Sermon: Sunday 2 March 2014
Sunday before Lent
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
In November, with other pilgrims from the diocese, we drove to the top of Mount Tabor. This is the traditional site of the Transfiguration. There is a beautiful church marking the place and you look down over well irrigated and productive land which is growing produce for Israel and us. Water is used to grow produce that is rationed from the West Bank so that places like Bethlehem now regularly have dry taps. This is water that no longer flows down to the Dean Sea which is shrinking and causing an ecological disaster. This place in Biblical times was known as the Valley of Jezreel. Here King Solomon had built a city.
This was also the site where the war in Palestine ended on September 19th 1918. General Allenby defeated the Turkish forces transferring the land to British control. It was Allenby who drafted the plan which eventually led to the formation of the modern State of Israel and you might say that left over from that we have the current unresolved divisions which blight the Middle East today.
This place is also known as the Plane of Megiddo. In Hebrew that is har Megiddon or as we know it Armageddon. This is the place of John of Patmos’ vision of the great final battle to the world. The first time I visited there was during the first intifada. As I sat in the shade, suddenly half a dozen low flying fighter planes sped down the valley with a tremendous noise and roar of military power. Armageddon seemed all too real and all too close at hand!
This is significant to the backdrop of the story of the Transfiguration lest we get too cosy about God and his glory. There is judgement in the air and some of this comes directly to the fore where Jesus criticises Peter, James and John in trying to capture the moment too easily by building a permanent dwelling place. They had witnessed Jesus shine with the everlasting glory of God and they didn’t want to return too quickly to normality. After all just in the verses which precede this we have predictions about the terrible events of Jerusalem. He said: ‘if any want to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24). The glory of transfiguration has the fullness of creation and the fullness of redemption – it is the beginning and end of all our searching. It is scary and wonderful in equal measure.
I have never noticed before that Matthew 17 starts with the words ‘six days later’. Our clever lectionary software misses it off the printed text you’ve got but Pete has just included it when the Gospel was read. This sort of detail in the bible is really important because it signals that this is a story about a seventh day. This naturally makes us remember the story of creation in Genesis and suggests that Jesus’ transfiguration is the day that God rests, bringing to completion the work of creation. We are drawn into a revelation of glory which completes God’s work. The Sabbath is about completion and rest and so is Transfiguration.
Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, described the Jewish Sabbath like this: ‘So when the seventh day came, rest came and the universe was complete. Rest is the creation which allows us to enjoy all other creations. Just as clear space surrounds a page or frames a picture, so clear time is the frame in which we set our work, giving it the dignity of art’ (p134, Faith in the Future, 1995).
Sunday is nearly always a working day for me, just like increasing numbers of people, and so I have to instead work out how to include Sabbath time into the pattern of my week. One thing which has now been part of my life for more than six months is changing my eating patterns. I’ve been following the 5:2 diet, which means I have two days most weeks when I fast – sometimes it is just one day – when I only eat a very small amount. I’ve been glad that I’ve lost some weight as I easily gain it but more significantly than that it has changed the way I approach food and actually changed my whole outlook. Choosing to abstain, developing self-discipline and learning to appreciate the gift of food has all been part of my experience. But more than that, it seems like it is part of my whole self’s experience, physically, emotionally and spiritually because my body now craves its fast day.
Now I know that these issues have to be handled with great care and that all our relationships with food or alcohol or sex or other bodily desires are complex. Pardon the pun but ‘one size does not fit all’. I’m simply talking about my experience. You will be different.
The great gift for me is that I have understood something that never before has made much sense. It has chimed with a description of the forthcoming fast of Lent that I have never quite understood – namely the Orthodox speak of Lent as the ‘joyful fast’. Mine too has been joyful.
This Lent, Bishops and other church leaders are drawing our attention back to the old Christian discipline of fasting in Lent. There are growing numbers of people using food banks and growing numbers of people knowing hunger. This gives this fast of Lent a particular hue. Here in Leicester we’re launching ‘Think Hunger’ and there are plenty of details and resources in the notice sheet and through the diocesan website (www.leicester.anglican.org/think-hunger). A kitchen is going to be placed over in the north corner of our Cathedral and it is going to have empty cupboards.
I’m inviting each of you to consider working out how to fast this Lent – I can’t spell out how you will do that because your health and age and particular circumstances will mean that each person needs to make their own response. It might be no chocolate or coffee or alcohol or it might be wisely reducing your food intake and even experiencing at times the pangs of hunger. Great care must be taken and children must talk to their parents about it.
We do this as a sign of solidarity and it needs to be accompanied by a desire to learn more and to understand those whose lives are marked by hunger. Some Lents we have spoken about taking up things but this Lent I want to encourage you to give up things. I want to encourage you to deliberately create the kind of space in your body and in your mind which means you notice something is missing and you become aware of your desires and needs. The witness of countless spiritual people from just about all religious traditions is that these behaviours help us connect with ourselves, with others and with God. With Sabbath space we return to being God’s creatures.
The Transfiguration of Jesus shows us that the glory of God is to be known and experienced through walking with him – he who fasted in the desert for 40 days. And the glory of God is transformative because it reveals history, colours the present and sets the future. As far as we can see from St Matthew, this most Jewish of Gospels, this Transfiguration is an event of the Sabbath, a period of time set aside as different. The first thing that is named as holy in the bible is not a place or a person but a day. We now have a period of time, 6 weeks of the fast of Lent to lay ourselves intentionally open to perceiving God’s glory. It seems hard and daunting until we actually try it. But it is a mountain we are invited to climb.
‘Six days later, Jesus took him Peter and James and his brother John… Peter said to Jesus ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here’.’ At the end of Lent, will you be able to echo those same words?
© The Very Revd David Monteith