A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, preached at the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 5 August 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods.
It is some years since I last turned to Lewis Carroll for my text, so it’s time to do so again.
“As I was saying”, said Humpty Dumpty, “there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents.”
“Certainly”, said Alice.
“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’”, Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant there’s a nice knockdown argument for you!”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean a nice knockdown argument”, Alice objected.
“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Glory. Glory is what the story of the Transfiguration is all about. It is a vital link in the unfolding significance of Jesus in the New Testament, but perhaps because the Feast of the Transfiguration occurs on the 6th August, it is often overlooked. So we are celebrating it a day early today. And I hope that, even without the Gospel we have just heard read, you remember the story. The disciples go up into the hills with Jesus, who wants to pray. They must be good Anglicans: at the most spiritual moment they all fall asleep. But they wake in time to see Jesus transfigured, radiant, glorious, and a great voice from heaven thunders ‘This is my Son, my Beloved.’ Their friend, their teacher, their healer of sickness and calmer of fears, is transfigured; revealed in all his true significance: the Son of God, the fullness of Glory.
We haven’t truly been touched by the finger of God until we have seen the glory. And there are two glories to be seen. First is the glory of humanity. A young Cambridge don was converted to Christianity late one night as he walked through the town and came across a queue outside a fish and chip shop. Suddenly the glory of those people struck him: the glory of people made and kept and loved by God, the glory of people for whom Jesus Christ has lived and died. It seems to me that we have become immune to one another’s glory. You just don’t see the girl at the Sainsbury checkout; you don’t see the bank clerk at Lloyds; you don’t see the person two rows in front of you in church – not as real people, people of hopes and dreams and fears and sorrows just like you. Instead you see actors, playing the part of checkout girl, bank clerk, church member, and that’s how they see you. And we must stop, and recover a sense of one another’s glory. We must see one another as Christ sees us: made and kept and loved by God, his sons and his daughters, people for whom Christ lived and died and rose again. And that is why Jesus came as man – bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh – to reveal to us the glory of humanity made and kept and loved by God.
But then, second, the glory of God. Peter and James and John knew Christ as friend, teacher, brother. All right and good. They could chatter away in his presence, laugh and joke and treat him as one of themselves. And so can we. We can do that and we ought to do that. Jesus is our friend; he is our brother. We ought to be able to talk to him as naturally as we talk to one another. But there is more to him than that. He is God’s Son, his Chosen One, his Beloved. And we may not just march into the presence of the living God. Our God, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, our God is a consuming fire. And to be in his presence is to be filled with wonder and awe and reverence – something for which we must prepare ourselves, something not to be treated lightly or frivolously.
Do you see the balance that I’m after? When Bishop David Stancliffe used to come to stay at the Vicarage, which he did several times whilst he was our bishop, he was always the most excellent company, not least at the dinner table or later, when he would kick off his shoes and relax with a glass of cognac. We in turn were relaxed in his presence. The evening would be totally informal. But then on Sunday morning in church he was the Lord Bishop of Salisbury, our Father in God, the one to whom I had taken an oath of canonical obedience. And to him I had to bow and be an obedient servant. And so it is with God. There is the utterly defenceless little baby, the much loved teacher and healer, the constantly reliable friend and comforter – all these. But he is also King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom we can only kneel in wonder and in praise. This is glory, the glory of God and our glory too.
As always, George Herbert captures the glory. Approach God as King, and Love will embrace you, serve you and be your friend:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said. You shall be he.
I, the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.