Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:29-35
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Labour politician Tony Benn, who died in 2014, was, like many of those who get to the top in politics, a very driven person. He was a Cabinet minister in the 1970s, and almost became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in the 1980s. More recently, after retiring from the House of Commons at the last election (after 50 years as an MP), he travelled around the country with a sort of one-man show, which played to packed houses in theatres all over the country. For Tony Benn came from a political family, one with a stern sense of Christian duty. His diaries make it clear that he felt accountable for his use of time- it was a gift of God, which he had to make the most of.
Even as a young man, training as an RAF pilot, he hated to waste time. For example, when some of his colleagues come round for a chat one day, he writes afterwards,
‘The whole afternoon [they]… were in my hut and the time was wasted absolutely in worthless chattering’.
I’m not sure that the young Tony Benn would have been a very easy person for his fellow RAF officers to get along with. He was just too busy for what he thought of as trivia.
So it comes as a surprise to discover that later on, an older and wiser Tony Benn could be stopped in his tracks. By 1981, Benn was a member of the Shadow Cabinet. He was seen as a possible future leader of the party. It was a time when the Labour party was tearing itself apart in internal disputes- and Benn was right in the middle of all that- at one point in his diary, he admits that going to a Shadow Cabinet meeting is ‘an absolute nightmare’ . But one evening in October 1981, his diary reveals that even driven politicians have a private life. He had become a grandfather for this first time. His son Hilary- who was later to become another member of that driven political family be a Cabinet Minister- had just had a son. In a touching passage in his diary he describes visiting, with his wife Caroline, his new grandson:
In the evening Caroline and I went to Hilary’s to visit little Michael. Hilary put him in my arms, and I just looked at him for half an hour. I am so thrilled with him.
Tony Benn felt as most new grandparents feel. I know from experience that once you give a grandparent a new baby it can be a struggle to get him back! I don’t know what it is about babies, but they seem to bring out a sense of wonder in most of us- and pride, too, in their parents and grandparents. The birth of a baby is an event which seems to make time stand still for a moment- a time of joy, and pride, and just sheer wonder. For a new baby always seems like a miracle- this new wee bundle of life seems to stir up all sorts of emotions within us. And so no matter how busy we are, we stop, and we stare, and we wonder.
I sometimes worry that many of us who share Tony Benn’s Christian work ethic are sometimes too busy to stop and stare. Sometimes it seems we are so busy for God, that we forget just to enjoy God. Christian people get so involved with doing things for God, that we forget to just stop and stare. I’ve sometimes met church members- even ministers- who seemed to always feel guilty whenever they stopped, for whatever reason. After all, there’s so much to do! There’s a whole world of needy people out there, whom God calls us to care for. We want to change the world, make life better for people. We are always looking for volunteers to do things in the Church. And then there are the demands of our family and our work- how can we get it all done? And so we push on- doing, working, rushing around. And we don’t stop, because then we feel a bit guilty. There’s always something else to do.
But if we are really Christians, we should be trying to learn from Jesus. Jesus was a busy person. He travelled around Palestine, preaching, teaching and healing. He often had crowds of people to cope with, many of them who needed his healing touch. There were plenty of people who wanted to hear from him, to discuss and argue. He never seems to have been short of invitations to dinner. He took on the might of the religious establishment and the Roman Empire, and in three short years, he changed the course of world history. We’re told that sometimes when he saw the crowds, ‘his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. What a huge task he faced, and what little time he had for it.
But if we were real followers of Jesus, we wouldn’t be on the go all the time. For there are lots of times in the Gospels when we hear that Jesus wasn’t busy all the time. Often he would simply abandon the crowds, and take time to go off alone. He would sneak off when nobody was looking, find a quiet place in the desert or the mountains, and, away from the crowds and all their cares- he would spend time alone, in prayer. He called God ‘Father’. It was an intimate and special relationship, a relationship which Jesus gave time to. He had to keep the lines of communication open with his Father. He needed to pray, to spend time with God. Jesus needed to times when he simply stood still, in the presence of God.
That’s why we find Jesus climbing a mountain in today’s Gospel story. And this time he takes with him some friends- is closest colleagues, Peter, John and James (because sometimes it’s good to pray with others). And while they are there, something indescribable happens. The Gospel writers strain to tell us about it. Luke speaks of light, of dazzling brightness all around. He speaks of Jesus somehow changing, as Moses changed when he saw God face to face. There is in fact a vision of Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of the past. And in the midst of all this, we learn something about Jesus.
Luke tells us that in the vision there are words spoken. Moses and Elijah, we are told, ‘talked with Jesus about the way in which he would fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem’. And at the end of the vision, there is a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen- listen to him’.
What is going on here? I think this is an account of a very intense religious experience. It begins simply enough- Jesus goes off to pray with his ‘inner circle’. But then Jesus and his friends seem to experience the presence of God in a powerful way. And in God’s presence, they begin to learn things- about the future of Jesus, and about just who he is.
The story of the Transfiguration comes at a turning point in Luke’s Gospel, and in the church year. Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, and during that time we have, in a sense, been looking back on Jesus’ birth. But now we turn a corner. Those words of Luke, about how the old prophets ‘talked with Jesus about the way in which he would fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem’ remind us of what is ahead. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. From now on, in our Sunday scripture readings, we are on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus is on the way to the cross.
Have you ever found yourself trying to work out a puzzle, or remember a fact, and you find that the more you think and worry about it, the less progress you make. Often the thing to do is to forget it for a bit. Take some time off, relax a bit, do something else. And it’s in the middle of doing something else- when you’re not even thinking of the problem- that suddenly- click!- it all falls into place. Often when we find life a bit overwhelming, we need to do that too.
For when he climbed that mountain, I think Jesus had a lot on his mind. His ministry was going well. He’d got the attention of the crowds. He’d chosen his disciples. He was preaching and healing and all seemed to be well. But there were problems. There was opposition. Sometimes people didn’t seem to understand what he was on about. I wonder if he thought- ‘This is great. I’m doing so well here in Galilee, on my home turf. Why should I leave here?’ But when he gets away from the hustle and bustle, and goes up that mountain with his friends, suddenly he’s in the presence of God, and he can’t deny that he has to go Jerusalem. He has to take the hard road, the road God calls him to.
And his disciples- Peter, John and James. They too have heard this talk of going to Jerusalem, of how the Son of Man must die in order that God’s plans can be fulfilled. But that would, of course, have made them very uneasy. They also needed time with God to sort out their thoughts. And so they came down that mountain changed men- now they knew for sure that they were on the road to Jerusalem.
How were they changed? Because experienced what Luke calls ‘glory’. Moses and Elijah appear ‘in heavenly glory’, and Jesus, also seems to shine with ‘glory’. This is what Moses experienced when he received the Law- the Ten Commandments- from God on Mount Sinai. according to the old story, when the people saw Moses after he’d met God, his face was shining. It’s like when you get the sun in your face, maybe you’ve been sunbathing or skiing- afterwards your face is still shining a bit, reflecting the heat from the sun. Moses shone so much that he needed to put on a veil in order not to dazzle people!
In England at the moment, the government wants, once more, to loosen the restrictions on Sunday trading. It is as if we are all supposed to be either at work, or consuming, during all our waking hours, Monday to Sunday. For most people in our culture, going to church, spending time in worship or prayer, is pointless. A waste of time. But for a believer, worship is not pointless at all. We need this waste of time to make sense of everything else in our busy lives. It’s a moment to stop being busy, to stop working or consuming, and to spend time with our thoughts, with our prayers, with our God. A time when we might, just glimpse God’s glory.
If the young Tony Benn thought that spending an afternoon in idle chatter was a terrible waste of time, what would he have thought about sitting and just looking at a baby for half an hour? But when he became a grandfather, he couldn’t do anything else. The wonder of grandfatherhood just stopped him in his tracks.
Sometimes we just find that we need to sit and wonder. And that’s what worship and prayer are all about. We preachers quite often urge our congregations to do things for God. But I want to urge you to make space in your life to do nothing for God. You need to sometimes just stop and wonder at God. Don’t try to understand. Don’t try to do anything. And don’t feel guilty because you aren’t doing anything. Just stop, and enjoy being in the presence of God. It’s what Jesus did. If he needed his quiet times with God, surely we need them as well.
Saul Alinsky was one of the founders of the community organising movement in the USA- he worked in the slums and ghettos of Chicago and other American cities in the 1960s and early 1970s, motivitating people to work for a better life, and to improve their communities. He was the sort of person who might say to others, ‘Don’t just stand there. Do something!’ But he once said, ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there!’ He recognised that sometimes we need to stop, to be quiet, to allow things to happen to us, rather than always making them happen.
To be effective Christians, we need to stop and be silent sometimes. We need public worship, we need private prayer, we need times when we can just stand there, in silence and wonder. Jesus needed those times- so we definitely need them as well! And in those times of doing nothing, we might just glimpse the glory of God.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo
 The Benn Diaries: New Single Volume Edition, p11
 ibid., p524
 ibid., p524
 Quoted in SoS material for 22 February 2004