Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent, Year B

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

11th February, 2024

The liturgical year feels more like a rollercoaster than ever this year: a scant 11 days of Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Lent. And our lectionary readings are, it seems to me, offering us both fuel for that intensity and also a chance to step aside, and recentre ourselves in this brief interlude. I include in that interlude and fuel last Sunday’s readings as well, with their breathtaking view of the glory of God that Virginia so beautifully shared with us last week.

This week, we have more of this abundance: the transfiguration, the departure of Elijah, and that little snippet from 2 Corinthians.

In reflecting on the Transfiguration particularly, I’ve been greatly inspired and entertained by a new little book from Nick Papadopulos, the Dean of Salisbury. Called “The Infernal Word: Notes from a Rebel Angel”, it’s written in the voice of, well, a rebel angel, one who took part in the revolt against heaven, and lost, comprehensively. The book is this rebel angel’s story of the war that he? she? has lost, looking particularly at mountaintop encounters. Here’s some of what he or she has to say about the Transfiguration. The rebel angel, for reasons that are explained elsewhere in the book, calls God ‘Tug’.

So – up Mount Tabor trudge the Christ-person and the talentless trio. Dull-witted Peter, James and little John must have been thoroughly pleased with themselves. Handpicked by teacher for this special Sunday school outing which leaves the other nine waiting on the bus. Well, the trio certainly got more than they were bargaining for and, as we shall see, they fail quite spectacularly to rise to the occasion.

For up at the summit, as the Christ-person prays, the veil that separates Heaven from Earth is pulled aside. If that sounds uncharacteristically poetic then I apologise, but there really is no other way to describe it. Light streams forth from him, light of a brightness unseen since the day of creation, light that would have scorched my deathless eyes had I looked upon it. And a voice speaks from a cloud. Now: Tug has always been keen on clouds (think Sinai). The voice could only be Tug’s voice, a voice that would have made my blood run cold (had any blood run through my bloodless veins).

And what do you know? Our old acquaintances Moses and Elijah put in special guest appearances. Moses has evidently calmed down since our last, stone-flinging, encounter; Elijah has had the good grace to wash the blood of the prophets from his hands. There they stand, deep in conversation with the Christ-person, gloating. Except that I bet they don’t. The Christ-person doesn’t gloat. Tug doesn’t gloat.

There’s no mistaking what’s going on. It’s a land grab. Or, a land re-grab. Heaven has unfurled its banner and planted it firmly on earth. Tug is making a statement: this is her world. Her glory extends to its farthest corner; she is sovereign over it, all of it. Hers is ultimately the only show in town.

This has consequences for the likes of me. My kind cannot hope to challenge her directly. After all – as you may recall – these notes began when the Chief declared all-out war and summoned up siege engines against heaven’s battlements. We know how that ended. No. The task facing us is far more subtle than many of us have hitherto believed. It is that of guerrillas and saboteurs. It is to knock the humans off course and tantalise their ears. It is to keep the humans from seeing what was revealed on the peak of Mount Tabor. It is to keep them from seeing that Tug is all and in all. It is to keep them from seeing that the Earth – their home – is the place where Tug’s Kingdom is being realised. It is to keep them from seeing that Tug is at their fingertips, in the room with them, closer to them than they are to themselves. It is to keep the humans’ heads down, to keep them fixated on their passing needs, on their trivial obsessions and on their abstract speculations.

This is not to say that all ‘trivial obsessions’ or ‘abstract speculations’ are evil, at all, but part of what Lent is offering us is an opportunity, in our giving up or taking on, to discern which of the many things that bombard our lives are of true value, and which  of them keep us from realising – seeing – becoming – the full glory of God.

The full glory of God. That’s a bold statement, and a weighty thing. The full glory of God is not twinkling fairy lights, just as in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is not a safe, tame lion. We see something of this in the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven. All along the way, Elisha is offered chances to remain behind, to be shielded from what is about to happen. But he knew, somehow, that he needed to stay by Elijah’s side for the whole of this journey: he would not be left behind. Whether we might say that he was ‘rewarded’ for this is perhaps a whole other discussion. It’s clear that the experience was overwhelming, reducing him to just a few repeated, panicked, awestruck words.

This God who we worship and follow is the God who plays with the sea monsters like they were cute little puppies, who can calm a storm with a word, who created everything that is. There is a weight to the glory of God, a weight that it takes time – possibly eternity – to be able to hold and encounter. Perhaps the glimpses of it that we catch are like training dumbbells, a warm up so that when that glorious day comes we are at least somewhat prepared.

These are just a couple of ways of looking at Lent: removing distractions such that we can see God more clearly, preparing to encounter the risen Christ. The discipline of Lent can help towards both these things, and much more. They are ways of taking our eyes off the ground, and off ourselves and our efforts, and directing our attention to the one thing necessary. They are also a training ground for joy. St Benedict in his chapter on the observance of Lent talks about prayer, self denial, tears, and abstinence, as we might expect. He then also goes on, in the same chapter, to talk about “the joy of the Holy Spirit”, and looking “forward to the holy feast of Easter with the joy of spiritual longing.” Telling someone to be joyful is a bit ridiculous, but we can choose to cultivate – or not – an atmosphere that is more inclined to joy, joy here as something very different from happiness. Our disciplines can serve as reminders of the glory that is to come, and this glory is, surely, a source of joy. It’s also an invitation to repent, as we realise how far we, and our world, are from the glory of God. Lent is not necessarily easy, but then nowhere do I hear Jesus promising us easy.

The invitations of Lent are many. This is mine today: each time the lack of chocolate pinches at you, turn your eyes to the transfiguration, to the resurrection, to the promise of glory. Look out of the window and marvel at the sun, the patterns of the clouds, the miracle that is life. Let it kindle your joy, your delight, your desire. Keep your heart fixed on Jesus Christ, on the God who said “let light shine out of darkness”, the God “who […shines] in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Amen.

Sr. Jessica

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