Many people will have come across this phrase turned the other way round, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. There it warns us not to be taken in by appearances. The version in the title here is from The Lord of the Rings and urges us not to miss something of value because of its unimpressive outward appearance.
Jesus could have been seen as just a wandering rabbi, no one special at all. Those who chose to look carefully saw that there was more to him than this. For Peter, James and John, this was confirmed in the event of the Transfiguration, when the human veil fell from Jesus and his heavenly glory was revealed.
I preached a sermon about the transfiguration at the 2pm SLT service in the Cathedral yesterday. The readings were psalm 72, Exodus 34:29-end and 2 Corinthians 3 (the latter was used in The Message version).
One of my favourite books is The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein. It’s a book that I can immerse myself in, allowing myself to be absorbed by the story – pure escapism. I’m long overdue a revisit to the book as it’s some years since I last read it.
The reason I recently thought about The Lord of the Rings was a discussion on Facebook. A friend posted on his status the following: ‘All that’s gold does not glitter, not all who wander are lost.’ This generated quite a bit of interest as the normal way you would see this is: ‘All that glitters is not gold’. This is a quote from the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, although the original version said ‘glisters’ not ‘glitters’. There was some concern that my friend had got the quote muddled up, but as I pointed out, he had not.
What was quoted were the first two lines of a poem from the Lord of the Rings:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
The poem is referring to Aragorn, who is the heir of Isildur, and eventually is crowned king. For much of the book, Aragorn is known as Strider. He is a Ranger, a wandering fighter who helps Gandalf to look after the Shire where the Hobbits live, among other tasks.
When Frodo the Hobbit and his companions first meet Strider, they are afraid of him. He is an odd, intense, travel-worn character and they are worried that he is their enemy. You can understand their concern as all kinds of robbers and so on could be found on the road. They choose to trust him and he proves to be a very good friend. Eventually they see him as he really is, a great king.
In Shakespeare’s original phrase we are being warned not to be taken in by appearances. Just because something looks good doesn’t mean it is good. The traditional method of checking if a gold coin was real is often shown in pirate films. They bite the coin as fakes are usually much softer than real gold coins. I’m not sure how much good it did to their teeth but perhaps it saved them being fooled too often.
In the line by Tolkein there is the opposite problem, we may too easily take someone at face value, making a snap judgement, and actually miss seeing them for who they are, missing their importance completely, as the hobbits might have done with Strider. They might have looked on his wandering behaviour and decided he was some kind of vagabond instead of a brave freedom fighter who had helped to protect their race.
Today we remember the Transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed as he really was. Those who didn’t look carefully enough would have seen a wandering rabbi of no importance, one of many. The godly nature of Jesus was veiled within a human frame and not seen except by those who chose to look carefully. During the transfiguration that human veil was drawn back and the heavenly glory and brilliance of the King of kings was revealed to his three astonished disciples.
It’s apparent from the Old Testament reading that it is not necessary to be God in order to shine with the brilliance of God. Moses spent time with God, listening to his commands, really getting to know him. As a result, when he came down the mountain his face shone. Moses had something of God shining from him as a result of being in intimate conversation with God over a period of time. The difficulty for the people was that they couldn’t bear to look on his face and so he wore a veil to protect them from it.
God had spoken to the people of Israel but they were so afraid that they told Moses that they did not want God to speak to them. Instead they wanted to listen to Moses. Then, once Moses had been with God, they didn’t want to see his shining face. Gradually they were pushing God away from them. They were happy to accept the commandments, the rules, but they didn’t want a relationship with God. Bit by bit, a faith that could have had real power became empty rule keeping. As Paul was to say, they had the form of godliness but not its power. This distance the people built between themselves and God was there in the veil in the Temple. It separated even the priests from the most holy place, except once a year. Is there any wonder that it was important for that veil to be torn in two when Jesus died?
Paul points out to us that if, like Moses, we will turn to God the veil between us is removed. Jesus has eliminated that barrier forever. Then we have the chance to see God as a living presence, someone we can have a wonderful relationship with. As we grow in this relationship we shine as Moses did.
It’s hard to see ourselves as shining with the glory of God. We are more likely to see all the bad bits in ourselves. We’re probably more like the items that glitter but are not gold than the other way round. However, I’m convinced that people can show us God, can be a letter from Jesus to the world. I remember once being prayed for by a woman at an evening Christian event. You would have passed her in the street without a second glance but when I looked at her and listened to her, I knew this was someone who had a deep and real relationship with God. Her words of prayer for me had a profound effect on me.
The way we are transfigured is by daring to look at God and daring to listen to him as we meet him in his Word, Jesus Christ. In doing so we will be refined as gold is, becoming purer and purer. We will no longer have the form of religion without the power. We will demonstrate the glory of God to the world through our abundant life, as St Irenaeus, the second century theologian said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!”
Listen again to that wonderful part of Paul’s letter that we read earlier:
Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor