6 March 2011
10.30 Holy Communion Woodchurch
Readings 2 Peter 1:16-2, Matthew 17:1-9
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is good to be back in Woodchurch. I have only been away for two Sundays but it feels like ages and I have actually missed you! We had a very good time in Gambia and, I am bound to say, that I ate much more than was good for me and I am actually looking forward to Lent, but more of that in a moment.
The Gospel reading for today is St Matthew’s account of what we now call the transfiguration, or perhaps the metamorphosis or the change of Jesus from one state to another. All three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke contain very similar accounts of the transfiguration and, for me, it is one of the most beautifully symbolic moments in the Gospel which is packed with layers of meaning, that we can barely scratch at this morning.
Jesus went up on a high mountain to pray. As we know Jesus often took himself away to remote places to spend time in prayer and, as we will be reminded next week following his baptism he spent 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the wilderness. But on this occasion he didn’t just go into the wilderness but up on a high mountain and it is of course highly relevant for today that Moses encountered God and received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai and Elijah conversed with God on Mount Horeb, also called the mountain of God. Perhaps there is something about the stateliness, the age, the beauty, the majesty and perhaps even the danger of mountains that evokes something of the awe of God but, whatever the reason throughout the bible mountains are often a place of special encounter between man and God.
Although Jesus often went off to pray alone on this occasion he took with him three of his closest disciples: Peter, John and James.
While Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. As you may remember when Moses encountered God his face shone so much that he had to wear a veil so as not to scare his people and in the accounts of the angels following the resurrection of Jesus we are told that they shone, so just in these few words our minds are cast both back to Moses and forward to the resurrection.
And then Moses and Elijah appeared, also shining in glory and they spoke to him. Other Gospel accounts tell us that they discussed with Jesus what he was soon to do in Jerusalem.
And so Jesus conversed with Moses who is the embodiment of Jewish law and Elijah who is the towering figure in Jewish prophecy. In many ways this image is the ultimate visual aid both for the way in which Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, which is something I touched on a few weeks ago, but also for the special way in which Jesus supersedes that older authority as he voice of God pronounces upon Jesus alone: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!”
So the transfiguration shows us both an important continuity from the patriarchs and prophets but also clearly shows a vital discontinuity – in Jesus God is doing something new – Jesus is not a patriarch or a prophet but is God’s own Son and it is to him we should be listening.
And the words that God spoke to Jesus on the mountain: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased” should also remind us of the same words spoken to Jesus at his baptism.
So the transfiguration points us forward to Jesus’ resurrection and gives us a flavour of his divine nature, it reminds us of his baptism and it tells us that Jesus is both connected with the Jewish tradition and yet is something entirely new.
But, what I also love about the accounts of the transfiguration is that in the midst of all this wonderfully powerful symbolism and in the midst, quite literally, of all the glowing radiance of God’s presence we still have the very human disciples. We don’t know what James and John thought but good old Peter when faced not only with a transformed Jesus but also with two of the biggest figures from Israel’s history starts babbling away about putting up shelters for them. It is those kind of details which keep the gospels very real for me and should remind us, as St Peter himself says in his letter which was read today: “We do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Cleverly devised myths may well contain all the symbolism that we have seen but the very fact that the somewhat gauche interjections of Peter are included in the gospel account gives it the ring of reportage rather than clever construction. And Peter’s inappropriate babbling should also make us wonder what we might do or say in similar circumstances – would we offer the transfigured Jesus a cup of tea or perhaps ask Moses if he is going anywhere nice for his holidays?
Are we prepared to drop our defences and really meet God at the level we need to be met?
On Wednesday we will be starting the Lenten pilgrimage to Easter. The point of all pilgrimages is not just to arrive at the destination, but also to change us. This lent don’t just give up an indulgence that you quite enjoy why not make a conscious effort to draw closer to God day by day. Why not seek transfiguration, a change that both reminds us of our own baptism and that points us forward to our own resurrection. We each of us were made in the image and likeness of God and the point of this pilgrimage, not just through Lent but through life, is to recapture the image and likeness in which we were made and to be transformed or transfigured into that image from one degree of glory into another. We are not called to remain in a static relationship with God but we are called, each of us individually and as a church, to seek the transfiguration that comes from proximity with God.