Sermon preached at Enmore, Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration, 26/2/17
Readings: Exodus 24:12–18; 2 Peter 1:16–21; Matthew 17:1–9
The transfiguration used to be celebrated on the 6th August‑a date chosen by one of the early Popes but in recent years since the advent of the Revised Common Lectionary, it has been celebrated on this Sunday before Lent, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins with the story of the visit of the magi or wise men to the infant Jesus. Through the leading of a star they find the child born to be king of the Jews and he is revealed (or manifested) to them. That of course was the original meaning of the word, Epiphany. Having an epiphany has now become part of our language, meaning we suddenly discover something new or have a moment of insight or revelation. The story of the Transfiguration forms a bridge between the Epiphany season and Lent. It has echoes of the baptism of Jesus because on both occasions we have the heavenly voice speaking with the words: “this is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased” but it also points us forward to Christ’s future suffering and another mountain where Jesus will be lifted up on a cross.
Undoubtedly it is a strange event which defies rational explanations and we might be inclined to follow the path of those who have dismissed it as a pious myth or perhaps a theological metaphor but then we remember that this incident is described in all three synoptic Gospels and all three accounts are remarkable consistent in their essential details.
Matthew begins his narrative with the words: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” The obvious question is, ‘Six days after what?’ The event referred to here is the conversation Jesus has with his disciples where he asks them, “Who do people say that the son of man is?” They reply ‘well some say you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.’ Then Jesus asks the personal question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter breaks the awkward silence with the confession: “You’re the Messiah, you’re the son of the living God.”
Peter is the first one to make this statement and it is easy for us to forget what a radical, remarkable confession that was. For centuries Jewish believers had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the anointed King who would lead Israel to victory over her oppressors and bring peace and justice to the world. This Messiah would be God’s special representative and would have an authority beyond any previous prophet or teacher. Peter declares that in Jesus, the itinerant preacher and healer, they have found this person. Hearing this declaration, Jesus then goes on to warn the disciples that he is about to go to Jerusalem where he will suffer persecution and eventually death but that he will also be raised from the dead. So when Matthew makes reference to six days after this, the ‘this’ is Peter’s confession and the conversation that follows it.
Several significant events take place on the mountain. First, there is the transformation in Jesus’ appearance- his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling bright and white. Secondly, there is the appearance of Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus and then there is the voice from heaven. We have noticed before that Matthew’s Gospel is written with a predominantly Jewish audience in mind and for these readers the events on this holy mountain would have instantly reminded them of the holy mountain that was so significant in their story – the Mountain of Sinai where Moses was invited to go and meet with God and receive the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law that would come to define them as a people and shape their lives forever. We have a rather different view of the law. Mention the law to us and we immediately think of complicated tax laws, BAS statements, speed cameras and parking fines. The law for us is a necessary evil but often a pain in the neck. For the Jewish community their law was what gave shape to their life and culture. Read the psalms and notice that the law is often described as their delight and joy.
Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the Law but also witnessed something of God’s glory. A cloud surrounded the mountain which represented the glory, the majesty of God. The reading from Exodus today describes ‘the glory of the Lord’ settling on Mt.Sinai. The Hebrew word for glory means ‘weight’ or ‘heaviness’. When Moses left the mountain his face shone because he carried with him some of that reflected glory from being in the presence of God. On the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John, the inner circle of the male disciples are granted a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Six days earlier having made the confession, ‘You are the Christ, (the Messiah), the son of the living God’, Jesus allows them to see something of the glory he shares with his father. Jesus is seen with two of Israel’s great heroes, Moses and Elijah representing the law and the prophets. Jesus is revealed as the one who stands in continuity with all that has gone before-he brings both law and prophecy to fulfilment. But he also brings something new for he will be the light for all people and his coming will dismantle all the old barriers and divisions that have kept people apart.
Peter and his companions are overwhelmed by the experience and Peter blurts out the suggestion that he make three shelters one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He wanted to preserve the moment and lacking a camera or Iphone, he suggests the next best thing. Peter’s comments here have often been criticised as inappropriate and foolish. (Mark actually says Peter didn’t know what to say because he was terrified!) But we all try to preserve situations that move us or touch us deeply. I remember a holiday at Noosa a few years ago where Rosemary and I witnessed an extraordinary sunset that was so spectacular you couldn’t help but want to praise God, so of course I rushed for my camera and happily clicked away. ‘Let’s keep this moment for ever-let’s not lose it’, that was Peter’s desire. From time to time God gives us sharpened moments of awareness when we are conscious of his presence in a special way. It may come on a mountain or in a place of beauty or it may come in the midst of washing the dishes or hanging out the clothes because God’s spirit cannot be controlled or captured. But we thank God for those moments for they remind us in G.M.Hopkin’s words ‘that the earth is charged with the grandeur of God.’
It is while Peter is speaking that the cloud suddenly envelops them and a voice is heard announcing: “This is my dear Son with whom I am delighted, listen to him.” The voice is too much for the startled disciples who fall on the ground scared out of their minds. They remain there paralysed by fear until they feel the touch of Jesus and his familiar voice saying, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” The disciples open their eyes to find themselves alone with Jesus. On the way down the mountain Jesus tells them to keep the vision to themselves and not to share it with anyone ‘until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ The transfiguration only makes sense in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. To understand the real glory of Jesus and who he is we must look not just at the shining light on the mountain but at the man hanging on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. As N.T. Wright puts it ‘we must learn to see the glory in the cross and learn to see the cross in the glory.’ On the mountain there is glorious light and Jesus is seen with two heroes, on the hill he is surrounded by darkness and hangs between two criminals.
So what is the point of this story? Years later, Peter, the apostle referred to this event as ‘having been eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty’ and as a result he said, we have’ the prophetic message more fully confirmed’. In other words the vision on the mountain was a confirmation of the confession that he had made that Jesus was no other than the promised Messiah from God. More than that, the message they carried down from the mountain was that the voice they should listen to was the voice of Jesus.
We live in a world where more than ever there are countless voices calling for our attention. Whom do we listen to as we shape our life and plan for the future? Whom do we listen to as a parish as we determine our priorities and make decisions for the coming year? As individuals and as a community we listen to the words of Jesus. Through God’s word in the Scriptures, through his direction in the events of our life we focus on him. Frederick Buechner, the American theologian and author has written, “Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in a language not always easy to decipher, but it is there powerfully, memorably and unforgettably – in, with, and under the events of our lives we are being addressed by God.” The transfiguration is not just about Jesus it is also about us and God’s intention to see each of us transformed into the likeness of his Son. Paul wrote that “all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as reflected in a mirror are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory into another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”