Our destiny: Glory!

Today’s my first Sunday back after being on holiday down in Seaton, on the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic coast is so called because it is the place for fossils. The steep streets of Lyme Regis are full of fossil shops, where you can buy bright polished ammonites varying in size from little golden pyrites half an inch across to great monsters of two foot wide.

They are wondrous to look at – shimmering colours, whirling patterns, fine details and texture. You can pay uto buy one – or you can pick among the flotsam and pebbles to find similar specimens on the beach. The seashore ones won’t look the same – the fossil shops have washed them, picked off encrusting mud, cut and polished the fossil shells to a finish. Yet the beauty within is there ready to see.

It’s like that with the pebbles on the beach. They shine in glorious pinks, greens and sapphire shades. You take them home, and drying out they fade to a disappointing off-grey. But immerse them in water and the glorious beauty emerges again. In the right situation, at the right time, for those who are there to see it, there is glory to perceive.

And so it was with Jesus. Usually there was nothing extraordinary about his appearance and as the three disciples climbed the scented slopes that day, they probably thought they were going to spend some time in prayer. After all, mountain tops are where you go to be alone with God. But as v.2 in our gospel reading from Matthew 17 says: ‘Jesus was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun.’

Suddenly Jesus’ true nature shone through. Awestruck, Peter James and John saw Jesus as he really is – the Son of God. We might speak of a bride being radiant on her wedding day, or of someone exuding cheerfulness, and in the Old Testament there is the story of the face of Moses shining with reflected glory after spending time in the presence of God.

But this is on a whole different level. This transfiguration is not of human origin, nor even is it from reflected divine light. Instead it’s part of who Jesus is, his real nature revealed. God himself affirms in v. 5: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!’

This had been God’s plan right from the beginning – that’s the point of Moses and Elijah being there – they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, who predicted the coming of Christ and looked forward to him. God intended to send his Son and to reveal him.

Those words might remind you of another event? They’re almost identical to the words of God at Jesus’ baptism. Both times God says that Jesus is his own Son, divine but come to earth as a human being. There are many pieces of evidence in the gospels that point us to that conclusion: the miracles Jesus performed like calming the storm, his power to heal and authority over evil. Jesus himself believed that he was God’s son: he claimed to be able to forgive people, which only God could do; and when he taught he did so with authority: ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’ And of course his Abba Father gave him the ultimate vindication in raising him from the dead

In a way, the Transfiguration looks forward to the Resurrection. The glory revealed here is the glory that Jesus will share when he has conquered death. But looking down from this steep hill, there’s a long and dusty road back to Jerusalem. A path of pain and sorrow that Jesus is about to tread, the way of Holy Week, that leads up to the cross. Only by coming down the mountain, by embracing a suffering world and transforming it, can the glory be made available to all.

Understandably, St Peter doesn’t want to come down. In v.4 he offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay up there with them forever.

I think that speaks to us of three choices that we have today. We too can be like Peter, and try to hang on to the spiritual experience. For instance, there are churches which are incredibly well resourced, with amazing music and technology, and they can be very popular. People travel miles to get to them – they drive though many parishes to get there. Maybe that’s not a problem if that experience enables them to serve better, to engage more closely with their community, to love their neighbours more deeply. But it is a problem if it’s just about seeking an experience. If worship isn’t geared up to making a difference.

Christians rightly seek to be built up in our faith and spiritually nourished – and sometimes we do need extra input beyond what we can do in one smallish church. To resource us in these churches we have Group Services where we all get together, housegroups for mutual support. Some of us go to the Filling Station or New Wine. I need to receive and be topped up so I go on annual retreats and the odd trip to HTB. For if all you do is give out, then you dry up. But if all you do is receive, you stop gaining any benefit because it’s as we give out that we grow.

The other danger to watch out for is what happened to the disciples after the reading. They came down the mountain, encountered difficulties, and promptly forgot the power they had just experienced. When we are preoccupied by challenges, they crowd us in and we neglect the resources we have in Christ.

We can become like the guy who was king in the time of Elisha. Samaria was besieged and all king Joram could see were crowds of enemies. Elisha the prophet prayed ‘Lord, open the king’s eyes’, and he saw the angels of God, an invisible army protecting the city.

That’s why the Transfiguration happens at this particular point. It’s a blessing and encouragement for Jesus and his disciples. Knowing who Jesus really is gives them strength and persistence for the road ahead. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’ says Jesus in verse 7.

Knowing who Jesus is means that we can be secure in following him. It also means that we can be secure in our own identity as children of God. For one day we too shall share in Jesus’ glory. St John says in 1 John 3:2 that we shall be as Christ is. Isn’t that amazing? That one day we shall be like Jesus!

Jesus didn’t become human by kind of popping God inside human skin. Or by a divine soul descending into a human body. Jesus became human by assimilating humanity, by taking humanity into divinity. And so as people who are united with Christ we shall one day share his glory. Because we have that identity, because we have a glorious future, we can act with real integrity now.

What I’m trying to say is that when we understand what our future is in Christ, when we understand our real identity, it changes the way we view ourselves and the way we act. We will move in the direction of our destiny.

Society today is very keen on the idea of authenticity. That we should be true to our inner selves. That what we are outwardly should be the same as what we are inwardly – otherwise we’d be hypocrites. But there’s a problem with that. A writer summed it up very well in this article from The Week, originally printed in the Observer.

“‘Be true to yourself’ is one of the most common pieces of advice given in graduation speeches. But it is a strange vanity to think that it is this is deeper unfiltered version of ourselves, as opposed to the one we show the world, that is the better part of our nature. My own authentic self, sadly, is a fan of pyjamas and inertia. She doesn’t take out the bin or write thank you notes or file tax returns. Her heart tends to sink when she spots the lonely woman from next door. Authenticity is, at its heart, the idea what we should make the way we behave match what we feel on the inside. But really a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”

So, seeing problems with authenticity, she sets up an alternative. One that will sound familiar to a lot of Christians. Perhaps we too think of themselves as trying to do the right thing outwardly while struggling with all sorts of inappropriate thoughts and wrestling with darkness within. Do you know what I’m saying? The outer me I present to the world, versus the inner me which I need to keep under control? Which one is real?

Actually neither of those understandings are fully Christian. The Transfiguration points us to an alternative way. Those who trust in Christ will one day be like him. We shall be glorified. That is our destiny. So our outer actions and our inner thoughts are all on a journey, a journey of transformation. What we are inwardly is not fixed, a grubby self to be beaten down. Instead the Holy Spirit strives within us, helping us to be more like Christ.

I find understanding this really helps me. It gets over the sense of being divided, a good person versus a bad person and which one’s the real me? It means the struggle against sin isn’t about fighting a losing battle. It means I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say ‘sorry that’s who I am.’ The Transfiguration tells me that my destiny is better than that, in Christ.

Imagine a gangster and thief released from prison, who manages to go straight and get a job. He works his way up a company and does pretty well. At the weekends does he go back to the old ways, smoke pot and get in fights? Hardly. That’s not him any more. He is looking to what he has become. A new life.

Christians are called to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. So the real you is not some shabby, sinful, ashamed or inadequate self-image. That is the old man, who died with Christ. The real you, the real me is the new creation. The one who is being formed in Christ’s image, made like him. So become what you are! Let the glory of the Transfigured Christ transform you! Lord let it be so.

 

 

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?

The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.

Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?

The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’

This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.

Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.

Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it 

I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.

It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.

Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.

And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.

What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.

Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.

This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.

I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.

It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.

And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.

Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.

Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.

To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.

Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!

Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’

And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.

What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.