Sunday, 2 March 2014

Sunday before Lent: Down from the mountain

So here we are in the Gospel reading, on top of the world – well, we’re up a mountain at any rate. But you know what that feels like. You can see for miles. Down below the cars look like ants on the distant roads. The air is clear and there’s a tremendous sense of space.

Perhaps it’s because mountains seem to mark a boundary between earth and sky, a place from which we look out into the infinite that people have so often used the imagery of the mountaintop to describe overpowering experiences of mystery and wonder, times when they have felt the closeness of God, a sense of the divine.

Moses is on a mountain in the Old Testament reading today. He’s on Mount Sinai, way out in the wilderness, wandering around with the slaves he had led out of Egypt. It is a few months on from their dramatic escape through the waters of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s troops hard in pursuit. The jubilation and relief of that moment is well and truly in the past, and now the hard reality is hitting home. Sand, sand and more sand. Burning sun. A fragile existence, dependent on the mysterious gift of manna without which they would starve. The people are feeling downhearted, and so is Moses. Where are they going? And what will they do when they get there? They are a bunch of ex-slaves, with no experience of running their own affairs, let alone founding a nation. It all seems pointless. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” say some of them. “Let’s turn back. We’d rather have slavery in Egypt with a meal at the end of the day than freedom in this god-forsaken desert.” But this is not such a god-forsaken place as they think, as Moses finds out when he hears God’s voice, calling to him to come up the mountain to meet with him. And when he comes down, everything is different.

Moses has met with God on mountains before. The burning bush which got him into all this in the first place was on a mountainside. This, though, will be an even more awesome experience. This time God doesn’t just appear as a burning bush, but as a devouring fire.. Moses is swallowed up in his holiness for forty days and forty nights, and when he emerges his face shines with glory.

But this isn’t just intended to be a personal, mystical “high” for Moses, a spiritual shot in the arm that will encourage him in the days ahead. It is what he brings down the mountain that will really matter. He comes down with the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written, the summary of a Law which will shape this band of refugees into the nation God wants them to be.
For the Jewish people the Law of Moses wasn’t – isn’t - seen as a burden, just a dry list of rules. It is a precious gift. The fact that God gave them this guidance was a sign for them that he cared about them and was present with them, not just on a distant mountain but in the nitty-gritty of their daily lives, to be encountered in the process of living in his way. This story encapsulated that belief.

The Gospel story of the Transfiguration echoes its message  quite deliberately – indeed Moses shows up in it himself. This time it is Jesus who glows with dazzling whiteness on the mountaintop. But again, it is not the mountaintop experience which we are meant to focus on – no one can live on a mountaintop. It is what comes down the mountain that matters. Moses brings down the tablets of the Law, the word of God to the Israelites. Peter, James and John come down with God’s Living Word, with a new awareness of God’s presence among them in the flesh and blood of Jesus.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” says the voice from heaven.

For all their strangeness, both of these stories are actually far more about God’s presence in our ordinary lives than they are about mystical moments up there in the clouds somewhere. When we stop to think about it, that is just what we should expect, because they weren’t written for people who were on a mountaintop, on a high, full of confidence and joy. Quite the reverse in fact. The Old Testament emerged from the time of the Babylonian exile, a time when the Jewish people thought it was all over for them. The New Testament was intended for an equally battered and struggling audience.  The early church was a tiny little movement, made up of small handfuls of people, often on the fringes of their society, meeting in each other’s homes, often in secret, sometimes facing real hostility and persecution. They were ridiculed and vilified for following a man who had been shamefully crucified as a blasphemer and troublemaker. They might affirm that he had risen from death, but how likely did that sound to anyone else? They often found themselves swimming against the tide of their society as they tried to live and love as Jesus had taught them, and it must sometimes have felt like a hard, dispiriting slog.

The story of the Transfiguration, like the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, told them that God was with them when they felt like that. He didn’t stay on the mountaintop, in splendid isolation, out of reach of all but a favoured few. He came down the mountain into the ordinary situations of their lives, into their struggles and sadnesses too. He came down the mountain to the cross, and to the silence of the tomb.

They needed to hear that message, and there are many today who need it too. Aid workers in refugee camps around the borders of Syria, trying to cope with thousands of traumatised and vulnerable people with only the most rudimentary facilities, and every day more people streaming in. Social workers dealing with the endless complex needs of families beset by multiple deprivation, feeling defeated by the sense that they are trying to sweep back an ever-encroaching tide. Politicians and diplomats trying to build peace between communities and nations that have been at loggerheads for decades or even centuries – Northern Ireland’s tensions have been in the news yet again this week. What hope is there in situations like these of success?
We can feel just as bleak about the future for our personal lives sometimes too. If you’ve applied for hundreds of jobs and never got an interview, if you have beaten one illness only for another to strike, if you have slogged through another lonely day with no one to talk to, and realise that tomorrow will be no different, why should you not give up? What is there to keep you going?

“Where is God?” we sometimes cry. It can be a cry of lament or a shout of anger hurled at the heavens – there’s nothing wrong with doing that. But I wonder what would happen if we were to ask that question as a genuine  enquiry more often than we do. Where is God? Perhaps our problem is that when we cry out like that we have often already made up our minds that wherever he is, he can’t here, in the midst of our struggles and doubts, mired in confusion, beset by failures. We strain our eyes to the distant mountaintops thinking, “if only I could get up there, to that place of light and joy and confidence, I would surely find him,” when all the time he is right there at our elbow, longing for us to turn around and spot him.

Earlier this week I was talking to someone who told me that in his church the vicar had decided last summer, just for a few weeks during the holidays, to ask for one person to share some way in which they felt they had caught a glimpse of God that week, been aware of him at work. He thought it might fill that summer holiday lull. Nearly six months on, the congregation are still sharing. They won’t let him give it up. Every Sunday there has been someone keen to share an encounter they have had, a conversation, a chance to show love or to receive love, a small joy that has lifted their spirit. As a result the whole congregation has been learning to keep their eyes open to God in their daily lives. I’m not necessarily suggesting that we do that here, but it struck me that asking “Where is God, in my life, right here, right now?” was a deeply healthy habit to get into – personally or corporately. It’s a habit which can help to sustain us in times of trouble, encouraging us to look for what is good in the world and to work with it.

The answer to that question might come in many different ways, as that church has found.  We might spot him in acts of kindness given or received, in something someone says to us, in new questions we find ourselves asking – God can often be found just as much in the questions as in the answers. We might find him in the stillness of prayer, or as we come together to worship, to share the bread and wine that reminds us of the suffering of the crucifixion and the joy of the resurrection and says to us that God is in them both.

His presence may not always seem like a blaze of light that fills the sky, but often what we really need far more than that is “a lamp shining in a dark place” as the second reading put it, a lamp that will sustain our hope  “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.”

I’d like to finish this sermon with a minute or two of quiet, so that you can ask yourself that question “where is God?” “Where have I spotted him in my life this week, in something that has happened, something someone has said, a new door that has opened, a small act of reconciliation or love?”  Perhaps you’d like to tell me, or someone else, about it after the service, to encourage them. God has come down from the mountain, says the Bible. He is present with us, So where is he in our lives today?


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