Sermon: Sunday next before Lent, 26 February 2017, St John the Divine

Readings  Exodus 24.12-18, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

In a predominantly rationalist and scientific age, some Christians of a more liberal and progressive disposition find stories involving visions – like Jesus’ Transfiguration, which we’ve just read – a bit awkward. Whenever it comes to the mysterious and the unknown, the temptation is often to wonder: ‘Did it really happen?’ That is a question routinely asked of miracle stories as well.  I’ve sometimes asked the question myself, though I’ve come to wonder if it is the right question.  On one level, it is pretty futile, for how could we ever know?  Today, despite the current preoccupation with fake news and alternative facts, we normally try to distinguish objective reporting from story-telling, but this account of the Transfiguration comes from a different age and a different culture.  Precision in reporting was secondary to the message, which is presumably why the Gospel writers sometimes contradict one another in relating the same events.  So, given that, what might we say about the Transfiguration and its possible significance today?

Well, the Gospels present it as an experience of personal transformation for Jesus.  The significance of the voice from the cloud was symbolic of the way that Jewish tradition says Moses met God.  That both Moses, Israel’s supreme law-giver, and Elijah, the supreme prophet, should be present in this mysterious episode, was perhaps the Gospel writer’s way of stressing that Jesus had the affirmation of both Jewish law and prophecy.  And from this point on, he seems clearer in his mind that he must set his face towards Jerusalem, and seek to fulfil his vision of what he perceived God’s kingdom to be about, which would inevitably lead to a confrontation with the authorities. The disciples have a different response, it seems.  Peter is recorded as treating the Transfiguration as something that needed a religious response – wanting to put up symbolic tabernacles or tents in an attempt to preserve the transforming moment. So, throughout Christian history, it has been tempting to honour Jesus and the saints with magnificent buildings, statues and artwork rather more than with lives genuinely transformed by his – admittedly demanding – teaching.

Many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences, I think, those revelatory moments that can alter our perspective and transform our lives.  But coming back to the Transfiguration story itself, there is no indication in the Gospels that we should stay with the mysterious, on the mountain top, where the experience and the view is so very different.  Yes, the experience up there may encourage us to see things differently, but, according to the story, Jesus led his disciples from the place of awesome mystery to descend the mountain and return to the plain, where they were straight away back with reality. There they would face the upcoming confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees – in short underlining for us that there will almost inevitably be turmoil and testing in the world at ground level, rather than the world as it might be above the level of the clouds.

We may well derive inspiration from those special mountain-top experiences.  After all, mountains are frequently places of significant – even divine – encounter and inspiring vision.  I want to encourage you to think of glimpses of glory as gifts to be treasured.  And, of course, you don’t have to up a mountain to experience them!  But no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay, ultimately we have to strike a realistic balance between supernatural and grounded religion. Let me try to explain what I mean with a few examples:  In a world where there the gulf between haves and have-nots grows ever wider, putting the main effort into building tabernacles to honour Jesus and the saints won’t quite cut it. In a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while trading shares in arms companies is not taking Jesus’s teaching seriously.  Praising God for creation on Sundays, while allowing multinational companies to continue destroying tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to satisfy demand for meat or for palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the environment. In a world where the survival and well-being of the vulnerable poor and elderly is dependent on properly funded health and care services, for wealthy corporations or individuals to be evading or avoiding tax may well be meeting the needs of self-interest, but it isn’t consistent with the injunction to put the interests of our neighbours before our own.

The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective, but it is not the place to stay.  Jesus’s mountain top experience wasn’t about his own exaltation, because he then went on to demonstrate that his work was where the people who needed him most could be found.  The Gospels consistently portray Jesus as being more concerned with the realities of life beneath the mountain: to be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these are surely the tasks of the plain and the valley. It is, of course, tempting to seek repeatedly for esoteric mountain top experiences, but forget how they are related to relationships and living. Nor does a brief moment of Transfiguration witnessed mean that we no longer have an ongoing personal need to be transformed and to seek to transform life on the plain and in the valley, just as it might be transformed up in the clouds.  It was Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who recognised that transfiguring experiences do not rescue us from the humdrum or the horrible.  However much we might seek to preserve those mysterious, wonderful moments, ‘Transfiguration’, Ramsey said, ‘is the transforming of suffering and circumstances’. And it was the writer C.S. Lewis who pointed out that while heaven beckons, meanwhile there’s Monday morning to get through.

The last word on the mountain of Transfiguration goes to God, who says, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him!’ Today, as we recall Jesus’s Transfiguration, when the disciples caught a glimpse of his heavenly glory on earth, our immediate task is to ready ourselves for Ash Wednesday and Lent, when we are picked up by the scruff of our necks and urged to take a penetrating look at ourselves (not least, at our human shortcomings), and, despite them, to listen to the beloved Son, and his insistent call to us to be his disciples.  Both the mountain top and, perhaps more especially, the wilderness period, starting this week, may be a transforming experience for us, as it was for him.  As the hymn writer puts it, and as we will shortly sing: ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here, thy glory fills the night; thy face and garments, like the sun, shine with unborrowed light. ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here, yet we may not remain; but since thou bidst us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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