February 26, 2017, A Lamp in the Darkness – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon: Z0000010
The sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, is called The Silver Chair, and it’s about two children, Jill and Eustace, who are sent on a quest to rescue a prince who is being held captive by an evil witch. If you are one of those people who thinks children’s books are silly and boring, you might be tuning me out right about now, but bear with me, please. These are fantasy books, but Lewis uses the fantasy world of Narnia to illustrate really profound truths about human beings, and about God, and about how God interacts with us.
The Silver Chair begins with Jill and Eustace being magically transported to Narnia from their boarding school, just when some very nasty bullies are about to catch up with them and do what very nasty bullies do. Jill, through a series of events I won’t go into now, finds herself on the top of an unimaginably high mountain. And on this mountain she meets a very special Lion, who sends her on a quest to find the rightful prince of Narnia.
In order to carry out her quest, the Lion gives Jill a set of signs that will guide her. He makes her recite them back to him, over and over, until she has learned them absolutely by heart, because the signs are everything she will need to carry out her quest successfully. And before he sends her off on her journey, the Lion says two things to Jill: “First: remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning, and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
The epistle reading today came from the second letter of Peter, written to the churches at the very end of the apostle’s life. In this letter, Peter called to mind the mountaintop experience that he had treasured as a guide throughout all the years of his ministry, and that now he urged his listeners to remember as well. Clearly, he had told them before about the day that Jesus brought James and John and Peter himself up onto the mountain, and what they had seen with their own eyes – Jesus, transfigured, his face and his body and even his clothing blazing like the noonday sun, and chatting with the heroes of ancient times, Moses and Elijah. Peter had probably told his story many times before, but here, near the end of his life on earth, he brings it up once more, because it is so important for him to pass on to them what he saw.
“We weren’t making up some kind of a clever fairy-tale,” Peter tells them. “We – James and John and I – we saw it happen with our own eyes. We were eyewitnesses of the glory of God. And we heard it, too – with our human ears we heard the voice of God himself speaking from the heavens. I remember it like it was yesterday.” “This is my beloved Son,” we heard the voice said, “I am well-pleased with him.” So, listen to me, and pay attention to this, Peter writes. “like a lamp shining in a dark place…”
Because it’s just like the Lion told Jill, “In the air of this world it is hard to see clearly; it’s hard sometimes to hear the voice of God clearly; it’s easy to let ourselves become confused. So remember, remember, remember the signs.”
And this event of the Transfiguration, Peter told us, is a sign that we need to keep in our hearts. But what does that mean to all of us, who weren’t there on that mountaintop two thousand years ago? How is the Transfiguration a lamp shining in a dark place for you, and for me?
This morning, in the collect for the day, you prayed with me: “O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory…”
We didn’t just pray that we would listen to Peter’s testimony and believe what he said. We affirmed that we, members of St. Philip’s Church, Norwood, we ourselves were beholders of the glory of Jesus Christ on that mountain – by faith. By faith, we receive what the gospel writers tell us of this mountaintop experience – not by our own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is present when we read God’s word – by faith we ourselves behold the light that shone forth from our Lord’s face on that day.
But faith can be such a slippery word, I think, because way too often what we mean when we say we have faith in God, or in someone else, what we mean is that we feel like we can trust them, or we feel like they make things happen the way we want them to. But the our feelings of faith are often lost as soon as we don’t get what we want, and we feel disappointed or betrayed instead. When our feeling of warm confidence fades before the cold hard reality of death, what happens to our faith? And the answer, as far as I understand it – and understanding faith is a life-long process – the answer is that faith has nothing at all to do with our feelings. Faith isn’t feeling – faith is reaching out and hanging on.
There is the gospel story about the woman who had suffered from a chronic hemorrhage for 20 years, who was in a mob of people surrounding Jesus one day. And that woman risked the very real possibility of being trampled just to reach out and grab the hem of Jesus’ robe, because he was her last hope in the whole world. Remember that Jesus said to her, when she stood there, healed, in front of him: “Your faith has made you well.” Faith, it turns out, is not a feeling at all – faith is reaching out and taking hold of that which is our only hope.
It is crucial to know that there is not any power at all in faith itself. The power of faith lies in what we take hold of. People put their faith in other people, or in themselves, or in their political leaders, or in some kind of man-made religion. But all these things let us down, sooner or later. The sign of the glory on the Mountain reminds us, in the midst of the darkness and confusion of this world, to reach out to the One who is really and truly our only hope.
And so, we read this story that Matthew and Mark and Luke all recorded, the story that Peter reminded us about in the latter days of his life: how Jesus took his friends up on a mountain one day and let them see him as he really is for just a moment, not only a flesh-and-blood man – though he was still flesh and blood – but a divine being so glorious they couldn’t bear to look at him – that he was, undeniably, the Son of the Almighty God. They saw it with their eyes and they heard it with their ears. And it is no accident that we read it every year on this Sunday before we enter the 40 days of our Lenten fast. We read it, and we are invited – we are called – to reach out in faith and take hold of the sign of the Transfiguration as our very own, as a lamp in the dark places we have all gone through, and that we are all still going to go through in the quest of our earthly life.
Because it makes all the difference in the world to us, when we face death, and loss, and fear, and pain, and sadness – and we will face all those things – it makes all the difference in the world to know that we belong to that very One who is all-good and all-powerful and all-glorious, beyond every earthly power, even that old monster Death. Matthew tells us, Mark tells us, Luke tells us, Peter tells us: remember, remember, remember the sign – that the One who loves us and knows us better than our very selves is also the glorious Lord of everything that exists. Keeping the sign of who Jesus really is bright and fresh in our mind doesn’t just happen; it’s something we have to practice, when we wake in the morning and thank God that we are his beloved Child, when we lie down at night and thank him for the kindnesses and grace that brought us through that day, when we wake up in the middle of the night – which is the absolute best time for worrying and feeling afraid – and we remind ourselves, “I will fear no evil – for you are with me.” Remember the sign at all times, but especially remember in the darkest of times, and reach out and take hold of the glorious vision that was given to you.