Reflection

Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength

It has often struck me as remarkable that lectionary readings, which come on a three-year cycle, relating to

the church’s year rather than the social one, still, frequently and unpredictably, turn out to be amazingly

relevant for the social context of the Sunday in which they turn up. I have felt this quite strongly while

considering this week’s passage from Isaiah.

Isaiah is writing to Hebrew exiles in Babylon. Forced from their homes and beloved country by their

conquerors, they sit by the waters of their exile and weep when they remember Zion (Psalm 137). Weary,

despondent, powerless, despairing, they have come to believe that God has forgotten them. They can see

no future.

Isaiah writes to put heart into them. Have you forgotten all you know about God? he asks. Have you

forgotten his nature – creator of all that is – and his power? He made everything on earth – and he also

made, and controls, the stars. That verse may seem like lovely poetic imagery to us, but to the Hebrews it

was a reminder that all power in the universe ultimately belongs to God alone. The conquering Babylonians

worshipped the stars as divine beings: by naming and commanding them, God displays his authority over

them.

The princes and rulers of the earth are as nothing compared to the Holy One of Israel, says Isaiah. How

good it would be if we could confront the vile dictators, who today terrorise so many of the world’s

inhabitants, with this truth!

Isaiah reminds the people that God is without equal, and that his wisdom and knowledge are unparalleled;

humans cannot expect to understand the full significance of world events, because they do not have God’s

vision. But if they wait for – hope and trust in – the Lord, they will find their weakness overcome and their

strength renewed.

In current circumstances I found this passage inspirational. As we enter the eleventh month of the

pandemic,

during which many of us have been largely isolated, and as we face deepening winter conditions, it is not

surprising if we feel at a particularly low ebb! As it was for the Hebrew exiles, so for us the future is

uncertain. The world which eventually emerges from the pandemic is likely to be very different from the one we have been used to.

But if we hope in the Lord, our strength will be renewed to meet the challenges that lie ahead. If our world

has changed, let us determine, under God, that that change will be a change for the better – a change to a

kindlier, more equal world.

But where, we may ask, shall we find the strength? The Gospel gives us the answer – in the example of our

Lord Jesus Christ.

St Mark has described the start of Jesus’ earthly mission with a triumphant but exhausting day – beginning

with teaching in the synagogue, and the confrontation there with evil power in a sick man; continuing with

the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law; and followed, as soon as sunset announced the end of the Sabbath,

by the appearance around Peter’s door of large crowds, bringing with them many sick people to be healed.

Jesus must have been exhausted, when he finally retired for the night. Yet we find him rising in the early

hours of the next morning, and going out by himself to a lonely place to pray.

It was not long since Jesus had spent forty days alone in the wilderness. Now that his mission has begun

there will be no respite from demanding crowds and, increasingly, controversy. It is clear that his close

relationship with his Father was the source of the strength which enabled Jesus to continue his mission –

and that the keystone of that relationship was prayer.

Night prayer can have a very special quality. In times such as the present, when many of us are largely

confined to our homes, sleep may be disturbed. If we find ourselves lying relentlessly awake during the

night hours, then prayer can be a precious resource – for our own peace of mind, and as a service for others.

As we pray for the sick, for those who watch and wait by their beds, and for those who toil through the

hours of darkness, we may also know ourselves to be joined in fellowship with the world-wide church as

the globe rotates; and even with those monastic orders who rise when others are asleep, to offer worship on

behalf of all humanity. In stillness and in darkness we may find a special closeness with our Father God,

as did the beloved Son. Then indeed our strength will be renewed, and we shall rise up on wings like eagles!

An event ‘out of this world’ –

or perhaps we should say an event in this world, but not of this world; for in each case the veil

which shields our mortal eyes from the reality which lies beyond this material world becomes,

briefly, transparent.

This Sunday, the last before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, is always the day on

which the Church remembers the Transfiguration, or change of appearance, of Christ.

Jesus withdraws the three followers who are closest to him from the company of the disciples,

and takes them up into a high mountain, where, as the three watch in amazement, Jesus’

appearance is altered to shining glory, and they see him conversing with Elijah and Moses –

who both, in life, had encounters with the Divine on a mountain-top; Moses in thunder and

lightning, Elijah in the still small voice after the storm.

During the season of Epiphany, we have read of various ways in which Jesus was revealed to

humanity. In the Transfiguration, the truth of the wonder and glory of Jesus’ identity is shown

to his ‘core’ disciples. As the Messiah, he is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, but,

much more even than that expected one, he is now shown as One whose reign is beyond, as

well as within, his followers’ experience – a reign not only in this world, but also in that other

world which they have just glimpsed. Jesus is not only sent by God, as the expected Messiah,

but, in a radical way, he is fully of God. The cloud which descends is the manifestation of the

divine presence, and the voice from the cloud – like the voice heard at his baptism – names

Jesus the Beloved Son; and commands the disciples to listen to him.

The story of the Transfiguration is a turning-point in Jesus’ life and ministry, as it is in the Church’s

year. Its context in Mark’s Gospel is significant. It is preceded by Jesus’ teaching that anyone who

would become his follower must deny himself, take up his cross and follow in his footsteps; and it

is followed, even as he and his disciples descend the mountain, by Jesus’ references to his own

suffering, death and resurrection.

The disciples do not understand – indeed, how could they? They had just received the most

wonderful confirmation of Jesus’ identity as Messiah – why must they not proclaim this far and

wide? And, as he is Messiah, what is this talk of suffering and death? Despite their terror, they

had longed to hold onto the revelatory experience indefinitely – hence Peter’s expressed desire

to build a shelter, such as the Jewish people live in outside their homes during the Feast of

Tabernacles. Instead, the Voice commanded them to Listen to the Son.

Listening, of course, does not imply simply hearing words – it involves attending to and obeying

them! And so they obey, keep silent, and follow him as far as Gethsemane, where their faith and

their courage fail. Only after the Resurrection do they begin to understand all that they have

experienced, and to bear witness to the true identity of their Master. At Pentecost, like Elisha

after his mystical experience, they take up the mantle of their Lord’s mission; they become his

hands, his feet, his voice; and each takes up his own particular cross, and carries it to the end.

Here are the words of a hymn of the Orthodox Church for the Feast of the Transfiguration:

On the mount Thou wast transfigured, and thy disciples, as much as they could bear, beheld

Thy glory, O Christ our God; so that when they should see Thee crucified, they would know

Thy passion to be willing; and would preach to the world that Thou, in truth, art the Effulgence of

the Father.

That hymn asserts that the knowledge of Christ’s true identity was necessary to the disciples, so

that they should understand that His submission to His Passion was voluntary. Christ’s death was

not just an earthly event, but was of cosmic significance – the culmination of God’s self-emptying

(Phil. 2:6-8), when Christ ‘left His Father’s throne above – emptied Himself of all but love, and

bled for Adam’s helpless race’.

The Transfiguration, in revealing Christ’s true identity, shows how His death defeats death, and

why he is to be worshipped. Armed with this knowledge, and with confidence in Him, we may

approach the challenging self-searching of Lent, knowing that we are called not only to repent of

our sins, but also to become more Christ-like. As we take stock of our discipleship in a world of

suffering, we do so against the backdrop of the revealed glory of God, and with the assured hope

of Easter.

We may not be granted such rare mystical experiences as those given to Elisha and to Peter,

James, and John; but God’s glory is around us in this world, if we will but be alert to it. Perhaps a

Lenten discipline might be to look for, and respond to, the glory of God as revealed in the world

He created, and in the people we meet. Amen.