8am and 9:30am on Sundays Hart Street, Henley-on-Thames RG9 2AU

City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Sunday next before Lent

Feb 14, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 50.1-6
2 Kings 2.1-12
Mark 9.2-9

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Last week brought the astonishing news from archaeologists that Stonehenge may have originally been constructed in south west Wales, before being dismantled, transported and reassembled at Salisbury plain. Even today, with the wonders of modern transport and technology, this would be a major project. Contemplating how this was accomplished 5000 years ago is mind-blowing. And as interesting as that question is, a still more significant question is why? Such a massive undertaking, requiring so much energy and effort, not merely to construct this colossal structure, but also to transport it; why, when Salisbury plain presumably had rocks of its own that could have been used? It surely suggests that there was something about these stones that was vital to these ancient people, vital to their shared identity, vital to their collective way of making sense of the world around them.

The ancient Jewish people also had their stones. There were many places associated with encounters with God, places for example where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had set up their own stones as places of sacrifice or as monuments to a significant moment or event. But above all, there was the Jerusalem Temple, sited on Mount Zion. “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting”, writes the psalmist, and we are immediately reminded of the orientation of Stonehenge to the midsummer sun. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”

We too have our stones, we have our holy places which are central to our shared identity and our corporate way of making sense of the world around us. And like Stonehenge, and very probably like the Jerusalem Temple, our holy places too are orientated towards the rising sun.

For the people who built Stonehenge, the orientation towards the sun was very likely because they believed the sun itself to be God or at least a god. But for Jews and Christians, the sun is simply another part of God’s creation, not to be worshipped, but important like the rest of creation both because it has a place in God’s good order and provision for God’s creatures, and especially insofar as it is able to lead us to the power and majesty and goodness of God. As the psalmist writes: “The heavens declare God’s righteousness, for God Himself is judge”.

And for Christians, the orientation of our churches to the east has a very specific meaning, the rising sun reminding us of the risen Christ. “The heavens declare God’s righteousness, for God Himself is judge”, and in the Resurrection God’s judgement is revealed in the vindication of His Christ.

Place is also important in today’s gospel, an unspecified high mountain, reminding the reader of the many ways in which mountains are places of encounter with God in the Jewish story, not only Mount Zion, but also Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and Mount Horeb where Elijah encountered God in the sound of sheer silence – and it is probable that Sinai and Horeb are one and the same mountain.

“Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here”, Peter says, in a sort of ecstatic understatement. Jesus shines like the sun, talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter with James and John receives a glimpse, a foretaste, of Jesus in His risen glory, although he cannot at this time understand it as such.

“Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here”. And yet Peter fails to see beyond the moment, he doesn’t recognise that what he sees is only a glimpse and a foretaste, he does not want to accept the struggle that lies before Jesus and before Peter himself. Like the ancient Britons worshipping the sun, he misses the opportunity to be pointed towards the deeper truth, and wishes instead to cling this moment. And so the strange suggestion that he build tends for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so that he can preserve this moment, and not only that, but perhaps even contain and control it.

It is also good for us to be here, but of course we are conscious of those who cannot be here, those who with good reason have decided to keep their heads down for a time until this pandemic, or at least the worst of it, is past. We too have our stones, and these stones are important to us, they embody our shared identity as the Body of Christ, they represent our corporate way of making sense of the world, they connect the very particular stories of our community with the bigger story of the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. But this place is important to us ultimately not for what it is but for what it points to. It is not a place where we seek to manipulate God into doing the things that we think that God ought to do, we cannot build a tent for God in order to contain and control him. Rather, this is the place where we in our shared life are reorientated towards God. Like the mountain of the Transfiguration, it is a place where we are afforded a glimpse and a foretaste of the glory that is to come.

It is good for us to be here, and we hope and pray that as the vaccination roll-out continues, and as the lockdown reduces the prevalence of the virus in this town, people will once again feel confident to come back to church. And I urge and encourage everyone, when the time is right, to remember that it is good to be here, and to come back once again with renewed commitment.

To come back, not only because this is a beautiful place that embodies the shared memories of our community, although of course it is that, but also because it is a place where we are reorientated, a place where we come together to face the risen Christ. The sun that shines, when it shines, through our east window reminds us of Him; the Sacrament we celebrate and share gives us an efficacious sign of His grace; and our study of scripture and our worship gives order and sense and meaning to our lives and our world.

It is good for us to be here, and let us hope and pray that in the weeks and months that follow, more and more of us will once again be able to be here, to rejoice in our fellowship in this beautiful place, to rejoice in the presence of our risen Lord Jesus, and to catch a glimpse and a foretaste of the glory that by His grace awaits us.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.