SERMON 26 FEBRUARY TRANSFIGURATION
I think I must be getting old. I know I am. It is not just the back, the hip, the eyesight. It is more that some things seem to matter less and others matter more. Some things I see in a new light. Some things I just don’t understand at all – and there are a lot of those in this computer age.
Approaching this Sunday’s service, which centres on the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, I was aware of a sense of challenge. In some ways it is always like this as we get close to the special events in the Christian year – Christmas and Easter, because one has to look anew all the time at what lies behind these stories which as so familiar to many of us. This last week I thought to myself “How important is the story of the Transfiguration to me, to anyone else?” I suspect that there is almost a kind of “take it or leave it” feeling. It was a very strange event that happened to those select few disciples, who are instructed not to talk about it afterwards, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection. Those were his instructions which must have added to the disciple’s bemusement at the time.
The account of the Transfiguration always falls on this last Sunday of Epiphany, so it is always a bridge between this time when we have been thinking, firstly about the Magi journeying to find the Christ-child, and then on through the stories that begin to show us how God’s purpose is revealed in Jesus. We had the story of Jesus’ baptism, after which the Spirit was seen descending on him like a dove and God’s voice is heard proclaiming him to be his son. Then we have moved on to Jesus’ own teaching of how God’s people are to live to show that God is revealed in our lives: the Beatitudes, and those instructions about being salt and light, not acting in anger, and the whole attitude of “going the extra mile” as we might describe it. In such ways we are to live lives that are holy and in which we are complete. Epiphany has the interpretation of finding meaning, of moments of revelation. And so we come to this final Sunday in Epiphany and the story of the Transfiguration.
It has been foreshadowed and connects with the story in Exodus of Moses going up the mountain, summoned by God, waiting for 6 days before he is called on up into the cloud and the light. This was a very particular time of Epiphany. When Moses re-emerges after the 40 days that indicates that it was a long time, he comes with detailed instructions from God about creating the holy place that would symbolise God’s presence – the building of the Ark of the Covenant and all that went with that. The emphasis was then on recognising the holy, the spiritual as being the core of their life. The people would carry it with them. What a powerful symbol!
So we are linked over the centuries to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. For the Hebrew people, the revelation of God’s glory was associated with going up a mountain. There was a waiting time of 6 days, as Moses had in Exodus. Peter, James and John witness the light, bright like the sun, and they know it is the glory of God that reveals to them also Moses and Elijah. Moses, we have seen, had been entrusted with God’s presence. Elijah, as people knew, was predicted to return as God’s messenger for the Messiah – hence the parallels with John the Baptist. So this event was like a recognition, a fulfilment, and it was full of wonder. Before this the three disciples stand in awe. Peter’s response is to want to build shelters, to hold onto, protect and commemorate this vision. It is such a recognisable human response. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose roots lie in Liberation theology, says “It is hard not to be sympathetic with Peter’s suggestion that booths might be built to honour Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Like Peter, we desire to secure in place, if not tie down and domesticate, the wild spirit of God’s kingdom. We do not wish to face anew the challenge of God’s presence. We would like to make the success of the past our own without having the courage of those who followed Jesus into the unknown. Yet the church dies or is unfaithful when the achievements of the past are used to ignore the Father’s command to “listen to him”.
That voice, the echo of what was heard at Jesus’ baptism, is what brings the disciples to fall down terrified. They could manage the vision of glory. They couldn’t stand before the voice that told them to listen. That is always our challenge too. “Listen to him”. We have intimations of glory that are given to us at those moments of epiphany in our lives and they are wonderful. Do we then trust what we have seen so that we can also listen? Peter, the same Peter who was there and witnessed the transfiguration, wrote in his letter about linking this to the words of the prophets, which were always about acting in God’s way. Earlier in the same letter he lists the characteristics of faith that are necessary if we are to listen. You can find those in 2 Peter 1: 5-8.
I began this sermon by indicating that this festival, if you like, of the Transfiguration, did not weigh so well against Christmas or Easter, or even the story of the Magi. But I think that we have here something of great importance, especially as we stand on the edge of the season of Lent as we focus on our journey towards Holy Week and Easter. This story becomes a kind of bridging point. It does not just bring the glory of God close in one of those special moments when the barrier between the divine and the earthly is thinned out to transparency. It is also a time when Jesus is seen as the one who is the cross-over point. He is the only one who can do that. The only one whom we are led to recognise and both human and divine. Because of this we can trust him with all the rest of the journey of faith that will continue down the mountain. There is no longer and Ark of the Covenant to carry the divine presence. It is held there in Jesus. They will come down from that mountain straight into the suffering world that lies at its foot. Jesus will continue to teach and demonstrate to them the way of God’s kingdom. As Hauerwas says “The disciples may finally be starting to grasp what Jesus has told them about his own fate, which, in turn, is helping them to understand what it meant for John, in his role as Elijah, to restore all things. “To restore all things” does not mean everything is going to work out the way we want it to work out. Rather, Israel’s restoration entails a complete reorientation of all things, including our definitions of power. The kingdom inaugurated in the Messiah’s presence restores what was lost by calling into existence a people capable of living as an alternative to the world.”
Isn’t that what all the teaching we have heard about throughout this season of Epiphany – all those do’s and don’ts – framed in the context of great love, isn’t that what Hauerwas is indicating – a reorientation of all things? Jesus is for us the one to whom we look, the one who exemplifies God’s way, the one who gives of himself utterly in deep, demanding love, but, and maybe above all, the one in whom we can trust. The Transfiguration shows us why. It is another point at which we can say “God comes close to us and we come close to God” as one of our communion liturgies says.
Such moments are to be treasured because they can call us back when we get lost along the way. We have to come down the mountain. After church today we will be eating pancakes, a little advance of the day called Shrove Tuesday. “Shrove” comes from the word “shrive”, which means to absolve. It was a day of self-examination, of considering what one needed to repent about. Then, the next day is Ash Wednesday, the day of confession and recommitment to baptismal vows that marks the beginning of the journey through Lent. On Shrove Tuesday pancakes were made to use up eggs and milk and butter which people were discouraged from eating in the Lenten fast. These were serious and solemn times.
Our lifestyles today are very different. I am not going to pre-empt our Lenten journey now, but I think we can do worse than to think about what this story of Transfiguration might mean. It shows us Jesus who crosses the barrier and links the glory of the divine with the mixed up struggles of everyday life. He brings holiness to earth. What does this indicate for us who name ourselves as his followers? We are linked back into that call to be holy and to live within the prayer “Your kingdom come”, to reorientate ourselves. We are led forward into whatever struggles the world around us may throw up, because we are not separate from that nor are we called to set ourselves apart. The Transfiguration shows us God’s involvement with us in Jesus. And, more than anything, it calls us to listen to him. If we do that, we will find many more Epiphany moments.