We had a wonderful, large group of people attending the noon service in the Cathedral today. Several were there for the first time or second time and after the service we had a chance to get to know one another a little. Some who had come new last week, came again this week. It’s always so pleasant to begin to make new friends this way. If you have never attended a service in the Cathedral, I do hope you will find a time to do so soon.
I preached on the gospel passage, Mark 9:2-9, which is the story of the transfiguration. The New Testament reading was 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and the Psalm was Psalm 50:1-6. I took as my theme ‘Seeing the glory of God’. The text of the sermon is given here.
You may be familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant. I’d like to share with you John Godfrey Saxe’s version of this famous Indian legend:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
That amusing story came originally from the Buddhist scriptures and was designed to explain why it is that people fight over their opinions, each believing they are right. It shows how difficult it can be to get a full concept of something if one of our senses is not working properly. Denied sight, these men were relying on touch and getting some very odd ideas indeed about the elephant.
I wonder how it would be possible to describe the colour red to a person who has been totally blind from birth. It’s not something I’ve ever tried to do but I think the only way would be to try to compare it to something that the person could sense. Perhaps it could be compared to the excitement and energy in a piece of music. Maybe the warmth from the sun or a fire would add to the idea. Possibly even the fiery taste of a highly seasoned meal, curry, chilli or something similar, would reinforce the concept. No matter how much you tried, you actually couldn’t enable that blind person to see the colour red as those of us who are sighted see it.
God has laboured under a similar difficulty when trying to show us what he is like. It’s like trying to explain to someone with one of their senses missing, in this case a ‘spiritual’ sense, rather than sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. So when God has shown his glory to people it has been as a very bright light, a shining presence, a blazing fire, something that our senses can perceive.
The very first action of God we are told about is creation and the first command God gave was ‘Let there be light’. God used a burning bush to show himself to Moses. He guided the people of Israel in their flight from Egypt using a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When God came to consecrate the temple he did so with his shekinah glory, the wonderful visible glory that the priests could not stand in the presence of. God showed his glory when Elijah and the prophets of Baal were in competition, by coming as fire and burning up the offering on the altar. Angels announcing Jesus’ birth filled the sky with blazing light. John told us in his gospel that the Word, Jesus, is a light shining in the darkness. Isaiah had predicted this: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus he was blinded by the light of the presence of Jesus. We look forward to the heavenly city which needs no sun or moon as God is its light.
When Jesus came to earth to live, Paul tells us in Philippians that he ‘made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ Through Jesus, who looked ordinary, God was trying a different way to show people his glory. As people lacked the ‘spiritual’ sense, Jesus spent his time explaining the kingdom of God and spiritual matters by using things that human senses were aware of. How often he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like ..’, inviting people to make connections between what they knew and could sense, and what they could only guess at. He also demonstrated what God was like by the way he lived his life.
There were always individuals who could see God’s glory, who had the sense that others lacked awakened by a sovereign act of God. Moses saw it in the burning bush and went on to spend time with God on the mountain. He spent so long in the presence of God that his face shone when he returned and he had to veil his face to protect those who looked at him. Elijah was very much in tune with God, saw God answer his prayer and appear as fire on the altar he had built, and ended his days on earth being swept away on a chariot of fire. Elisha saw that glory as Elijah was collected, and as a result he continued Elijah’s ministry on earth. Paul met Jesus in the great blazing light that blinded him and he must have reflected on it for the rest of his life, giving us his wonderful description in the New Testament passage of what those who are blind miss: ‘the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’
In the gospel story, three others join the list of those who see God’s glory. Peter, James and John are taken by Jesus to the top of Mount Tabor and there the ordinary looking Jesus suddenly shows them the glory that is his. The glory had been there all along, masked by human flesh, but not shown until now. The change was not so much in Jesus as in the awareness of the disciples. Not only is Jesus glowing as a brilliant Light, but Moses and Elijah, men who had seen God’s glory, men wonderfully attuned to God in their earthly life, are also shining brightly.
God doesn’t do things without a purpose. The disciples were beginning the journey to Jerusalem where Jesus would be crucified. The task of spreading the word about the kingdom would pass to them. They had to be absolutely sure that Jesus was the Son of God if they were to stand firm under persecution and lead the infant church to grow and turn the world upside down. God awakened their spiritual sense and the three disciples beheld their Lord as he really was. They had this affirmed by the presence of Moses to represent the Law and Elijah to represent the prophets. Just to make it absolutely clear, they heard the voice of God repeating to them the message he had given at Jesus’ baptism and adding a command: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
There is no doubt this had a profound impact on the three disciples; they would never be the same again. At the time they were terrified but later they must have thought back and remembered. Peter says in his second letter: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” And John, in the gospel passage for last Sunday says: “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.”
Celtic Christians and many today believe that there are ‘thin’ places on earth. These are places where the veil which separates earth and heaven is not made of heavy, light-excluding velvet, but of the finest gossamer which allows the light to shine through. Usually these are places associated for a long time with the faith and prayer. Maybe Mount Tabor is one of them but I think that the disciples could have gone up there many times and not have witnessed the glory of God, or even had a sense of being near heaven. I believe that is because there is also the issue of ‘kairos’ which means “the appointed time in the purpose of God”, the time when God acts. God will act when it is right and not just because someone visits a certain place.
I’ve been to Lindisfarne, which is supposed to be one of the thin places and I can’t say that I was any more aware of God’s glory there than anywhere else. Maybe I was looking too hard. However, when I visited Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire a little over a year ago, I sat in the church which is the only usable part of a ruined abbey and I was profoundly aware of God’s glory. It caught me by surprise but was all the more wonderful for that. My most profound experience of God’s glory, one that changed me forever, took place at home in the middle of praying online with a friend – no special place, no expectation, it just happened.
You could say that humans can only be made aware of the glory of God when he chooses to act for his own purpose. However, I think it is also possible and desirable for us to ask God to show us his glory. Praying like this opens us to the possibility that we can see God’s glory even if we have never thought so before. It helps us to begin to be attuned to looking for the glory as we go about our lives. Where might we find it? The Celtic Christians believed that the Light of God is there to be seen in creation. The Psalmist would agree with this; for instance in Psalm 19 we are told that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. I’m sure we have all had our breath taken away by the beauty of nature at some time. I remember seeing the most wonderful sunset once, more beautiful than any I have seen before or since. The beauty of it stunned me and stopped me in my tracks. I never wanted to take my eyes off it. I still retain some sense of what it was like, though it was several years ago. The scientists could explain it but for me there was no doubt that this was something of the glory of God on display.
If we open our eyes we can see God’s glory in creation. We can also see God’s glory in his Word if we open our spirits to the possibility. I noticed that this morning as I listened to the same readings we have had in this service and then listened to the sermon. As the priest delivered his message I was in no doubt that I was experiencing more than just words being preached.
Why would we want to see God’s glory? I doubt if many would want to be terrified as the disciples were on Mount Tabor. Seeking God’s glory as we might seek the thrill of the most scary rollercoaster rather cheapens the whole thing, though it might possibly be the motivation of some. We might want the good feelings that come when we have special spiritual experiences, and there is no doubt that the feelings can be wonderful. However, this is a very shallow reason and I doubt if God will respond often to our wish for the ‘feel good factor’.
Another motivation could be that we want to change. Coming face to face with God’s glory changes people. It changed Moses on Mt Sinai and Elijah on Mt Carmel. It changed Peter, James and John on Mt Tabor and Paul on the Damascus Road. When we are exposed to the glory of God, the pure light has the power to burn away the impurities in our lives, to bring us closer to the person God wants us to be. As the Wesleyan hymn says, we are being ‘changed from glory into glory’. This is good for us but even this is not the full picture.
I remember once, as a result of my vocational journey, asking God what a priest should be. Everyone kept asking me so I thought I would ask God as he should know. I got a picture of one of the scientific diagrams drawn to show how light bounces off a mirror. God seemed to say that when people look at me they should see Jesus reflected in me. I think this is a profound message about the human vocation of all Christians, not just priests. The moon can only light the night time because it reflects the light of the sun. We can only light this dark world if we reflect the glory of God. In order to do that, we have to allow ourselves to experience that glory.
There is a story recorded by a student of St Seraphim of Sarov, who was with Seraphim one morning.
The student said to Seraphim, “I don’t understand how one can be certain of being in the Spirit of God. How should I recognize this should it happen to me?”
Seraphim patiently reiterated the lessons he had already taught this disciple, only to have the student reply, “I must understand better everything you have said to me.”
To which Seraphim replied, “My friend, we are both in the Spirit now…Why won’t you look at me?”
“I can’t look at you, Father,” he replied, “your eyes shine like lightning; your face has become more dazzling that the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.”
Seraphim said, “Don’t be afraid; at this very moment you’ve become as bright as I have. You are also in the fullness of the Spirit.”
This is what the student wrote:
‘Encouraged by his words, I looked and was seized by holy fear. Imagine in the middle of the sun, dazzling in the brilliance of its noontide rays, the face of the man who is speaking to you. You can see the movements of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you can hear his voice, you can feel his hands holding you by the shoulders, but you can see neither his hands nor his body — nothing except the blaze of light which shines around, lighting up with its brilliance the snow-covered meadow, and the snowflakes which continue to fall unceasingly.’
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.