Sunday 6th August 2017
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 & Luke 9:28-36
May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Vivienne and I spent the week in Budapest recently and, while we were there, we visited all the things we normally do when visiting somewhere new, which is normally the churches and museums. I won’t mention the restaurants and shops for the moment.
Budapest has a huge mixture of churches representing everything from the Serbian Orthodox to the Lutherans but right in the middle of town stands what is probably the most impressive building, which is the Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Istvan (or St Stephan) the first king of Hungary.
St Istvan’s Basilica is an imposing building very much in the style of St Peter’s in Rome or perhaps St Paul’s in London. It looks as though it has stood there forever dominating the centre of Budapest and when you go inside the gold leaf and the brightly coloured frescos are quite overwhelming.
It is undoubtedly a beautiful and impressive place. When you stand in the centre of the building and look up to the inside of the dome it is painted with the figure of Jesus surrounded by the gospel writers and angels and above him, looking down on all was the figure of God the Father.
This building and its art seem dedicated to imparting something of the awe-inspiring nature of the glory of God.
But how long is the human mind able to dwell in the presence of awe? There seems to be something inherent in the human psyche which makes us incapable of thinking too hard or for too long about big subjects. We may be able to think about the moon or the sun and their relationship to earth but we really struggle when it comes to the size of the galaxy or the size of the universe. We like to put politicians on the spot about knowing the price of a pint of milk but we can’t think too long about quantitative easing. We like to moan about the weather but we shut down when it comes to climate change. On the whole our mammal brains can only cope with the short term, the visible, the easily imaginable.
The good news is that God understands our human limitations, and how could he not given that he created us and, as I said the other week when thinking about Psalm 139, that he is closer to us than we are to ourselves and knows us better than we know ourselves.
So God understands that we have issues of scale when dealing with big subjects and the biggest subject of all is, of course, God himself. And I suspect that our issues of scale and comprehension are the reason that most of our encounters with the divine are militated in ways that we can understand. When Moses first encountered God it was not face to face on a mountain top but via a burning bush. When the law of Moses proved insufficient and God himself came amongst us to be both the sign and the means to get us back to being the people he wanted us to be then he did not return to earth as a pillar of cloud and fire but he was born as a person to whom we could relate and understand as a human being. God scaled himself down to our scale for our benefit and he veiled his glory in human flesh so that we could look on Jesus without being overwhelmed.
But today, on this feast of the Transfiguration, things are slightly different. The veil, if you will, slips a little and we get a little glimpse of the true glory of God.
Our first glimpse of the big divine story which lies behind the human story of the incarnation of Jesus, comes from the book of Daniel, which was our first reading.
When we think of Daniel it is too easy to think only about the den of lions but the book of Daniel contains rather more than that story – Daniel was a prophet and a seer, a dreamer of God’s dreams and, with the help of God, an interpreter of the dreams of others.
In today’s reading Daniel has a vision of the throne of God itself upon which God, here called the Ancient of Days which is a wonderful title although it speaks of a scale we can hardly imagine, takes his seat. As Christians we may sometimes tell people that of course we don’t think of God as an old man, dressed in white and sitting on a throne. On the one hand that is right because this is a vision given to Daniel in a way that he and we can understand, it is not necessarily the objective reality of God underlying the vision, but, on the other hand we are given here a picture of an old man, the Ancient of Days, dressed in white and sitting on a throne. Ahem.
We are told that his hair is white, like wool, representing the wisdom of old age, his clothing is as white as snow, representing purity and his throne is flaming with fire, it has wheels which are also ablaze and we are told that fire flows from it like a river. I mentioned the burning bush and the pillar of cloud and fire a moment ago – images of God are often associated with fire. Fire burns and can be dangerous but it is also a source of light and life giving heat and can refine what is base into that which is pure.
Into the presence of the Ancient of Days comes one ‘like the son of man’, in other words a human being. And that son of man was given all authority, glory (that word again) and power, all nations will worship him and his kingdom will never be destroyed. Perhaps unsurprisingly Christians have long interpreted this vision of the son of man as Jesus being given the glory of the Father. This is a prophetic glimpse behind the veil into events in heaven that will only become clearer in the life of Jesus.
And so we come to the story of the Transfiguration in the New Testament. This story appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Luke, Matthew & Mark) and, like the reading from Daniel, it feels like a peek behind the veil into the heavenly realm. This story doesn’t appear in John and, in a sense, it doesn’t need to as the Prologue to John (In the beginning was the Word) is itself a sufficient peek into heaven.
It may be worth bearing in mind that Transfiguration is not the same as Transformation. If something is transformed then it is changed from one state of being into another. But if something is transfigured then it is changed from one state of appearance into another. This may seem like a small distinction but it is important. The nature of Jesus is not changed by what happens on the mountain top, only his appearance his changed. We are told that the appearance of his face changed, although sadly we are given no details, and that his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. This should remind us of the white clothes worn by the Ancient of Days from Daniel, and may also remind us of the white clothes of the Angels on the day of resurrection. But the substance and nature of Jesus is not changed by these events – he does not suddenly become holy or become the adopted son of God at this moment, because he has always been those things, rather we are given another glimpse behind the scenes, if you will.
The Transfiguration shows us long before the events of the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus is not simply a preacher and teacher but that he conceals the glory of God robed in human flesh and that he is a part of God’s continuing story with his people as shown by the presence of Moses and Elijah. It also shows that although Moses didn’t make it into the Holy Land during his life he made it there later.
I should, however, make it clear that the Transfiguration does not mean that Jesus was God only pretending to be human. That would be to commit the heresy of Docetism. Jesus was both fully human and fully God but on that mountain top and for a short period the glory of his divine nature shone through his human nature.
So Jesus was transfigured but not transformed. But I suspect that some transformation did take place on top of that mountain. Although the disciples Peter, John and James, had seen Jesus perform miracles and even raise people from the dead this day they were shown and told unambiguously that Jesus is God’s son and that they, by extension, are part of a much bigger story than they could have imagined. Peter may not have covered himself in glory with his immediate reaction but, nonetheless, I suspect that some deep transformation took place that day.
Are we willing to allow ourselves to be transformed by the glory of God? Behind the veil of our words, our worship, our building, our faith there is the dazzling glory of God. God calls us as we are, but his glorious presence transforms us into what we can be.
Returning briefly to Hungary, and into St Istvan’s Basilica, you will have picked up that I was impressed with its scale and beauty, as indeed I was. However I was surprised by one thing. Despite the fact it looked as though this Cathedral had stood in the middle of Budapest forever it turned out that it was only completed in 1905. I couldn’t help thinking that I have cobwebs in St Mary’s which are older than that, no offence to the cleaners. Still, it wasn’t bad for a new church.
Next week I am going to be talking a quite different aspect of faith which I saw in the museums of Budapest, which is the persecuted and the compromised church.
In the meantime I would call on you to dwell this week on two words: Glory and Transformation.