A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 19th February 2023 – The Sunday before Lent Matthew 17:1-9 During this service two children, Phoenix and Kane-Joshua, were baptised “Lord,…
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 19th February 2023 – The Sunday before Lent
During this service two children, Phoenix and Kane-Joshua, were baptised
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
On Wednesday 8th February, eleven days ago, the students of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, gathered for their twice-weekly act of worship. They expected the usual: prayer, sermon, music and scripture.
As of last night the students of Asbury are still there, an unbroken 11 days in, continuing to worship, pray, practice reconciliation between themselves, receive forgiveness from God, and to offer encouragement. Some have used the language of ‘revival’ because Asbury experienced a similar moment in 1970. Others, including the folk at Asbury themselves have used another word – that of ‘awakening’, perhaps because they are cautious to describe something that is continuing to emerge and develop.
What is clear is that something remarkable is happening, and without the excesses of American revivalism. Students of revivalist forms of Christianity, like the Methodist tradition in which Asbury stands, are careful not to either claim too much or to claim to little about it yet. Because, whether we use the language of revival or awakening the wise, discerning Christian knows that if these moments are movements of the Holy Spirit, a work of God in other words, their authenticity will be known by their fruits. What matters, in other words, is how those students leave their chapel when this is all over, and how it affects their practice of their Christian faith, and how it spreads into the wider church.
At the same time the same wise, discerning Christian knows that, in order to know if this is a work of God, it needs time to develop, mature and grow, and that simply writing it off as mass hysteria or an outburst of millennial emotionalism simply doesn’t honour all that we say about the work of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Give it time in other words.
There is this moment in the life of the disciples who are closest to Jesus, recorded in three of the Gospels, when they experience their own moment of spiritual awakening. Jesus takes them up a mountain and, according to Matthew in our Gospel reading today, he is transfigured. In other words, his glory is revealed in a way that reveals the presence of God in him that goes beyond the disciples’ day-to-day experience of their friend. They see him afresh and with new eyes. This revelation, and this has theological importance, occurs just prior to Jesus’ setting out towards Jerusalem, as he walks towards his suffering and death. That is why this reading is always read on the Sunday before Lent, to remind us that we walk towards Good Friday with a revelation, a vision of God’s glory before us. The glory we receive, the spiritual eyes that are opened, help us to ‘take up our cross’ as Jesus commanded us. And what we can tell from the fact that three of the Gospel writers record the Transfiguration, is that this mountain-top experience is one they always remember.
Sermons on the Transfiguration often remind us that, after this moment, the disciples and Jesus return to the plain below the mountain-top and go back to their ministry, and Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and all it represents. Preachers, including me, have often cautioned congregations about relying too much on the spiritual highs, the mountain-top moments, experiences of Transfiguration. Real discipleship, we say, is proved in the hard yards of living as a Christian in daily life or, as Scripture tells us, in walking the way of the cross with Jesus. But, perhaps with the Asbury story fresh in our minds, and with the transfiguration story before us in Scripture today, we ought to remember and value the wonderful gift God gives us of these mountain-summit moments in our Christian lives, those moments when, with Peter, we can say, “It is good, Lord, to be here.” These moments of awakening, the spiritual high-points are like oases of refreshment in what can feel like a very desert like, flat experience. It’s easy to forget, as we go about our daily lives, which can so easily be as secular as our non-Christian friends and family, that we worship a God who reveals himself. Yes, God does that chiefly through Jesus Christ, who climbed the Mount of Transfiguration with disciples two thousand years ago (you take a taxi these days). Yes, God does that on the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was born and thousands of disciples were added to the number of the disciples, and barriers of race, language and nationality were destroyed by the work of the Holy Spirit. But, friends, we are conditioned by our restrained English Anglican norms to expect God to speak to us in very controlled and limited ways, and perhaps with not too much disruption to business as usual. And although we live in an age that has seen revivals come and go and it is easy to fall into cynicism, the fact is that we claim to follow the same Jesus revealed in glory, we follow him in the power of the same Holy Spirit who broke through the conventions and preconceptions of that age. Dare we believe that such moments of spiritual awakening and refreshment can be ours too? I hope so.
I have been wondering since I came back from sabbatical about the life of our wonderful church. We are blessed with the gift of one another, with wells of kindness and generosity, of a broad and inclusive love that reaches out and cares for one another and for our neighbours. People still join us in good numbers, although we are always faced with the challenge of a relatively transient population. We do many things well, to the glory of God: worship is offered faithfully, the Scriptures are preached with integrity and conviction, and there is a love that seasons our life that is, a gift of God that overflows into our community.
But I also think St Mary’s is in need of one of those occasional moments of renewal, when the glory of God is more tangible. It is very easy, and I include myself in this, to go through the motions, with little or no expectation of being transformed by the Holy Spirit. The spiritual writers have a name for it: accede. A sort of spiritual lethargy that slowly saps our ability to trust and serve God. It happens for all sorts of reasons, but chief among them is that we take our eyes off of God. I wonder how your prayer life is at the moment? Is it all rushed arrow prayers, vague thoughts of goodwill towards other, or is there an openness to spend time with God and to listen to God’s word in the Bible, in other words to receive from God rather than just talk? Do we give time to that? Or has it been crowded out? Is there a hunger for God in your lives, a desire to please Jesus in the day to day, and to follow him in active service? These things aren’t the stuff of American revivalists, or even English Methodists. Listen to, of all people, the donnish Anglican C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame, albeit in the exclusive language of the 1950s: “God became man to turn his sons, not to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man.” That process of becoming – not better people than we are, but a different kind of person altogether – has a theological word to go with it, sanctification. We are made holy by the work of the Holy Spirit. That is what might be happening now at Asbury, a fresh work of sanctification. Only time will tell. But it is, this refreshing work of the Spirit, this is a gift available to all of us who follow Christ. Perhaps it is time, this Lent, for us at St Mary’s to be spiritually raised from any lethargy in our church life.
What might we do? Well, I don’t think there is any answer to that but to turn up and be open to God. We perhaps ought to allow more space for God to breathe through our lives, individually and corporately, less rush to get through things, greater willingness to take time to allow God to be, well, God. Christian history, and the history of local churches, are full of such moments where people were surprised to be shaken out of spiritual lethargy into a renewed sense of the presence and power of God. That’s a great thing to take into the season of Lent, by the way. When you turn up on Wednesday for our Ash Wednesday service, as I hope you will, perhaps we should take the opportunity to give God some space to speak to us, and to pray that he will break in and disrupt our settled pattern of Church life just a little bit in the coming weeks. And that’s a good message for Phoenix and Kane-Joshua too, along with their godparents. As you make your vows today, remember that this God isn’t just out there, but is down here, in and among us, ready to speak, to change, and to take our lives in new and exciting directions. At Asbury at the moment, what appears to be affecting people the most in an overwhelming sense of God’s love. Whether we are American revivalists, or dyed-in-the-wool liturgical Anglicans, or somewhere between the two, it is the ever-present and sometimes totally overwhelming sense of God’s love that changes us. That is what most of us hunger for, and that is what God in Jesus promises us.
So let’s not rush into business as usual after this service. Let’s allow God the space to be God in our personal and church life. And, whether we know God’s love alone or in the gathered presence of one another, let’s simply be ready to say, with Peter, “it is good, Lord, to be here.”
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