This sermon was preached in St Andrews church, Zurich by the Assistant Chaplain on 27 February 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia the previous week. The associated readings are Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9.28-43a.
“We try not to panic. On the first day flew to Vinnytsia region three rockets. To Kalynivka, Bokhonyky and Tulchyn. The next two days were still rockets, planes, helicopters and landing. Every few hours a siren sounds about the dangers of the air, we hide in a shelter. We hold on, don’t panic, we love our city and country. We are ready for any event. Territorial defence collected. We are all in the city, transport works. Hospitals, medicines as well. We believe that everything will be fine. ”
(A citizen of Vinnytsia, Ukraine and a work colleague of the husband of the Assistant Chaplain)
Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.
Preparing this sermon has been difficult. From the hope that a leader of one nation would not seek to invade another, to the despair watching women, children, old and young fleeing for their lives and saying goodbye to fathers, brothers and sons. And the reading for the Gospel is the glory of Jesus revealed to his disciples. It seemed hard to reconcile the two.
And then I read the very last line of the Gospel. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.
Yes, we have this vision of Jesus, standing talking to the great prophets of old – Jesus, the Son of God, reconciling the law and the prophets. Those prophets who for centuries had tried to reroute the people of Israel from actions that alienate and reject others, to a people who were accepting and welcoming to those who were poor, refugees, different. God’s society is one which encourages forgiveness, justice, mercy: the psalm declares God is a lover of Justice establishing equity, one who forgives. And yet, humans turn away, towards greed, power and punishment.
So Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, and talks with them, standing in his glory. And that’s where Peter wants it to stay: Jesus shown in glory, with the important people of the past. Put in a box, well a dwelling, so that they can sit and talk forever. Safely distant on the mountain. Peter means it well – he wants to show Jesus how important he is to them. But this traps Jesus in one time and place, one small area. And distant from our lives. Up there on the mountain, doing Godly things with the heroes of the past. But not in the world, with us, here.
Because that’s how we like it isn’t it? Or do we? I mean, we shove Jesus out of our lives, into the closet of glory, reflecting that he is God so we can’t understand him, or he can’t understand us. Until something bad happens, and then suddenly it’s “where is God? Where is your Jesus?” And we look for that God and think that we can’t find him. Just as Jesus felt bereft on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And the people were no less mocking: He trusts in God, let God deliver him! Where is now our God? Peter wanted him on the mountain sitting in glory. So where is he? For those fleeing in fear, for those from Russia and Ukraine living here in Zurich or across the world, refugees in far away places looking at what is happening is Ukraine and crying: where is now our God?
For the answer we need to listen to the voice of God in this passage: When Peter speaks out, in the excited exuberance characteristic of him, suddenly everything changes. God intervenes to put things straight: This is my Son. LISTEN TO HIM! Listen to him. And what does Jesus say? Let these words sink into your ears: the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.
But first, Jesus shows Peter and the disciples who he really is. This is no distant, unreachable God. This is the God whose first act is to come down from the mountain to be amongst his people, walking with them, sharing their joys, sorrows, pain. Responding to the calls for help of a distressed father. Not with great displays of shining lights or magician’s tricks: but with words, simply, quietly. And he is with his people. Truly human, there in the midst of human life and activity. Caught up in the dangers and disasters. So much so that he suffers and dies because human beings can’t accept his words of peace, love and compassion for all. His care for those less fortunate, his concern for the dangers riches possess for those who seek them. His desire to refocus people from earthly gain at other’s expense to living for others, putting others before themselves. Not seeking to control but to live in love and peace with all.
God, in Jesus, gets involved in the world as it is. As John Pritchard writes, Jesus is not at the edges in strange events but deep in our lives. We try and put God where we want him to be, but God is not there. God is somewhere else, with those we don’t expect God to be; in the situations we don’t expect God to be in. He is in the darkness of our lives; of our world. Reaching out, sharing the pain and suffering. Understanding. God is running with those fleeing the bombs, with those hiding in shelters, with those protesting across the world, with those in Russia daring to protest even though it means instant arrest. God has been there, in prison, on trial, lost and alone, betrayed. In the action of Russia, once again the Son of Man is betrayed into human hands. In the Gospels this was because he didn’t fit human ideas of who, what and where God is. Humans couldn’t control him so they destroyed him – or tried to. Today, he is betrayed by the greed, arrogance and hunger for power and glory that causes one nation to seek to control another. But the power of God shines out of the darkness of humanity’s actions and into the hearts and actions of those challenging that darkness, praying fervently for peace and justice, standing up and shouting for justice and righteousness. Jesus is there, as he was those years ago on the cross, through which we are redeemed, because God so loved the world that he sent his only son to give us everlasting life and hope.
So yes, we are at the moment in a time of uncertainty, fear and for those in Ukraine, danger. Mark has heard from colleagues trapped in Ukraine, describing the bombing. But we must remember that God is with us: Emmanuel, he is here, his Spirit is with us: we say those words at the beginning of the Eucharist: The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us. Jesus knows, he has been through this pain, this fear: in Gethsemane he struggled to face the danger, but came through despair to offer us hope. Life. Love. The Transfiguration shows that God is with us: God is here on earth in Jesus and shares our pain. But, as Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, when we call for Jesus, for God, to give us answers, perhaps sometimes all we get is God’s presence with us. That presence is with us now, in Zurich; it’s with those living in fear, hiding or fleeing leaving loved ones behind in danger. He is with those left in the danger. All we can do is gain strength from that presence and continue to pray for that strength to be with those who need it now.
This is my Son, says God. Listen to Him. Learn from Him. And let his presence spread into the whole world, taking his Words into the world in hope and prayer. I finish with a prayer for Ukraine sent out by the Methodist Church:
Holy and Gracious God
We pray for the people of the Ukraine and the people of Russia; for their countries and their leaders.
We pray for all those who are afraid; that your everlasting arms hold them in this time of great fear.
We pray for all those who have the power over life and death; that they will choose for all people life, and life in all its fullness.
We pray for those who choose war; that they will remember that you direct your people to turn our swords into ploughshares and seek for peace.
We pray for leaders on the world stage; that they are inspired by the wisdom and courage of Christ.
Above all, Lord, today we pray for peace for Ukraine.
And we ask this in the name of your blessed Son.
Lord have mercy. Amen