Jesus in a new light (Sermon given at the 10.30am service, Christ Church Downend, Sunday February 10th, 2013. The Bible reading is Luke 9: 28-‐36). So poor old Richard III. Found buried under a car park in Leicester. I can only presume he had paid for long stay parking. Of course, some may argue that it is strangely apt for someone who is sometimes described as Britain’s most reviled monarch and alleged to have murdered his two young nephews. Then again, historians have reminded us that the ideas we have of King Richard are largely thanks to William Shakespeare and to sources of information written by people who did not much care for Richard and had cause to portray him in a partisan and distorted way. Those historians have challenged us to see Richard in a new light. Now, I did make a brief effort to determine the origin of that phrase – “to see in a new light”. To be honest, I didn’t try very hard and I did not get very far. It does, however, seem to have religious connotations, deriving perhaps from around the 1600s. I wonder if at least part of its meaning derives from the events read to us in today’s Gospel reading, the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. Imagine the scene. You are one of Peter, James or John, and, quite frankly you are exhausted. Why are you exhausted? Perhaps because Jesus has recently sent you out to travel from village to village to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick, and he did so telling you to take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic (Luke 9). Can you imagine how physically and emotionally demanding that would be?
Or maybe the explanation is simpler. You have climbed a mountain to pray. Mountains are literally a part of the religious landscape in The Bible. Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God. I do not know if you have ever climbed a mountain. The highest I can claim is Mount Snowdon and that’s a complete tiddler compared to the ones like Mount Kilimanjaro that I know at least one of the more youthful members of the congregation has ascended. In my, admittedly limited experience, few people bound up a mountain with a spring in their step, arriving at the top with more energy than when they started. And those that do are, quite frankly, freaky! So, here again is the simple explanation: you – that is to say, Peter, James or John – are tired because the spiritual pilgrimage you are making with Jesus is demanding and can be tiring. Now, talking of tiring experiences, have you ever had the one where a phone rings in the middle of the night, or a child calls, or perhaps a fire alarm starts bleeping, or you forgot to turn off your mobile phone before going to bed and so it rings because it is one of those smart phones that is no nearly so smart enough to realise that you don’t actually need to be alerted in the early hours of the morning to the wine fuelled observations on life from a friend who is writing on Facebook. Anyone has this kind of experience or is it just me? Well, if you have, you will know that it can be very confusing, especially if it pulls you abruptly from a vivid dream where, say, you are driving at speed along the country roads of Gloucestershire in your brand new racing green Aston Martin, masterfully balancing the twin demands of controlling the vehicle whilst playing
air guitar to the well amplified sounds of American rock legends, KISS. Ok, I am guessing from your faces that that one really is just me! Peter, John and James, it seems, were also somewhat bleary eyed and confused. And who can blame them? There was Jesus, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes as bright as a flash of lighting. And with him were Moses and Elijah, on-‐going heroes of the Jewish religion but long since departed from this mortal coil. Perhaps Peter saw the cloud. Perhaps he could sense a storm gathering. Perhaps that is why he offered to put up shelters so Jesus, Moses and Elijah would not be exposed to the elements. It was a rather thoughtful thing to do, don’t you think? However, he has misunderstood. It is not an ordinary cloud. It a cloud that has lead the people out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. It is a cloud that signals the presence of God, Yahweh, Jehovah. And from it a voice speaks: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” To whom was the voice speaking? I suppose it was to Peter, John and James. But why? If you happen to have your Bible open rollback to the proceeding passage (Luke 9: 18-‐27) and there you will find Jesus asking the disciples a question, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others that one of the prophets from long ago has come back to life.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Christ – The Messiah – of God.” Peter was right, wasn’t he? Jesus was not Elijah. He was not Moses, the most important prophet in Judaism. He could not be because there was Elijah, and Moses too, with Jesus on the mountaintop But Peter was only part right or rather his language did not quite capture who exactly was standing before him. Peter said to Jesus, “you are the Christ.” God said to Jesus, “you are my son.” Put yourself in Peter’s shoes for a minute. Not only is he seeing Jesus is a new light, he is being taken on a journey that is leading him to see Jesus in an ever changing and profoundly challenging light. Consider this. Peter answers Jesus’ question with these words: “you are The Christ of God.” What happens next? Is he told well done, you are right? No, he is told that, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” What on earth was Jesus talking about? I doubt very much this is what Peter had in mind for the Christ of God. Yet the gradual tick-‐tock towards death and humiliation sandwiches the transfiguration scene. Jesus talks of his death before the transfiguration, and he talks of his betrayal afterwards as well.
“Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” Perhaps this was what Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah: exodus; isolation; loneliness. This was something the three of them could share, that the life of the prophet was rarely easy. Jesus’ other words don’t offer much comfort to the disciples either. He says, “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Let’s not pussy foot around here. Jesus gives a clear instruction to his disciples. To follow him, they must deny themselves and give everything to him. Yet the disciples do not understand. Perhaps they choose not to. We know they don’t get it because only two sections down from the transfiguration (in Luke 9: 46-‐50) we find them arguing about which of them will be greatest. And so Jesus finds a child and tells them “don’t you ever be so lofty or arrogant or so full of yourself that you would not welcome as someone as simple and as powerless as this child.” Actually, Jesus puts it like this, “the person who is least among you all – they are the greatest.” “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Perhaps the words are intended for us to. Words of challenge but also of encouragement.
Perhaps the instruction to give everything – yes, everything – to Jesus is intended for us too. He deserves it. He may even demand it. The words of the great hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ are so beautiful, so eloquent yet so challenging: Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all. Let’s not pretend this is easy. Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a world that values status and power and wealth. Let’s not pretend that we don’t get sucked into that world and, worse, help promote it and perpetuate it. My formal title is Dr. Richard Harris, Reader in Quantitative Geography – which, in case you are wondering, is the position below Professor – at an institution that describes itself as, “one of the worlds premier 6* geography schools.” Six star is the highest. Even the church gives me a title: it is Licensed Lay Minister or, more simply, Reader, which means I am a Reader twice over, if only I had time to read! Of course, there is nothing innately wrong in these titles but still they flatter and seduce. They are a temptation to value status. They desire to set apart. And yes, I would quite like to have the title Prof written on my platinum cash-‐back credit card one day. But let’s not be too chastised or downhearted either. We need, by God’s gracious instruction, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to get the balance right. To rejoice that we are being refined (Isaiah 48:10-‐11), changed, but to also not be
complacent. We are called to actively pursue all that is good and holy in our lives, and to set aside that which we know not to be. There is a wonderful promise that comes immediately before the transfiguration. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” The phrase confused the early church. They took it to mean that Jesus would soon return, before many of them had died. He didn’t. Well, not in the sense they imagined it. Their misunderstanding was to believe that the kingdom of God is something outside of the Earth that has yet to be revealed in it. But Jesus says in Mark, Chapter 1, verse 15, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” Have you seen the Kingdom of God? I think I have. I think you have too. Isn’t it revealed when we show friendship to the stranger? Love to the unloved. Mercy to the tormentor. When we feed or clothe the homeless, when we befriend the needy, listen to the lonely. When we share our time. When we share our possessions. When we will not tolerate injustice. When we aspire to serve. Wash each other’s feet. To give as to receive. When we gather in worship. When we gather in communion. When we gather as friends, as brothers and sisters, regardless of race, gender, past history or any other form of social categorisation that tempts to divide us from the unity that should come in Christ Jesus. Those, I suggest, are the signs of God’s kingdom.
On Wednesday Lent begins, bringing the obvious benefit of pancakes on the proceeding Tuesday. That day is also the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, who said, amongst other things, “It is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisement; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offenses, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action.” However, I am no Daniel Day-‐Lewis, and a sermon – or, rather its listener -‐ can only tolerate so many tangents so I will return to the point. For Lent many of you will consider giving up chocolate or crisps or beer or takeaways or television or something that is appropriate and relevant to you. And I dare say that it is a good thing to do. However, the true purpose of Lent is to take us on a spiritual pilgrimage to Easter when we remember the one who gave up everything – everything! – for us, and calls us to follow that example. Peter said, “you are the Christ of God.” The voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” The question we might like to ask ourselves is: “is it time to see Jesus in a new light?” Amen.