Sunday before Lent
Sunday, 11 February 2024
John Conway, the Provost
With you is the well of life; and in your light, we see light.
2Kings 2.1-12; Mark 9.2-9
I want to offer you two pieces of poetry to help our reflections this morning. The first comes from the psalms; Psalm 36 to be precise, and will be familiar to many of you:
How priceless is your love, O God!
Your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They feast upon the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the well of life;
and in your light, we see light.
The second comes from a collection of poems written by Jay Hulme; poems written in the midst of the Covid pandemic, and as the author found themselves rather surprisingly, to themselves at least, coming to faith. The poem is entitled, On Realising God Exists, and it finishes with the lines:
The sky is falling and nobody has noticed.
There’s something set behind it we cannot quite reach.
This is the Sunday before Lent, and the story of the Transfiguration that we heard as our Gospel is often read on this Sunday. I want to explore with you why this strange story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain, apart by themselves, and being transfigured before them; why this is offered to us on this Sunday before Lent. We have jumped forward in Mark’s Gospel. We are at Chapter 9, a long way from the urgency and expectation of Chapter 1 that we have been exploring the last few weeks. That urgency and exploration has been replaced by something darker, and more troubling by this point in Mark’s Gospel. Peter has just declared Jesus to be the Messiah, but in response Jesus has made it clear that he is bound for Jerusalem, there to suffer and die; and after three days be raised. The disciples are confused, their expectations and hopes meeting Jesus’ implacable desire to walk toward Jerusalem, and his impending death. And in the midst of all that, Jesus takes them up the mountain, and is transfigured. He appears with Moses and Elijah, the exemplars of the law and the prophets. The disciples encounter something transcendent here, that something set behind that we cannot quite reach. Moses and Elijah are embodiments of God’s dealings with humanity, and here is Jesus talking with them. And then the disciples hear a heavenly voice; and then suddenly nothing, they are alone with Jesus once more. And when it is all over, as they come down the mountain, they are once again told by Jesus not to tell anyone of what they have seen. That’s a familiar injunction in Mark’s Gospel particularly – the disciples and many others are told over and over again not to say anything about Jesus, yet.
Our Old Testament reading was the wonderful story of Elisha journeying with Elijah as Elijah’s death draws near – a death that the other prophets seem keen to keep telling him is near. Elisha is determined to walk that way with him, to keep him in his sight, to accompany him all the way to his departure. In that way, he might inherit a double share of his Spirit. Not for him to stand afar, he wants to go the whole way, to cross the river each time, and stay the course.
The season of Lent begins on Wednesday and invites us on a journey of walking with Christ to his death, to Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there. He, and we, undertake that journey not through some excessive desire for gloom or doom for the sake of it; but in solidarity with a suffering world. Jesus’ journey to the cross is that act of solidarity with a suffering world; walking with him helps uncover our propensity and ability to inflict that suffering upon one another. Like Elisha, we need faith and courage and determination to walk that way; like the disciples, even in our confusion and not understanding, we need faith. The transfiguration is that moment that feeds our faith, the well from which we draw as we plunge down the mountain and into the journey of Lent.
As Jay Hulme articulates in that poem with which I began - the light is revealed in a shattering, alongside darkness, with a transcendent horizon just beyond reach.
At the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism, and God is heard saying: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ We will shortly baptise Sam, in the faith that the Spirit is given to him too. Parents and Godparents, the promises you make today might be summed up as ensuring that Sam knows the truth of that affirmation - ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’ – knows the truth of that affirmation for himself as he grows up, grows into the full-stature of the Spirit given to him in baptism today. For Sam is a child of God, beloved, in whom God is well pleased. And that affirmation is given today, and presented afresh to him, so that he might have the faith and the courage and the grace to navigate whatever life throws at him. It is the well of life upon which he draws.
After his baptism, Sam will be given a candle, the light of Christ to scatter the darkness from our hearts and minds. With you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.
At the Transfiguration, the disciples once again hear God’s voice, out of the mystery of the overshadowing cloud, as they are bathed in the light of a transfigured Christ: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.’ Now the Spirit speaks not to fortify Jesus, but words to fortify the disciples in their confusion and not understanding. Listen to him. Listen to him, walk with him as he travels the road to Jerusalem, into the world’s suffering, to his death. Walk like Elisha with Elijah where you don’t necessarily want to go. You, we, don’t understand yet. This is not the time to speak, but to walk on. And as you walk, draw on that light you have seen in him. For with you is the well of life. And in your light we see light. Amen.