Sermon - 2nd March 2014
Scripture - Matthew 17:1-9
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Introduction – Setting the Scene
Since our Christmas Celebrations ended we have, in the main, been looking at Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The compilers of the Lectionary top and tail this season – some call it the Sundays after Epiphany, others Ordinary Time – with two luminous events. It starts with Epiphany – the revelation of Jesus to the Magi. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is adored by pagan philosophers. The images used in art to portray the Epiphany are ones of light shining from the baby Jesus. Then we have a few weeks of Jesus' teaching and we get another shining event – today the Transfiguration before the story of Jesus' life resets and, with the start of Lent next week we have the story of the temptation in the Wilderness at the start of His earthly ministry. The high points of the Jesus' story keep us going as, through Lent, we – with Jesus - edge closer and closer to the Cross.
Up the Mountain
One of the things I've loved to do more and more as I've got older is to get out of the city and into the countryside when we have holidays. We love cities – indeed one of my favourite places to visit is the vast, historic, city of Istanbul – but for longer holidays I need the countryside. In particular I like isolated places with mountains – or at least some hills! North Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, the Pyrenees are all places which take my breath away. There is something in the majestic beauty of mountains that makes me reflect on their Creator. Their isolated, rugged, and sometimes frightening, beauty connects me in ways I don't fully understand with God. It's not that I don't experience God in the City – after all the Bible promises that the coming Kingdom is the City of God come down from the heavens – it's just that away from my normal routine, I have time to take stock and connect with the Creator through His creation.
Mountains in the Bible are scenes of encounters with God. In our first reading we heard of Moses ascending the mountain to do two things. He received the Law from God – the 10 commandments and the other Laws which make up so much of the first part of the Old Testament – but he also spent a long time up there in God's presence. This part of Exodus moves the narrative from law to ceremonial, from guidance on how to live to ideas about worship. Moses' experience on the mountain combines these two facets.
Our Gospel reading takes place up a mountain. Jesus often withdraws from the crowds to spend time alone with God or with his closest disciples; it's as if he finds a particular peace and contentment in getting away from it all. Up the mountain today's mysterious event happens.
We really don't know what happened. From the perspective of the disciples, suddenly Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah. The disciples instinctively understood that it was good to be there in this holy place, like so many of us they wanted to hold on to this experience and put down roots on the mountain top. They heard the voice of God telling them to listen to Jesus. A mysterious, puzzling and joyous event as symbolic as the Epiphany we celebrated after Christmas. So what's going on here?
Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish audience who would have made connections between this story and the figures of Moses and Elijah who represent key themes in the Old Testament – Law and Prophets. Two of the three themes of the Old Testament are represented on the Mountain so Matthew is making a deep point about the Law and the Prophets being fulfilled in Jesus.
I think, however, there is something else going on too. As we move into Lent and draw closer to Holy Week we think again about the unjust trial, torture and execution of Jesus. We can't look at that great injustice without being conscious of the injustice that afflicts our world now: justice denied to victims of terror, justice denied to citizens of dictatorships, justice delayed and denied to those who feel here for sanctuary.
As humans we try various different ways to insulate ourselves against the pain of our world. Some of us try to cut ourselves off from emotion – like the Stoics of old – in the hope that we won't get hurt. We try to insulate ourselves against the pain of our world and the pain of our lives – but, as we know, it's not a good strategy as it only works – if it works at all – by keeping others at a distance.
We can't avoid the pain of life – neither can we avoid it's joy. Jesus had both. Today's experience of Transfiguration was a great joy. This mystical mountain top experience fortified him for all that was to come. The affirmation of God's voice is in stark contrast to his despair on the cross where he cried out as he felt God had abandoned him.
As we read the Gospels we're drawn along with the story and, at times, we want to help Jesus, to get him to take a different path, to try and talk some sense into Judas. As we look at the pain of our world there is little we can do to change things – we'd like to take Presidents Museveni or Mugabe and put them on trial but we can't. We often watch the poor choices others make in their lives and see how they inflict pain on themselves and others and, again, realise that often there is nothing we can do just as there is nothing we can to avoid the pain that is coming in Holy Week.
We can choose to be Stoical and not let the emotion rule us or we can risk the price of weeping and suffering for the joy of celebration and surprise in life when we experience redemption. We can't do both.
Joy and Sorrow
Immediately before this passage Peter, James and John have heard the news of Jesus' imminent death in Jerusalem. After this episode they edge closer to Jerusalem and Jesus' continues to teach about his suffering and death. They must have reflected on these things in the quieter moments, they must have hoped that Jesus was exaggerating, that another way would be found, that there may have been an alternative.
Then they have this experience on the mountain top. They see a radiant Jesus, a precursor of the Risen Christ accompanied by key figures from Israel's past and they want to make this place of beauty and majesty, this place of peace and power, this place of healing and joy a sanctuary. They want to stay there, to build a shelter and hold on to this experience in the midst of the pain and fear they have. We can't blame them – it's only natural.
We do it sometimes with church as we struggle with the tension to be both a mission to the world and a refuge from it. Sometimes life is just horrible. Sometimes we're confronted with our own powerlessness and the realisation that there is little, if anything, we can to do change things. Sometimes the pain of life is just so great that we come to church to escape. The songs, the liturgy, the ritual, the sermon all work to soothe us and give us a place of safety. For some of us, some of the time, church is the only safe place we have. But church is also a mission to the world. Not just a mission, God's mission. And we have to go back to the pain, the powerlessness, the discomfort and seek to change it in God's power. There is a paradox here – we're a refuge from and a mission to our world. And that can be hard. We can be tempted, like the disciples of old, to make the place of safety permanent, to put up walls to shelter the experience – and keep out those influences and people which would disturb it.
There are moments in our lives when we realise God is very near. These maybe those moments of clarity when gazing at the majesty of the created order but they may also be the moments where we share pain and comfort with another. A graceful act of healing in a broken world, the listening ear to the person who hasn't been able to unload, the sense of hope given to the person without it. Where there is suffering there is also the opportunity to make Holy Ground as we share the suffering and try to offer comfort. These are the moments when we realize God is present in suffering and sacrifice, just as God is present in the promise and potential of our lives.
The Transfiguration is one of these moments. It affirms Jesus' divinity – after all what else is being affirmed here? It also gives the disciples a light to help them make sense of the chaos and pain that is to come. They have to get through Jesus' death and resurrection and realise that they have to continue without his physical presence to guide them.
Our moments of clarity will not be as shining as the Transfiguration but we will see God's light break into our lives – often when we are at our lowest. That light guides us and helps us make sense of our lives when we often feel that there is no sense, no meaning, and no comfort. God's light gives us hope, meaning and purpose. These mountain top experiences guide and help us just as the experience of Transfiguration guided and helped those disciples. The Transfiguration makes us realise that we can't shelter ourselves from the pain in life but it also makes us realise that we can't hide from God's light which shines in our darkest places. It is as if God says to us that we cannot prepare for or stand in the way of either joy or sorrow. We cannot build a shelter, we cannot keep God safe. Neither can we escape the light that God shines on us, nor can we escape God either. As Victorian poet Francis Thompson put it in his famous poem, the Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’