If you are at all like me, you may well have forgotten by now what [last Sunday's] Gospel was about, so let me remind you: it was the story of the Samaritan woman. And isn’t St. Matthew a vivid story-teller? There’s Jesus sitting by the well, and the Samaritan woman coming with her drinking vessel, which he hasn’t got, and the ensuing conversation about different kinds of water, and she, all excited, running back to her village and telling all her neighbours about this extraordinary chap who seemed to know all about her; and they, full of curiosity, trooping out to see this phenomenon and being convinced by his – comparatively few – words that he was indeed something special…Surely, if there were ever anyone who should be a special patron saint of women preachers, it should be this, alas nameless, woman, whose very excitement it is which brings others to faith.
In the passage we are about to pray with, (Matthew 17:1–8), Peter James and John are witness to Jesus’ Transfiguration, and the further showing forth of God’s presence under the appearance of ‘a bright cloud’ that ‘cast its shadow over them’ This story of the Transfiguration has resonances with the Jewish concept of the ‘Shekinah’, the presence of God made manifest to His people.
The Shekinah is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning "dwelling" or "settling"(Biblical Hebrew: שכינה šekīnah.) referring to the dwelling or settling of the presence of God. This presence of God as a visible experience occurs in various places in the Old Testament, experienced as a glorious and terrifying shining out.
Near the beginning of the Covenantal relationship between God and His people Abraham (then still called Abram) made sacrifice to God and God appeared to him as a smoking fire … and a flaming torch’ (Gen 15.17).
Sermon for Evensong, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 1st March 2020
The gospel we have just heard is the conventional one for this Sunday of the year, the first Sunday of Lent, in many of our Churches, but perhaps our familiarity with it obscures the oddness of this choice.
Lent, obviously enough, is the period of the Christian year immediately prior to Easter, prior, then, to our communal reflection on and celebration of the victory of Jesus over the death of the Cross; and these texts, presumably, are supposed to orient our thinking and praying during these next six weeks.
At the beginning of Lent we are presented with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in which Our Lord re-capitulated and overcame both the primaeval temptations of Adam and Eve, and the temptations faced by the people of Israel in the wilderness. As St Gregory says. ‘The old enemy tempted the first man through his belly, when he persuaded him to eat of the forbidden fruit; through ambition when he said, You shall be as gods; through covetousness when he said, Knowing good and evil; for there is a covetousness not only of money, but of greatness, when a high estate above our measure is sought.’ In the desert the whole nation of Israel is tempted and overcome in the same manner – they crave the fleshpots of Egypt, they turn to false gods, and they mistrust the God Who has saved them. However ‘By the same method in which he had overcome the first Adam, in that same was he overcome when he tempted the second Adam. He tempted through the belly when he said, Command that these stones become loaves; through ambition when he said, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here; through covetousness of lofty condition in the words, All these things will I give you’
When I was growing up in rural North Devon, members of local churches banded together to visit their neighbours who had fallen away from the practice of Christian faith, handing out free copies of the gospels, in order to encourage them to return to the fold. In a at least one case, however, this enterprise proved a little counter-productive. My own family, at that point, might best have been described as lapsed CofE, and it did nothing to persuade my mother to revisit the question of church-going, abandoned in her teens, when she encountered on the door step the organist from the Anglican church in the village, who greeted her seemingly more in sorrow than in anger and announced in lugubrious tones, “well, Mrs Swailes, I’m afraid I’ve brought you the good news…”
I truly mention this not to scoff at what was undoubtedly a worthy and courageous initiative, but, rather, to acknowledge what might, if we were honest, form at least part of our own reaction to the gospel passages which we hear read as we approach the beginning of Lent in which we hear we hear the Lord offer not, at first sight at any rate, words of reassurance, but rather words of condemnation.