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The Lenten Journey

Fr Dennis Smith,  Sunday, February 26th, 2017

These coming weeks of Lent invite us on a journey, but one which is almost impossible for us. After all, we are Christian believers because we know how the journey turns out we know the ending before we start: not on Calvary but in the double resurrection of Jesus and of the desolate disciples. So it is extraordinarily hard for us to appreciate how the narratives of the first three Gospels - from the coming of John the Baptist onwards – portray the all-too-human disciples gradually realising how special this Jesus was. So special in fact, so unique, as to be God’s fulfilment of the old prophecies which they had all learned as children, the Christ himself, in Hebrew, the Messiah.

In the previous chapter of Matthew before the passage we heard, Peter blurts out what they are all hardly daring to think – ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the one whom God promised.’

The story we heard as today’s Gospel is carefully linked to that episode: it even begins with a time-check, ‘after six days.’ This episode is the outworking of that declaration made by Peter. The fact that Peter clearly misunderstood what being Messiah might mean didn’t prevent Jesus from acknowledging the truth of it; and Peter and his friends determined to stick with this Jesus to the bitter end.

The synoptic writers Matthew, Mark and Luke are clear: after these few days, including the transfiguration, the narrative becomes far, far more significant than the story of another healer from Galilee- of which there were several. It’s the story of God at work in their midst, in their time. Which is why that last Friday isn’t good for them, even though it is for us, with hindsight.

All the symbolism of the verses from Matthew points to this. Moses and Elijah represent the fullness of the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), ‘the law and the prophets.’ They come to validate Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and then leave him to pursue his unique destiny; so we read that after it is over the ‘disciples saw no-one except Jesus there alone.’

The writing is deliberately echoing the Exodus passage; Moses was radiant with the word of God, with the promises of God, and with the demands of God. Jesus will reinterpret the Moses story, but for him the last hilltop will be far from radiant, a place of agony and death, the mysterious fulfilment of the purposes of a compassionate God.

It’s really hard for us to walk in Lent through this valley of the shadow of death when we are only doing so because of an Easter faith. Nevertheless we need to try. The great 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asks the simple question “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Simple but devastating. How and when and where do we encounter Jesus? What can we make of this last journey to Jerusalem which is almost a metaphor for our own need to face truth and death? This is one of the most challenging passages in the whole Gospel. Where has the glory gone? Like those bemused disciples we can see no-one except Jesus himself alone.

In the remaining chapters of their story they go on believing and following him into the dark, the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, betrayed, deserted, ridiculed, misunderstood, and finally tortured to death as only the Romans knew how. So who indeed is Jesus Christ for us today? How do we follow him? How do we encounter him? As Bonhoeffer himself reminds us in his various writings, there are several occasions where we can sense Emmanuel, God is with us.

If we pray patiently and reflectively we find him there.  When we respond to some natural beauty or wonder at some human creativity, we sense his presence. And if we are privileged to be taken up into a mystical experience which changes us and stays with us, we are certainly not alone. But Bonhoeffer’s most searching answer is to acknowledge that when God seems to be remote or even absent, at those times we can encounter Jesus Christ and even there give thanks. Indeed, it is there that thi Jesus is to be known. As Bonhoeffer says, “only a crucified God will do.”

When our customary sources of spiritual strength are missing, then we are not alone, he says. And so do the Gospel writers as the story unfolds. At the risk of exaggeration, maybe it’s not so hard to believe in God when contemplating a dramatic sunset or soaking up a Bach cantata or sharing time with a friend or lover. But faith is tested to destruction, as we all know, in cancer ward, when a child is run over or abused, when terrorists strike out of the blue or when a distant drone dispenses death on those who happen to be in the same house as the target. So many opportunities to cry out “My God, why have your forsaken us?”

Lent demands that we come to terms with all of this. Today’s readings are all about the glory of God. And for us, followers of Jesus, the glory of God is compassion, what theologians call incarnation. Everyday life, the highs and the lows, the ups and downs, the light and dark, all transfigured and seen afresh in the light of this compassion.

 Once we realise that Jesus of Nazareth is actually Christ, God’s gift of himself for the well-being of all creation, we will be meeting him all the time. For he’s to be encountered every day if our Lenten discipline is authentic; though unlike the old children’s song these are not “the stories of Jesus we love to hear.” Rather these are the drum-beats of approaching tragedy, the Zacchaeus moments of unpopularity, the Pilate moments of facing down power, the Gethsemane moments of doubting one’s own strength.

These are the times we share his fear and pray we might know his courage and continue to love. These are the times we weep with him over a sad death or a broken society, and pray that love might yet prevail. These are the times we suffer with him, when love constrains us to do unwise and self-less things, maybe to give and not to count the cost when everything we have told about the undeserving poor warns us off.

There may even be times when we find ourselves misunderstood or betrayed or disowned or isolated, when God’s reassurance has gone behind the cloud and we are in the dark of our own Calvary. Because of Jesus, God is here in the dark with us.

This story of his radiance isn’t to deny but to transform the darkness. Of course we are Easter people; we believe we know how the story ends. But in this messy, cruel, divided, unfair, angry, desolate world, when we ask “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” we may still whisper to ourselves  “Emmanuel” and, looking up, see no-one but Jesus himself alone, our friend.

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