Sermon: Seeing the Light

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 11th 2024

Mark 9: 2-9; 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6

Watch the service on YouTube (owing to a technical fault, the first ten minutes are missing)


I’ve seen the light … but what is it showing me?

When we say that we’ve seen the light we might be talking about understanding. You are wrestling with a maths problem. You can’t see how to work it out, then there is a flash of inspiration – you’ve seen the light – and the solution is their before you. Given my track record with maths at school that’s not something I experienced too often!

Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, seeing the light can have a moral or religious dimension. Someone is leading their life in ways which damage them or others, physically, socially or psychologically, but then they realise the significance and consequences of their actions in a way that leads them to make a radical change. And it’s all because they have seen the light.

Seeing the light is an appropriate theme for today. It is the last Sunday of the season called ‘Epiphany.’ That begins back in January, twelve days after Christmas, celebrating the visit of the magi, the wise ones, paying homage to the infant Jesus; led, perhaps haphazardly by the light of a star. And in subsequent weeks the Epiphany theme of the light of revelation appears in the worship of the church: Anna and Simeon, in the Jerusalem temple reveal the significance of the baby Jesus to all who have gathered there; the voice from heaven reveals Jesus as God’s Beloved Son on the occasion of his baptism; his disciples believe in him when he turns water to wine at Cana in Galilee.

And the theme of the light of revelation – of people seeing the light about Jesus – continues into the final Sunday of the Epiphany season. This coming week the season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and our thoughts turn towards Easter, which comes quite early this year. I haven’t even finished my Christmas chocolates, and already I’m being urged to give them up for Lent! But I’ll worry about that on Wednesday …

Today there is one last burst of divine light to ponder and celebrate in the Epiphany season: it’s Transfiguration Sunday. To get to the Transfiguration, as it is reported to us in the Gospels, we have to fast forward through the story of the ministry of Jesus, to an occasion, fairly late on in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus takes three of his disciples – Peter, James, and John – up on a high mountain. There his appearance is transfigured, ‘and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’ (9:3) Also, those disciples then see him in the company of Elijah and Moses, two great figures of the Jewish faith, ones who personify how God came to people through the words of prophecy and of law.

We’re told that this was an overwhelming, confusing experiences for Peter, James and John, and who can blame them. Peter makes an offer to provide Jesus, Moses and Elijah with shelters (9:5), which seems like an odd or foolish idea, but then, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, Peter ‘did not know what to say, for they were terrified.’ (9:6) And once again, who could blame them?

Then we get a voice from the clouds (9:7), reminiscent of the clouds into which Elijah was assumed in his time (2 Kings 2:11), and of the clouded mountain upon which Moses would ascend to receive instruction from God in his time (e.g. Exodus 34:5). This voice, which is the divine voice, also heard from above at Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:11), instructs the bedazzled disciples to listen to Jesus (9:7). What Jesus then tells them is to say nothing! They were to ‘tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.’ (9:9) They were going to have to wait until after the first Easter.

But we are living long after that first Easter. We don’t have to keep quiet about Jesus and his transfiguration. But what do we want to say about it? What should we say about it? That’s where our reading from Saint Paul comes in. Last week, we had a reading from the first letter he sent to the early Christian church in Corinth. This week we have got to hear a short excerpt from the second letter he wrote to that same congregation. A decade or so after the resurrection, quite properly, Paul is able to write about how God ‘has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (4:6)

This section of his letter in which Paul makes that declaration is concerned with sharing the gospel with ‘unbelievers.’ (4:4) He begins with a puzzle. When some hear the good news about God’s love and glory in Jesus Christ they “see the light” – their outlook changes and they make changes in their lives. Others, however, hear the same news and they do not believe. Paul argues that what he calls ‘the god of this world’ has ‘blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (4:4)

You can read Paul’s words literally or metaphorically. Either way, the situation is serious, though not without hope. Either there is a personal, evil entity (the Devil) at work blinding the minds of people to the reality of God’s love for us, or the impersonal negative aspects of life in this world combine to discourage belief in good news; it’s not so easy to believe a good news message when you have had many negative life experiences. To put it another way, I don’t think fewer people are believers in this country today because they are worse people. I think fewer people believe – see the light, if you like – because they have been born into a society where religious belief seems less plausible.

So what do we do about that and sharing the gospel – ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (4:4) How might Saint Paul’s words help us here? Well, in two ways.

First, Paul reminds us to keep the focus on Jesus, on God, and not on the Church. We talk a lot about getting people to come to church, and I’m not against more people coming to church, but ultimately it’s about Jesus, about God, before it is about church. Paul writes, ‘For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.’ (4:5) We do not proclaim ourselves. That’s really good advice, because if everyone is depending us then everyone is in trouble.

That’s not to say that church is unimportant, nor that our activities are without meaning. Paul’s letter was a church letter. It came from a couple of church leaders – Paul and Timothy. ( 1:1) It came to ‘the church of God that is in Corinth.’ (1:1) And it came to them from Paul and Timothy with good wishes of ‘all the saints’ (13:11) i.e. the members of the congregation – the church – in the place from which Paul sent the letter. Church matters, but a church which is focused upon and proclaims Jesus Christ.

So first of all, let’s focus on Jesus, and see how that inspires and affects our activities as a church, including how we share good news with others. Second, remember that this is about God. Last week I reminded us that the stated purpose of Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church is ‘show the love of God as it is known to us through Jesus Christ.’ This week, Paul’s words confirm the truth of that statement, the appropriateness of that desire. He writes, ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (4:6)

It is God who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness.’ God, the creator, who in the well-known imaginative account in Genesis chapter one brings creation into being with the command for there to be light, is the one who brings light to each one of through Jesus Christ. Yes, for some, the ‘gospel is veiled’ (4:3), but now light can shine into people’s lives through Jesus Christ. In his life, teaching, death and resurrection, Jesus has revealed to us ‘knowledge of the glory of God.’ (4:6) In this world Jesus reveals that God is just, God is loving, and God is available to us, to guide us in living life to the full. Whilst this good news story is being told and retold there are always opportunities for people to “see the light”.

To return to the mountain top, in the appearance of Jesus the light of God, the light of God is seen. The disciples are given an insight into what is going on. God is present in Jesus Christ. It’s the same God who spoke reality into being: ‘let there be light.’ It’s the same God who enlightened people through prophets (like Elijah) who declared God’s will for the world. It’s the same God who enlightened people about how to live, providing a framework of rules for life, like the law that came through Moses. But above all it’s that same God who is revealed – in a blaze of light – in the person of Jesus Christ.

Sharing good news about God with unbelievers is certainly hard work, especially in a society which has become cooler towards all forms of organised religion. Our task, though, in the light of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ, is to be properly focused about that good news.

It’s good news that focuses upon God, before it focuses upon the Church (important though church might be). It’s good news about God revealed in Jesus Christ: good news for us and good news for others. And now that ‘the Son of Man has risen from the dead’, we’re allowed to tell others all about him. And that includes remembering this incident of transfiguration on the mountain top when God declared Jesus to be God’s Beloved Son. Yes, God, who ‘has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (4:6)

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