Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Transfiguration - a sermon for next Sunday

Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray. I can understand that. Mountains can be very good places on which to pray. We’re not short of high places and superb views round here, and one thing I’m aiming to do this year is to hold some “Forest Church” type worship events where for at least part of the time we’re out in the open air, perhaps walking, even climbing. The midsummer service at Mitchell’s Fold will be one of these, and of course that’s been going now for many years. I’ve often turned the circle of us inside out at that service, so that instead of looking in at each other we’re looking out across the moors and the fields. The wide view you get up there is so full of inspiration.

On this occasion Jesus took Peter and James and John with him, and it’s what they saw there that forms our theme for today - along with, I guess, why they saw it. We sometimes speak of a mountain top experience, meaning those dramatic and special times when we feel specially close to God, and more intensely aware of his presence and power. As someone once said to me, “There are places, special holy places, where the sky just seems thinner.” Such dramatic encounters with God, though, are rare, even I think for very holy people, which I am not.

But the main theme of this story, the Transfiguration, isn’t about us having special mountain top experiences. It shows us Jesus revealed as he fully and truly is. Peter, James and John are witnesses on our behalf to a lifting of the veil, a look behind the curtain that normally remains firmly drawn.

Tired out, they’ve been asleep as Jesus was praying - but as they awake they see his face and his clothes shining with a light so bright they can hardly bear it. All the glory of God is shining in this man, and he’s speaking with two men who can only be the two great heroes of the faith who were believed not to have died but to have been taken up bodily into heaven, Moses and Elijah. They’re speaking about the departure Jesus is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The Greek word translated here as departure is exodos.

The Book of Exodus - same word - describes the departure of the people from Egypt, and their journey across the wilderness to find their promised land. It’s a story of salvation, and of    re-creation, and so is this new exodos. Jesus in Jerusalem will release his people from slavery - will release all people, everyone who turns to him, from our slavery to sin and death.

But as he does this, what the disciples will see is a man broken, lost, degraded, defeated, falling victim to his enemies. And that will test their faith to breaking point and beyond. That’s why Peter and the others are granted this mountain top experience. We call it the Transfiguration because that’s what it seemed like to them. But was it, really? This isn’t Jesus changed so much as their eyes and senses being opened, activated, so they see Jesus as he always is. For everything Jesus is and says and does shines with the glory of his Father.

Peter and James and John couldn’t really understand what they’d seen till Easter; until they finally became convinced that their Lord was risen, that death no longer enslaved him. But they needed to see it now, before everything happened that would need to happen. In a few weeks’ time we shall see these three once again asleep while Jesus is praying - but in the Garden of Gethsemane, where they wake from sleep to see their Master all too human, all too frail, so easily captured and taken.

On the mountain, see how Peter tries to hang on to the moment. He wants to make shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah - it’s such a special place, and there needs to be some kind of shrine. But before he can do anything there’s a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, my chosen.” And then everything is as it was before. The mountain was probably Mount Hermon, and today there is a church, and pilgrims stream to it. But the message of the voice to Peter and the others is that it’s not the place that’s special, but the person. Jesus, with whom they’ll travel on to Jerusalem.

Moses and Elijah were, as I’ve said, the two heroes who were supposed not to have died but to have been carried up to heaven. Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets, and we’re reminded that Jesus said: “Don’t imagine that I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” What Jesus will go on to do is to complete the work of salvation spoken of in the Law and the prophets. And only he can do this. He is abused and spat upon; he is broken and pierced on the cross at Calvary. And love divine changes our life and destiny for ever.

Before these events, Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of that love divine. They see how - as Paul would later write, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Jesus is not just a good teacher, he is God incarnate, God present with us, God not abandoning us to our failure and our sin.

I’ve been trying to remember whether, when Ann and I visited Mount Hermon some years ago, our visit include the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. We celebrated communion at many of the places we visited, but I’m not sure we did there. I do recall thinking that while there’s something special of course about standing in the actual place where Jesus himself might have stood, I might have felt closer to the actual experience of the Transfiguration on some lonely stretch of moorland (which is how I picture it in my head), rather than in a church busily filled with pilgrims who travel up the hill in noisy Mercedes taxis.

But even so, I’d want to say that there is a real connection for me between that single event, the Transfiguration and the Holy Communion we celebrate week by week, connecting us to the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples. At Holy Communion we meet together and we meet also with our Lord. As we break bread and share the cup of wine his glory is both hidden and revealed in these two ordinary things. And perhaps, like Peter and James and John, we see just for a moment beyond the veil.

But it’s a moment only, this meal that we share. It’s not a place we can stay. On the mountain top, the voice from heaven spoke, the cloud lifted, the glory was veiled again, and all was as it had been before. And as we read on in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel we see how Jesus and his companions went back down the mountain and straight back into the busy hurly-burly of life and ministry, all the time keeping on the road to Jerusalem.

“Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” we shall say as this service closes. What we’re given, the glimpses we may have of God’s glory, the sense of his presence and love which perhaps is that bit more intense in one of those places where the sky is thinner, or perhaps the taste of his saving love and the sense of his presence as we kneel to receive communion - these moments are given to inspire and encourage the rest of our living. For us to use and share; to further enable us to tell his story and bear witness to his love. Neither the mountain top nor the altar of our churches are places to stay; they’re places we’re sent out from, with work to do.

So may we shine as his lights, who is the light unconquerable, the love divine and eternal, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.

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