2 Corinthians 4.3-6
The readings today are about Glory - the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, we find those extraordinary words about the face of Jesus Christ revealing the Glory of God. By looking to Jesus - St Paul seems to be saying, the very Glory of God can be revealed to us.
And in today’s Gospel reading we read of that very Glory being revealed in the person of Jesus, as he is transfigured on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John.
So today I do indeed want to talk about Glory. But, as it is also Valentine’s day, AND it also the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of the season of Lent, I actually want to talk about three things, and a way that they might relate to each other. And those three things are these:
Glory, Love and Lent.
And following on from these things, I want to issue us with a challenge. A challenge that is very close to my heart! Because I really believe that the combination of Valentine’s day and these readings about Glory really invite us into a penitential place, a place of humility; a place that is really appropriate as we prepare for the season of Lent.
So, let me try to explain…
I’ll start by asking a question: What is the proper way to respond to God’s Glory?
Well, this of course is a bit of a trick question. You might remember some of the extraordinary stories in the Old Testament where we read that if someone was to see the glory of God then they would die!
For example, we might remember the story of Moses meeting God in Exodus Chapter 33, where Moses asks to see the Glory of God, and God replies that if Moses comes face to face with God, then he will die! As the story goes, Moses catches a glimpse of the back of God, whatever that means, and then his face shines brightly with the Glory of God afterwards. Or we might recall the rules for the Temple Priest in Leviticus, where it says that when Aaron goes into the most Holy place - The Holy of Holies in the Temple, once a year on the day of Atonement; that if he gets anything wrong when confronted by the Glory of God - he will die!
So from certain parts of the Old Testament, we might conclude that the correct response to the Glory of God is to be so overwhelmed that you actually die!
And incidentally, doesn’t that bit of context really help us understand how incredible those words of St Paul are, that we heard a moment ago? St Paul says that we can actually see the Glory of God - and live!, that somehow God’s Glory is revealed to us by Jesus!
But whatever we make of such scriptural accounts, it is fairly straightforward to suggest that Glory of any sort, in any situation where we may feel that word is appropriate, compels us into humility, and perhaps even penitence.
Before the Glory of a mountain view or an incredible sunrise, or something like that, we feel small, and we feel humbled. Stories of encounter with God’s Glory in the scriptures can seem to lead to penitence also - for example, the prophet Isaiah crying out ‘Woe is me… I am a man of unclean lips, and I have seen the King…’ when he is given a vision of the glory of God.
Other stories you may have heard of someone encountering God’s Glory (or even your own experiences in prayer and worship) probably tell a similar story, that is, when confronted by Glory, we are humbled!
From humility we are then moved towards penitence. We might literally fall on our knees. In such a moment we would instinctively know that we ourselves were not the centre of everything in the world, and we would know that it is not us whose needs and demands and desires need to be met and fulfilled above all. An encounter with the Glory of God would show us, surely, that everything is not all about us!
And of course this is why today’s readings are so appropriate for the week before Lent. These readings invite us to respond to the great glory of God revealed to us by the scriptures and by the face of Christ, by humbling ourselves.
These readings invite us to respond to the great Glory of God by falling on our knees (as it were) and by saying ‘Thy will be done’, rather than ‘My will be done’.
All of which is really suitable for Lent, during which we traditionally do the hard work of examining our hearts to see what in us needs to change in order that God’s will may more fully be done in our lives. An attitude of humility and penitence, and a recognition that God calls us to cooperate with God’s will for us (rather than the other way round) is just what is needed for this season.
So far so simple: God’s Glory is revealed (safely!) to us in Jesus, which brings us to a place of real humility where we can do the penitential work of Lent.
But what has any of this got to do with Valentine’s day?
Well, of course the obvious thing to talk about on Valentine’s day is love. And therefore, of course, in church, it would make sense to talk about the Love of God today.
But here’s the thing: I really do think that this idea of God’s Glory bringing us into humility is really relevant to thinking about the love of God. And actually really important.
Partly, I feel that this is the case because we do not actually spend much time thinking about what the love of God is like!
This may not seem all that obvious, and in some respects of course is actually pretty futile; as whatever we say or think about the infinite love of an infinite God can only ever be a tiny approximation.
But let me ask the question again… what is the love of God like?
Well, many answers might suggest themselves: for example, the love of a Mother for a child. Or perhaps the great, all encompassing sense of love that we feel when we are ‘in love’.
But as I suggested above, any attempts we make to say what the love of God is like will always fall short, as we are only comparing an infinite God to finite and imperfect human beings.
Perhaps this is why the stories Jesus told about God’s love seemed to include impossible or unlikely details; ‘God’s love is like’ (he would say), ‘a father who welcomes back a son even after the son has done the worst things imaginable, and insulted his father in every possible way’.
Or ‘God’s love is like a shepherd who leaves all of his other sheep behind to find the one that is lost’. Or ‘God’s love is like getting a full day’s pay for an hour’s work…’ It is hard to believe that any of these would have made complete sense in every detail to those who first heard these stories! Rather it is like a love is being described that is so far beyond and so different to earthly love, that it can’t be described except with hyperbole, by going beyond normal everyday situations…
And it is that sense of God’s love and grace being so far beyond our own imagination or human experience that sometimes, I think, can get us in a bit of trouble. Because we all know that God loves us, right? Well, I hope we do! And we all know that’s God’s forgiveness and Grace are inexhaustible (or again, at least I hope we do!).
But it is depressingly easy to move from ‘God loves us’ and ‘God loves us just the way we are’ and ‘God is for us not against us’ (all of which we believe are true!) to ‘God is on our side’ and ‘God is on my side’ without pausing to remember that we are called to humility and penitence.
Let me give you a little example of why this is important… Now - I do not wish to embarrass anyone who might have sung this, but did you know that there is a Christian worship song going round at the minute that contains the following words?
You go before, I know
That You've even gone to win my war
You come back with the head of my enemy
You come back and You call it my victory
I won’t tell you what the name of the song is or who wrote it, but can you see what the problem is here? In this song, God is recruited to fight our own battles for us, and even to - incredibly! - kill our enemies. Obviously we have to presume this is supposed to be figurative language, but even so, the idea that God is there to fight our battles (‘my war’) for us has surely grown from a strong (and correct) sense of the love of God for the individual who wrote it.
The problem is, that they seem to have moved from the knowledge that God loves them with a love that is beyond imagining, into thinking that God wants what they want, and can be relied upon to fight their battles for them!
Somehow, the writer of the song has flown straight past those ideas of penitence and humility, and seems to be seeking for ‘My will’ (Their own will) as opposed to ‘Thy will’.
But before we all start (as it were) throwing stones at writers of modern praise songs, I wonder can we do the hard work of looking in our own hearts to see if there are moments when our understanding of God’s great love and grace have allowed us to make similar mistakes?
It is such an easy mistake to make after all; we simply move from knowing that God loves us, and wants the best for us, to thinking that therefore God must want for us what we want for ourselves. And the results can be disastrous. We only have to look ‘across the pond’ at recent events in America to see Christians who were convinced - convinced - that God wanted them to storm the Capitol building in Washington DC and prevent the confirmation of a new president.
This may be an extreme example, but other examples are probably much more relevant. We may end up thinking that God wants us to live nice, comfortable, peaceful lives, with our every need and whim met, when there are starving and displaced people just the other side of our city.
This is why we need to think about what God’s love is like - and to remember that as well as being higher and deeper and greater than we can ever imagine, it is also wider - and it includes many who we might consider to be our enemies. God’s love, like God’s Glory, should invite us into humility and penitence, and self examination.
God’s love, like God’s glory, should invite us to pray ‘Thy will be done’ not ‘My will be done’.
A the start of this talk, I said I wanted to issue us with a challenge - one that is close to my heart. And I meant it. A sort of Lenten Challenge, if you like. And a challenge to do with love - the Love of God.
So here is the Challenge:
This Lent, can we dare to remember that God’s great, unimaginable love for us does not mean that God is on our side - but rather than God calls us to be on God’s side, along with those who we might consider to be our enemies.
This Lent can we, with all our wealth and privilege, remember that Jesus said ‘blessed are the poor’, not ‘blessed are the rich’.
This Lent, can we remember that God’s great love for us is so great and glorious that it compels us into humility, and repentance.