Sunday next before Lent 19.2.12. Mark 9.2-9 Transfiguration

11 02 2012


Last week the theme was ‘Creation’; this week it is ‘Transfiguration’. A week ago I was preaching at Magdalene College Cambridge about Michael Ramsey in their series on ‘Magdalene Saints’. In a change from my ususal practice I am adding a long section of that sermon to this post.  It is not usable in another context (if it was it would not  be in the spirt of a Sermon Starter) but it might set some thoughts going.

Mark 9.2-9

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Reflections and Questions

‘Peter, James and John’ v2. The same crew who were to  be with with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13.33).  They fall asleep on that occasion. Might they have been in a daze this time?  What do you think actually happened?

‘Moses and Elijah’ v 4. More company.  How did these men’s lives end?  How do they connect with mountain tops?

‘Three dwellings’ v 10. We tend to think of this as typical Petrine clumsiness or as fear of the future raising its head. But do we ever ask ‘why three’? Why one each?

‘There came a voice’ v7   And so we once again end with a link. This time to baptism (see Mark1.11).  Is that just one of those things or does it get us closer to the meaning of either event – or perhaps to the nature of revelation?

From the Sermon ‘Troubled by Glory’ preached by Stephen Cherry in the Chapel of Magdalene College, Cambridge 29 January 2012

Owen Chadwick tells us in his biography that when Michael Ramsey was asked near the end of his life which book he was most glad to have written he answered without hesitation,  ‘The Transfiguration’.

It was published in 1949. Ramsey had lived through the war in Durham, an unlikely Air Raid Warden, who spent many nights as a fire-watcher on the roof of the Cathedral.  On one occasion he set about evacuating all the properties when the ‘all clear’ was sounded.  There were excitements but it was mostly monotony – or to look at in another way – an opportunity to mull over big and deep questions.  During the blitz most of the stock of his previous publications was destroyed.  And as a theologian he might have reflected more than once of on the point, purpose and meaning of writing and publication.

I have wondered whether his book on the transfiguration was, in a way, his gospel.  His careful attempt to communicate a truth so profound and yet so connected with everyday life that it is worth calling Good News.That he was a man with an evangelical mission seems undoubted. He made a difference; he made connections wherever he went. He appointed the first ever non-Anglican to the theology department in Durham – C.K. Barrett who served there his whole life and who died just last year.  Ramsey changed things. He rushed about. He would arrive just in time for Cathedral services, pulling on his surplice as he trotted out of a lecture theatre, and still making his concluding remarks as he left. When he became a Fellow of Magdalene himself he both admired and challenged the somewhat autocratic Master of the day.  He became famous for his stand against injustice in Rhodesia and South Africa in 1960s.

And at the same time he was seen as saintly and mystical – quite distracted by other-worldly matters, not overly concerned by this-worldly concerns.  But he was not a passive, quietist contemplative type. People might have thought so because of his disciplines of prayer and his tendency towards silence. He was not convinced that conversation was a particularly edifying pastime, feeling that it was just as well to be with people silently.  People say that no insult was intended, but I expect that it was sometimes taken.  He must have seemed a hidden man: hidden behind his size and his eyebrows and his strange repetitions and ‘yes.. yes.. yes..’ or ‘mmmm, errrr, ummmm, ,errrr silence ummm, errr, ummmm’  and so on, sometimes for quite a while, apparently.

I heard him preach once in this Chapel. It was in the 1980s.  I can only remember one part of it. He spoke about Judas leaving the Upper Room and stepping out into the night.  ‘It was indeed night’ he said, with real gravitas.  And I began to realise the way in which the Bible is more than words. That it is images and symbols as well. And I quickly began to notice them myself, to read the Bible more richly.   Which is, I suppose, the point of education:  to open the eyes of others, so that they can read more intelligently and see more clearly what is before them.

And so it is not so surprising, perhaps, that a professorial Bishop should find that the Transfiguration is at the heart of the gospel.  The strange story speaks of Jesus being bathed in a light which is bright and yet unearthly. It is uncreated light.  And it is in and by such light that the glory of God is perceived.

But while the story of transfiguration is set on mount Tabor (though Ramsey’s book says it is set on Hermon) there is another hill in the New Testament which the evangelist John – who tells no transfiguration story – points us to as a place of glory. It is Golgotha, the place of the skull, the green hill far away without a city wall.

Matthew and Mark see this as a place of desolation and darkness. Luke sees it as place of compassion and forgiveness. John sees it as glory and accomplishment.  For him it is a place of fulfilment and completion; a place where the story of incarnation finds its end and where the story of resurrection and Holy Spirit find their beginning.

Ramsey was a man of the cross as well as of transfiguration.  The light in which he put his trust, the true light, was not a happy fairy light on a Christmas tree but the indescribable light and energy which comes not from the completion of human projects but from the transfiguration of suffering evil and darkness.

In a sermon on the day of celebration we held in Durham to mark the installation of the Ramsey transfiguration window, his former chaplain Canon John Andrew gave us some an insight into the anguish the great man sometimes experienced when wrestling with an intractable issue of Church or state or a sense of the suffering of others or maybe with simple doubt. But he also spoke of ‘the transfiguration method’, which he says he learnt by living close to Ramsey. It is the method by which you seek to see the world and others in the light of Christ. He told of how his recovery from very serious injury after a mugging in New York was facilitated by this method. It was a transfigured view of things that he found it in himself to forgive his attacker, and from that forgiveness flowed healing of body which surprised the medical professionals who were caring for him. Some saw it as a miracle.

Such graceful change has an aesthetic as well as an ethical dimension. It makes us wonder. And we vicariously delight in what seems like the triumph of another human’s better nature.  Maybe this is the true light; light cannot be overcome by the darkness of evil. Maybe it is the light of which old Simeon spoke that is both the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of thy people Israel.’

Ramsey’s life brought light to many and it continues to shine today.  The beautiful window – which you must head off to Durham to see at the earliest opportunity – contains a number of small scenes and in one there is a group of three pilgrims. One pilgrim has a distinctly and deliberately Ramsey-esque bearing.  Every day people delight to find him, to see light pouring through him as sunlight is transformed by glass in a beautiful metaphor of the glory of God transfiguring human suffering, desolation and degradation.

Another Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, once said of Ramsey that ‘his happiest days were spent in Durham: close to Cuthbert and Bede. They were days when he was the don who said his prayers untroubled by pomp or glory or position’.

Although his ashes are in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral,  Ramsey’s Transfiguration window is very close to the burial place of Cuthbert – that most reluctant and much-loved of bishops, and another man of silence, struggle and sanctity.  But I want to conclude by suggesting that Runcie’s words are not quite right. Ramsey untroubled by glory when a Canon Professor? Surely not.  He was indeed troubled by glory as the war raged and then again as the country emerged into the poverty of rationing and recovery. And it in in that connection between glory and suffering that transfiguration is to be found, and where truly Good News is seen, spoken and shared.

2nd Sunday before Lent 12.2.12. John 1 1-14 Creation

6 02 2012


This is one of two Sundays when the Church of England goes out on a bit of an ecumenical limb by setting a  theme and selecting readings to fit. This week the theme is ‘Creation’; next it is ‘Transfiguration’. And this year we have an opportunity to read the prologue of John’s gospel in a new light.  (For some other reflections on this passage, go back to the Sermon Starter for Christmas Day 2011.)

John 1 1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Reflections and Questions

‘In the beginning’ v 1. Yes, you are absolutely meant to think ‘Genesis!’  But: is this a contradiction of Genesis 1 or a different way of approaching the subject of ultimate origins?  What can you say about the difference?

‘in him was life’ v 4. This complements the idea that ‘all things came into being through him’. It gives the sense of the pervasiveness of the Word. That there is nothing beyond or outside this creative presence, or principle.  So: is anything ever created by any other purpose?  (What about wasps and the dry rot fungus, for instance?) How can you communicate the intricate connectedness of creator and creation, creator and creature that is suggested here?

‘World’ v 10. Later on in John’s gospel the word ‘world’ seems to describe others, not ‘us’.  But what does it mean in this context? Are all three worlds in verse 10 the same world?

‘We have seen his glory’  v 14 This is a possible link forward to next week, where the theme is ‘Transfiguration’.  And so too is the word ‘light’.  The disciples coming down from Mount Tabor had certainly seen something remarkable and glorious.  When have you seen the glory of God?  What was it like?  What is it like?And why does John’s gospel have no story of transfiguration?


3rd Sunday before Lent 5.2.12. Mark 1.29-39 Prayer, Vocation and Mission

22 01 2012

Prayer, Vocation and Mission

Last week’s passage was about teaching and authority. This week’s is about healing and prayer.  But the questions of power and authority are never far from the surface.

 Mark 1.29-39

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Reflections and Questions

‘as soon as’ v 29. The pace remains crisp. There are no pauses.  Synagogue – home – sickness – healing – service: breathless. It seems odd to us that the poor woman sets about serving as soon as she is well. ‘Normality is resumed’ seems to be the message.  To what extent do you see Jesus as the restorer of the normal – or its questioner?

‘the whole city’ v 33 Once again we have a crowd scene.  But this time the demons do not speak (see Mark 1. 24).  Jesus has complete power over them.  The plot is beginning to develop.  What do you understand by spiritual power?

‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’. v 35  Well, what else is there to do after a day’s healing and coping with demons?  Might it be that the pace and dynamism of Jesus’ ministry both requires and enables such withdrawal?  How do you imagine his ‘deserted place’?  What are yours?

‘Let us go on on to the neighbouring towns’  v 28 The energy level is back. The missionary passion is there. But notice that before, or at least alongside, mission comes vocation: ‘that is what I came out to do’.  Maybe that was what the prayer was about: reconnecting with vocation which is both ‘call’ and ‘send’.  What is your call? How does it connect to your ‘send’?

4th Sunday of Epiphany Mark 1.21-28 Astonishing Authority

15 01 2012

Astonishing Authority

We are back in Mark’s gospel for two weeks now.  Two back-to-back passages.  This week’s is about teaching and authority. Next week’s is about healing and prayer.

 Mark 1. 21-28

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Reflections and Questions

‘he entered the synagogue and taught’ v 21. This is a bold sentence suggests no-nonsense decisiveness. No procrastination here. No beating about the bush.  Jesus (and Mark’s) evangelical urgency is apparent. Is yours?

‘astounded’ v 22  There is a lot of astonishment in the early part of this gospel – and amazement too. People are clearly shocked and maybe a bit stunned by what they hear. And this is before any casting out of demons or healing. It’s Jesus words and presence which astound and alarm them. Can you connect with this? Can you convey it?   (N.B. Mark does not tell us what Jesus said.  Why is that not of more importance to Mark?)

‘I know who you are’. v 24 It’s the unclean spirit who is talking and who tells the truth about Jesus. The spirit says who Jesus really is: ‘I know who you are, the Holy One of God’.  But why does the spirit blurt it out?  Is it raw fear? Or threat?  Or maybe the spirit just saying what everyone else is thinking.  Who has that role in your community or group or family? Do you listen?

‘Fame’  v 28 So: Jesus began to become  famous.  Today  a lot of people desire to be famous, thinking that fame is an end in itself.  And so it is in a ‘celebrity culture’. And yet we tend to look down on those who begin to become famous – this too is part of the being a celebrity culture; it is ironic and cruel as well as star-struck.   What, then, are we to make of Jesus’ fame? Did he seek to become famous?  Or did it just happen? To say he became well-known might be easier and better. To say his reputation went before him might be preferable.  But the translators have used the word ‘fame’.  What might be the lessons for the Church or its ministers in this?

3rd Sunday of Epiphany 22.1.12. The Glory of Good Wine

8 01 2012

The Glory of Good Wine

The season of Epiphany, like the opening of John’s gospel,  is about glory being seen and found attractive and compelling.  Here we see water changed into wine. It’s a sign – but somehow the word ‘sign’ does not quite do justice to what is being signfied here… For there are many layers to this story.

John 2. 1-11

2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Reflections and Questions

‘The mother of Jesus was there’ v 2. Notice that she is the primary figure and that Jesus and his disciples are in the category ‘also’.  She is in control of events and is not in the mood to take ‘no’ for an answer.  Is it fair to say that Mary is the leader here, is that the right word?

‘They have no wine’ v 4  A nice simple statement.  No amplification is needed. No emotion added.  She just gives a simple fact of deficiency with the implicit: ‘do something about it!’  It is a statement about what is unacceptable. Does its simplicity and candour tell us something about her leadership?

‘Do whatever he tells you.’ v 5.   Fill the jars with water.’ v 7 Now draw some out…’ v 7  These are clear, concise, bold instructions. Like mother like son?  What tone of voice do you detect here?

‘You have kept the good wine until now.’ v 10. How many layers of meaning can you find in these words?

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed is glory, and his disciples believed him’. v 11 This final sentence reflects the connection that we began to see last week between ‘place’, ‘glory’ and ‘faith’.  How do those three words fit together for you? (Idea: write them at the points of a triangle and see what comes up as you reflect on what you  see. What sort of triangle works best – equilateral, isosceles, scalene?  Or do you prefer to draw curving arrows between the  words and create a circle?)

2nd Sunday of Epiphany 15.1.12. Under the Fig Tree

8 01 2012

Under the Fig Tree

The season of Epiphany is about glory being seen and found attractive and compelling. It is about glory changing people and events.

John 1. 43-end

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Reflections and Questions

Galilee. Bethsaida. Nazareth. What a lot of place names! And later on, what a lot about place, including that curious line, ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ It seems to matter where people have come from.  Why?

Philip. Andrew. Peter. Nathaniel. Moses. Joseph. What a lot of names! This is not typical of the way John writes his gospel. Why is he so clear about who is present on this occasion?

‘Rabbi’. ‘Son of God’. ‘King of Israel’. ‘Son of Man’. What a lot of titles! We are on familiar Johannine territory here. He builds up a Christological collage which gives us a glimpse of the glory of Christ from any angle.  Which title speaks to you most of true glory?

‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ Why do these words impress Nathaniel so much? Might it be that there were lots of people around under all sorts of trees and he was surprised by Jesus’ powers of attention?  (‘Yes, I have noticed you’, is quite a powerful thing to say to someone who thinks they are insignificant and ignored. There is a pastoral side to this… ) Or might it be that  there was a shaming incident under the fig tree that Nathaniel would expect a rabbi to be judgemental about?  It was a fig tree, after all. And it’s always worth thinking ‘Genesis’ when reading John. . Maybe Jesus said,  ‘I saw you when  you were trying to hide’. Does that thought change how you read this?

‘Come and see’.  Simple words. As simple as they come.  And generous and modest.  The words of a true evangelist. Worth repeating?

New Year’s Resolutions for Preachers

2 01 2012

Think of this post as a kind of ‘extra’. It’s not a Sermon Starter for a particular Sunday but something a bit more generic. Depending on passing inspiration, there may be more like this in 2012.

I once read a book about preaching which said that the paradoxical nature of what we proclaim requires us to contradict ourselves from time to time.  I like that idea very much and every now and again like to be sure to live up to it.  So – having blogged against the normally understood idea of New Year’s resolutions (see I am now going to list some traditionally shaped ones for preachers.

  1. Preach varied.
  2. Preach short(er).
  3. Prepare longer.
  4. Prepare varied.
  5. Pray for the gift of good words.
  6. Persuade someone into the pulpit who has never been there before and support him or her through their first offering.
  7. Invite him or her back if he or she can connect people with God.
  8. Read or listen to other people’s sermons. (Notice when you switch on and when you switch off.)
  9. Watch the body language of the congregation when you or others are preaching. Ask yourself , ‘what is God saying to me through these responses?’
  10. Commit to growing in your ministry of preaching this year.

I wish you, and those who hear your sermons, every blessing in 2012.


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