Sermon at St James Colwall for Sunday before Lent 2016
Exodus 34.29–35; Luke 9.28–36
To hear first an introduction and then the story as you read:
I was not keen to go up that mountain. No way. I mean, be reasonable – I’m a fisherman, not a mountaineer. I’d got used to doing a fair bit of walking, but I was still waiting for the chance to do some real recruiting, hauling in the followers in nets, like he said.
Besides, we knew by then, the way he’d go off sometimes. Suddenly at dusk he was nowhere to be found, and as likely as not we’d have to go and get him in the morning. He’d go off – just like that. Somewhere where there was nobody else – no people, that is. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, you understand, nor even that he had to get away from them for a bit of peace. It was more like the other end of a spectrum. At this end was the doing and the crowds and the miracles and the healing, and at the other end, there was ... a mountain, as likely as not. And there we’d find him, wet with dew, as likely as not, and the great drops of it, running down his face like tears. And someone would give him a cloak – too late as usual - and he’d grin and slap them on the back, and stride down ahead of us, not at all like someone who’d been up all night.
And yet there was always something else. A sense of having just missed something. As if someone had put their hand between you and the light, or hidden its brightness behind a barrel. And he looked like someone coming out of the bright sunlight, into the shade – it was something in his eyes.
No – I was not keen on mountains. Unchancy things at the best of time. If they haven’t got their heads wrapped in a storm, then they are far too close to the sun! Too much of our history has been made on mountain-tops, and I’m only a fisherman. Besides, if I’m honest, I wanted to get on with our history down here, not mess about on mountains. It was 6 days since Peter, always less cautious than the rest of us, had blurted out what was in all our minds. “You’re the Chosen One. The One we’ve been waiting for.” And he’d as good as admitted it. 6 days! I wanted to get on with things. When are you going to do something? I wanted to say. When are you going to unleashed the power? Now’s your chance for glory! But I never said it. That’s when he invited us to come up the mountain – and added with a bit of grin in my direction, “Still hankering after thunder? We’ll see.”
And we did see. You won’t believe what we saw. I suppose you’re going to say we all fell asleep, what with the heat and the long climb and starting out before breakfast. I admit we did fall asleep at times – we hadn’t got anything like his capacity for staying up all night! – yes, there were times when we fell asleep, but this wasn’t one of them. So it’s no use your trying to pass it off as a nice cosy day-dream, a bit of wishful thinking, or a vision that we made up out our history to satisfy our own longings. Believe me – I was there – it happened.
For a start, there wasn’t time to fall asleep. We’d barely scrambled up the last few feet, puffing and blowing, sore-footed and with more than one bruise apiece – I told you we were only fishermen ... Anyway, no sooner had we got to the top, than it happened. The mountain simply wasn’t there any more. There wasn’t anything except this amazing light. It felt – I know you’ll say this sounds crazy – but it felt like standing in the palm of someone’s hand. And all around was this immense, vast, immeasurable ... I suppose I’ll have to call it light. Not that it was just light. Not light as we understand it. It was like pure water ... and the power of great wings ... and a heavenly smell ... and the most beautiful sound that you have ever heard ... and even then, you haven’t begun to understand it. Call it light, because it made you see things.
Not see things with your eyes. But see things with the innermost, deepest, down-in-your-guts part of you. The part which, if it was ripped out then, would be your soul. The first thing that I saw was that we were not alone. Of course I recognised them straight away. There they were, in the hand, with the rest of us – Moses and Elijah, no mistaking them. And don’t tell me I imagined them! I don’t mean that when I was a kid they told me stories about Moses and the burning bush, and how Elijah disappeared in a fiery chariot, and I pictured them in my mind, the heroes with flowing hair and beards and stern, holy faces. They weren’t a bit like that. They were ... just them! How can I put it? They were the shape of God had written in them – not just the duty and the responsibility and the glory, but the suffering. Moses looked like someone who’d had to face up to Pharaoh, when he hadn’t even got the courage to face up to himself. And Elijah – drought and persecution and witchcraft and warfare, and the knowledge of his own weakness and fear were all in him. And yet the light went through them. Through them as if they had been made clear by that suffering.
And he stood between them. Jesus. My Lord. My Jesus. My friend. My teacher, even when I wasn’t very good at learning. And the light came out of him. It’s funny that I didn’t notice that before. It came from him, through him, because he was the clearest of all. It was Peter, good old Peter, who put a name to it. “Tabernacles!” he said – and we knew we were in the presence of God. They’ll tell you he was frightened, and didn’t know what he was saying – but he was right. It was real. As real as in the desert. As real as on the mountain.
And he wasn’t the only one who was frightened! It was the kind of experience that turns your knees to water and does very peculiar things to your inside, and at the same time gives you the feeling that you are flying, and the whole universe is singing – and that doesn’t even begin to describe it properly. It was the first time that I really called him “Lord” and meant it – and my knees had bowed without my even realising.
And it wasn’t just him I was seeing, really seeing. There was Peter – tactless, blundering, faithful Peter, always blurting the things out. But God was shaping him – he was going to head God’s people, saying the things no-one else dared – he, and many more like him. And James – my kid brother – the one who was always following me about – I saw that he was not following, but leading, at the head of a great company of people, all walking in the path God was shaping through him. And I saw myself – still thundering – he was right about that – even chucking the old bolt of lightning – but yes, I saw for a moment how he was shaping me into that net.
To be honest, I could have done without the voice. I think I’d get the point by then. Without wishing to sound rude to the Almighty, I felt like saying, “It’s all very well saying listen to him – but you know what he’s like – you have to think really hard about what he’s saying, and even then, you sometimes don’t get it the first time. You should have send someone to write it all down”.
And just at that moment, Jesus put his hand on my shoulder, and said “He did. Come on.” And we were half way down the mountain before I had a chance to think it through. It seemed to me that we must come down trailing clouds of glory, carried on a tide of power, that would sweep through the world. But then I realise that it was not yet. The power was there, all right, but building up, curved, poised like a wave about to break. Meanwhile, we had to come down the mountain. Down to ordinary life. Down to the fact that people don’t always get things right and can’t always reach the God-shape inside them. Not at once. Not alone. Down to the blundering and betraying and suffering that is people. Life isn’t lived just on the mountain.
But the mountain is there. We are the people of the mountain. Almighty God shapes us so that he can shine through us. He invites us to go up that mountain, and he shows us how to see, and he leads us down, so that the valleys may be filled with the light of his glory.
© Anne Hogg, Colwall
Please notify author if you wish to use this story. Contact her by email: annelh @ stillanne.org (but remove the two spaces to use this email address).
Sukkot – Feast of Tabernacles/Booths
One of 7 key feasts for Jews. Reminder of temporary shelter in the wilderness after the Exodus.
Tabernacles is also called ‘the season of our joy’ and the ‘Feast of Ingathering’ i.e. time of Harvest. Of people as well as of produce. Required pilgrimage to Jerusalem by Jewish-born males (so again, temporary accommodation).
At time of Jesus, was also festival of light, celebrated by lighting the huge lamps of the temple. The true light by which the nations would be attracted was not however the opulence and wealth of Herod’s Temple, nor the grandeur and excesses of Solomon, nor even any re-enactment or return of the shechina, but the light of God’s holiness, an emanation of God’s divine nature through a manifestation of His own being.