If you thought there was something more than usually familiar about today’s gospel reading, then you are completely correct – a strange twist in the lectionary gives us the same passage twice in the space of a couple of weeks.
There was an alternative reading offered – Peter’s confession of Christ, a great story – but I was rather intrigued by the idea of looking at the same passage twice in quick succession, but in quite a different context. For two weeks ago it was transfiguration Sunday, and in a sense I took a backwards look at the story; if you were hear, and listening, and remember, I reflected on the characters of Moses and Elijah, and the placement of this story in the great tradition of the people of God through the things that they represented – the law, Moses’ description or encapsulation in written ordinance of what it means to live as the people of God, to live out the living Torah, the way of God, and the prophets, the great voices of the Hebrew scriptures that called the people back to the place of justice; sometimes by calling them back to the law, sometimes by challenging them to lift their eyes higher still.
And I ended by suggesting that the voice of God in the story invited us, as join into the conversation between the people of God through the ages, to pay unique, particular, attention, to one of whom God said “this is my son, listen to him”.
Which leads us into a second reflection on the passage – this time looking forward. For while Jesus stands clearly and firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, the traditions of the Torah and of the Prophets, he also stands at the start of something new. There is a continuity with all that as gone before, but at the same time a break with the past. The breaking in of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ teaching, was all about what the Kingdom of God was, is, would be. But when we talk about the Kingdom of God, we’re often at pains to talk about what it isn’t; about the ways in which it didn’t reflect or represent what the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were expecting, or waiting or hoping for. How it wasn’t the restoration of the political freedom or military might of the nation.
And when we do talk about the positive reality of the Kingdom, sometimes we talk about it as something secret or silent; perhaps as a reaction to the brash and often offensive voices that too often seem to seek to represent the Church today, we focus on quietly getting on with the job of being God’s people.
And there’s plenty of reason to take that sort of approach – even in Jesus’ own teaching. The sermon on the mount is full of condemnation of those who make their faith a thing of spectacle and show – “don’t pray on the street corners like the hypocrites,” he said, and “when you give, don’t even let you left hand know what your right hand is doing”.
And the early Church, of course, in the years of Roman persecution under Nero and Domitian, was very much a secret society, just was in China for decades and still is in many parts of the world.
There is a place – a crucial place – in the work of the people of Jesus for quiet faith worked out in kingdom actions of grace and justice and reconciliation and love and generosity.
But here today we see the other side; the Kingdom of God also has a voice. The Kingdom of God speaks with the voice of God.
The story of the Kingdom of God begins with a voice: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord”.
The ministry of Jesus begins, at his baptism, with the voice of God declaring “you are my Son, the beloved”.
Those words are echoed again today in the transfiguration, this time for others to hear “this is my Son, the beloved: listen to him”. And while Jesus tells Peter, James and John that they are not to tell anyone about the voice just yet, the instruction is clear: don’t tell anyone “until the Son of Man is risen from the dead”. This voice is not a secret, this voice of God is not to be hidden away and just reflected on; when the time is right, this voice is to be heard, echoed, repeated.
The voice of God that spoke throughout the creation poem of Genesis chapter 1 – “and God said… and it was”. The voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush and from the fire of Mount Sinai, the voice that spoke to Elijah in the calm silence after earthquake, wind and fire; the voice which seemed to have fallen silent for the centuries since the last of the great Hebrew prophets. Here, in the ministry of Jesus, the voice of God speaks once more. Breaking into the world, speaking into existence the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God has a voice.
Which is perhaps why I’ve found the juxtaposition between this story and two others that we’ve heard today so moving.
Earlier in our service I read words written by Stuart McMillan to the Uniting Church in response to the final report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse; a harrowing report describing the way that institutions, religious and secular, including the Uniting Church, for decades failed children in our care who were victims of sexual abuse. And while I am proud that the Uniting Church has, in recent years, been so proactive in developing child protection policies, and has been ready to accept responsibility for our failings in the past, it remains a dark stain on our name, that we, along with so many others, chose to protect the institution and the offenders rather than fight to bring justice for the victims.
And when I’ve read the testimony of so many of those victims, what struck me over and again was the sense that they, as children, were denied their voice, and that the greatest work of the commission was to finally offer them a chance to speak, to be heard.
And our video from UnitingWorld – the voices of the people of Tuvalu, voices of those for whom climate change is not just a reality but a slowly developing catastrophe. Voices which are rarely, if ever, heard, in the cacophony of Western media. Voices of those who are amongst the first to suffer the consequences of the choices we, as humanity, have made and are making.
The Kingdom of God has a voice; and it has a calling to allow others to have a voice as well.
When I first wrote that last sentence I wrote “a calling to speak for those who have none”. For that is often the construction we use, we way we think. And sometimes that is exactly what is needed; to speak for those trapped in modern slavery, to speak for the profoundly disabled. to speak for the voiceless creation; when it is not possible for others to speak, we must, perhaps, speak for them.
But otherwise, I’d suggest that our call is not speak for others, but to hand them the microphone. Not to speak for them, but to allow their voice to be heard.
Perhaps you’ve seen, over the past few days, coverage of the school students of Florida as they have challenged the political system of America with their demands for gun control. How much more powerful are their voices than those of any number of adults who might have tried to speak for them?
The Kingdom of God breaks into creation with the sound of voices; the voice of John the Baptist, the voice of Jesus, the voice of God. And as they descend the mountain, Jesus tells his friends that their voices, too, will be part of this story; not yet, not until after Jesus has been raised from the dead, but soon. And the Kingdom advances in the voices of the unexpected, the marginalised, the unheard; the voices of slaves and women in ancient times; the voices of the victims of abuse, of #metoo, of the people of the islands, of the children of Florida. The voice of God speaks in unexpected ways – from a burning bush, from a cloud, from a donkey –
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the prophet wrote. Perhaps the word of the Kingdom of God for our day is this: “the people who lived in silence have been given a voice”.