THE LIGHT OF THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE GLORY OF GOD
Sermon delivered on Quinquagesima Sunday, the 15th February 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2: 1-12 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6 S. Mark 9: 2-9
S. Mark 9: 7f A voice came out of the cloud, "This is My beloved Son; listen to Him", and suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.
Many of us, I am sure, like myself, find waiting for things to happen to be just as severe a test as being actively engaged in making them happen or in regulating or adjusting some change that is affecting us. We can think of that time, perhaps, when we applied for a particular job or position, and then had to wait for the results of the interview or application. And those who have the knowledge of a godly courtship for marriage will know something of this kind of waiting as well. We might put ourselves into regrettable but common situations not only here but in different parts of the world, where refugees have to wait for years on end in camps or squalid housing or fragile tents, or confined in other ways before getting back home if that is even possible, or obtaining a home of their own in the host country or somewhere else. It is not difficult to perceive that the horrors of the sexual abuse of minors, or paedophilia of any sort, incest or hundreds of other perverted practices is bound to be on the increase, where the whole community is being cajoled into thinking that discrimination between all kinds of sexual activity is fundamentally wrong, while the truth is that it is fundamentally necessary and right. Is this not a contributing factor at least, or perhaps the chief reason why, so regrettably, the United Kingdom has now become one of the child-abuse capitals of the western world? The victims may wait for many years for release from a situation from which they have no power to escape. The anguish of a seriously abused child may be perpetuated by the child’s own family. Someone may be convicted wrongly and sentenced to years of imprisonment, or in an agricultural economy the harvest fails due to drought for years in succession, such as is experienced at times by the families of our sponsored children in Ethiopia and Zambia. And then we might ask ourselves whether WE could put up with the condition of being forced to wait in any such horrible situation and with no power to effect a change but the power of prayer. It might well be a part of our Lenten discipline this year to resolve to help ameliorate some such condition. Jesus said, “Truly, as you did it to one of the least my brethren, you did it to me.”
What we can loosely call the reestablishment of the Church of England in the Cayman Islands has certainly been a start-stop-restart matter for very many years from all the way back to the late 1700s. In more recent times, whether we think of getting the constitutional ducks in a row, or restoring our episcopal and apostolic connection, or deciding upon and embarking upon the initial stages of our proposed major building project, there have not only been the times of decision-making and decisive management, but also the times of waiting, seemingly at times, to the point of allowing the tares to grow along with the wheat in the field of the Kingdom of God. Certainly the timing of some of what has happened has helped to confirm in us along the way the conviction that the project is God-willed. Yet if it's hard making decisions sometimes, it can be even harder enduring those times of waiting when you are anxious to move ahead, but when the only right thing to do is to listen and pray.
The themes of the lessons and of the Gospel today may help us to put both the active and the passive times of our lives into divine perspective. And in addition we should recall the Lord Jesus saying at His Ascension to His disciples with a spirit not of harshness but of love, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority." In our legendary Old Testament lesson, Elisha is being led to wait faithfully for his master Elijah's departure, at which point Elisha would be given Elijah's mantle of leadership. Elijah himself leads the whole process of testing, telling Elisha playfully perhaps, Stop here, stop there, for the Lord has sent me on a journey. But Elisha knows through his own prophetic insight, that what he must do at all costs is to stick with his master and wait upon him. If he loses faith at the last lap, he cannot achieve his calling. And so in due course, having been confirmed in his prophetic resolve by the words of the “sons of the prophets” (as they are termed) in every place they went, he sees Elijah departing to heaven in a whirlwind, and he takes up Elijah’s mantle from where it is fallen. Elisha is not a naturally patient man, as some of the Elisha-stories show, any more than was his mentor Elijah, but here Elisha is called and disciplined by the Spirit of God to remain the faithful servant of a calling that came not from his own age and time, but from the Eternal God. And in the divine perspective, that is what waiting is all about. Like the courage of decisive action, waiting patiently is a test of faith. The liturgy in which we are participating, for instance, does not provide instant spiritual gratification at every point. We are fed, but we must listen and be faithful, holding the words we hear in our hearts, because the true import and focus of those words is not that of this age. St. Paul in our second lesson today speaks of the god of this world blinding the minds of unbelievers. The "god of this world" (as Paul describes it) fosters the desire for immediate gratification, and that can even take religious forms sometimes. But having patience we wait for God's blessings with hope, not thinking that we can put God to the test. On the contrary, the light by which we are to go forward is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Today's Gospel declares the Transfiguration of Christ before His three closest disciples Peter, James and John. This occurs at a time of crisis for the disciples, when for the first time after they have started to follow Christ they have to grapple seriously with ideas that are foreign and unwelcome to them, that the Christ must suffer and be rejected by the religious and political authorities of the day. Moreover to be a disciple of the Messiah will also involve them in suffering. That was not really what they had in mind when they first followed Jesus. They do not understand His new emphasis on dying and rising again, or what He is demanding of them in His teaching about having to deny oneself and take up one's cross and follow Him. They are beginning to see that instant gratification is not part of Jesus’ agenda for them, and they are confused and a bit hurt by this. But Jesus shares with them a mountain-top experience, in more than one sense of the phrase. Peter, characteristically, reacts to it in heady excitement. And then in effect the voice from heaven tells the disciples they must put themselves in tune with Jesus. "This is My Beloved Son", says the voice from the cloud. The cloud signifies always in Scripture the presence of God. The voice says, "Listen to Him." Listen to Jesus! When He says, "Go forward!" then go forward. When He says, "Wait!" then wait. They are to get in tune with His mind and His pace. And we, who look forward to many things of all sorts, and are often impatient, must do the same.
About the Transfiguration, one view is that it was a glimpse into the divine nature of Jesus. Others consider that what the disciples saw was the glory of sinless and perfected human nature, that the Lord at that moment was ready to return to heaven again without dying (for death is the result of sin and He was sinless), but "for the second time turned His back upon heaven, in order that He might share in the mystery of human death." (Campbell Morgan) If so, the event signifies a crisis and then a waiting period for our Lord Himself. He chose not to pass over immediately to the Resurrection, which at the Transfiguration He was touching, in order to die the death of the cross first, and so redeem His brothers from death. Unlike the prophet Elijah when he ascended into heaven and left the prophetic mantle behind, Jesus was called to go back and serve. It reminds me too of the pattern of His boyhood, when in order to fulfil God's purpose, Jesus had to return from the heady few days in the Jerusalem temple conversing with the most acute minds of His day, to His backwater home in Nazareth of Galilee under parental authority. And there he was to remain, working, serving and waiting for about twenty years. The Lord Jesus Himself had been increased in the favour of God and man through waiting. Now at the Transfiguration His disciples were being taught to share His earthly serving and waiting.
Often, many of the delays of our own experience should be put in this context too. The Season of Lent ahead of us too can be seen as a time of waiting, waiting for the bearing of good fruit. Not the waiting of laziness, but the waiting of the servants upon God's transforming future. Let us then be such servants, not blinded by the god of this age, but faithful to the call of the Lord, who has been raised from the dead and now transfigures those who serve, listen and wait upon Him.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. Elijah's "succession" was assured by the faithfulness of his disciple Elisha. How did our Lord ensure a succession of His work? What part do we play in this?
2. Is waiting an active part of God's purpose, or does it signify that something has gone wrong with our discipleship? List the attitudes we should have in a time of waiting.
3. Outline some times of waiting that you have experienced from which you have learned some important lesson. Did the waiting make you more attentive?