Hymn book no.775
May the words…….
Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, and we were on another mountain-top as well, in the shape of the 47th Morland Choristers’ Camp.
Both events were very exciting for the participants, and both cast a huge spiritual shadow. The Transfiguration is one of the crucial stories of the Gospels, though often overlooked nowadays because it is in holiday time. When it falls exactly on Choir Camp Sunday, it is possible to make more of it, and indeed at our Morning Prayers all week, Carrie Thompson, our Chaplain, focussed on it in various ways designed to engage the interest of the youngsters. Even then, she has written in her Report to the Camp Trustees that ‘it is somewhat concerning that this central Gospel story was so unfamiliar to a group of young people, many of whom are regularly engaged in Church life. Perhaps this is a learning point for those of us engaged in ministry about the importance of telling and teaching the stories of our faith, as well as a reminder of the important role Camp has to play in Christian teaching and development for its members’
And I fear that her point is more broadly true. There was a time when you could talk to anybody about the Good Samaritan or the Loaves and Fishes in the knowledge that they would know what you are talking about. I’m afraid these stories are not known nowadays.
But I digress…
The Transfiguration was literally and metaphorically a ‘mountain-top experience’ , and we know that the same is true in the metaphorical sense for those who come to Camp year after year. The letters I receive from the youngsters every year make the point vividly. Some mention the fun and friendship, some the dam building, but the spiritual dimension comes out time and again. These
people find themselves uplifted in a very special way. If you happen to meet them in their home surroundings, in Lancaster or London or anywhere else, the very mention of ‘Morland’ lights up their faces.
And the half-century history of Camp has turned up clergy and cathedral organists, and many lesser mortals playing their part in their local churches. The inspiration has gone very deep indeed!
But there is a problem in that it is in our nature to be unable to remain indefinitely ‘on the mountain-top’. We can’t remain in a state of permanent exaltation. I’ve called this sermon ‘Back to normal’. We have to have a ‘normal’. How are we going to cope with this? How can we keep in touch with our spiritual selves in the course of ordinary life?
Perhaps the story of the Transfiguration has something to tell us.
Peter, James and John had gone with Jesus up a mountain to pray. Mountain tops seem to have been favourite places, perhaps to get away from the crowds. As they were praying, we are told, the appearance of Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes became bright as a flash of lightning. Moses and Elijah appeared, talking to Jesus. After a while, our wonderfully-bumbling Peter suggested to Jesus that he should build three shelters, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But then a cloud enveloped the three and a voice was heard saying ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him.’ And then the cloud had gone and Moses and Elijah had gone. Jesus was left standing there just as He had been at the beginning.
What I want us to take out of this story is that it began on an ordinary day, but prayerfully. Then there was the mountaintop experience. Then it was an ordinary day again, WITH JESUS STILL THERE.
Jesus had and still has an ability to be at once with us AND beyond us. He is, as we say, both Immanent and Transcendent. ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, we sing during Advent – Emmanuel: God with us. But He is also so much greater than us and beyond our imagining: Transcendent.
At a time of great spiritual excitement – perhaps a particularly moving sermon at Keswick, or a stunning performance of the B minor Mass, or perhaps when reading something which particularly strikes a chord – we can sometimes quite readily feel ourselves to be in the Presence of Jesus, what the Celtic church referred to as a ‘Thin Place’.
At other, ordinary times, it might not be so easy. We might feel rather alone. We might be so engrossed in our own little world and our own problems that we cease to be aware of Jesus’ presence. But the Bible teaches us that He is indeed there. If we can just step back and out for a moment, and remind ourselves of some moment of joy, we can recognise His presence.
And the same sort of analysis applies to our Sunday worship in church. We should feel ourselves lifted up to Him. If we don’t, it might be that we are not feeling particularly receptive today – perhaps some irritation at home is bothering us – or it might be that those who are leading the worship are not quite in the right place. It is bound to happen sometimes.
I know that there are some who will say that some forms of worship aim to drag Jesus down to our level. Actually, He doesn’t need any dragging. We are taught that He is here among us, among all the everyday things of life. Who knows what His taste is in liturgy or literature, music or activity?
Our worship should recognise Jesus as both Immanent and Transcendent.
It is good to know that even Elijah, recognised as one of the greatest of the prophets felt thoroughly downhearted at times. ‘I’ve been zealous for the Lord God Almighty…..but now the Israelites are trying kill me too.’ God would have none of it, and spoke to Elijah, not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire, but in the still small voice, and told him to go and sort himself out!
Our lectionary goes straight on with today’s Psalm, Ps. 85 v 8, in the NIV translation:
I will listen to what the Lord God will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints –
but let them not return to folly.
I find that translation to be stronger than the one we sang earlier.
Today was one of those days when I might have chosen from several different hymns. I like to start with one we can sing well, and Fight the good fight is one which reflects Jesus’ presence with us in the everyday things.
God has spoken by the prophets/by Christ Jesus/God is speaking by the spirit fitted between our readings. We are reminded that then and now God spoke and is speaking to us. All we have to do is listen – and respond.
And after this sermon and the reading from Elijah we can only have the earthquake, wind and fire.
We will conclude, I hope, that Christ is the King.
That leaves out no.775. Do please look it up. Listen as I read it.
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here……