Heightened Vision and Humble Living
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
6 March 2011, 10:30 (1 before Lent)
Have you got your eyes open?
Well of course you have, the sermon hasn’t started yet!
But seriously, have you got your eyes open?
It is a really important question in terms of our religious faith and Christian living.
Most of us in the cathedral this morning are fortunate enough to have two working eyes and our physical sight determines so much of how we understand and read the world.
I remember how my father had to have an eye removed because of cancer of the retina and how his life changed in quality.
He not only found it more difficult to judge some distances because his three dimensional sight had gone but he told me how all the intense personal joy of the garden and nature was really diminished.
We so easily take our sight for granted.
And in turn, the evidence of our eyes determines a great deal of what we assume life to be in terms of truth, reality and experience.
If we speak to people visually impaired or blind, we learn that their perspective on life is quite different and strangely they ‘see’ things that we ignore, neglect or overlook.
So we read the world with our senses but not all seeing involves physical form.
Apart from the seeing with our eyes open, there is also the seeing with our mind’s eye, and there is the seeing that we have in our dreams. (I wonder how blind people dream?)
On this Sunday next before Lent, our scripture readings take us into this dimension of vision, seeing, encounter, meaning, prayer and discipleship.
And instead of supplying a telescope, microscope or any sort of lenses, the Bible gives us the prism of mountains.
Yes, mountains can help us to see and encounter God.
Now before we go up the mountain I would like to look at two words that are associated with mountain experiences: transformation and transfiguration.
I want to suggest this morning that there is a significant difference between the two in spite of the fact that dictionary definitions don’t necessarily reflect this point of view!
Plenty of dictionaries (and I have checked) seem to think that the two words are more or less interchangeable.
I want to say that they are not – and that transfiguration is something very special and inimical to the life of faith and our understanding of God.
Transformation is I think to do with a change that is effected within the world and our experience. It might be on the level of a makeover or a long term radical change of values and power.
It is in this light that we look for the transformation of society, even though events and situations may not happen as we hope and wish.
Indeed our human condition leads us to believe that there will always be injustice, tragedy, suffering and death.
However, there is more than just this fatalistic resignation to a fallen, imperfect and painful world.
For Christians there is more to discover and through revelation
God invites us to see below, within and beyond the surface and horizons of our senses.
And this is transfiguration – and where mountains come in.
Mountains are dramatic land forms and throughout history people have found them awesome; through their mass and power mountains speak of the transcendent qualities that lead us beyond ourselves and the prison of our egotistical identity.
Mountains make us feel small. The weather on a mountain is often unpredictable and the elements of nature are more intense and savage than on lower ground.
Throughout the Bible, the mountain is the place of divine presence and revelation. It is on the mountain top that we discover who God is and who we are as human beings.
In our Old Testament reading, the Lord says to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there...’
Not only did Moses have to climb the mountain but he had to wait there, for forty days and forty nights.
And as Moses approached, the glory of the Lord which was like a devouring fire engulfed him and the mountain was shrouded in cloud.
There were no chair lifts and restaurants, no props and comforts to make the Giving of the Law, the 10 Commandments, a cosy and civilised human social encounter.
The mountain acted as a prism between the lowlands of earthly power and civilisation and concern, and the light and intensity of God’s life and love which is focussed when we are shorn of our gifts and strengths and consolations.
The Law is given in these conditions and is to be lived out on the plains.
Our Gospel reading of the Transfiguration is another extraordinary account of a mountain experience of God.
It is set directly in the context of Moses and the giving of the Law.
But it is saying much more.
No longer are the lowlands of our human living to be governed merely by law but also by the presence, the friendship and the saving acts of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
For it is here on the mountain that Peter, James and John see who Jesus is: the Christ, the Son and the Beloved of the eternal One.
Jesus is transfigured: the disciples see the same Jesus but his real meaning and identity is seen as shining light and accompanied by a voice from heaven.
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
The episode ends in the ordinary; just where we are.
But things like that don’t happen to us, do they?
Well yes they do, if we will but listen and look and be still.
Lent, starting next Wednesday and lying before us for forty days promises to be a time of wonder and transformation.
But we have to climb the mountain and forsake the security of the familiar. We don’t actually have to go anywhere physically but allow the cloud, the thunder and fire of the mountain to overwhelm our wills and wilfulness, our control and partial sightedness.
Lent is no wilderness, just as the barren mountain promises glory beyond our imagining, so Lent is Easter in disguise.
The mountain demands discipline and spiritual courage. God cannot speak unless we wait, and wait with open minds and lives.
May Lent be a time of emptying, of letting go in order to receive the promises of God’s ever-new life.
Everything can change. The food we eat can taste different; the pace of our inner life can reveal new meanings and insights about who we are and where we belong.
It is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the mountain top. But so is all life, if it is lived at depth, in the presence of the divine.
So I am not suggesting that this is easy to do and indeed our own age has its own particular dangers, blindness and distractions.
At present we are challenged by the turmoil and terrors of earthquakes, violent revolution and cruel tyranny plus all the insecurities and injustices surrounding wealth and poverty.
It is easy to become cynical, monocular and conformed to material, short-term selfishness and spiritual despair.
Poets have pointed out these dangers deep within us:
William Blake wrote:
When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?"
O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.
The worship of God transfigures the market place and our materialistic and utilitarian view of creation.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it another way:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Yes, we can spend Lent and all our days plucking blackberries rather than recognising the presence of God and living our lives in his presence and following the call to holiness.
Just consider how we live in our society and how acceptable arrogance and human pride are embedded in our attitudes and respectability.
In 1953 as the Queen was crowned that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit of Mount Everest.
With patriotic fervour we see the photo of Hillary planting the Union flag in the snow – Everest is conquered.
By contrast, Sherpa Tenzing offered a packet of sweets and a little red-and-blue pencil that his daughter Nima had given him.
For Tenzing this was not a moment of conquest but a time for gratitude, humility and a prayer for forgiveness for disturbing the gods.
Transfiguration teaches us that we have to be humble, as if we are on the mountain.
It is our arrogance and self-assertion that destroys our individual and shared reverence for the holy, for the presence and things of God.
This is the very essence of prayer, communion with God.
Everybody we pray for; all the events and concerns that we hold before God: all are full of the resurrection glory.
Everyone we meet is loved by God and bears his image. May we leave behind the limiting habits and fetters of small time living.
God beckons and invites us in Jesus to live openly and to embrace the new horizons of his revealing love.
Some of our life is lived by will and discipline, some by risk and letting go and openness; some by joy and sheer surprise.
This is the reality of prayer. It is also the promise of Lent.
So let us open our eyes wide.
May we find this joy of God anew and never lose it.