I’ve just been to see the film Selma about the series of demonstrations led by Martin Luther King in order to secure voting rights for black citizens. I’m always interested in films and books about the American civil rights movement because of having a family connection with it. My cousins taught songs to the protesters and went on many marches themselves and ended up in jail a number of times. It made me proud as a schoolgirl that they were actively involved in the campaign to tackle the deep American sin of racism.
In the final scene of the film, we see Daniel Oyelowo – a British actor, by the way – delivering Dr King’s speech on the steps of the courthouse of Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the fifty-mile-long march. As a skilful Baptist preacher, he really knew how to move his audience. He quoted the Battle Hymn of the Republic: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. Glory, glory hallelujah!
That could be the theme for today’s lectionary readings. In fact now I wish I’d asked for that stirring American hymn to be sung today. Because the gospel reading that is always set for the Sunday before Lent begins is all about seeing the glory of the Lord, when the victory does not yet appear to be won.
Biblical scholars have sometimes argued that the transfiguration story is really a Resurrection appearance transposed by mistake into an earlier part of the narrative of Jesus’ life. But I would take issue with that. What Peter, James and John witnessed on that mountain was a vision of a deep reality that was still hidden. They saw a truth that the world did not yet see. Before their eyes, it appeared that their rabbi Jesus, who had not yet walked the way of the cross, shone with the glory of God on top of a mountain. The location is a reference to Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai to receive the Law. Indeed the vision included Moses and also Elijah, showing that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, both the Law and the Prophets.
Now please don’t get hung up about what happened on that mountain, or what happened at the moment when Elijah departed this earthly life, and what someone with a smartphone would have captured on their camera on those occasions. That is not the point of the stories. The point is that seeing glory in darkness is what the Christian life is about.
We talk a lot about hearing the Word. But this morning we are concentrating not on our ears but on our eyes. On this Sunday we are asked to be open to a visionary experience. All of the readings underline this.
Elijah goes up to heaven in a fiery whirlwind, leaving his apprentice Elisha staring and grief-stricken. The psalmist speaks of God appearing in perfect beauty, a beauty that seems to be equated with God’s righteousness and justice. Paul writes to the Corinthians that if we unveil our eyes, we will see the light that is shining in the darkness of this world: the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
We live in a visual world nowadays, when something doesn’t seem real until we have seen it on the news or on our Facebook feed. A hundred years ago, even in the childhood of many of us, it was words that had the biggest effect in educating, warning, challenging and inspiring us. The invention of the printing press, mass publication, and then of radio, meant that the speeches of great men, and sometimes women, were available to a wide audience. Oratory was the great political art.
Gladstone, Disraeli and Lloyd George were all known for their speeches. The words of John Wesley, Sojourner Truth and William Wilberforce changed people’s hearts. The Nazis and the Communists rose to power on tides of extraordinary rhetoric. My parents’ generation spent the war years listening to the stirring broadcasts of Winston Churchill.
His funeral fifty years ago took place just before Martin Luther King’s speech in Montgomery. This was just a few years after the presidential election that changed politics forever, when handsome John Kennedy defeated the political hack Richard Nixon with his five o’clock shadow. Television came into people’s homes and pictures began to compete with words for our attention. When I think of the events of the 60s it is the images of the moon landing, the war in Vietnam and the hippy counterculture that I remember, not the speeches that people made. The last great orator in American life was Dr King himself.
And he used the power of words to ask us to see things differently. His “I Have a Dream” speech was richly visual. As I’ve said, his speech in Montgomery quoted seeing the glory of the coming of the Lord. His Christian faith inspired him to unveil his eyes from the present darkness and see God’s victory even the midst of the struggle and the suffering. That changed his hearers’ hearts and gave them new courage and purpose.
We are about to enter the season of Lent, forty days of solemnity, when the church will be literally veiled with sackcloth and many of us will turn our thoughts to our personal spiritual state – or perhaps our need to reduce our intake of sweets and alcohol. This turning inwards is well intentioned but it is the very opposite of the visionary experience in today’s gospel.
Instead of looking down and inwards, Lent should be for looking up and outwards. Lent is traditionally a time of asceticism, and when we hear this word we tend to think of monks in the desert or sour-faced Puritans. But the theologian Nathan G. Jennings says that asceticism is the use of the traditional disciplines involving the body in order to open ourselves up to the contemplation of God through participation in the divine being. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about seeing and participating in the glory of God.
So we might cut back on the money we spend on our own pleasures, in order to give that extra amount to helping the poor, in whom we see Christ. We might eat or drink a little less, in order to sharpen our appetite to spend time with God. We might take the really big plunge of giving up social media for awhile, so that we can focus on those who actually live and breathe around us, the people God has given to us as our neighbours.
The point of asceticism is not to be thin, but to be hungry for God; not to avoid wasting money, but to be generous to those in need; not to dwell on our moral superiority, but to unveil our eyes and see the glory of God all around us.
That involves seeing what is possible, not just what is already there. Our life as baptized Christians is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our eternal life has begun. So we can see with the eyes of faith the breaking in of the kingdom of God, even while wrong seems to prevail.
Seeing glory and participating in God’s being is only possible when we recognize every person as a brother or sister, made in the image of God. It is because we see God’s glory in all God’s children that we help those in financial need, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, encourage the young, treasure the old, take political action in the cause of justice, give up our own pleasures to be with those who need us. It is because we want to see more of that glory that we make time for Bible reading and prayer. We long for a vision that that will stay with us as we come down the mountain to live our everyday life, with our eyes still unveiled to the glory of God. I wish you all a blessed and joyful feast of Lent.