two thieves. On one hill Peter is overwhelmed with joy while on the other Peter is absent.
In the transfiguration Peter wants to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. And we in our time actually build in places where the presence of God has been felt very clearly, where heaven and earth have overlapped in a sense. We long to hold onto spiritual experiences, but we cannot repeat them or put them into some kind of container, or surround them by stone and brick. Spiritual experiences, encounters with the Holy Spirit are fleeting. The Holy Spirit flies where it will. It leaves intangible marks. That is how God is. We have to let God be God.
As we approach Lent, today’s readings point us towards allowing God to enter ever more deeply into the very heart of our being. We need first to identify and then knock down the walls that we have unconsciously or otherwise erected, walls which keep God out of our lives. These walls may have been put up because we have ignored or excluded people or situations because they challenge us and, maybe, also our prejudices. Those walls are what some people seeking asylum experience when they arrive in this country. That relates to the talk about Asylum Welcome in the hall after this service.
Sometimes we avoid those we find difficult by writing to them rather than speaking to them face to face, as happens on a vast scale on social media. It is much easier and feels safer. But it is dangerous and the wall may remain in place. Perhaps looking at why we have put up walls can be a Lenten activity for us. By dismantling the walls we have built we may discover that the grace and the light of Christ will come to illuminate us. Removing the walls we have put up may be not only transfiguring but a transforming act which will free us and those around us, and lead us into a new and deeper relationship with God. Amen.