Sermon for Sunday Next before Lent High Mass Sunday 3 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning Luke 9.35. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him.
Lent begins on Wednesday. Lent, the great Forty Days which carries us through to Easter life; Lent, a time we face up to who we are, and who Jesus is. It’s a great offer, a chance to explore the life in the Spirit which we have always desired. How are we going to respond this time round? A good start is the story we’ve just heard, a story of an intense religious experience, when Jesus takes Peter, James and John, up the mountain to pray.
That’s to be your Lent, reduced to silence, seeing clearly as if from a mountain top. There must be Solitude, a time of withdrawal from the rush of daily life, never easy, but this is a basic condition for any form of serious spiritual life, a patient waiting on God. We don’t like waiting. That’s clear from what Peter says to Jesus, when he’s starting to glimpse the glory which has settled on the mountain. He wants to get busy, build three tents; isn’t that so like us? Have another service, we’re good at that. But Lent is more than extra services, although we’ve got those for you too. Lent is about not knowing what to do, and so being compelled to clear a space in our lives so that the God who is Love can show us the way. On the mountain, in the Lent which is nearly upon each of us, a cloud descends, and “they were afraid as they entered the cloud”. The mountain is the place where God is disclosed to us, but it is also a danger zone, where we are no longer sure of ourselves. Lent gets personal, you and God, on that mountain. We understand the meaning of it all only when we enter the experience, as ourselves, meeting God. The cloud on the mountain is God enveloping you, seeking you out, but we mistake our experience for darkness, being lost, not knowing God. This can be the shattering admission of many of us as we get older. The old ways of experiencing God no longer work so well. But that is an invitation to go deeper, to move from the head to the heart, to confirm our desire for God and to find God even in the darkness. St John of the Cross, in his dark night of the soul, sets out into that darkness, confused as we can be, but he keeps going, “fired with love’s urgent longings”. He discovers that the light is within, because God never abandons us. “On that glad night, in secret, for no one saw me, Nor did I look at anything, with no other light to guide me than the one that burned in my heart.” Lent is the time to trust that flame, the light, the love that burns in your heart. We are of the generation that was told, quite rightly, to do something extra in Lent, read a book, make a plan and stick to it, simplify our lives, and all that is beneficial, but Lent is not a finishing school. Lent is an un-finishing school, when we scrub off the varnish, and discover that the real work of Lent is to uncover what has always been there, the light within, the Love that will not let us go; we have there all we need. The only real gift you can give another person is who you really are. Jesus gives us his real self, and invites us to walk with him this Lent in simplicity of heart (with nothing hidden), in simplicity of direction (to the Cross), and in simplicity of life (no longer obsessed by our possessions, our regrets, and by what other people think).
If our walk with Jesus through Lent goes according to plan, any plan, we shall come up against resistance, fearsome resistance, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We think we know best, when we don’t. Never underestimate that Lenten challenge of purging the ego and achieving some inward transparency, unblocking the light within, making room for the God who wants to live with our life. It doesn’t happen automatically. For although Love is a power greater than Death, although eternal life is offered to us, although God’s Son died for us, one power remains under our control, the power to shut God down, to resist the transforming love of God, to prefer that deep sleep which overwhelmed the disciples on the mountain. An encounter with God is not a gentle affair, as Langlais’ Messe Solennelle should make clear to you. But remember this: spiritual maturity almost always emerges from experiences of futility or failure. For then we have to stop and listen to God saying to us out of the cloud, This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him. For Christ will be heard. He will be heard. That is when your soul speaks to you, when we have no choice but to listen, because the voice comes from within. Lent is the time for each of us to rediscover with joy, that soul within, to awake to Christ’s glory, as Peter, John and James did on the mountain, to receive the gift of a new beginning, a new heart into which Christ pours his Spirit of Love, and to accept Christ’s invitation to share in His glory, to live the Christ life to the full, and to follow Jesus down that mountain as He turns his face towards Jerusalem.