Pathways to God
Mary Copping, 6 August 2017
Luke 9: 28–36; 2 Peter 1: 16–19
On Thursday I went to a Christian festival called New Wine, held at the Royal Bath & West Showground. It is a bit like other festivals such as Glastonbury, but with a Christian flavour – Christian bands and music, lots of different talks on aspects of Christianity, thousands of people worshipping God in the marquee in the evening. It felt like a real journey for me and my friend, as we left at 7.15 am, got back at 11.30 pm, and in between walked through deep mud in the festival fields caused by the recent rain and went from marquee to marquee for the talks. This part of our Christian journey gave a real boost to our faith, and we felt refreshed and spiritually invigorated.
I wonder if that is how the disciples felt at their experience of seeing the glory of God through Jesus as he was transfigured, and hearing God’s word to them confirming, ‘This is my Son’, and urging them to listen to him. They didn’t want to leave that place; it was such an amazing experience, they suggested putting up tents. But they were on a journey with Jesus, and they had to come down from that mountain, back into the world again to carry on with their difficult and painful journey to the cross with him. For me and my friend, it would have been good to stay for more of the worship and fellowship, but it was getting late!
For each of us, on our own individual Christian journeys, there will be very different ways of experiencing the glory of God and being refreshed and renewed – possibly not in the noise and activity of New Wine for many people!
One of the seminars at New Wine was on the ‘spiritual disciplines’, though the speaker said he didn’t like to call them that; he preferred ‘spiritual practices’ as it sounded less daunting. In his talk, he spoke about the importance of prayer, Bible study, quiet contemplation, attending church – all helping us to come nearer to God and to know how to live as he wants us to.
He mentioned a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Pathways. In it the author speaks about the soul’s path to God and how the way this happens is different for different people, according to personality, situation, etc. Thomas gives nine different ways of experiencing God; I won’t give all nine as I speak, but will put them on the website with this sermon.
Some of the different ways of experiencing God were as Naturalists, who love God best outdoors; Traditionalists, who love God through religious ritual and symbolism; Caregivers, who love God by serving others; and Contemplatives, who love God through adoration, prayer and stillness. You may recognise yourself in one of those categories. Each person is on their own individual journey and in their own way, sometimes changing according to circumstance, or moving on. As we differ in our way to find God, so we will differ in the way we experience him and in how we would describe our ‘mountaintop experiences’, as these are called.
As we differ in our way to find God, so we will differ in the way we experience him and in how we would describe our ‘mountaintop experiences’.
In one commentary, the Transfiguration of Jesus is compared to his baptism, but it points out the differences. At Jesus’ baptism, the message is spoken personally by God to Jesus (‘You are my Son’), but here the message is for the disciples (‘This is my Son’), to confirm his identity as being from God. At Jesus’ baptism the voice comes ‘from heaven’, whereas here it comes from the cloud that they are enveloped in, implying a real closeness to God and to God’s glory. It would have been such an amazing experience for them.
Living as Christians, we are often described as being on a journey – as in our parish strapline, ‘pilgrims on a journey’, travelling to a holy place. Our aim, our holy place, is heaven.
But what sort of journey are we on? It takes us through many different types of terrain. Firstly, the nice green meadows with lovely grass, where there seem to be few problems – we feel all is right with the world and may even feel we don’t need God.
Then the long, dry and dusty road where things just go on and on with nothing seeming to be happening, wondering whether God is working in our lives.
Then it becomes rough and rocky; we experience sadness and our lives becomes painful.
Then the mud, which we have to wade through with difficulty (as my friend and I had to at New Wine), when our Christian lives just feel like hard work, and problems seem to be coming at us from every side, and we call out to God for help.
We may go through what seems like a thick, dark forest, where God seems absent; this is sometimes called ‘the dark night of the soul’.
As Christians going through these things, we find Jesus is with us, as he was with the disciples – helping us, guiding us and comforting us by his Holy Spirit. I think you will all be familiar with the poem ‘Footsteps’, when Mary Stevenson describes two sets of footprints, hers and God’s, walking along on the journey; but at some points she can see only one, and she wonders where God was at those times. And God says to her, ‘My precious child, it was then that I carried you’. At the times when life is hard, we need God’s everlasting arms to support and help us.
Then, for some, there is the mountaintop experience, when we feel the presence and holiness of God so powerfully and clearly – it could actually be on top of a mountain, or in a church, or in our prayers. ‘But what about me?’ you may be asking, ‘I haven’t experienced anything so dramatic’.
We go back to the pathways to God – the Naturalist may have an experience of God on top of a hill, looking at a beautiful view; not a dramatic appearance, but a feeling of wonder and awe. The Caregiver, seeing the one they care for giving a smile of thanks, may have a sense of love and joy. The Traditionalist may feel deeply moved at one particular part of the liturgy; this is about recognising that our deep experiences are part of seeing ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.
At the Transfiguration, the disciples were shown the glory of God in Jesus, when Jesus was changed before their eyes. Of course, they wanted to stay there, didn’t want to come down, and we also want to stay in that wonderful place, don’t want to come back into the troubles and cares of the world. Yet we somehow keep these experiences with us in our hearts; they change us and are with us as we go back into the world again. We go out into the world transformed, renewed and shedding his glory.
2 Corinthians chapter 3, verse 18: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. Amen.