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Sermon for 26 February 2017

 
 
Psalm 2, Matthew 17.1-9

It’s in Homer’s Odyssey where we first encounter Scylla and Charybdis: they were said to be mythical sea monsters dwelling on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and mainland Italy. Scylla was a supernatural female creature, with 12 feet and 6 heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of shark-like teeth, while her loins were girdled by the heads of baying dogs. From her lair in a cave she devoured whatever ventured within reach. Charybdis, who lurked under a fig tree a bowshot away on the opposite shore, drank down and belched forth the waters thrice a day and was fatal to anyship that passed by.

 

For sailors such as Odysseus, Scylla and Charybdis posed an intractable problem: they had to face one of the monsters, it was simply a case of which was the least worst. Odysseus chose Scylla, sacrificing only a few of his sailors rather than risk losing his whole ship to Charybdis. In time, Scylla was rationalised into a rock formation and Charybdis a whirlpool and both came to represent the dangers of navigating uncharted waters and the impossibility of being caught between two equally unpleasant options. We still talk about them today though perhaps we don’t know it; when we’re faced with two difficult options, we say that we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

As we anticipate our journey through Lent, today we’re faced with hills and mountains, rocks and hard places. Our psalm speaks of how the kings of the earth conspire to persecute the faithful, but the psalmist says that it is the believers who will have the last laugh:

‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill,’ he tells us.

‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’

Our Gospel reading goes on to reveal in full what it means for God to set his king on Zion as Matthew tells us about the transfiguration: Jesus, Peter, James and John ascending another rock to see Jesus transformed into dazzling white and the voice of God proclaiming that this is his son.

 This all seems a bit odd for the Sunday before Lent: a psalm which is about the overthrow of God’s oppressors and the setting of God’s chosen one on Zion, his holy hill and the story of the transfiguration. I don’t know about you, but on first reading, this alliance of texts doesn’t sit well with me: far too much triumphalism for my liking, especially when we are about to enter into our sober, Lenten discipline.

But look more closely – it makes perfect sense that these two images should be found at the beginning of Lent: at the top of the rock of transfiguration, Peter, James and John see Christ just as the psalmist had anticipated: shot through with glory as the chosen one of God, all freedom given to him. Then Jesus takes this glory, this freedom, takes it down from the rock of transfiguration and climbs another hill, called Golgotha where the true glory, the true freedom of the king is revealed as he is nailed to a cross and gives up his life.

Today we see clearly that the glory of Christ is not exercised by lauding it over everyone, breaking them with an iron rod and dashing them into pieces like a potter’s vessel; that sounds far too much like the human way of exercising glory. Instead, the glory of Christ can only be understood in terms of his self-giving love. But we who live on this side of Easter know that not only does glory lead to sacrifice, it also leads to resurrection – God transfigures the greatest human defeat, which is death, through the glory which took him there in the first place. Put simply: the glory of God is caught between the rock of the transfiguration and the hard place of his crucifixion.

So how does this speak to us as we prepare to embark on our Lenten journey? Well, when things are going well for us, we can often sound like the psalmist, revelling in our own triumph and the defeat of those who are wrong, wearing the smug smile of someone who has been vindicated by God! But that is vainglory; human glory and we are called to turn away from that. When things are going well for us, it is tempting to stay just where we are because if we move, then we might end up in a place that isn’t all right or particularly comfortable. We get a sense of this from Peter in our Gospel this morning when he says that it is good to be here; let’s pitch tents and stay put! But we are called to step outside of our comfort and venture into the dark places, which need the light of God’s glory.

Christ is our example here: he doesn’t stay at the top of the mountain of the transfiguration, gloating like the psalmist in vainglory; instead, we find Christ eschewing the offer of human glory in the dessert place it for a life alongside those on the edge, those for whom the light of glory seems all too elusive. Nor do we find Christ staying at the top of the mountain of the transfiguration, with all its safety and comfort; instead we see Christ descending the mountain and climbing the hill of Golgotha, cross on his back, ready to give up his life.

So, enjoy this moment of glory; gaze upon the shining face of Christ, but know that we can stay here only a little longer. Soon, we must descend the rock and enter into Lent, where we will find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place: Christ’s glory fulfilled in self-giving. We must take up our cross and follow him. But don’t be despondent because we will find that the glory, which leads us to the cross and what looks like defeat, is the very glory, which will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.


Posted: 26-02-2017 at 18:28
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