St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Jesus alone

Jesus alone 

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.”

Philip Brad­ford