Sunday next before Lent – The Transfiguration

Sunday 23 February 2020

Ex 24:12-end, Matt 17:1-9

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

This week marks a place of transition and change.  It is the end of one phase of life and the setting out of a new journey, a journey into the unknown, a journey in which we may walk with God but which can, nonetheless, be a time of trial. 

Personally, this is my last Sunday in church until Trinity Sunday on 7th June. Although my sabbatical has been long planned there is still trepidation about stepping out into the unknown.  My flights are booked for Kenya and Tanzania, but I am not sure where I shall be staying or what situations I shall be facing each day.  Someone asked me if I had been to the zoo to practise taking photographs of animals and they were a little surprised to learn that I am not going on safari but to work with remote communities in sometimes desperate situations.  So, I have no idea where I am going to sleep, who I am going to meet, what I am going to eat or what people or situations I shall encounter each day.  It is going to be a time for me to learn to ‘let go and let God’ to ‘walk by faith’ and doubtless other sayings which seem like clichés here but may be more meaningful to those who live from day to day with no certainty about anything. 

I am also conscious that this will be Nicky’s first Lent and Easter flying solo and, unless you have been in ministry, it is hard to understand quite how demanding and draining the journey from the wilderness of Lent to the morning of resurrection can be.  But I have every confidence in her and, just as importantly, I have every confidence in you to support and uphold her, as she seeks to support and uphold you.  And if that is not the spirit of true Christian pilgrimage towards Easter then I don’t know what is. 

I have already mentioned the wilderness and that is where Jesus will be next week, as he goes through his 40-day fast and trial at the start of his ministry.  And the wilderness is also where the tribes of Israel wandered, not for 40 days but for 40 years.  At the risk of spoilers, we know that the Hebrews finally entered the land of milk and honey, although not until Moses had died, and we know that Jesus entered into the permanent transfiguration of the resurrection, but not until he himself had died.  The joy of knowing the ending should not undermine the reality of the hardships of the journey.  Jesus really suffered in the wilderness and on the cross.  Nothing about his divinity lessened the pain of his humanity.   The Hebrews suffered and often stumbled in the wilderness and, as I touched on a couple of weeks ago, I believe there is some ancient wisdom to be found in us rediscovering fasting, which is not the same thing as giving up chocolate, to assist us in journeying with those who hunger and to strengthen our spirits in the battle against temptation as we seek to journey towards God, who is our land of milk and honey and is our resurrection.

But, and here is the good news, God knows that it is hard for his people to journey through the wilderness without nourishment and today we are fortified for our respective journeys with not one but two glimpses of the glory of God. 

The echoes and the resonances between Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, as we heard in Exodus 24, and the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17 are many and many layered.  The very fact that Moses appears in both should give us a clue that they are intended to be deeply connected.

At the beginning of our reading from Exodus God spoke to Moses and called him to come up the mountain, and to wait, before receiving the tablets of stone.  If you think of Charlton Heston as Moses then you may not think of him as the waiting kind but, nonetheless, it is clear that waiting on the Lord is an integral part of responding to his call.

And the glory of the Lord descended on the mountain and the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people.  And Moses entered the cloud and stayed there, yes, for 40 days and 40 nights.  This pre-figures Jesus’ time in the wilderness and the time of the Israelites wandering, albeit in years.  Of course this was not the first time that Moses had encountered God in the form of a devouring fire that did not devour, and you only have to think of the burning bush.  On that occasion Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground.  On this occasion the fire covered the whole mountain, which surely made the whole mountain holy, and he lived on it and surrounded by the tangible presence of God that whole time.  And the voice of God spoke to Moses from the cloud. 

In technical language this whole event is known as a theophany – which means an appearance of God. 

In one sense you could say that everything about Jesus was a theophany, and you would be right.  The birth of Jesus represented the light of God coming into the world and, from a Trinitarian perspective, Jesus was fully God everywhere he went and in everything he did.  Some people recognised his divinity by his miracles and some, like Simeon and Anna that we heard about recently, were guided were guided by that other part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to recognise and proclaim him.

But Jesus was also fully human and fully incarnated, en-fleshed if you will.  For those not guided by the Holy Spirit or those not convinced by his miracles he was just another man, and a poor carpenter from up-North at that.  But there were times when the bushel-basket of his humanity was lifted and the inner light of his divinity shone through.  In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration we have another theophany of God the Father speaking from the cloud of his presence on the mountain, telling the disciples to listen to Jesus because he is the beloved Son (which is also an echo of the Baptism of Jesus) but we also have a revelation, an unveiling, of the divine light within Jesus, which even the darkness of death cannot overcome and which will shine out again at the resurrection.

The fact that he converses with both Moses and Elijah, who each had their own mountain-top experiences of God, is often interpreted as Jesus being the fulfilment of both the law and the prophets, given the seal of the Father’s voice, and I have no doubt that is true.  But this also says to me that we cannot seek to be definitive about how things work in God’s kingdom and that those we think of as dead are still alive in the presence of God. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Those who encounter the presence of the Holy, in the form of Angels or God himself, are often afraid and proverbs 9 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  But the Holy doesn’t wish us to stay afraid and that is how Jesus seeks to comfort his disciples when they react in fear to the glorious vision:

“Get up and do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid.

The journey of Lent starts with this glimpse of Jesus both as he is in his divine nature and as he will be in his resurrected nature – we can keep going through the wilderness not in our own strength but because we know where we are coming from and where we are going to.  We are called not just to follow Jesus but to become more Christ-like – which doesn’t mean just being a bit nicer to people like Jesus would be, but also by seeking to dwell in his holy presence, on his holy mountain, to witness his transfiguration, the theophany of God unveiled, to undergo our own epiphany as to who this person is and what he means to us and then, finally, to allow that divine, uncreated light, to transfigure and transform us.

God gives us sufficient for the journey, whether that is to Africa or through Lent, and he awaits as at journey’s end.

Get up and do not be afraid.