Sunday, 3 March 2019

Beloved Sons: Sunday before Lent

In today’s Gospel reading we meet two pairs of fathers and sons.

“This is my son, the Chosen; listen to him” – there’s the first pair. God speaks from heaven to Jesus’ baffled disciples.  They don’t get it. They haven’t got a clue what has been going on as they have seen Jesus shining with glory, and Moses and Elijah, figures from Israel’s ancient history, talking with him.

Peter has thoroughly embarrassed himself in his confusion by opening his mouth before his brain is in gear. “Shall I build you some tents?” he blurts out. We’ve probably all been there – not at the Transfiguration, of course, but in some other situation where we didn’t know what to say or do, so we just said or did the first thing that occurred to us, something banal and, on reflection, rather stupid. Faced with the spectacle of heaven breaking through to earth, Peter reaches for something, anything, that is familiar; in his case, a bit of DIY. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, it’s obvious that he has got it wrong.
I mean… how does he plan to do this anyway? They’re up a mountain. Did he bring a pile of 2 by 4 and a tarpaulin, just in case?

But who can blame him?
Jesus doesn’t appear to. There is no rebuke, no “Now look what you’ve gone and done, Peter”. Although the vision vanishes and the cloud comes down, there’s no sense that this is a punishment, or that it is because of what he has said.  It is just that this was never meant to be an experience that was permanent. It is a spectacular moment, to be wondered at rather than clung to. Peter may feel he’s made a fool of himself. We may wince at his rather crass suggestion, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.

There are words of rebuke in the Gospel reading, but they come later, when we meet the second father and son in it. A man has brought his child to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. He’s probably one of many sick children in this needy crowd – sick children and desperate parents were two a penny in this pre-modern society as they still are in many parts of the world. There was very little anyone could do to cure or treat illness.  The child has what would probably be diagnosed as epilepsy today. But, in Jesus’ absence, the disciples haven’t been able to heal him, and they seem to have washed their hands of the situation. Notice that they don’t come to Jesus themselves and say, “we couldn’t help this poor family. Can you do something for them?”  It is left to the man himself to call out from the crowd.

The rebuke Jesus issues is really aimed at his disciples, who have failed this family. “You faithless and perverse generation,” cries Jesus, “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  It is a cry of frustration and pain as much as of anger. It didn’t bother him that Peter, John and James didn’t get what the Transfiguration meant; it does bother him, though, that after all they have seen, his disciples don’t get what  his ministry among the  poor and the sick is about.  

To understand  his rebuke, we need to remember that people at the time of Jesus didn’t have the same problem we would about the possibility of miraculous healing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a problem; it was just that their problem was different from ours. We struggle with the biological, scientific possibility of miracles.  They assumed that all healing came from God anyway, and that if he wanted to he could heal anyone he liked – they had no issue with that. The question for them was whether God wanted to heal, and who he wanted to heal. If this boy was sick or demon-possessed, according to their way of thinking, it was because either he or his parents had done something wrong, which had let the demons in. If he wasn’t healed, it must be because God didn’t want him to be. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust God’s ability to heal; they just assumed that if he didn’t it was because the child or his family had deserved their fate . So, when their prayers for this child hadn’t worked, they gave this father and son the brush off. God obviously didn’t want this child to be healed, so why should they waste time on him either?  

But to this child’s father, that wouldn’t do. On the mountain, God had cried out from heaven “This my Son, my Chosen” – this is someone special, someone beloved – “listen to him”; but to this desperate father, his son was just as beloved, just as special, just as precious, and he knew it was just as important that his voice, the voice that shrieked out in his convulsions, was also listened to. He wasn’t having it that there was no hope, and neither was Jesus.

Jesus is angry with his disciples because they were not only saying that they didn’t care about this boy, they were behaving as if God didn’t care either. They were saying that God had rejected him, handed him over to the demons that tormented him.

As you may have noticed, if you followed the reading on your pew leaflet, there was actually an option to leave out this second story this morning. It’s in square brackets. I didn’t because it seems to me that they are meant to go together.

Two fathers, two sons. The first set are famous. Everyone’s heard of them.  . God Almighty and the Word made Flesh, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah, the Chosen One. This Father and Son are enthroned in glory, celebrated in music and art, prayed to, sung about. The other father and son were anonymous, unknown, slipping back into the crowd after this miraculous healing, with no hint about what happened to them next, and yet, if you had been them, this event would have changed your life. Joy had been restored to them. They had been given back their lives and their future, and all because Jesus had seen the beloved child within the cruel distortion of the illness that had held him in its grip for so long.

It is very easy for us to be impressed by the wonder and the glory of the Transfiguration. It’s a big shiny story, quite literally. It’s amazing, stupendous. And yet, on its own, what difference does it make? The disciples who were there didn’t understand it.  “They kept silent, and in those days told no one of any of the things they had seen”, we are told. Much later, they came to see it as evidence for Jesus’ divinity, but at the time, it just baffled them. It was as if the light of God’s glory was so bright that they really couldn’t see it at all, as if the cloud that surrounded them was so thick that they couldn’t find any way of comprehending what it meant. On its own, it is a great story, but it can leave us saying “so what?”

It’s when we see it next to this other story, of this other father and son, that it challenges us as it should. What does the glory of God really look like, it asks us? What does it really mean? Can we see it when it isn’t big and shiny, when it isn’t giving us an emotional high? Do we have the faith to look for God’s glory in the mundane, daily stuff of life, in the plains and the valleys as well as on the mountains? Can we see it in the insistent demands of this troubling father who won’t take no for an answer, in the people and situations that are inconvenient for us? Can we see it in the longing of ordinary people like this pair simply to live with ordinary dignity;  the family that come to the foodbank because they can’t make ends meet, the refugee who just wants his children to be safe, the addict struggling to stay sober and clean, the homeless person who is just trying to get through another night on the streets?  Can we see God’s glory in mess and muddle and pain? Do we have the faith to look for it in failure, in despair, in darkness, in death, in a man executed shamefully on a cross, or lying lifeless in a stone-sealed tomb?

Jesus saw God’s glory in this convulsing child. He saw him as someone made in God’s image, a beloved son, a chosen one, like him, someone who deserved to be valued not only by his father but by everyone else too, a child worth saving, worth helping. His anger was for those who refused even to contemplate the possibility that God might be present and at work in him, the people who took one look, made one failed attempt to heal him, and wrote him off.

The story of the Transfiguration is always the set reading for the Sunday before Lent, at the point when we are about to set out on a journey that should challenge us, if we make it properly. We travel from the hill where Jesus is transfigured, shining, acclaimed by God, to the hill outside Jerusalem where he will die apparently forsake by his father, in shame and agony, overwhelmed by evil, just as this child has been overwhelmed by his illness. But Jesus looks again at him, and sees God at work where no one else but his devoted father has done. Lent invites us to look again - at Christ, at ourselves, at the world around us - to look for God’s glory, to trust in his fatherly love, not only in the bright lights and the sunny uplands, but everywhere, in everything, and everyone.

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