I have always thought that the gospel accounts that point to the identity of Jesus as Christ, God’s anointed person, God with us, lay down three markers. As Jesus comes with the crowds of people to the River Jordan, to identify with them in Baptism by John, he is saying by his action that he is son of a man, human like us. In unison with this the writers gospel record God’s words, this is my Son, my beloved. Finally, Resurrection and Ascension confirm all that has gone before. Midway in the whole narrative of Jesus life, between these other events, is placed an account of the Transfiguration. Jesus has gone up a mountain with some of his disciples. Matthew 17: 2 says, ‘he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white’. This hymn starts at this point: 1 Much brighter than a thousand suns, the source of life, eternal grace; light of the cosmos and this world now shining from a saviour's face. Upon the mountain's towering height they saw transfiguration's light. 2 This man, this Jesus, they had known, who called them once by Galilee, now stood upon the mountaintop, he seemed exalted, shining, free. Disciples caught in stark surprise had shielded dazzled, blinded eyes. 3 Free of the bonds of human life and distanced by some greater power, a strange yet mystic harmony joined earth and heaven in this hour. It seemed that God was very near, inspiring awe, dispelling fear. 4 The height of love, the depth of grace, the dazzling birth of something new, a supernova magnified, a stunning, startling, shining view, for God affirmed Christ's human worth illuminating all the earth. Andrew E Pratt (born 1948) Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England email@example.com . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd Metre: 8 8 8 8 8 8 Tunes: ABINGDON; SAGINA An old hymn, that many may know: ‘Stay, Master, stay upon this heavenly hill’, concludes the event, for the story goes on and after this height of exaltation as we return to what was normal. A message for us all perhaps… No, saith the Lord, the hour is past, we go; Our home, our life, our duties lie below. While here we kneel upon the mount of prayer, The plough lies waiting in the furrow there. Here we sought God that we might know his will; There we must do it, serve him, seek him still. (Samuel Greg, 1804-1876)
If we believe the idea of incarnation, if we sense that people saw God, or something of God in Jesus, and I do, we set ourselves a problem. We raise questions.
People want to know how can that be? If we are content with the mystery of not knowing there is no problem. We create the problem by running with the question. The consequences are multitudinous.
Mark just says, in effect, this is the beginning of the good news. My feeling is that, when he was writing the question hadn’t arisen.
John uses logos to get round the problem of God becoming flesh, human. To my mind the most easily acceptable answer in 2022.
Matthew and Luke construct myths. In their time the nature of these accounts would have been seen for what they were I believe, largely fictional, yet true as a novel is true, a sort of, ‘look, it could have happened like this, not saying it did, but’. Then pulling in all the scriptural ‘prophecies’ to justify the assertions. It worked then and becomes less plausible now.
More worrying is that it sets train the whole plethora of myths – Trinity, Fatherhood, divinity over against humanity, virgin birth, Ascension, which become dogma which ‘we must believe’ some would say, in order to be saved.
How much simpler, less arrogant and more exciting to say, IT IS A MYSTERY, I don’t understand it but here in this person called Jesus, I glimpse something of what I think God would BE like as a person. I’m agnostic as to the details but that doesn’t matter one jot! Best of all is God is with us – ‘give me the Good News in the present tense’ – as Sydney Carter put it.
When I was a child I used to sleep facing the wall. I lived in a place of comings and goings. We had a guest house. The people around me for half the year had different accents, came and went. Perhaps I’d never see them again. But my parents were constant. Somewhere I’d picked up the idea that people never got shot in the back, that there was an innate ethic even held by bad people. So I slept facing the wall. It was safe. I was hiding my face from the world, and if I could not see it, it could not hurt me. Such is the logic of a small child.
Some of us never grow up. St Paul spoke of seeing through a glass darkly. Sometimes the veil is drawn back and we see the world as it is. It can be the slow drawing back of a curtain on a glorious sunrise, or a lightning flash. But we learn to see the world as it really is. Occasionally we even get to see ourselves, but for that to happen we usually need help.
John the Baptist not so much drew back the curtains as tore them apart. And behind them was a mirror. And the people saw themselves. It was not a pretty sight.
I imagine they had heard about this man, out in the wilderness, wild, unkempt, perhaps a bit of a rogue. Some probably thought it would be entertaining to see him, perhaps a bit of a tease. Some had thought he was a prophet. And so the proud, the pompous, the pretentious gathered by the river. Unusual then, as for us perhaps, the poor and needy mingled with them, pushed and jostled.
And John, this ‘prophet’ spoke. Loud, contentious, not what you’d want to hear in church, not in polite society, not how you, or I, would want to be addressed, no ‘Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen’ but…
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3: 7 – 9)
Bit of a shock that. Necessary, though, in preparation for meeting Jesus, the one of whom John said, ‘I baptise you with water, he will baptise with fire’. Jesus would pick up on that message bringing good news to the poor, release for captives and so on. But for now eyes needed to be open. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’” (Luke; 3:10).
So before we continue headlong into the parties, if we dare hold them, the carolling and feasting, unless we’ve already begun, a time to pause. A time to turn our faces from the wall to the world, from our self-satisfaction and security to what it might actually mean to follow Jesus. ‘What then, should WE do?’
This will not be a return to the old ‘Normal’, but a new beginning that will burst the bubbles of our self-centredness and open us to the love of a God who trusted humanity sufficiently to become a child, to be suckled by a human mother, held by a human father. This vulnerable baby is the God, from whose love neither you, nor I, nor those we might seek to judge as unworthy can be separated, now or in eternity.
So let us pause for thought, and only then let us celebrate…
Remember what was ahead:
When Jesus came to Bethlehem there was no harsh a day,
they say a census had been called, there was no place to stay;
this baby who would shake the world, would first lay down his head,
not in a royal house or hall, but in a manger bed.
When Jesus went to Nazareth his father had a trade,
a carpenter now had a son and business plans were laid;
but soon within the temple courts, this lad would have his way,
dissenting from his parents’ wish, they’d looked for him all day.
The path that he set out to tread from Jordan’s crowded bank
would take him him through a wilderness with neither power nor rank;
returning he would scourge the ones and verbally deride
a viper’s brood, these hypocrites, who dressed themselves in pride.
Returning to Jerusalem, but not in regal dress,
he’s seated on a donkey’s back, not here to rule or bless;
the temple tables were upturned, but more disturbing still,
his challenge to authority would cause the air to chill.
That chill was in Gethsemane when he knelt down to pray,
and all the pain of all the world seared through him on that day;
the time of crisis had arrived to turn from what was right,
or walk with soldiers on to what now looked like endless night.
The trial came and ones that he had scourged with words scourged him,
and this was brutal vengeance now, not wondrous, simply grim:
his flesh was ripped, his sinews torn, his body hung to dry,
and as the darkness gathered round the whole world seemed to sigh.
That ragged child that Mary bore was taken from the tree,
the women waited through three days, covertly went to see:
they found the tomb was empty now, the one they sought had gone,
and as they raced in fear away, the mystery lingered on.
Yet through two thousand years and more the influence of that man
has rippled down through history from where it first began;
his spirit stills inspires a faith that trusts to what is right,
to seek for truth, to live in love, keep justice burning bright.
Hymn words Andrew Pratt © 2015 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England firstname.lastname@example.org . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.
Reflection originally written for the Mid-Cheshire Methodist Circuit 2021
22 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. […] 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5: 22 – 23; 25 – 26; NRSV)
These past years have changed us. Yes, we long for a return to normal. But whatever normal we inhabit will be different, if only because we are different.
Life is inestimably more valuable now. We have come closer to death. Touched it perhaps – in family, friends or neighbours. Life has become fragmented. You in your small corner and I in mine.
I’m reminded of my mother picking up a remnant, a scrap bit of cloth, piecing it with another, sewing and making something good out of leftover material.
Biblically the remnant was that group of people who survived when times were rough, through famine or illness. Perhaps we are not unlike that remnant.
Our purpose now. To take broken lives, a broken world, and in our particular part of the world, at least, to begin the patchwork quilt of reparation, using what we have however little, who we are however frail, to work as stewards with God. Seeking the Kingdom is not something material. It is to do with living together as though every neighbour of every race, colour, creed, gender, orientation was as Jesus to us and among us.
The new hymn ‘Such a fragment, just a remnant’ reflects on this.
I have a friend who likes jigsaws. A thousand pieces make a picture. Just one missing and it is incomplete. Every person on this planet is as valuable. Each important. All of us have a place. That ought to affirm us. It also ought to open our eyes to affirm one another. All God’s children, ‘brother, sister, parent, child’ as the hymn ‘For the beauty of the earth’ has it.
Psalm 8 says, God has given humanity
…dominion over the works of our hands;
you have put all things under our feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
This earth, this planet…our home has been lent to us. Others lived here before us, gathered a harvest, fed on the fruits of creation. Yet over the years we humans have become arrogant, kings of some evolutionary castle, top of the pile. Humanity, we, have seen everything as ours to use, from which to benefit, or to plunder.
Yet the Bible saying that we have dominion over creation is not suggesting we dominate and ruin, but nurture and conserve what has been handed to us. Others will follow us. What will be left for them, our children and our children’s children will depend on us. Whether there will be a harvest next year, in ten years, a hundred years at the moment is down to us, our generation of humanity.
But to care for the planet is just too big a task, and we are numbed by all the calls for climate change, for recycling and all the rest of it. You or I alone can’t achieve what is needed. But bit by bit together we can make a difference – separating out litter, walking when we might have driven, re-using what we might have thrown away, travelling less or in different ways, using different sources of energy.
God in his love for us lent us this planet. Let us love it as if it was our own, of infinite value. Because it is. But it is never ours to possess, but simply to share and value and hand on to those who come after.
May our faithfulness mirror that of God’s faithfulness toward us and may we be faithful one to another and to our neighbours and descendants on this earth.
(Based on a Harvest Festival Service at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Winsford, Cheshire, UK; October 2021)
‘A Song of the Sea’ was published recently on this blog. It is the Hymn of the Day today 30th July 2021. The reflection on it tells how it was written and there is a link to it being sung – click here to follow to the reflection