Thirty-four years ago today, I found faith in Christ, when the Holy Spirit used the promises and professions of faith in the 1975 Methodist Service Book to make the heart of Christian faith come alive for me.
Sixty-five years ago today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg.
A neighbour of ours three doors down periodically changes her photo on Facebook. For a long time it was a snap of her with the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi. Then it became a picture of her with the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. Michelle looks very happy and relaxed with them. They look pretty happy with her. It does rather help the matter that Michelle is quite glamorous!
Me, I’m not so sure I’d look as cool and laid back with a famous person as she does. Not that I’m terribly interested in handsome male rock stars or actors; I just have to fend off Debbie’s regular ribbing because I once commented how pretty one of the teachers at our children’s school is!
However, as I said, I don’t think I’d be as relaxed as Michelle. I think if I met a hero, or a famous beautiful woman, I think I would be a blubbering mess. How journalists keep their cool to interview well-known people, I don’t know.
All of which makes me rather like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration. When he offers to make three dwellings – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – Luke comments that he didn’t know what he was saying (verse 33). He’s overwhelmed, and he says something stupid. He’d like to preserve the moment or turn it into something he knows and can cope with – the three dwelling places he proposes are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
But he’s missed the significance of the event as a result of his blubbering, and needs correction. That takes him into the terrifying experience in the cloud, where he hears the frightening, correcting voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Verse 35) Don’t get blubbery about Moses and Elijah: listen to Jesus!
And I want to take that as an entry point into thinking about the Transfiguration today. It’s a traditional reading for the last Sunday before Lent, and I want us to look at how it shows Jesus as being superior to Moses and Elijah.
Firstly, Jesus’ superiority to Moses. So you book your dream holiday. You pay the deposit. You renew your passports. A couple of months before going, you pay the balance. A week before the off, you return to the travel agent to pick up your tickets and your currency. A day or two beforehand, you pack your luggage. Everything is ready for your departure.
And the Transfiguration is about a departure – especially in the connection with Moses. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, we read
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Verse 31)
His departure. Why the Moses connection? Because there’s an Old Testament book called ‘Departure’. It’s just that we know it by its Greek name: Exodus. The story of Moses leading God’s people to freedom from Egypt. When Luke writes about Jesus’ departure here, it is in the Greek his exodos. Moses’ departure was a liberation, Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’ from Jerusalem will be a liberation, too. But because Jesus is superior to Moses, his liberation will be superior, too.
If it’s Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem, then clearly we’re talking about his death, resurrection and ascension. That departure brings liberation. Jesus has been pointing the way to his future suffering and has said that disciples need to take up their crosses and follow him. Now we begin to understand that what is coming is a freedom event. The Cross will bring freedom. Jesus’ departure in his death is not a tragic event, as I once heard a Methodist church steward call it in the vestry before a Good Friday service. It is sacrificial love for the blessing of the world. Yes, it is agony and injustice. But it is also true heroism.
Now if this is the case, then we have to see the Transfiguration as more than we have often interpreted it. We know that the disciples come back down from the mountain to the challenges of everyday life. Hence we say that you can’t live on ‘mountain-top experiences’ all the time, you have to get on with ordinary living again. But if the Transfiguration points to Jesus’ departure at the Cross, it isn’t about coming down from a ‘high’ to face the mundane and the routine again. Rather, it’s about Jesus being strengthened to face his coming trial.
So if Jesus is being strengthened to face the trial of the Cross here, perhaps this event is similar to one or two others in the Gospels. It might be like the powerful spiritual experience he had at his baptism with the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove and – again – a voice from heaven affirming him, immediately before the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to fast and conquer temptation. It might be like the way he was mysteriously strengthened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with his forthcoming betrayal and suffering. No wonder we read this on the last Sunday before Lent.
Isn’t it wonderful, then, that Jesus needed to be strengthened before he faced trials, including the greatest of all? And if that’s the case, then perhaps we might interpret our own ‘mountain-top experiences’ differently. They may not simply be a boost before we get back to the grind; they may be God’s way of equipping us for whatever difficulties are coming our way, particularly those where we end up in a painful place because of our faith. Perhaps God has a blessing for us in Christ that will give us the fortitude to face our trials, or perhaps we can look back at problematic times in our lives and see that before then God prepared us with a blessing. He may have given us our own mini-transfigurations. Not in the sense of exalting who we are – he only does that for Jesus – but in empowering and encouraging us.
Secondly, Jesus’ superiority to Elijah. How does Elijah connect with Jesus’ departure? The Moses connection is quite easy to see when you think of the word ‘exodus’, but it’s less easy to see why Elijah should be hanging out with Jesus now, and the particular way in which Jesus is superior to him.
However, there is a link between Jesus’ departure at Jerusalem and Elijah, and it goes like this. For Jews, Elijah was the great prophet of the end-time deliverance. He was the one who was expected to appear before God’s Messiah. You may recall there was a hoo-hah in the Gospels as to whether John the Baptist was Elijah come back from the dead to precede the Messiah. All this means that Elijah was the figure of hope. He signified to Jewish minds that God would make all things right, just and whole in his kingdom. Hence the theme of hope.
That may well have been why Peter almost thoughtlessly suggested the building of three booths, like the Feast of Tabernacles, as I said, because that festival was also known as the Feast of Ingathering, and looked forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter’s mistake was just to see Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.
But the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35), because Jesus is superior even to Elijah. So we must infer that Jesus brings a superior hope at his departure.
I suggest we find that in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus will be raised physically from the dead. His body will be restored to him in a new way. Jesus’ resurrection body is the beginning of God’s new creation. God will make all things new, and he begins with his own Son. Elijah might be a sign or symbol of hope, but Jesus is more than that: his own resurrection body embodies our hope, even guarantees our hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
So death may and will come, but it doesn’t get the last laugh. God does. We wait in heaven, in what looks from earth like the sleep of death, but one day the Great Surprise will happen when God raises us from the dead and renews his creation. Elijah can teach us much, but only the Son of God can teach us all this. The Christian who dies trusting in Christ does so in peace, because Jesus fills her with hope in ways no-one else can.
And then there’s the ascension, Jesus’ final bodily departure from Jerusalem, reminiscent of the way Elijah left this world yet – again – superior to it. He ascends to the Father’s right hand, where he will reign until everything has been put under his feet. This is the part of hope that sustains us until God makes all things new, when the new Jerusalem descends and all creation is renewed.
The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.
But the Ascension reminds us that Jesus is reigning, even while rebellion takes place against his rule. Battles may be won or lost, but in the final analysis Christ is on the throne. To say that Christ is not reigning because there is still sin in the world would be like saying there cannot be a government in power because crime is still being committed.
In conclusion, then, Jesus at the Transfiguration offers us awesome hope. The liberation of the Cross, the hope in the Resurrection of God’s new creation and the assurance of his reign through the Ascension. Moses and Elijah may have been good, but Jesus outranks them everywhere.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘Any study of Christ must begin in silence.’ No wonder we read that
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Verse 36)
Sometimes I’m all for the response to a sermon being in words and deeds after the service. Today, maybe like Peter, James and John, our best response might just be awed silence at the majesty of Christ.
At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.
Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?
Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.
But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!
One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.
The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.
How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.
Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:
‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)
The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.
Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?
If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.
When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.
One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.
So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:
‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)
What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?
The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’
If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.
And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.
Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?
Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.
You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).
Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.
And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.
Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.
Maybe then, we might find life.
I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.
Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.
Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.
Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.
Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.
Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.
At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.
What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.
And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.
So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’
On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.
During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.
See you tomorrow.