Lectionary Passages Mark 9 vv 2 – 9 and 2 Corinthians 4 vv 3 – 6
Will-o-the-whisp faith or non-faith
Not only do we find Biblical quotations in a surprising variety of everyday use, but we also find them in seemingly unexpected places. The Coat of Arms for the City of Wolverhampton includes the words ‘Out of darkness cometh light’. It is a quotation – in Authorised Version language, from the second of our Lectionary passages for this Sunday and that, of course, refers back to the very beginning – to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis where we read that out of total darkness ‘Then God commanded “Let there be light” and light appeared.’ Genesis 1 v 3. The themes of light and darkness are themes that occur time and time again in the pages of Scripture.
During my time working for the Inland Revenue, I occasionally had to travel by train between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. The return journey after dark through the area known as The Black Country could be quite exciting. Sometimes the furnaces of the giant steelworks along the route would be open. The darkness was lit up spectacularly by pulses of fire as the steel was poured in the industrial heartland of our country. In the descriptive phrase of his Hymn ‘Jerusalem’, William Blake wrote about ‘dark, satanic mills.’ I saw the steel-mills of my home region in a different light.
The Disciples saw Jesus in a different light in what we refer to as the Transfiguration. We read that a week after Peter’s revelatory statement about Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’ Mark 8 v 29, Jesus took his inner circle of Disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain. I often wonder about Andrew and why he seems to have been excluded from that small group. After all it was Andrew who, having discovered something about Jesus, went and brought his brother to see for himself. This account is that the inner three were treated to a spectacular event that left them uniquely privileged. Jesus shone with the presence of God. He was joined by two of the greats from their history and their faith – Elijah and Moses. The Book of Exodus records that Moses too, having been in the presence of God, shone – so much so that he had to veil his face as he moved back among his people – Exodus 34 vv 29 – 35.
The Disciples were somewhat baffled; Mark tells us that they were frightened. Peter, and it usually was Peter, spoke up offering to make three ‘booths’ for the three leaders. You get the sense that he was speaking for the sake of saying something in the midst of the unique experience, that they didn’t know what to say and that they didn’t know what to make of it. Some commentators have found in the three booths a link to the Feat of Tabernacles or Booths – one of the three great annual Jewish Festivals. Other commentators find in that offer a desire to prolong or preserve the experience for Peter, James and John.
Throughout the Bible mountains are important. They signify a closeness to heaven and to God. We sometimes talk about ‘mountain-top’ experiences. The light of God shines clearly for us. His presence seems real and close. That which theologians refer to as the numinous – a sense of the awesome presence of the Divine, takes hold of us. Like those disciples with Jesus, we may not fully understand or be able to articulate what has happened, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of the experience.
From another no-longer-in-the Hymn-Book Hymn:-
Stay, Master, stay upon this heavenly hill;
A little longer let us linger still;
With all the mighty ones of old, beside,
Near to the aweful Presence still abide;
Before the throne of light, we trembling stand,
And catch a glimpse into the spirit land.
Samuel Greg Hymns and Psalms 158
Like those first Disciples, in Jesus we catch a glimpse of the Light and Love of God Himself.
Then in contrast to the Light there is the darkness. And there is mystery in the darkness. As far back as Isaiah, people have pondered the very nature of belief and of non-belief. As part of his sense of the Call of God, Isaiah recognised that his clear God-inspired preaching would be rejected by those who wanted to neither listen nor to hear. Who stopped up their ears? Isaiah 6 vv 9 – 10. Jesus uses those same words in his explanation of the Parable of the Sower in recognising that some seed, for various reasons, fails to produce a harvest which parallels His word falling on deaf ears. Luke 8 vv 9- 10. John, in the Prologue to his Gospel, writes that some prefer darkness. Here, in the second of our Lectionary passages, Paul picks up the same line of thought. He writes about the Gospel being hidden for some people, about non-belief, about minds being kept in the dark. His explanation is that it is down to ‘the evil god of this world’. 2 Corinthians 4 v 4.
In honesty, I have some reservations about Paul’s explanation as well as about the evil god of this world. I can’t help but ask questions about the mystery of faith. It isn’t as easy as falling off a log. If everything about faith was as plain as a pikestaff, why doesn’t everyone believe? Why me? Even trying to define faith outside the circle of the Church is difficult. There is an ethereal, will-o-the-whisp quality about it which almost defies definition.
I am just glad that for me at times the Light of Christ shines and allows me to catch a glimpse into the spirit land. My prayer is that it is true for you too.