Sermon preached on the last Sunday before Lent at the Sandleheath Uniting Church. 2016.
“Daddy! Mummy! Grandad! Granny! Lift me up! I want to see!” Those of us who have any contact with children will know the situation in which there is something or someone which the young child cannot see because they are too small or pointing in the wrong direction. The desire is not to miss, to have a glimpse of whatever is to be seen.
After Easter, I shall be travelling yet again on the motorway from the airport close to the lovely city of Pisa in Italy on the way to my little hill house in Liguria. I am aware that I am always excited to get a glimpse of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, which you can see only intermittently from the motorway because of the trees which hide it from view.
The story which formed the gospel reading for today is a well known story told by Luke of the Transfiguration of Christ on a mountainside. Peter, James and John, three close friends and disciples of Jesus are led by him to a mountain. And the gospel writer tells us the Jesus ‘was transfigured before them’-his face shone and his garments became white as light. Those three disciples are granted but a glimpse of Jesus as someone who points us to the mystery of the Universe we call God. They report that Jesus is seen speaking with two great Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Moses, both of whom are seen as archetypes of the coming Messiah, the liberator, the redeemer man.
It is interesting to note that it is the same three that Jesus takes with him into the garden of Gethsemane before his suffering and death at Calvary’s hill. St. Luke wants us to see these two events, Transfiguration and Crucifixion, are linked.
The three hear a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, with who I am well pleased. Listen to him’.
Something extraordinary is happening. We are confronted with the nature of mystery. Something deeply personal and significant is happening. It is like a miracle – what is an ordinary situation ‘comes alive’, ‘the light dawns’, ‘the penny drops’. In this story of transfiguration Luke is telling us that God is profoundly disclosed to his three friends in a way which gives them a glimpse of Jesus as being the embodiment of the mystery we call God, ‘the depth of our being’, ‘the beyond in the midst’. And this mystery is not an excuse for not being able to say what is happening in a scientific way. Our belief in God is not a belief in what Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame calls ‘the God of the Gaps’-some experience that science cannot account for. For what the gospel writer is telling us is something about the profound nature of God, the Ground of all our being. The disciples could only but fall down in awe and wonder at this disclosure. This man Jesus is also God incarnate who in this story is prefigured as the liberator and redeemer who will suffer and die and be raised to life for all humanity.
Peter, who can never keep his mouth shut, blurts out, ‘Master it is good that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’ – such was the depth of his experience of this mystery. The gospel writer tells us that dear old Peter and the other two disciples do not understand what is happening, and in his impetuous way wants to capture forever this moment of bliss. They had not grasped that there will be no glory without the cross. Alas, God’s mystery cannot be captured, he can only be glimpsed- and then?
How many times have you wanted to capture a moment of your experience? Maybe it was a glorious sunset or landscape view, a child’s innocent but deeply meaningful comment, a moment of intimacy between individuals. We are a generation of photographers and video camera especially on our mobile phones, enthusiasts in our desire to capture moments. It’s a bit like viewing pictures in an art gallery. We are captured by a truth momentarily, and then when we look at the painting a second time our experience is different, maybe not so intense. I remember particularly a reading of the poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Dame Judi Dench. She was so breathtaking in the way she read the poem. We are granted a glimpse, a deeply personal experience, an awareness that life is greater than the sum total of what we can see, feel and touch. We penetrate the mystery of life momentarily.
For some, God is disclosed in the most unlikely of places and moments. The late Bishop Ian Ramsey tells the story of his friend who is profoundly moved at the fish and chip shop – it is something about the smell, the order of frying and serving, the buzz of conversation- a unity and order that compells his friend to say ‘yes to God’.
Peter, James and John are too granted but a glimpse of the glory of God embodied in the man Jesus.
The story that follows the Transfiguration Luke is another deeply personal story of an epileptic boy who was healed by Jesus, the disciples having failed in all their attempts to heal him. He paints the picture for us of glory on the mountainside to suffering in the valley-maybe a reminder no glory without the cross.
So what is the significance of this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus? It doesn’t matter quite how it happened. It is an epiphany story. It is a disclosure story. It is told for us to grasp that Jesus, Son of Man, the man for others is none other than the Eternal Word made flesh, God. Also, it is told for us to understand that this same Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God is destined to suffer and to die and to be raised to life. The voice from heaven declaring him to be ‘My Son’ echoes that from his baptism in the Jordan.
The challenge the gospel writer presents to us is the same as that for Peter and his friends – can we be content with glimpses of the divine nature in life and trust that life will provide for us all that we need for daily living? Or shall we pester and live our lives with the pursuit of an unquestioning certainty as a result of which we may miss further glimpses of the divine in the midst of life?