So here we are, caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock and the hard place are provided, in the lectionary which we follow, by the Sunday readings which bookmark this day, from the last Sunday of Epiphany, before today, and the first Sunday of Lent, after today.
This is the rock. It is encountered on the top of the mountain. The mountain, of course, was made of rock. And yet, this is not the hard igneous rock, or the more malleable sedimentary rock, which presses against us, from the story. For it was on this mountain, the traditional place of encounter with the Holy One, blessed be he, the place where revelation of the Divine would take place, that the rock of belief in Jesus was shaped, and made manifest, and imprinted on the minds and hearts of the disciples who were there.
For on the top of the rock, Jesus was seen to be a great one, comfortably at home alongside the existing greats of the faith, Elijah the prophet and Moses the Lawgiver. On the mountain was the place of glorious revelation, as a magically translucent light shone forth, from Jesus, over the disciples, conveying penetrating insight, illuminating a divine truth, revealing the essence of Jesus: “This is. my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” He was, then not only among the great ones; he was the great one.
But such revelation, as gloriously indulgent as it might seem, also brings a sharp edge: the confrontation of standing in the very presence of the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, the challenge of knowing that, once you have seen this reality, your life will be different. There is no turning back. You are now a follower of the man of Nazareth; a man who has the capacity to bring you closer than you ever imagined into the awesome and awful presence of the holy one, blessed be his name. You are marked, charged, and equipped for the life of discipleship by virtue of the vision in the rock which has claimed you as God’s.
That is the rock. What of the hard place?
The hard place is out in the wilderness, away from the towns, in the desert area which appears, to all intents and purposes, to be harsh, stringent, and utterly challenging to life. It is the place where Israel struggled, complained, and debated, for “a heaps long, long time” (that’s my translation of forty years). And it’s the place where Jesus struggled, debated, and resisted, for “a mighty long time” (that is, in biblical-speak, for forty days).
Of course, it was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. “You shall be my people, and I shall be your God”, and so the terms of the covenant were sealed.
And it was in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his destiny and the integrity of his life: as the one who was not the showman, turning stones into bread; as the one who was not the magician, able to levitate, float, defy gravity; and as the one who was not invested with power and authority to trump his greatness over the peoples of the earth. It was in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his identity as the Son of the Holy One, blessed be he; and to know of his mission as the one specifically chosen by that Holy One, blessed be he.
From this time on, says Matthew, Jesus preached his ominous clarion call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And the pressing urgency of this message, the confrontation of this call, scratches at our ears and agitates our hearts. How can we not be disturbed by this Gospel? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
How can we not feel hard pressed, faithfully following the man of Nazareth, yet dazzled by his demanding call, joyously celebrating his transfigured glory, yet humbled by the mission of repentance, to which he insistently invites us.
So Lent offers a time of reflection, perhaps of sacrificial abstinence. A call to follow, knowing that this is no ordinary journey, this is no ordinary man. Each one of us has been stirred, provoked, perhaps upended, by just such a call. We are caught in between a rock and a hard place, between the joy of being in the presence of the transfigured one, and the dawning reality of just what it will mean to repent, to turn around, to engage in the mission. And that is what Lent will offer us, each day, each week, through this period of preparation.
May you be faithful to respond to the call, to experience and endure and appreciate what it means to be squeezed between the rock and the hard place, to dedicate yourself to service as a disciple and to follow the pathway set out by the man of Nazareth.
This reflection was offered to candidates for ministry in the Perth Theological Hall in March 2017.