Preached on Sunday, 26.02.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.
You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
The story begins with Moses. Moses goes up a mountain, taking his right-hand man with him, leaving people at the bottom, leaving instructions with them, leaving behind the everyday world for something that no one quite understands. Moses enters a cloud, enters the presence of God, enters into the world of the eternal, into a world where anything is possible – and, later, his face will shine. So we can see where the telling of a tale of the impossible found its images.
When Peter had to tell a tale, he needed help – because he wasn’t exactly good with words, not yet. And he needed help with interpretation – because he wasn’t good with that either. Peter’s interpretation of what we call ‘the transfiguration’ is where our interpretation begins. Peter, at the time, up the mountain, speaks of the moment, of capturing the moment, of extending the moment, of how he is feeling in the moment. But Peter, in his second letter, has gained a bit of distance, a bit of perspective, and offers some interpretation, some understanding.
So what started out as an ‘event’, a spectacle, a moment of excitement, a thrill, has had meaning attached to it. He has clearly spoken about it before, because the letter refers back to things his readers have already heard about (and he tells them that he knows he is repeating himself, and that he is going to continue to do so); and the events of that day at the top of the mountain are clearly important to him – central, perhaps, to how he has understood his mission ever since. So now he understands it, now he has a tradition through which to interpret it, now he can explain it to others, when at the time he couldn’t even explain it to himself.
Now Peter puts his experience into the history and the tradition and the interpretation of prophecy. There are, of course, different kinds of prophecy. There’s the kind that predicts what is going to happen, there’s the kind that speaks of an ultimate destiny, and there’s the kind that tells of the deeper meaning and truth behind, beneath, or within outward reality, the kind that makes connections between the people at the foot of the mountain and the events at the top.
In the case of Moses that connection was, of course, the law; and in that sense the traditional distinction between the law and the prophets dissolves. As Moses comes down the mountain carrying the law delivered by God, it is the law itself that becomes the prophecy. It’s not a prediction of events, but it is an account of the ways of God, an account of the will of God, an account of the destiny of God’s creation. It’s why Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul (as I mentioned at the evening service last week)were all able to speak of the coming day when the law would be written on the hearts of the people, the day when the physical approximation would be overtaken by the spiritual reality.
And Peter makes the same kind of connection as he reflects on his own experience at the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain he was a spectator (in spite of his failed, blundering attempt to become a participant). But, in the presence of Jesus, in the context of eternity, he is far from irrelevant. Moses came back down the mountain bringing the law, the prophecy of God; Jesus came back down the mountain with his disciples, bringing with him three people, three people with the reality of Christ written on their hearts.
And so, in his letters, Peter writes to those he describes as ‘exiles’, as ‘the diaspora’; he writes to those who think of themselves as scattered to the winds, driven from the safety of the world they thought they knew into a new and uncertain world where nothing seems, or will ever be, the same. And Peter seeks to reassure them, to call them to even greater efforts, greater courage, and wider vision.
He does all this by speaking of prophecy, of the coming day, of the day when justice will shine, when wrongs will be put right. The prophecy of the will and purpose of God was already in existence, already understood, he says, but the transfiguration of which he was a witness is a confirmation, an assurance. But there is more than a belief in the coming day here; there is a call to transfigure the night. Not many weeks ago we sang ‘we’re going to shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven’ (so we’re not singing it again today).
That verse can be interpreted as a prophecy that relates to the coming of the day of God, but shining like the sun is not needed when the sun is already shining – shining like the sun is needed when the darkness is all around. Or, as Peter puts it: we are to understand the message of God as a lamp shining in a dark place. We are not only invited to believe in the light, we are summoned to be the light – to shine as lamps in dark places.
If you look through Peter’s letter, what you find is his encouragement to keep the faith: to keep faith in the new life, the alternative way of being, the hope that that way of being can offer to the dark places. He uses every argument he can think of to persuade them not to give up, not to stop believing that they have a life to offer, a hope to live, a light to shine.
Today is Poverty Action Sunday. What might we bring to that day from what Peter has to say, from visions of glory, from light in the darkness, from prophecy and protest? Church Action on Poverty talks this year about three things: about truth about poverty, about the dignity of all people, and about the power of ordinary people to shine like lamps in a dark place – or, in their words, to make changes for the good. Here’s what they say, their lamps offered as light in dark places.
On the truth about poverty, they ask: ‘who are the real experts? Whose voices can we trust? To whom should we look for solutions?’ They go on: ‘these questions are all the more important in our so-called ‘post-truth’ world. The UK suffers from centuries of paternalistic approaches to poverty, in which ‘the poor’ have been viewed as a social problem to be solved by the ‘non-poor’. People in poverty are labelled as lazy, ignorant and stupid.
‘The battle to solve poverty is waged between politicians, think tanks and lobbyists – but people in poverty are never in the room. Truly to tackle poverty, a revolution is needed. Poverty can only be tackled with the active involvement of people in poverty themselves. Their knowledge, insights and unique perspectives are key not only to understanding the truth about poverty, but to coming up with solutions that will actually work. In the motto adopted by the growing number of Poverty Truth Commissions across the UK, ‘nothing about us without us is for us’.’
On human dignity, they say: ‘all people are of intrinsic worth. All people are of equal value in the sight of God; all people are made in the image and likeness of God. Yet,’ they go on, ‘we are constantly bombarded with messages which deny this. People are increasingly only valued for their wealth, skills or economic value. Rather than affirming our interdependency, society is divided into those who are ‘hard working’ and those who are ‘dependent’ – with the former encouraged to revile the latter.
People are not just blamed for their poverty but for being a ‘drain’ on the rest of society. We seek to uphold the essential human dignity of all people. We seek to build a society in which all people are treated with decency and the same level of respect, whether they are the chief executive, the office cleaner or the homeless person sleeping in the office doorway. ‘
The final lamp in the darkness is found in the power of ordinary people. ‘In 2017,’ says Church Action on Poverty, ‘it’s easy to be despondent. It’s easy to fall prey to the narrative that all power resides with global elites, who are wealthier and more powerful than all but a handful of nation states. It’s equally easy to blame governments, who have the power to tackle poverty but never seem to have the inclination, there being, apparently so few votes in it.’
Church Action on Poverty believe, they tell us, ‘in the power of ordinary people to make change for good. Through campaigns like End Hunger UK, and by working with local churches, food banks and others, we can be a powerful movement for change.
‘But more than that, through our campaigns and projects like Real Benefits Street, we seek to give a voice to people who are the true ‘experts’ in poverty because they live with it on a daily basis.’
And, in those three lamps, we can, I hope, hear again Peter’s call to the exiles to persevere, not to give up, to keep faith in the idea that there is another way, another light. Peter says to those who will listen: ‘take my word for it; I was there; I saw it.’ The ‘it’ is the light of transfiguration, a light that allows a different view – everything is literally seen in a new light. No matter the disappointments, no matter the difficulties, no matter the powers raging against it, that light will shine as long as there are people willing to shine it, people willing to shine with it.
Our challenge is perhaps to ask ourselves if that is us. Our challenge is to ask ourselves, in a world being daily divided more and more into those with resources and those without, those with power and those without, those allowed their dignity and those who are not – in this world of wars and their refugees, of the concentration of wealth and the purchase of power, of exclusion and deportation, of famine and fear, of walls and the rumour of walls – are we the bearers of light?
Church Action on Poverty has some questions for us: ‘what does all this mean for the church? Are we truly committed to treating all people with equal dignity and worth, regardless of class, creed, gender, education or economic circumstance? Are we committed to seeing the world through the eyes of those who live at the margins? Do we really believe in our power to bring about change for good?’
In other words, are we willing to be the light we believe in? Are we willing to carry that light into the darkness of our world? Are we willing to oppose the darkness? And, if so, how?