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