Sermon by Vicar of the Close, Charles Mitchell-Innes
Sunday, 2 March 2014
(Exodus 24: 12 – end; Matthew 17: 1-9)
One evening in April, a number of years ago now, I climbed out of Langdale in the Lake District onto the summit of Bowfell. From there my companions and I watched the glorious panorama at sunset, the hills away to the west suffused with an ever deepening red. It was a scene of wonder, with intimations of immortality and the infinite. It was only when we started down again that I realised why one seldom sees the sunset from a mountain top: it was rapidly becoming dark and our descent increasingly perilous. When we finally stumbled into our camp, the darkness was complete. I have nevertheless never regretted the experience – quite the reverse.
Fortunately we did not have to contend with the particular weather feature shared by the mountain tops in today’s two readings – cloud. That is not the only common point in those two narratives: St Matthew, in saying that Jesus went up to the mountain after six days, is echoing the account in Exodus of Moses’ six-day wait on Sinai before being summoned into the Lord’s presence. So Matthew is making it clear that it is God’s glory and radiance in which Jesus appears transfigured, and that the three disciples – like the Israelites at Sinai – are given a glimpse of that glory.
So why do we have all this splendour in our readings just as we are about to embark on Lent? Is it supposed to be a final chance to grasp some light and levity before we descend into gloom and gravity? Well, no. This is not clutching at the last of the light before it is finally extinguished: it is a foretaste of the glory to come. Peter, as is made explicit in other gospel accounts, does not at first understand this and wants to bottle the radiance. But bottled radiance does not keep. Instead Jesus makes sure these disciples – and, by extension, we too – can keep the scene of wonder seared on the memory. For before we attain it, in all its glorious reality, there is a long and sometimes hard road to tread. For Jesus and two of those three disciples it involved a painful and early death. Remember that it is the same three whom Jesus takes with him to watch and pray while he suffers mental agony in Gethsemane.
Each of our lives, however long, happy and fulfilled, will have Gethsemane times, periods when, like Jesus, we feel in the wilderness. It may be through anxiety, grief, illness or a sense of rejection; and God seems far away. And it is then that we may perhaps bring to mind the Transfiguration and catch an echo of that glory which is to come, when ‘All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’. That in itself may help us to be aware that God in Christ has passed through suffering and is thus alongside us in our pain. It is good to keep that in mind as we enter this period of Lenten reflection, with its heightened awareness of our relationship with God and with others.
So what is ‘transfiguration’? In this scene, Jesus is not changed beyond recognition: he is, rather, revealed as he will be in glory. His essential attributes remain, as does his personality; but they become more intensely focused. So in our own spiritual journeys it seems to me that God does not want to make us utterly different from what we have been; we are renewed by the Holy Spirit to transform what is already within us into its full potential.
There is a story about John Ruskin, who was shown a very beautiful and delicately wrought silk handkerchief by its owner; sadly a drop of indelible ink had fallen onto it, and she told him it was ruined. Ruskin asked if he might borrow it. Some days later he returned it; and she saw that, beginning from the ink blot, he had drawn the most lovely and intricate pattern. God’s work with us begins from where we are, transfiguring us in the process.
And it goes on. The glory, when we come into its fullness, lasts for ever: that is the promise of Easter and the resurrection, which those three disciples glimpsed. Their forbears, in OT times, had no such vision. Some of the saddest and most poignant words on the extinction of life come from the Psalmist, as he speaks to God:
‘For I am a stranger with thee:
And a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength:
Before I go hence, and be no more seen.’
(Psalm 39: 14-15)
How different are the words of Jesus to his followers! ‘For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes on him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (John 6: 40) Then, after the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, the triumphs and disasters, of this life, our faith is that we shall hear Jesus say, as he said to his friends as he touched them on the mountain, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ (Mt 17: 7)