Posts Tagged ‘presence’

That shining moment

February 26, 2017

Is it such a radical change?  His face shone like the sun, and his clothes were made dazzling white – but isn’t that how we imagine Jesus is?  Had he been so dull – so ordinary that this moment was necessary?  I doubt it – but the gospel recorders have ensured that this moment is important in how we understand all that happens next.

What happens next, you say?  Well, we’re only a heartbeat away from a disastrous trip to Jerusalem – the last visit for Jesus.  We hover on the edge of the season of Lent; a season of preparation and penitence that sets the stage for the week of passion and glory that culminates in our Easter celebrations.

And Matthew’s gospel goes further.  “Tell no one about the vision until after the son of man has been raised from the dead.”  The crucifixion and resurrection is certainly the destination for this journey of ours, but the gospel writer suggests that we won’t understand anything until we have been there – done that; until we have been shocked by an arrest, trial and execution; until we have been called by name in the pale dawn of Easter by our risen Lord.

And this is what makes this afternoon on the mountain such a difficult thing; perhaps the disciples were prepared to think highly of their teacher – he was smart, kind, wise in the ways of God, but was this finally the one God had promised?  He was compelling enough to have drawn them away from their families, their trades, but could he be the king that would unite the nation under God?

Living on the other side of the story as we do, we cannot imagine that there was ever a time when the glory of God wasn’t absolutely evident in Jesus.  In art, in children’s stories, in movies and the mythology that grows up around Jesus, we only know him transformed.  There is no ‘Jesus-without-glory’ for us.  But for Peter, James and John – for those first few who were called from their boats – how difficult must it have been to imagine the truth…

According to Matthew’s account, Peter has just made that determination.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This declaration leads to a conversation about the real consequences that await Jesus for living up to Peter’s assessment; betrayal, arrest, suffering, death, and on the third day, raised.  It made no sense, and Peter was quick to say so, glory and power of the kind they imagined was not subject to the defeat of death.  This is the setting Matthew gives this moment on the mountain; a chance to see, real glory – that can only be understood in the company of real suffering – real tragedy – real life.

The glory we imagine – this shiny Jesus, back-lit and dazzling in his beauty, surrounded by heroes of the faith and the sounds of eternal worship – that glory can only be understood in the context of the real world.  Isolated devotion; faith communities that hold themselves apart from the ordinary grind of the world, hoping to be saved by the glory of tradition, or the glory of…past glories – these attempts don’t tell the whole story.  Peter wanted to revel in the moment – to build shelters and honour the glory, alone and apart from the world; Jesus led them back down the mountain and urged them to silence until the full truth had been told.  Glory doesn’t make sense without grief.

Living on the other side of the story, we have become well acquainted with grief, and that, for some, is an incredible disappointment.  Jesus is risen; life has triumphed over death; shouldn’t we be bathed in glory now?  There are those who would live as though glory and only glory was ours in Christ – and they make glory for themselves by extravagant means.  Women and men of unequalled religious convictions have built monuments to this ‘so called’ glory; people of faith who have decided that following Jesus is the key to worldly success.  They would have us confuse prosperity with the glory of God.  But they have it wrong.

The moment of glory – the shiny, startling revelation of the reality of God-with-us – is not something that was ever meant to be the climax of the story. The feel-good, let’s-preserve-this-for-all-time event actually comes at the disciple’s darkest moment.  This shining moment isn’t the high point of the story, it is the story; the idea that God’s glory has been present, all along; that the glory of God is the companion of us all; that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus takes place by the grace of that constantly present, but only occasionally visible glory.

“Tell no one… until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”  In that moment when the darkness seems overwhelming, only then will you remember that the light of God’s glory has been among you all along.



August 7, 2016

That God is concerned for us – that God may be invested in our future joy, or in establishing a legacy of faith through us  may seem hard to imagine, but our traditions, and the stories of our faith, tell us this is so.  From the very beginning of our Scriptures, through the gospels and the epistles, the message is clear.  God has taken an interest in humanity.  God wants us to claim hope and joy in these covenant promises, made not only to Abram, but through Jesus – Crucified and Risen.  Scripture is about God’s pursuit of us and also God’s urging us to take action rooted in faith.

The stories of this urging – the examples from Scripture that are most compelling – all have similar features.  And Abram – soon to be ‘renamed’ Abraham – features in more than his share of these encounters with God.

It is interesting to consider these encounters; especially in a generation whose image of God has been seriously challenged.  From a position of privilege; in an age of knowledge; the notion of God  /  our “need” of God seems to be easily pushed aside.  God seems further from us, though the only thing that ever changes is our attitude towards God.  God has made a habit of covenant – of reaching out, and making plans; of calling and comforting; God is committed to ‘being there’ for us, and that will never change.

This episode of Abram’s ‘deal-making’ with God, serves as a reminder to Abram (and all of us) that God will stand by God’s promise.  Abram has left his home,  and made his way – first to Egypt, and then on to the Negeb.  Abram even has some initial success overcoming the inhabitants of the land that God has promised to him.  Abram is praised by the famous Malchizedek, who offers him riches and glory.  Abram politely declines.  (Gen 14: 13-24).  And at what appears to be a turning point – a place of choosing – God appears and restates the promise; reaffirms the covenant.  “Your descendants shall be numerous …” says God after a significant and heart felt discussion…there follows a vision (slightly terrifying) in which God assures Abram that this grand venture will succeed.

 But the key to this, and every encounter, is the nearness of God – the presence of God – the voice, the action, the unmistakable reality of God.

There can be no covenant without presence – promises require multiple voices; one who offers and one who will receive.  And there is no covenant that does not require action; God is constantly calling us to prepare (Noah); to move, to trust, to believe (Abram, Joseph, Moses).  And none of this matters unless the people being called are convinced that this is more than just a dream.  “And [Abram] believed, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” – this famous conclusion is repeated as a mantra in Hebrews, chapter eleven – that great hymn to faithfulness which outlines a long history of human assurance of the Divine reality.  The faith that Abram finds is faith generated by the presence of God.  The righteousness credited to him is another way to describe Abram’s confidence that God is committed to this enterprise.  We look on these encounters with awe – as we should – but imagine that their time has come and gone.  In that, we are mistaken

God constantly offers these moments of ‘covenant renewal’; God’s presence runs through the whole history of the people of Israel – either as a sustaining presence, honoured by temple worship, or as the presence leading the people into exile (see Ezekiel).  God’s presence was unmistakable in the life and work of Jesus.  Jesus sought to remind everyone that theirs was no distant, brooding figure.  God treasures God’s children, wanting to give good things – “The Kingdom”, in fact – to all who identify as children of God.  This is the family promised to Abram – large and diverse – more numerous than the stars; and that promise is still valid, thanks to the consistently persistent presence of God.

And that presence – that covenant – God’s promise and call remain vital and valid for us.  While we have become suspicious of visions, and sceptical of those claiming to hear the voice of God, God’s presence has not deserted the people.  The promise is restated in worship and ritual; acted out especially in our sacraments, which are first and foremost, reminders of PRESENCE; water on foreheads; bread in the hand, wine on the tongue – there is no denying the reality of these things, and in them we are invited to discover God – standing with us; leading us; comforting and healing us.  Making us fit for the journey of faith, and assuring us that not even one step of that journey is taken in solitude.

God is here – with us.   This is a statement of faith that comes from a deep heritage, running back to the recorded beginnings of those who would call themselves children of God.  It was true for Abram – it was true in Jesus – it remains our true and shining hope.  Amen


“Who’s that on the beach…?” – John 21: 1-14

May 11, 2014

Once again, John’ gospel offers a different perspective on a scene that sounds familiar. Frustrated fisherman – hours on the water and nothing to show. Jesus on the beach; is it Jesus? They can’t tell – they are not fully convinced – but someone on the beach suggests they “shoot the net to starboard” suddenly, everything changes. More fish than they can manage. Shouts of recognition from Peter. The mood of the expedition is lifted, and they make for the beach – they are drawn to the presence of Jesus.
Luke’s gospel tells a similar story – the great catch of fish results in Peter, James, John and their companions “abandoning ship” and joining Jesus crowd of disciples. The impulse in John’s gospel is the same. Their loss has left them without purpose – they have, in their grief and confusion, returned to the sea (with no success) – but Jesus presence opens them to other possibilities.
I’ve often struggled with the idea of “Jesus present with us”. I’m a practical person who understands the theological principle of presence, but Jesus has never “taken me by the hand” or “carried me along the beach”. I accept that these are wonderful metaphors for a life of faith, but I am more often met with situations in peoples lives that suggest the absence of God. While it is true that often means we have turned our backs on God, or refused to recognize Jesus offer of companionship, far more often I am faced with the question “ where was God?” when tragedy takes centre stage, or hope seems all but lost.
Presence suggests touch and sight and sound – shared laughter; genuine tears – we want comfort and encouragement in the first person, not by proxy. And so these earnest fishermen find Jesus, making breakfast, offering suggestions, calling them back to the tasks his teaching had prepared them for.
What does it mean for Jesus to be present? How can we experience that same feeling – a sense of purpose and mission that comes from the conviction that God is in control; that God’s promises can be trusted; that the future is in God’s care? We can’t share lunch on the beach with Jesus. I can’t put my hand on his scars; I can’t tell the difference between my own determination and God’s promised strength when the going gets tough and the burdens of service are overwhelming. How can we know it is Jesus?
I expect it is different for each of us – as it was for his disciples. For Peter, Jesus is the guy that gets him out of the boat – even before the boat has made land. For me, Jesus presence is the thing that allows me to think differently – to see possibilities instead of problems. And those “thought problems” bring me into the presence of people (the church) whose experience of Jesus is different than mine; and together, we offer comfort and encouragement; touch and sight and sound – presence in the first person. And Jesus is among us.
In a tradition full of mystery, the mystery of our message is the most perplexing. We are given the Gospel – Good News that says Jesus reward for enduring a brutal death is somehow our reward too. Our message suggests that somehow, Jesus torture and death were necessary for our salvation, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Jesus is always present with us, helping us to untangle the knotty problems that come from pledging ourselves to God’s service. But the truth is that Jesus death and resurrection MUST CHANGE the way we see and experience the world around us. Jesus life and death stand as proof that hatred is pointless – that power is fleeting – even sacred institutions must be held accountable and occasionally challenged (or ignored). And Jesus death and resurrection teach us something else – that love activates life – enthuses and energized – leads us in new directions with clear purpose. Love becomes real, and present and eternal in Jesus Christ. God’s message takes flesh and walks among us, even now, two thousand years on. And that presence changes everything, every time. Amen.

“How will I know that this is so?”

December 1, 2013

It begins with an elderly couple – they have no children, but they have each other; and they have their faith.  Zechariah takes his turn serving in worship – that was the way of it – and one day something fantastic happens!

He is alone in the temple – while the rest of the people pray.  And he sees an “angel of the Lord” standing next to the place where the offerings are made.  This is not a sweet, curly-haired angel – like you might be used to seeing on Christmas cards and among your holiday decorations.  This angel calls himself (yes, this angel is a MAN!) Gabriel.  He is impressive.  He is ‘shiny’.  He cannot be ignored.

This heavenly messenger tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to have a child – a son – whose job it will be to prepare people for the coming of the Lord.

Now, you have to understand that Zechariah, and Elizabeth, and all the people praying at the temple, and all of the nation of Israel  were waiting and hoping and praying for the day the Lord would come – the promise has been the one thing that kept them going for years and years and years.  So you can’t blame Zechariah for being a little…sceptical.  “How will I know that this is so?” he asks –

This question…it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture.  It is a question of faith – the kind that keeps us coming back to the temple, to worship, to wait, to wonder.  It is the question we ask – in a world that is desperate for proof; for something solid to hang on to…and Gabriel’s answer is the answer of a patient parent; because I said so.

Zechariah has faith – but no imagination.  His faith lets him serve God – he manages the duties of worship; burn the incense, say the prayer; raise hands, close eyes.  But his imagination won’t let him believe that God might actually work through him to deliver the message of salvation.  O, when all is said and done, Zechariah believes – but not before he is rendered speechless…

As Advent begins for us – as we consider again the marvel of God in our midst; the miracle that is ‘God-with-us”, I wonder if there are moments that will leave us speechless?  We are faithful – to a fault! – but can we allow ourselves to imagine what Christ’s coming means for us, for Creation?  We worship and we serve – saying the right things at the right times, but are we ready for the wonder – the peace – the hope – the joy that is contained in this promise that we celebrate?

We have a chance to be caught again by the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation.  Today we meet Christ as host and feast at his table – we share bread and juice; ordinary things – but we consider them something more on this day.  A sign and symbol of the REAL PRESENCE of Christ in our midst – of Jesus, Risen and glorified – Of God-with-us.

This brief moment in the presence of God has become a time of silent wonder and thoughtful reflection – a chance for us to ask for ourselves “How can I know that this is so?”  it is, as I said, an important question, but it doesn’t need to leave you silent.  it is the question that leads to the birth of new ideas, new approaches, and in time will lead us to the new born king.