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It generally happens at parties. I get invited, I go along, I don’t wear my dog collar, and someone asks me, just to be polite….“what do you do?” Of course, they never expect the answer “I’m a vicar”…
In some cases, you can see the eyes flitting from side to side wondering how to escape….I don’t blame them….
But others sometimes say to me “Oh I’m a Christian!” “but I don’t go to church” “I’m not into organised religion” or “I was brought up as a Catholic; but I don’t go now……but I live my life as a Christian”
Sometimes when someone says this to me, if I prod a little harder, and ask what they mean, they might say “I’m a nice person and I try to be nice to other people….I obey the commandments or at least those I can remember: I don’t steal or murder,I am not unfaithful to my husband of wife, I give to charity and I try not to envy people”
“Oh OK” I reply….there is really nothing more to say.
Two of the great questions of life are:
how should we live?
what do our lives mean?
I think I got a lot of my standards of how to live from my stepfather.
He was rigorously honest and indeed lost his job as a director of the National Group of Unit Trusts standing up against the corruption of Sir Denys Lowson in his work place.
Telling the truth, being honest was the priority for him but he was not particularly loving…and my parents relationship ended disastrously…
As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, being righteous is useless unless you are loving; if you are righteous but unloving you are like ….a sounding gong. As I say, I got a lot of my standards from him.
In my twenties and thirties, in all my dealings, I told the truth, I never cheated…
A trivial example….on a holiday in Italy, I was given by my hosts a small oak tree to plant in my garden, a little living memory of a wonderful holiday. But, to the incredulity of my friends, I declared it at HM Customs where, of course, it was promptly destroyed….
By my standards, by my stepfather’s standards, I was pretty good. I thought I was nice to people, I behaved well and so I thought I was leading a good, a worthwhile life but, in reality, I was only judging myself against my own, easily achievable standards…So it was a bit of a shock, when I was working at my law firm before going to Japan (before becoming a Christian disciple, a follower of Christ) when I was having a chat with a partner from the Czech Republic and she said to me “You know Alex, you are quite a scary person”. I was surprised….you may not be……but I was surprised….
We can easily slip into this ourselves, believing something about ourselves that we are behaving well, when that belief has no foundation in reality.
As we move through life, unchallenged and confident of our own good behaviour, confident of our own righteousness and its not just individuals even whole peoples can be deluded in this sort of way…..
The people of Israel had two great guiding lights in answering the two great questions of life: how should I live and what does my life mean?
They had the Law – in the Old Testament given to them by Moses to tell them how to live and they had the Prophets to show them the meaning of their individual lives…to show them their role in God’s story
Their role in the vast narrative sweep of the history of God’s people past, present and future from the beginning of the universe until its end….that narrative which the Prophets foretold would reach its turning point with the arrival of Messiah: a leader who would restore God’s favour to Israel.
But the Jews had twisted the Law away from its intention and heart by thousands of little qualifications which enabled the rich and powerful to do what they wanted but which placed huge burdens
on everyone else not the essence of what God had commanded for his people.
And their idea of the prophesied messiah, the person who brought meaning to their lives and their history, was a military leader who would get them back, by force the Land promised to them by God which had been taken from them by foreigners.
At the transfiguration…… as we have just heard (see below), the core disciples Peter James and John are shown…..
Moses – representing the Law
Elijah – representing the Prophets
talking with Jesus,
whilst the presence of Father God himself in the cloud hovers overhead….
And by the way, we can be very sure that this is not just a vision or a legend but something that actually happened, by the little story about Peter who makes the idiotic statement ‘…let us make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” with the wonderful follow up from Mark “He did not know what to say for they were terrified”, to which there is no response from Jesus.
This just has a ring of truth about it……when we are terrified not all of us are silent…..The fact that Mark records this detail of the very down to earth in an incredibly supernatural situation is brilliant, particularly given that we know that Mark got all his material from Peter. No-one in Ancient Literature put this sort of comment in about one of the most important people in their national or religious history….Peter was essentially saying “this incredible supernatural thing happened….and yet I was an idiot…..”
So Peter James and John see Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and then God, the creator of the universe speaks out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved Listen….. to Him”
Listen to Jesus, the fulfilment of the Law.
Listen to Jesus, the prophesied Messiah
Listen to Him!
One of the easiest traps of claiming to be living a Christian life
is to think that you have got there….as I did:
“I’m a good person”
“I declare noxious plants at Customs”
When in fact I was “scary…..” not loving…
You see its so tempting to think of ourselves as being a Christian, a follower of Christ, a disciple but fall into two traps:
firstly, by not actually listening
and, secondly, by not actually listening to him.
Firstly, when someone says to me “I am a kind person, I am a Christian, but I don’t go to church” I think “are you actually listening to him?’
How can you be listening to him, if you don’t give sufficient priority in your life to find the time to go to the place where He speaks most loudly; where He speaks most insistently and where He speaks most compellingly: the church….
Secondly, are we listening to him?
Don’t decide how to live by looking at what society says is right.
A test: are we looking at the Bible as often (not necessarily as long as) as we are looking at the News or a newspaper?
Listen to him….
Don’t decide how to live by saying all religions are the same and making up some sort of composite of what a good life looks like.
Listen to him….
Don’t invent some kind of Jesus who fits with what you want to hear about him.
Listen to him
Over the centuries there have been attempts by a particular type of liberal theologian to get to what is called the “historical Jesus”. This is a process which involves editing out from from the New Testament any scripture about Jesus which seems to the theologians concerned to be bogus, or late interpolations, not genuine history.
The problem with this approach is (as another theologian has pointed out) that you end up being like someone looking back through history back to the first century, like someone looking down a deep well, into the past, who sees only the reflection of his own face….
If you think that Jesus looks like you, or an idealised version of yourself, then you are not listening to him, you are listening to yourself….
The more we dig into Scripture, by reading the Bible daily; the more we listen to the gospel preached, by coming to church weekly; the more we see of the true, raw, unamended, radical, Biblical Jesus (not the politically correct invention of white middle class Americans and Europeans); The more we engage with the true Jesus of scripture, the more shocking he will be, but also the more loving, to put up with us, who are so different, so contaminated so sinful….. so different from him, so far from being like him.
As Peter James and John, in shock and awe bow before the transfigured Jesus beneath the cloud of the Father’s presence, we see heaven coming to earth……
We see the foundation stones of the Kingdom of God:
The Law – represented by Moses
The Prophets – represented by Elijah
We see the presence of the Holy Trinity: God the Father – in the cloud Jesus, the Son transfigured and the Holy Spirit shining out of the brightness of Jesus’ garments (like the divine presence of the pillar of fire, leading the Israelites in the desert). We see heaven touching earth…
How can we engage with heaven?
How can we engage with God?
How can we know how to live?
How can we find meaning in our lives?
God speaks from the cloud:
Listen to Him!
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 9:2–8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.