Sunday 6 August 2000
Listen to Him
The problem with having two thousand years of Christian history behind us is that we don't always appreciate the significance of the stories about Jesus that we hear so regularly each year.
I'm thinking particularly of this story of the Transfiguration, because it is so easy for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us. It's not like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a human baby. It's not like Easter, when we celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us today. It's not even like the Ascension, when we celebrate Jesus' going to glory, so that the Holy Spirit can be sent upon us.
Does this story actually mean anything at all to us today?
2. The Story of the Transfiguration
Jesus had gone up the mountain, with his three closest friends, Peter, James and John. And suddenly something happened to him, and he looked quite different, was dressed in white, and was chatting to two figures who, we are told, were Moses and Elijah. What I am not at all sure is how they knew they were Moses and Elijah - it's not, after all, very probable that they had their names printed on their T-shirts. I suppose either they were heard to introduce themselves, or Jesus knew who they were and said "Hullo Moses, hullo Elijah!"
Anyway, at first the three friends think they are dreaming, because they were half-asleep anyway, but then they realise they aren't. And Peter, getting a bit over-excited, as he tended to in those days, babbles on about building shelters for the three men, and so on and so forth. He didn't really, we are told, know what he was saying; he was just so excited that he wanted to prolong the moment, go on being there, keep it going.
And then the cloud comes down; they can't see a thing, not Moses, nor Elijah, nor nothing. And they are scared, and cold, the way you are up a mountain when the clouds come down. And then, the voice that comes out of the cloud: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" And they couldn't see Moses or Elijah any more, only Jesus.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" It wasn't Moses they were to listen to, and it wasn't Elijah. It was Jesus. Now, for us, that makes a great deal of sense; we are quite accustomed to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses. But for Peter, James and John - and, perhaps, for Jesus Himself - it was far otherwise. They had grown up being taught that Moses and Elijah were the greatest historical figures there were. Moses, in their hagiography, represented the Law, the very foundation of their relationship with God. And Elijah represented the prophets, those men and women of old who had walked with God and who had told forth God's message to the world, whether or not the world would listen. There really could be no people greater than Moses or Elijah. No wonder they didn't say anything to anybody until many years later, when it became clearer exactly Who Jesus is.
Because they'd been told not to listen to Moses, not to listen to Elijah, but to listen to Jesus.
Well, that's all very well, but we know that. It doesn't mean anything to us today, so why do we remember it?
Well, sometimes I actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus. It's not that we don't mean to, but we get distracted. And I think sometimes we find ourselves listening to Moses, or to Elijah.
3. Not Moses
If Moses represents the Law, then I think we listen to Moses a great deal more than we mean to! We know, in our heads, that what matters isn't how well we keep the various rules and regulations we impose upon ourselves, but whether we are walking with Jesus. But sometimes we act as though what we do matters more! As if whether or not we pray, or how we do it, was more important. As if the various restrictions we impose on ourselves were more important. As if whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important. But what really matters is our walk with Jesus. If we are walking with Jesus, then we are His people, and that fact matters far more than the various ways we may try to express that walk.
And sometimes - I am a bit hesitant to say this, in fear you misunderstand me - sometimes we even put the Bible in place of Jesus. It's an easy mistake to make, because after all, we do sometimes call the Bible the Word of God. But it's actually clear from the Bible that Jesus is the Word of God. And the Bible is, if anything, words about the Word. But it's from the Bible that we learn about Jesus, it's from the Bible that we learn who God is, and what sort of people we will become when we become His people. And it's not too surprising if, sometimes, we get confused. I have a dear friend, a lovely person who wants nothing more in life than to follow Jesus, but I have heard her say "Oh, I do love the Bible" with the kind of fervour you would expect her to use only of Jesus. I always want to say, "but surely it's Jesus who you worship, not the Bible! Surely it is Jesus you are following, in that sense."
Of course, we do follow the Bible, we would be very silly if we didn't. If we didn't read our Bibles and learn from them, we wouldn't know how to follow Jesus, and we'd go off on all sorts of tangents. And of course, even if we do read our Bibles and learn from them, we can still go off at all sorts of tangents, and get things tragically wrong. Look at the Crusades - hundreds of years ago, they genuinely believed that fighting and killing Moslems was what God wanted them to do; they seem to have taken some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Old Testament a bit literally! Or, in our own day, those who thought up the hateful system of apartheid genuinely believed that this was what God wanted, and would justify themselves from the Bible.
We tend, I think, to find ourselves reflected in the Bible. If we come to it looking for a God who is judgmental and harsh, who wants nothing more than to condemn people, and looks for any excuse to do so, we are, sadly, apt to find him. And similarly, if we come to it looking for a God who is loving and kind, wanting nothing more than not to condemn people and looking for any excuse not to do so, then that is what we are apt to find! So while the Bible is terrible important, we have to be careful with it. We can't rely on the Bible without knowing that we are to rely on the One to whom the Bible points. The Bible alone, Moses alone, cannot save us. "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
4. Not Elijah
And if Moses alone cannot save us, how much less can Elijah! Elijah was on that mountain-top representing the prophets. We are to listen, we are told, to Jesus.
That doesn't mean that prophets are not important to us. Prophets, of course, are those people who speak forth God's word, whether as preachers - although not all preachers are prophetic, many are - or whether more informally, in the sort of setting where the so-called charismata are used. Of course if someone is telling you what he or she believes God is saying to the assembled company, that is very important, and you would do well to listen. But you also have to weigh it up, to make sure that this is what God is really saying. They do say, don't they, that one of the marks of a cult is when the leader's words are given an importance equal to, or greater than, the Bible. Which would not, I suspect, happen if the leader's followers weren't prepared to let it!
I don't know about anybody else, but when I come to preach, I have to remember two things. The first is that all I have is words. They may be very good words, or I may have written a load of - er - round objects, but all they are is words. And unless God takes those words and does something with them, we might as well all go home! My job is to provide the words; God's job is to do the rest.
The other thing I try to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was training. Two men were coming out of church on a morning when the preacher had been more than usually dull, and the first man had not only been bored, but had had a severe case of chapel-bottom! And he said to his friend, "You know, there are times I really don't know why I bother! I have heard a sermon nearly every Sunday for the past 40 years, they have mostly been very dull, and I can hardly remember any of them!" To which his friend, who was somewhat older, replied, "Well yes. I've been married for 40 years, and my wife has cooked me dinner almost every night of those years. I can't remember many of them, either - but where would I be today without them?"
In other words, our sermons are to be daily bread. They aren't supposed to last a life-time, and be life-changing - if they are to be, that's God's job, again, not ours.
"Listen to Him". It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and prophets of our age. They are at best conductors - they bring us to Jesus. They are not Jesus, and we are very silly if we trust them more than Him. They cannot save us; only Jesus can do that.
It is not Moses we must listen to, Moses who represents the Law, or the Scriptures. It is not Elijah, Elijah who represents the prophets and preachers. It is Jesus. "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Of course, the Bible is important. Of course, our prophets and preachers are important. But they are only important in so far as they lead us to Jesus. That is what matters. They do not, and cannot, of themselves save us; only Jesus can do that.
And do note that I said only Jesus - all too often we use a form of shorthand, when we say that we are saved by faith! Mostly we know what we mean - but it is not our faith that saves us. It is Jesus. Sometimes we talk and think and act as though our faith saves us. It doesn't. Jesus does. We are saved by what Jesus did on the Cross, not by what we believe about it. Nor by what we read about it. Nor by what our preachers tell us about it. Salvation is God's idea, and God's job, not ours.
And that, I think, is the message of the Transfiguration. "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" Amen.
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