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Tomorrow’s Sermon, A Way In The Wilderness

Luke 4:1-13

Introduction
There’s something very tempting for preachers in the story about the temptations of Jesus: three temptations equals three points. And certainly I’ve preached that way on this story before. But returning to this familiar, yet strange reading again for the first Sunday in Lent this year I was no longer satisfied with that approach. I didn’t feel I was doing justice to the story. And although the details of the account seem so foreign to our experience, there is still much here that is similar to what we face and endure as Christians.

So I invite you to come with me through the phases of the story this year, and see whether there are places in it where you find yourself. I certainly found myself in some parts of the account. For this is a narrative not merely about a strange experience Jesus had; it narrates the Christian experience, too.

1. Wilderness
The story begins with a move to the wilderness:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (verse 1).

In some Christian circles it’s quite common to hear people justify their actions by saying, ‘I feel led’. They believe the Holy Spirit has led them to certain decisions. Jesus was led by the Spirit, too – but in the wilderness. ‘Led’ is too weak a word: it means ‘thrown out’. Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. There in the stark experience of the desert he prepares for his public ministry, for which he has just been anointed by the Spirit.

But going into the wilderness isn’t what we normally expect of ‘led by the Spirit’ experiences: they’re usually more exciting or dramatic than that. But sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us, too, into a kind of ‘wilderness’. It may not be the heat of Palestine, with dry river beds in summer. It may be another wilderness: a place we don’t like, a job we find unrewarding, chronic illness, family disappointment or personal tragedy. We didn’t think these were the things of the Spirit. And in one sense they aren’t: they are not the usual signs of the abundant life promised by Jesus.

But in another way they are the tools of the Spirit to accomplish good. The wilderness is the place of stripping away – no comforts or luxuries, no supports or crutches – and we are face to face with how much of God we have, and how much of us God has.

When I am in a wilderness I usually want to find the quickest road out. But whatever maps I consult I find God may block the way, at least until he knows that I am going to deal seriously with him. He wants my attention in prayer. He wants me to depend on him and not on any props. He wants me to stop playing religious games, trust him and build the relationship. He wants my ears to listen for his voice, not any competing speech.

When I am in the lush places of life it is easy to be seduced by luxuries or alluring voices. I can trust in health, gifts, technology or resources in order to do what I think I am meant to do. And these things are not wrong in themselves. But when I trust them rather than God I make them idols, I do not learn like a disciple, I do not travel like a pilgrim.

So for those of us who are in a wilderness now, is God calling us to deal with his reality, not fabrications and daydreams?

2. Fasting
If the wilderness experience is God’s call for us to get serious with him, how might we respond? Jesus did so in drastic fashion:

for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days (verse 2).

Fasting. Giving attention to his Father matters so much to Jesus that he forgoes food in order to pray. For Jesus, prayer isn’t good, nice, desirable or attractive: it’s so much more than that. It’s essential. James Montgomery in his hymn ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire’ wrote,

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
                The Christian’s native air
(James Montgomery, 1771-1854, Hymns & Psalms 557)

and I believe Jesus would have identified with that. He would have seen his commitment to prayer as his ‘vital breath’ and ‘native air’. And just as nothing should block the body’s inhalation or exhalation so for Jesus prayerlessness would be suffocation. Nothing should block prayer, not even food.

Fasting, therefore, shows Jesus choosing his priorities. Programmes, human demands and expectations, current fashions – all these pall in comparison to communion with the Father for Jesus. It isn’t that he is someone who spends his time retreating from the world, its pain and pressures. No – prayer is his fuel, because he gains direction from the Father and empowering from the Spirit through it. Therefore it comes at the head of all his activity. And he is prepared to make tough decisions to give it that priority, even going without food for a season.

There are many battles we face in living out a consistent prayer life. One of them is the problem of time. I would not suggest we all have to be like the ancient greats who rose at four in the morning to pray like Luther and Wesley – we have to remember they lived in societies without electric light and so went to bed earlier than we do. But I have always been challenged by the title of a book by the American pastor Bill Hybels entitled ‘Too Busy Not To Pray’. Ultimately something has to go to make room for prayer – and it may be something important, because prayer is even more important.

The late Dr Donald English used to tell his ministerial students that ministry was not about priorities, it was about choosing between priorities, and I think that is not just true for ministers: it is true for all of us in the Christian life. I have a rough guideline for ministry that I took from a book by Eugene Peterson called ‘Working The Angles’ in which he said the pastor had three priorities: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. I don’t keep to those priorities as I should, but when I read about Jesus spending a protracted time fasting in order to pray then I am deeply challenged to reorder my priorities. I wonder whether this Lent might be a season when we don’t just make some temporary changes but some permanent alterations to our priorities so that we respond to God’s call for us to get serious with him. Is this the time to make those hard decisions we’ve been postponing?

 

3. Temptation
Neither Luke nor Matthew tells us how the Devil comes to tempt Jesus, only that he does. Temptation can come in many guises, from aggressive assault to quiet seduction. For many years I have been attracted to the interpretation of the temptations by the (admittedly Marxist) film director Pier Paolo Pasolini in his movie The Gospel According To St Matthew. A shadowy figure approaches Jesus from the distance, out of the heat haze. He turns out to be a suited businessman. He suggests to Jesus they can cut a deal. Sin is often cutting a deal that we shouldn’t.

But even if Jesus experienced temptation in a different context from us – twice prefaced with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ – the content of the temptation is remarkably similar to that which we face.

‘Command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ says the Devil to a hungry Jesus (verse 3), but back comes the reply, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ (verse 4). So often the temptation for Christians is only to provide bread and forget that we know that life is more than bread. Much as it is essential to meet social and material needs the church is tempted to reduce her calling to that of a social service agency and forget that life depends on the word of God. We’d like to believe in a ‘bread alone’ option, because it relieves us of the responsibility to get into the controversial spiritual stuff that might lose us face, friends or reputation. But this is an area where we cannot cut a deal.

The offer of the kingdoms of the world, provided Jesus again cuts a deal by worshipping the Devil (verses 5-6) may seem remote from us, but it isn’t. ‘All this can be yours’ sounds dangerously like the claims of a consumer society. But it comes at the same price: false, demonic worship. It is a bowing down to idols, and we live in a culture where consumerism isn’t invited, it’s demanded, because our economy depends on it. ‘All this can be yours’ comes with a threat in our world, one described bluntly by U2:

All of this, all of this can be yours
Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt.
(‘Vertigo’, lyrics: Bono and The Edge)

True worship leads to a different kind of devotion from consumerism.

Throwing himself down from the temple and demanding that God send his angels to rescue him (verses 9-11)?

According to the Devil’s theory there should be no martyrs. But the divine purpose for Jesus, as for certain others, is that they should be preserved through death, not from death.
(John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p181)

This is the temptation to turn faith into the easy life. It is the avoidance of the Cross. Had Jesus succumbed, there would have been no salvation. And for us it is the temptation to short cut the painful road of faithfulness in favour of a quick fix that ultimately fixes nothing, except that we turn from disciples to traitors.

So while the temptations had particular application for Jesus they are also familiar to us. The good news for us is that Jesus resisted. He could have given in. But he resisted, not merely as the Second Person of the Trinity, but as a man acting in the power of the Spirit. As John Calvin put it, Jesus took on sinful human flesh and turned it back to obedience to the Father. Therefore Jesus’ approach to resisting temptation is relevant to us. But what is it? That takes us to the final element of the story:

4. Resistance
There is one common thread in Jesus’ resistance to temptation: ‘It is written’ (verse 4), ‘It is written’ (verse 8), ‘It is said’ (verse 12). Every act of resistance from Jesus is a quotation from Scripture. Jesus knows his Bible. And again, let us not simply say he knew it because he was the Second Person of the Godhead. It is also because as a Jewish boy he went to synagogue school. He devoted himself to reading, studying and learning Scripture.

Not only that, but all the quotations come from the same Old Testament book: Deuteronomy. They come from the context of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Jesus not only knows Scripture, he knows what part will be relevant to what he is facing.

My sermons here keep returning to the theme of regular Bible study, both personal and corporate. Here is the best reason of all: the example of Jesus. He studies Scripture and applies it in his life. Here is why I urge on people the discipline of daily Bible reading. Here is why I think it is a ministry priority for me to be involved in the Tuesday morning Bible study group. Meditating on the Bible and spurring one another on in our living it out is a Christ-like thing to do. It is a fundamental discipline of Christian discipleship.

So when one member of this church recently told me they had decided that their Lent discipline was going to be the reading and study of a particular biblical book they had never read before, I was delighted. Here was someone taking seriously the sort of practices that will stimulate holiness. Here was someone getting ready for future occasions when spiritual resistance will be needed. Here was a Christian feeding on God’s Word with the deliberate intention of growing spiritually.

Hence I make no apology for coming back to this theme. Just as athletes achieve nothing without disciplined training, so little of value is accomplished long term in the Christian life without a commitment to spiritual discipline. As in Genesis Joseph advised Pharaoh to store up grain during the seven years of plenty ready for the seven years of famine, so it is vital for us to store up Scripture ready for the time when it will be needed. When the crisis or the temptation hits, we need something to draw on.

So just as the stripping away of props in the wilderness might make us revisit our priorities in terms of engaging with God in prayer, so the wilderness experience of temptation is a call to be disciplined in biblical meditation before the time of trouble pounces upon us from behind. Now is the time to find a set of Bible reading notes; now is the time to join that small group.

And this Lent is not the time to say, ‘I’ll do this for six weeks,’ it’s the time to say, ‘I’ll take this as an opportunity to take my spiritual life up a gear. I’ll recover some younger enthusiasm that has been dulled by the years and by experiences of disappointment.’ Wouldn’t it be great if some of us could look back on this Lent and say, ‘That was the time things changed for me’?

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Tomorrow’s Sermon, A Way In The Wilderness

Luke 4:1-13

Introduction
There’s something very tempting for preachers in the story about the temptations of Jesus: three temptations equals three points. And certainly I’ve preached that way on this story before. But returning to this familiar, yet strange reading again for the first Sunday in Lent this year I was no longer satisfied with that approach. I didn’t feel I was doing justice to the story. And although the details of the account seem so foreign to our experience, there is still much here that is similar to what we face and endure as Christians.

So I invite you to come with me through the phases of the story this year, and see whether there are places in it where you find yourself. I certainly found myself in some parts of the account. For this is a narrative not merely about a strange experience Jesus had; it narrates the Christian experience, too.

1. Wilderness
The story begins with a move to the wilderness:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (verse 1).

In some Christian circles it’s quite common to hear people justify their actions by saying, ‘I feel led’. They believe the Holy Spirit has led them to certain decisions. Jesus was led by the Spirit, too – but in the wilderness. ‘Led’ is too weak a word: it means ‘thrown out’. Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. There in the stark experience of the desert he prepares for his public ministry, for which he has just been anointed by the Spirit.

But going into the wilderness isn’t what we normally expect of ‘led by the Spirit’ experiences: they’re usually more exciting or dramatic than that. But sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us, too, into a kind of ‘wilderness’. It may not be the heat of Palestine, with dry river beds in summer. It may be another wilderness: a place we don’t like, a job we find unrewarding, chronic illness, family disappointment or personal tragedy. We didn’t think these were the things of the Spirit. And in one sense they aren’t: they are not the usual signs of the abundant life promised by Jesus.

But in another way they are the tools of the Spirit to accomplish good. The wilderness is the place of stripping away – no comforts or luxuries, no supports or crutches – and we are face to face with how much of God we have, and how much of us God has.

When I am in a wilderness I usually want to find the quickest road out. But whatever maps I consult I find God may block the way, at least until he knows that I am going to deal seriously with him. He wants my attention in prayer. He wants me to depend on him and not on any props. He wants me to stop playing religious games, trust him and build the relationship. He wants my ears to listen for his voice, not any competing speech.

When I am in the lush places of life it is easy to be seduced by luxuries or alluring voices. I can trust in health, gifts, technology or resources in order to do what I think I am meant to do. And these things are not wrong in themselves. But when I trust them rather than God I make them idols, I do not learn like a disciple, I do not travel like a pilgrim.

So for those of us who are in a wilderness now, is God calling us to deal with his reality, not fabrications and daydreams?

2. Fasting
If the wilderness experience is God’s call for us to get serious with him, how might we respond? Jesus did so in drastic fashion:

for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days (verse 2).

Fasting. Giving attention to his Father matters so much to Jesus that he forgoes food in order to pray. For Jesus, prayer isn’t good, nice, desirable or attractive: it’s so much more than that. It’s essential. James Montgomery in his hymn ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire’ wrote,

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
                The Christian’s native air
(James Montgomery, 1771-1854, Hymns & Psalms 557)

and I believe Jesus would have identified with that. He would have seen his commitment to prayer as his ‘vital breath’ and ‘native air’. And just as nothing should block the body’s inhalation or exhalation so for Jesus prayerlessness would be suffocation. Nothing should block prayer, not even food.

Fasting, therefore, shows Jesus choosing his priorities. Programmes, human demands and expectations, current fashions – all these pall in comparison to communion with the Father for Jesus. It isn’t that he is someone who spends his time retreating from the world, its pain and pressures. No – prayer is his fuel, because he gains direction from the Father and empowering from the Spirit through it. Therefore it comes at the head of all his activity. And he is prepared to make tough decisions to give it that priority, even going without food for a season.

There are many battles we face in living out a consistent prayer life. One of them is the problem of time. I would not suggest we all have to be like the ancient greats who rose at four in the morning to pray like Luther and Wesley – we have to remember they lived in societies without electric light and so went to bed earlier than we do. But I have always been challenged by the title of a book by the American pastor Bill Hybels entitled ‘Too Busy Not To Pray’. Ultimately something has to go to make room for prayer – and it may be something important, because prayer is even more important.

The late Dr Donald English used to tell his ministerial students that ministry was not about priorities, it was about choosing between priorities, and I think that is not just true for ministers: it is true for all of us in the Christian life. I have a rough guideline for ministry that I took from a book by Eugene Peterson called ‘Working The Angles’ in which he said the pastor had three priorities: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. I don’t keep to those priorities as I should, but when I read about Jesus spending a protracted time fasting in order to pray then I am deeply challenged to reorder my priorities. I wonder whether this Lent might be a season when we don’t just make some temporary changes but some permanent alterations to our priorities so that we respond to God’s call for us to get serious with him. Is this the time to make those hard decisions we’ve been postponing?

 

3. Temptation
Neither Luke nor Matthew tells us how the Devil comes to tempt Jesus, only that he does. Temptation can come in many guises, from aggressive assault to quiet seduction. For many years I have been attracted to the interpretation of the temptations by the (admittedly Marxist) film director Pier Paolo Pasolini in his movie The Gospel According To St Matthew. A shadowy figure approaches Jesus from the distance, out of the heat haze. He turns out to be a suited businessman. He suggests to Jesus they can cut a deal. Sin is often cutting a deal that we shouldn’t.

But even if Jesus experienced temptation in a different context from us – twice prefaced with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ – the content of the temptation is remarkably similar to that which we face.

‘Command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ says the Devil to a hungry Jesus (verse 3), but back comes the reply, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ (verse 4). So often the temptation for Christians is only to provide bread and forget that we know that life is more than bread. Much as it is essential to meet social and material needs the church is tempted to reduce her calling to that of a social service agency and forget that life depends on the word of God. We’d like to believe in a ‘bread alone’ option, because it relieves us of the responsibility to get into the controversial spiritual stuff that might lose us face, friends or reputation. But this is an area where we cannot cut a deal.

The offer of the kingdoms of the world, provided Jesus again cuts a deal by worshipping the Devil (verses 5-6) may seem remote from us, but it isn’t. ‘All this can be yours’ sounds dangerously like the claims of a consumer society. But it comes at the same price: false, demonic worship. It is a bowing down to idols, and we live in a culture where consumerism isn’t invited, it’s demanded, because our economy depends on it. ‘All this can be yours’ comes with a threat in our world, one described bluntly by U2:

All of this, all of this can be yours
Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt.
(‘Vertigo’, lyrics: Bono and The Edge)

True worship leads to a different kind of devotion from consumerism.

Throwing himself down from the temple and demanding that God send his angels to rescue him (verses 9-11)?

According to the Devil’s theory there should be no martyrs. But the divine purpose for Jesus, as for certain others, is that they should be preserved through death, not from death.
(John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p181)

This is the temptation to turn faith into the easy life. It is the avoidance of the Cross. Had Jesus succumbed, there would have been no salvation. And for us it is the temptation to short cut the painful road of faithfulness in favour of a quick fix that ultimately fixes nothing, except that we turn from disciples to traitors.

So while the temptations had particular application for Jesus they are also familiar to us. The good news for us is that Jesus resisted. He could have given in. But he resisted, not merely as the Second Person of the Trinity, but as a man acting in the power of the Spirit. As John Calvin put it, Jesus took on sinful human flesh and turned it back to obedience to the Father. Therefore Jesus’ approach to resisting temptation is relevant to us. But what is it? That takes us to the final element of the story:

4. Resistance
There is one common thread in Jesus’ resistance to temptation: ‘It is written’ (verse 4), ‘It is written’ (verse 8), ‘It is said’ (verse 12). Every act of resistance from Jesus is a quotation from Scripture. Jesus knows his Bible. And again, let us not simply say he knew it because he was the Second Person of the Godhead. It is also because as a Jewish boy he went to synagogue school. He devoted himself to reading, studying and learning Scripture.

Not only that, but all the quotations come from the same Old Testament book: Deuteronomy. They come from the context of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Jesus not only knows Scripture, he knows what part will be relevant to what he is facing.

My sermons here keep returning to the theme of regular Bible study, both personal and corporate. Here is the best reason of all: the example of Jesus. He studies Scripture and applies it in his life. Here is why I urge on people the discipline of daily Bible reading. Here is why I think it is a ministry priority for me to be involved in the Tuesday morning Bible study group. Meditating on the Bible and spurring one another on in our living it out is a Christ-like thing to do. It is a fundamental discipline of Christian discipleship.

So when one member of this church recently told me they had decided that their Lent discipline was going to be the reading and study of a particular biblical book they had never read before, I was delighted. Here was someone taking seriously the sort of practices that will stimulate holiness. Here was someone getting ready for future occasions when spiritual resistance will be needed. Here was a Christian feeding on God’s Word with the deliberate intention of growing spiritually.

Hence I make no apology for coming back to this theme. Just as athletes achieve nothing without disciplined training, so little of value is accomplished long term in the Christian life without a commitment to spiritual discipline. As in Genesis Joseph advised Pharaoh to store up grain during the seven years of plenty ready for the seven years of famine, so it is vital for us to store up Scripture ready for the time when it will be needed. When the crisis or the temptation hits, we need something to draw on.

So just as the stripping away of props in the wilderness might make us revisit our priorities in terms of engaging with God in prayer, so the wilderness experience of temptation is a call to be disciplined in biblical meditation before the time of trouble pounces upon us from behind. Now is the time to find a set of Bible reading notes; now is the time to join that small group.

And this Lent is not the time to say, ‘I’ll do this for six weeks,’ it’s the time to say, ‘I’ll take this as an opportunity to take my spiritual life up a gear. I’ll recover some younger enthusiasm that has been dulled by the years and by experiences of disappointment.’ Wouldn’t it be great if some of us could look back on this Lent and say, ‘That was the time things changed for me’?

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Tomorrow’s Sermon, A Way In The Wilderness

Luke 4:1-13

Introduction
There’s something very tempting for preachers in the story about the temptations of Jesus: three temptations equals three points. And certainly I’ve preached that way on this story before. But returning to this familiar, yet strange reading again for the first Sunday in Lent this year I was no longer satisfied with that approach. I didn’t feel I was doing justice to the story. And although the details of the account seem so foreign to our experience, there is still much here that is similar to what we face and endure as Christians.

So I invite you to come with me through the phases of the story this year, and see whether there are places in it where you find yourself. I certainly found myself in some parts of the account. For this is a narrative not merely about a strange experience Jesus had; it narrates the Christian experience, too.

1. Wilderness
The story begins with a move to the wilderness:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (verse 1).

In some Christian circles it’s quite common to hear people justify their actions by saying, ‘I feel led’. They believe the Holy Spirit has led them to certain decisions. Jesus was led by the Spirit, too – but in the wilderness. ‘Led’ is too weak a word: it means ‘thrown out’. Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. There in the stark experience of the desert he prepares for his public ministry, for which he has just been anointed by the Spirit.

But going into the wilderness isn’t what we normally expect of ‘led by the Spirit’ experiences: they’re usually more exciting or dramatic than that. But sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us, too, into a kind of ‘wilderness’. It may not be the heat of Palestine, with dry river beds in summer. It may be another wilderness: a place we don’t like, a job we find unrewarding, chronic illness, family disappointment or personal tragedy. We didn’t think these were the things of the Spirit. And in one sense they aren’t: they are not the usual signs of the abundant life promised by Jesus.

But in another way they are the tools of the Spirit to accomplish good. The wilderness is the place of stripping away – no comforts or luxuries, no supports or crutches – and we are face to face with how much of God we have, and how much of us God has.

When I am in a wilderness I usually want to find the quickest road out. But whatever maps I consult I find God may block the way, at least until he knows that I am going to deal seriously with him. He wants my attention in prayer. He wants me to depend on him and not on any props. He wants me to stop playing religious games, trust him and build the relationship. He wants my ears to listen for his voice, not any competing speech.

When I am in the lush places of life it is easy to be seduced by luxuries or alluring voices. I can trust in health, gifts, technology or resources in order to do what I think I am meant to do. And these things are not wrong in themselves. But when I trust them rather than God I make them idols, I do not learn like a disciple, I do not travel like a pilgrim.

So for those of us who are in a wilderness now, is God calling us to deal with his reality, not fabrications and daydreams?

2. Fasting
If the wilderness experience is God’s call for us to get serious with him, how might we respond? Jesus did so in drastic fashion:

for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days (verse 2).

Fasting. Giving attention to his Father matters so much to Jesus that he forgoes food in order to pray. For Jesus, prayer isn’t good, nice, desirable or attractive: it’s so much more than that. It’s essential. James Montgomery in his hymn ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire’ wrote,

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
                The Christian’s native air
(James Montgomery, 1771-1854, Hymns & Psalms 557)

and I believe Jesus would have identified with that. He would have seen his commitment to prayer as his ‘vital breath’ and ‘native air’. And just as nothing should block the body’s inhalation or exhalation so for Jesus prayerlessness would be suffocation. Nothing should block prayer, not even food.

Fasting, therefore, shows Jesus choosing his priorities. Programmes, human demands and expectations, current fashions – all these pall in comparison to communion with the Father for Jesus. It isn’t that he is someone who spends his time retreating from the world, its pain and pressures. No – prayer is his fuel, because he gains direction from the Father and empowering from the Spirit through it. Therefore it comes at the head of all his activity. And he is prepared to make tough decisions to give it that priority, even going without food for a season.

There are many battles we face in living out a consistent prayer life. One of them is the problem of time. I would not suggest we all have to be like the ancient greats who rose at four in the morning to pray like Luther and Wesley – we have to remember they lived in societies without electric light and so went to bed earlier than we do. But I have always been challenged by the title of a book by the American pastor Bill Hybels entitled ‘Too Busy Not To Pray’. Ultimately something has to go to make room for prayer – and it may be something important, because prayer is even more important.

The late Dr Donald English used to tell his ministerial students that ministry was not about priorities, it was about choosing between priorities, and I think that is not just true for ministers: it is true for all of us in the Christian life. I have a rough guideline for ministry that I took from a book by Eugene Peterson called ‘Working The Angles’ in which he said the pastor had three priorities: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. I don’t keep to those priorities as I should, but when I read about Jesus spending a protracted time fasting in order to pray then I am deeply challenged to reorder my priorities. I wonder whether this Lent might be a season when we don’t just make some temporary changes but some permanent alterations to our priorities so that we respond to God’s call for us to get serious with him. Is this the time to make those hard decisions we’ve been postponing?

 

3. Temptation
Neither Luke nor Matthew tells us how the Devil comes to tempt Jesus, only that he does. Temptation can come in many guises, from aggressive assault to quiet seduction. For many years I have been attracted to the interpretation of the temptations by the (admittedly Marxist) film director Pier Paolo Pasolini in his movie The Gospel According To St Matthew. A shadowy figure approaches Jesus from the distance, out of the heat haze. He turns out to be a suited businessman. He suggests to Jesus they can cut a deal. Sin is often cutting a deal that we shouldn’t.

But even if Jesus experienced temptation in a different context from us – twice prefaced with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ – the content of the temptation is remarkably similar to that which we face.

‘Command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ says the Devil to a hungry Jesus (verse 3), but back comes the reply, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ (verse 4). So often the temptation for Christians is only to provide bread and forget that we know that life is more than bread. Much as it is essential to meet social and material needs the church is tempted to reduce her calling to that of a social service agency and forget that life depends on the word of God. We’d like to believe in a ‘bread alone’ option, because it relieves us of the responsibility to get into the controversial spiritual stuff that might lose us face, friends or reputation. But this is an area where we cannot cut a deal.

The offer of the kingdoms of the world, provided Jesus again cuts a deal by worshipping the Devil (verses 5-6) may seem remote from us, but it isn’t. ‘All this can be yours’ sounds dangerously like the claims of a consumer society. But it comes at the same price: false, demonic worship. It is a bowing down to idols, and we live in a culture where consumerism isn’t invited, it’s demanded, because our economy depends on it. ‘All this can be yours’ comes with a threat in our world, one described bluntly by U2:

All of this, all of this can be yours
Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt.
(‘Vertigo’, lyrics: Bono and The Edge)

True worship leads to a different kind of devotion from consumerism.

Throwing himself down from the temple and demanding that God send his angels to rescue him (verses 9-11)?

According to the Devil’s theory there should be no martyrs. But the divine purpose for Jesus, as for certain others, is that they should be preserved through death, not from death.
(John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p181)

This is the temptation to turn faith into the easy life. It is the avoidance of the Cross. Had Jesus succumbed, there would have been no salvation. And for us it is the temptation to short cut the painful road of faithfulness in favour of a quick fix that ultimately fixes nothing, except that we turn from disciples to traitors.

So while the temptations had particular application for Jesus they are also familiar to us. The good news for us is that Jesus resisted. He could have given in. But he resisted, not merely as the Second Person of the Trinity, but as a man acting in the power of the Spirit. As John Calvin put it, Jesus took on sinful human flesh and turned it back to obedience to the Father. Therefore Jesus’ approach to resisting temptation is relevant to us. But what is it? That takes us to the final element of the story:

4. Resistance
There is one common thread in Jesus’ resistance to temptation: ‘It is written’ (verse 4), ‘It is written’ (verse 8), ‘It is said’ (verse 12). Every act of resistance from Jesus is a quotation from Scripture. Jesus knows his Bible. And again, let us not simply say he knew it because he was the Second Person of the Godhead. It is also because as a Jewish boy he went to synagogue school. He devoted himself to reading, studying and learning Scripture.

Not only that, but all the quotations come from the same Old Testament book: Deuteronomy. They come from the context of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Jesus not only knows Scripture, he knows what part will be relevant to what he is facing.

My sermons here keep returning to the theme of regular Bible study, both personal and corporate. Here is the best reason of all: the example of Jesus. He studies Scripture and applies it in his life. Here is why I urge on people the discipline of daily Bible reading. Here is why I think it is a ministry priority for me to be involved in the Tuesday morning Bible study group. Meditating on the Bible and spurring one another on in our living it out is a Christ-like thing to do. It is a fundamental discipline of Christian discipleship.

So when one member of this church recently told me they had decided that their Lent discipline was going to be the reading and study of a particular biblical book they had never read before, I was delighted. Here was someone taking seriously the sort of practices that will stimulate holiness. Here was someone getting ready for future occasions when spiritual resistance will be needed. Here was a Christian feeding on God’s Word with the deliberate intention of growing spiritually.

Hence I make no apology for coming back to this theme. Just as athletes achieve nothing without disciplined training, so little of value is accomplished long term in the Christian life without a commitment to spiritual discipline. As in Genesis Joseph advised Pharaoh to store up grain during the seven years of plenty ready for the seven years of famine, so it is vital for us to store up Scripture ready for the time when it will be needed. When the crisis or the temptation hits, we need something to draw on.

So just as the stripping away of props in the wilderness might make us revisit our priorities in terms of engaging with God in prayer, so the wilderness experience of temptation is a call to be disciplined in biblical meditation before the time of trouble pounces upon us from behind. Now is the time to find a set of Bible reading notes; now is the time to join that small group.

And this Lent is not the time to say, ‘I’ll do this for six weeks,’ it’s the time to say, ‘I’ll take this as an opportunity to take my spiritual life up a gear. I’ll recover some younger enthusiasm that has been dulled by the years and by experiences of disappointment.’ Wouldn’t it be great if some of us could look back on this Lent and say, ‘That was the time things changed for me’?

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links for 2007-02-17

Sunday’s Sermon, The Transfiguration

Just a mini-sermon this week (don’t cheer too loudly), as I’m tag-preaching with a colleague at a united service. We couldn’t decide between the reading below and 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, so we opted for two mini-sermons. This is mine.

Luke 9:28-36

Introduction
The late Malcolm Muggeridge once went to Calcutta to make a film about Mother Teresa called ‘Something Beautiful For God’. The Home for Dying Destitutes, where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity take down-and-outs from the streets of Calcutta, was formerly a Hindu temple. It has very poor lighting, so poor the cameraman, Ken Macmillan, said it would be quite hopeless to film there. However, he was persuaded to take a few inside shots. When the film was processed, the inside shots were bathed in a wonderful soft light. Macmillan agreed this could not be accounted for in earthly terms.

Muggeridge said, ‘I have no doubt whatever as to what the explanation is: holiness, an expression of life, is luminous … The camera had caught this luminosity, without which the film would have come out quite black, as Ken Macmillan proved to himself when he used the same stock in similar circumstances and got no picture at all.’[1]

If that is what conventional film stock captured of Mother Teresa, imagine what it would have been like had it been possible to have a camera present at the Transfiguration. Maybe the brightness would have been so intense it would have been impossible to film. Perhaps it is like the story of the emperor who went to a famous Jewish rabbi, Joshua ben Hananiah, and asked to be shown the rabbi’s God. The rabbi replied that this was impossible but the emperor was not satisfied: he wanted to see the God of Israel. So the rabbi took him outside and told him to stare into the midday sun. ‘But that’s impossible!’ replied the emperor. ‘If you cannot look at the sun, which God created,’ retorted rabbi Joshua, ‘how much less can you behold the glory of God himself?’[2]

At the Transfiguration Peter, John and James are dazzled. But what does the dazzling glory of Jesus stand for, and what is a fitting response?

1. Salvation
Listen to the conversation that the disciples witness:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
(verses 30-31)

‘His departure.’ The Greek word for ‘departure’ here is exodos, from which the Old Testament book Exodus takes its name. It is the great story of salvation. In New Testament terms Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension would be the new great Exodus. Jesus would navigate a path not through the Red Sea but the deep waters of death to new life and salvation, and this is his glory.

This is the glory of the Gospel – nothing less – that the Son of God took human flesh, lived in humility and taught God’s new way of life, then died and rose that we might participate in that new lifestyle. The Gospel isn’t a self-help society, it’s not pop psychology lifted from tabloid pages or daytime TV, nor is it a political platform. It’s the power of God for salvation to be forgiven and live differently. It will lift our self-esteem and it does have profound political implications, but the key is the departure Jesus was to effect from Jerusalem, which leads to an ongoing deep conversion of every part of life. The hymn-writer was right to pen the words, ‘In the cross of Christ I glory.’ The Cross is his glory, and the light shines on the world from the darkness of Calvary.

But if that’s what the glory of the Transfiguration firstly means for us, what does its association with salvation mean for Jesus? Here is a wonderful spiritual experience, perhaps a glimpse of the glorious and beautiful light which he had always shared with the Father and the Spirit. We talk of having ‘mountain-top’ spiritual experiences – perhaps at great celebratory conferences or Christian events. Then when ordinary living hits us after we return we are discouraged.

But the mountain-top experience of glory for Jesus is surely to prepare him for what is to come. Here in his experience of glory, as he talks about his forthcoming departure that will accomplish salvation, perhaps he talks about the pain, isolation and suffering that it will entail. Is the Transfiguration strength for the road ahead? I suspect it is.

And so perhaps we might view our own mountain-top experiences like that. I have no problem in principle with Christians having extraordinary spiritual experiences of God. But I believe that often they are there as the spiritual refuelling before or during an arduous section of our journey. Some of my own most dramatic encounters with God have been while I was in a job I hated, while I was going through a broken engagement and while I was coping with various threats against me from church members during a couple of crises. I wish those spiritual experiences had lifted me out of the bad times, but more often they were the strength I needed to cope and the vision to see the situations God’s way instead of mine.

So it all begs a question: for what reason might we seek an ecstatic spiritual encounter? The Transfiguration suggests it might not be just for religious thrill-seekers: God has a mysterious purpose in these experiences. It is to build us up for the hard times.

2. Superiority
The other night Debbie and I caught a repeat of The Vicar Of Dibley. It began with the vicar, Geraldine Granger, opening the vicarage door to a tall, handsome man who said he had only met her once before when he had produced an episode of Songs Of Praise. But although they had only crossed paths once before, would he marry her? Geraldine – who has already been in a tizzy since seeing him – now turns completely to jelly, accepts his proposal, and as he disappears to bring someone, she tears down her poster of Mel Gibson. Only when the man returns a moment later does Geraldine discover he wanted her to conduct his wedding to his fiancée.

Ordinary people have a reputation for turning gaga when suddenly in the presence of celebrities, the powerful and the extremely attractive. And that’s what Peter – awake despite being tired (verse 32) – does at the Transfiguration. He blurts out nonsense:

‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’
(verse 33)

He wants a monument, a blue plaque, a tourist attraction to mark this auspicious occasion. But as the splendidly surnamed novelist William Faulkner once observed, footprints are preferable to monuments:

A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’[3]

A monument erected by a blabbering disciple won’t do for the Transfiguration. It is not an event that is reducible to a theme park or adventure playground. It requires not stopping there, but moving on. So Peter is rebuked by the divine voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35). The cloud disappears and only Jesus is left – Moses and Elijah are no longer there (verse 36). Listen to him. He is not their equal, he is God’s Son. He is superior: listen to him.

It is not a sufficient reaction, therefore, to spiritual ecstasy, to be an incoherent obsessive fan chasing after autographs. When we recover from our trembling limbs, when we get back up from our faces or our backs, there is only one fitting response, and that is obedience to Christ. He is superior to all other divine messengers, because he is God’s Son. Listen to him – and do what he says. Anything less makes us tourists not pilgrims, fans not disciples[4]. Jesus didn’t seek fans or tourists – he challenged them and they usually walked away. But disciples and pilgrims – they might also tremble and shake in the presence of Christ and his glory – but they don’t stop there. They follow. They walk with him. Do we?


[1] Graham Twelftree, Drive The Point Home, Crowborough, Monarch, 1994, p107 #90, adapted from Malcolm Muggeridge, Conversion: A Spiritual Journey, Glasgow, Fount, 1988, p15.

[2] Simon Coupland, A Dose Of Salts, Crowborough, Monarch, 1997, p14f #5, citing Alister McGrath, Understanding The Trinity, Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1987, p46f.

[3] In Sam di Bonaventura’s programme notes to Ellie Siegmeister’s Symphony No. 5, Baltimore Symphony Concert, 5th May 1977, quoted by Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, London, Marshall Pickering, 1989, p17.

[4] Peterson, op. cit., p13f.

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Sunday’s Sermon, The Transfiguration

Just a mini-sermon this week (don’t cheer too loudly), as I’m tag-preaching with a colleague at a united service. We couldn’t decide between the reading below and 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, so we opted for two mini-sermons. This is mine.

Luke 9:28-36

Introduction
The late Malcolm Muggeridge once went to Calcutta to make a film about Mother Teresa called ‘Something Beautiful For God’. The Home for Dying Destitutes, where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity take down-and-outs from the streets of Calcutta, was formerly a Hindu temple. It has very poor lighting, so poor the cameraman, Ken Macmillan, said it would be quite hopeless to film there. However, he was persuaded to take a few inside shots. When the film was processed, the inside shots were bathed in a wonderful soft light. Macmillan agreed this could not be accounted for in earthly terms.

Muggeridge said, ‘I have no doubt whatever as to what the explanation is: holiness, an expression of life, is luminous … The camera had caught this luminosity, without which the film would have come out quite black, as Ken Macmillan proved to himself when he used the same stock in similar circumstances and got no picture at all.’[1]

If that is what conventional film stock captured of Mother Teresa, imagine what it would have been like had it been possible to have a camera present at the Transfiguration. Maybe the brightness would have been so intense it would have been impossible to film. Perhaps it is like the story of the emperor who went to a famous Jewish rabbi, Joshua ben Hananiah, and asked to be shown the rabbi’s God. The rabbi replied that this was impossible but the emperor was not satisfied: he wanted to see the God of Israel. So the rabbi took him outside and told him to stare into the midday sun. ‘But that’s impossible!’ replied the emperor. ‘If you cannot look at the sun, which God created,’ retorted rabbi Joshua, ‘how much less can you behold the glory of God himself?’[2]

At the Transfiguration Peter, John and James are dazzled. But what does the dazzling glory of Jesus stand for, and what is a fitting response?

1. Salvation
Listen to the conversation that the disciples witness:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
(verses 30-31)

‘His departure.’ The Greek word for ‘departure’ here is exodos, from which the Old Testament book Exodus takes its name. It is the great story of salvation. In New Testament terms Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension would be the new great Exodus. Jesus would navigate a path not through the Red Sea but the deep waters of death to new life and salvation, and this is his glory.

This is the glory of the Gospel – nothing less – that the Son of God took human flesh, lived in humility and taught God’s new way of life, then died and rose that we might participate in that new lifestyle. The Gospel isn’t a self-help society, it’s not pop psychology lifted from tabloid pages or daytime TV, nor is it a political platform. It’s the power of God for salvation to be forgiven and live differently. It will lift our self-esteem and it does have profound political implications, but the key is the departure Jesus was to effect from Jerusalem, which leads to an ongoing deep conversion of every part of life. The hymn-writer was right to pen the words, ‘In the cross of Christ I glory.’ The Cross is his glory, and the light shines on the world from the darkness of Calvary.

But if that’s what the glory of the Transfiguration firstly means for us, what does its association with salvation mean for Jesus? Here is a wonderful spiritual experience, perhaps a glimpse of the glorious and beautiful light which he had always shared with the Father and the Spirit. We talk of having ‘mountain-top’ spiritual experiences – perhaps at great celebratory conferences or Christian events. Then when ordinary living hits us after we return we are discouraged.

But the mountain-top experience of glory for Jesus is surely to prepare him for what is to come. Here in his experience of glory, as he talks about his forthcoming departure that will accomplish salvation, perhaps he talks about the pain, isolation and suffering that it will entail. Is the Transfiguration strength for the road ahead? I suspect it is.

And so perhaps we might view our own mountain-top experiences like that. I have no problem in principle with Christians having extraordinary spiritual experiences of God. But I believe that often they are there as the spiritual refuelling before or during an arduous section of our journey. Some of my own most dramatic encounters with God have been while I was in a job I hated, while I was going through a broken engagement and while I was coping with various threats against me from church members during a couple of crises. I wish those spiritual experiences had lifted me out of the bad times, but more often they were the strength I needed to cope and the vision to see the situations God’s way instead of mine.

So it all begs a question: for what reason might we seek an ecstatic spiritual encounter? The Transfiguration suggests it might not be just for religious thrill-seekers: God has a mysterious purpose in these experiences. It is to build us up for the hard times.

2. Superiority
The other night Debbie and I caught a repeat of The Vicar Of Dibley. It began with the vicar, Geraldine Granger, opening the vicarage door to a tall, handsome man who said he had only met her once before when he had produced an episode of Songs Of Praise. But although they had only crossed paths once before, would he marry her? Geraldine – who has already been in a tizzy since seeing him – now turns completely to jelly, accepts his proposal, and as he disappears to bring someone, she tears down her poster of Mel Gibson. Only when the man returns a moment later does Geraldine discover he wanted her to conduct his wedding to his fiancée.

Ordinary people have a reputation for turning gaga when suddenly in the presence of celebrities, the powerful and the extremely attractive. And that’s what Peter – awake despite being tired (verse 32) – does at the Transfiguration. He blurts out nonsense:

‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’
(verse 33)

He wants a monument, a blue plaque, a tourist attraction to mark this auspicious occasion. But as the splendidly surnamed novelist William Faulkner once observed, footprints are preferable to monuments:

A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’[3]

A monument erected by a blabbering disciple won’t do for the Transfiguration. It is not an event that is reducible to a theme park or adventure playground. It requires not stopping there, but moving on. So Peter is rebuked by the divine voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35). The cloud disappears and only Jesus is left – Moses and Elijah are no longer there (verse 36). Listen to him. He is not their equal, he is God’s Son. He is superior: listen to him.

It is not a sufficient reaction, therefore, to spiritual ecstasy, to be an incoherent obsessive fan chasing after autographs. When we recover from our trembling limbs, when we get back up from our faces or our backs, there is only one fitting response, and that is obedience to Christ. He is superior to all other divine messengers, because he is God’s Son. Listen to him – and do what he says. Anything less makes us tourists not pilgrims, fans not disciples[4]. Jesus didn’t seek fans or tourists – he challenged them and they usually walked away. But disciples and pilgrims – they might also tremble and shake in the presence of Christ and his glory – but they don’t stop there. They follow. They walk with him. Do we?


[1] Graham Twelftree, Drive The Point Home, Crowborough, Monarch, 1994, p107 #90, adapted from Malcolm Muggeridge, Conversion: A Spiritual Journey, Glasgow, Fount, 1988, p15.

[2] Simon Coupland, A Dose Of Salts, Crowborough, Monarch, 1997, p14f #5, citing Alister McGrath, Understanding The Trinity, Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1987, p46f.

[3] In Sam di Bonaventura’s programme notes to Ellie Siegmeister’s Symphony No. 5, Baltimore Symphony Concert, 5th May 1977, quoted by Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, London, Marshall Pickering, 1989, p17.

[4] Peterson, op. cit., p13f.

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Sunday’s Sermon, The Transfiguration

Just a mini-sermon this week (don’t cheer too loudly), as I’m tag-preaching with a colleague at a united service. We couldn’t decide between the reading below and 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, so we opted for two mini-sermons. This is mine.

Luke 9:28-36

Introduction
The late Malcolm Muggeridge once went to Calcutta to make a film about Mother Teresa called ‘Something Beautiful For God’. The Home for Dying Destitutes, where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity take down-and-outs from the streets of Calcutta, was formerly a Hindu temple. It has very poor lighting, so poor the cameraman, Ken Macmillan, said it would be quite hopeless to film there. However, he was persuaded to take a few inside shots. When the film was processed, the inside shots were bathed in a wonderful soft light. Macmillan agreed this could not be accounted for in earthly terms.

Muggeridge said, ‘I have no doubt whatever as to what the explanation is: holiness, an expression of life, is luminous … The camera had caught this luminosity, without which the film would have come out quite black, as Ken Macmillan proved to himself when he used the same stock in similar circumstances and got no picture at all.’[1]

If that is what conventional film stock captured of Mother Teresa, imagine what it would have been like had it been possible to have a camera present at the Transfiguration. Maybe the brightness would have been so intense it would have been impossible to film. Perhaps it is like the story of the emperor who went to a famous Jewish rabbi, Joshua ben Hananiah, and asked to be shown the rabbi’s God. The rabbi replied that this was impossible but the emperor was not satisfied: he wanted to see the God of Israel. So the rabbi took him outside and told him to stare into the midday sun. ‘But that’s impossible!’ replied the emperor. ‘If you cannot look at the sun, which God created,’ retorted rabbi Joshua, ‘how much less can you behold the glory of God himself?’[2]

At the Transfiguration Peter, John and James are dazzled. But what does the dazzling glory of Jesus stand for, and what is a fitting response?

1. Salvation
Listen to the conversation that the disciples witness:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
(verses 30-31)

‘His departure.’ The Greek word for ‘departure’ here is exodos, from which the Old Testament book Exodus takes its name. It is the great story of salvation. In New Testament terms Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension would be the new great Exodus. Jesus would navigate a path not through the Red Sea but the deep waters of death to new life and salvation, and this is his glory.

This is the glory of the Gospel – nothing less – that the Son of God took human flesh, lived in humility and taught God’s new way of life, then died and rose that we might participate in that new lifestyle. The Gospel isn’t a self-help society, it’s not pop psychology lifted from tabloid pages or daytime TV, nor is it a political platform. It’s the power of God for salvation to be forgiven and live differently. It will lift our self-esteem and it does have profound political implications, but the key is the departure Jesus was to effect from Jerusalem, which leads to an ongoing deep conversion of every part of life. The hymn-writer was right to pen the words, ‘In the cross of Christ I glory.’ The Cross is his glory, and the light shines on the world from the darkness of Calvary.

But if that’s what the glory of the Transfiguration firstly means for us, what does its association with salvation mean for Jesus? Here is a wonderful spiritual experience, perhaps a glimpse of the glorious and beautiful light which he had always shared with the Father and the Spirit. We talk of having ‘mountain-top’ spiritual experiences – perhaps at great celebratory conferences or Christian events. Then when ordinary living hits us after we return we are discouraged.

But the mountain-top experience of glory for Jesus is surely to prepare him for what is to come. Here in his experience of glory, as he talks about his forthcoming departure that will accomplish salvation, perhaps he talks about the pain, isolation and suffering that it will entail. Is the Transfiguration strength for the road ahead? I suspect it is.

And so perhaps we might view our own mountain-top experiences like that. I have no problem in principle with Christians having extraordinary spiritual experiences of God. But I believe that often they are there as the spiritual refuelling before or during an arduous section of our journey. Some of my own most dramatic encounters with God have been while I was in a job I hated, while I was going through a broken engagement and while I was coping with various threats against me from church members during a couple of crises. I wish those spiritual experiences had lifted me out of the bad times, but more often they were the strength I needed to cope and the vision to see the situations God’s way instead of mine.

So it all begs a question: for what reason might we seek an ecstatic spiritual encounter? The Transfiguration suggests it might not be just for religious thrill-seekers: God has a mysterious purpose in these experiences. It is to build us up for the hard times.

2. Superiority
The other night Debbie and I caught a repeat of The Vicar Of Dibley. It began with the vicar, Geraldine Granger, opening the vicarage door to a tall, handsome man who said he had only met her once before when he had produced an episode of Songs Of Praise. But although they had only crossed paths once before, would he marry her? Geraldine – who has already been in a tizzy since seeing him – now turns completely to jelly, accepts his proposal, and as he disappears to bring someone, she tears down her poster of Mel Gibson. Only when the man returns a moment later does Geraldine discover he wanted her to conduct his wedding to his fiancée.

Ordinary people have a reputation for turning gaga when suddenly in the presence of celebrities, the powerful and the extremely attractive. And that’s what Peter – awake despite being tired (verse 32) – does at the Transfiguration. He blurts out nonsense:

‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’
(verse 33)

He wants a monument, a blue plaque, a tourist attraction to mark this auspicious occasion. But as the splendidly surnamed novelist William Faulkner once observed, footprints are preferable to monuments:

A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’[3]

A monument erected by a blabbering disciple won’t do for the Transfiguration. It is not an event that is reducible to a theme park or adventure playground. It requires not stopping there, but moving on. So Peter is rebuked by the divine voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35). The cloud disappears and only Jesus is left – Moses and Elijah are no longer there (verse 36). Listen to him. He is not their equal, he is God’s Son. He is superior: listen to him.

It is not a sufficient reaction, therefore, to spiritual ecstasy, to be an incoherent obsessive fan chasing after autographs. When we recover from our trembling limbs, when we get back up from our faces or our backs, there is only one fitting response, and that is obedience to Christ. He is superior to all other divine messengers, because he is God’s Son. Listen to him – and do what he says. Anything less makes us tourists not pilgrims, fans not disciples[4]. Jesus didn’t seek fans or tourists – he challenged them and they usually walked away. But disciples and pilgrims – they might also tremble and shake in the presence of Christ and his glory – but they don’t stop there. They follow. They walk with him. Do we?


[1] Graham Twelftree, Drive The Point Home, Crowborough, Monarch, 1994, p107 #90, adapted from Malcolm Muggeridge, Conversion: A Spiritual Journey, Glasgow, Fount, 1988, p15.

[2] Simon Coupland, A Dose Of Salts, Crowborough, Monarch, 1997, p14f #5, citing Alister McGrath, Understanding The Trinity, Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1987, p46f.

[3] In Sam di Bonaventura’s programme notes to Ellie Siegmeister’s Symphony No. 5, Baltimore Symphony Concert, 5th May 1977, quoted by Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, London, Marshall Pickering, 1989, p17.

[4] Peterson, op. cit., p13f.

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