A sermon preached by Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close
I imagine that we have all had experiences in our lives that we might, with hindsight, describe as ‘no turning back moments’ – we might even describe them as such with some degree of foresight knowing and being fully aware of the import and significance of what is happening. It might have been that first day at nursery school, (though perhaps that might have been more stressful for the mother rather than the child); it might have been that first time we dived into the swimming pool wondering if we would ever surface again; or maybe flying solo for the first time, and millions of other examples. Perhaps the ultimate example is parachuting – unless we have a way to defy gravity!
One of my ‘no going back’ moments was in annual search and rescue exercises where one gets dumped into the sea usually in February with the sea temperature about four degrees or less and the air temperature at about one degree – or less; and then having sent up several miniature flares waiting for the rescue helicopter to come back and find you and then winch you up again to somewhere dryer and warmer - hopefully within half an hour or so if the helicopter crew hadn’t decided to abandon you for their own warm cup of tea and bacon roll back on board mother our warship. Whilst one is bobbing around there is always that wondering of ‘what am I doing here and a distinct sense of no going back?’
I mention this as a somewhat poor analogy in wondering what did Peter James and John – Jesus’ ‘Principal Persons’ as they might be seen- make of it all and does this story have much relevance today beyond the mystical and the theological?
There is no certainty of where the Transfiguration happened and scholars differ. Some think it was Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi since the transfiguration occurs shortly after Peter’s confession there that Jesus is the ‘The Messiah’ as Mark has it in his gospel. Other views include that it is Mt Tabor near Nazareth but the significance of the location may actually lie more in its parallel with the experience and presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus and the three disciples – so it could have been Mt Sinai or Mt Horeb. And then there is this great declaration from God – “this is my Son, my chosen one – listen to him.” It is a sort of second commissioning if we consider his baptism the first – a confirmation, that he certainly is the man for the job and this is undoubtedly the greatest reference anyone could receive as Jesus dutifully affirms his task.
But we could ponder the thought ‘Was everything in Jesus’ ministry thus far a demonstration of his probationary status and here was God saying you’re doing well – the time is right and you’ve got the job - and now comes the real task and challenge in God’s great plan to save and redeem the world; and it is Jesus’ task and duty to deliver it. It’s a long way from being the dutiful son and apprentice to Joseph his earthly father in the carpentry shop. From now on there is no turning back and it is the real deal – Jesus is fully focussed on his mission – no turning back.
But why is this story on this particular Sunday in our lectionary?
The clue lies in next Wednesday – Ash Wednesday when we begin our personal journeys with Christ through Lent to Holy Week, Good Friday and the joy of Easter. Discipleship involves following and ‘going on’ – no turning back’
So on this Sunday before Lent we are challenged by this ‘no turning back’ decision of Jesus. The disciples want to build booths and stay on the mountaintop, but they could not stop time or live on in the radiance of that moment and an interesting feature of the story is that it is Jesus who is transfigured – whose face and his appearance are changed: but the disciples themselves are not, at least not physically – but they are entrusted with supporting Jesus in these last fateful days. But the task is heavy: remember Peter’s denial of ever knowing Jesus when the servant girl challenges Peter whilst Jesus is on trial and cruelly tortured that she had seen them in the same place; and remember Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane saying in prayer to God: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but your will be done.’
So what are we going to do about our own Lenten journey – what is on our mind?
Are we prepared to change, are we really committed to travel with Christ who at his Transfiguration took up his cross; and what are we going to take up on our Lenten journey?
Robert Herrick was a poet of the 17th century and you may know him best for a Christmas poem he wrote and is set to a modern tune by John Rutter
What sweeter music can we bring, than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King? Awake the voice! Awake the string!
But Robert Herrick also gave some sound Christian advice in a poem called ‘To keep a true Lent; remember this was written nearly 400 years ago so the language may seem a little strange:
To keep a true Lent:
Is this a fast to keep the Larder lean?
And clean from fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish of flesh yet still
to fill the platter high with fish?
Is to fast an hour, or ragged to go
Or show a downcast look and sour?
No; ‘tis a fast to dole thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife, from old debate
And hate; To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart - grief rent;
To starve thy sin, Not bin,
And that’s to keep thy Lent
Herrick got the message all those hundreds of years ago that Lent was not about burying or hiding ourselves or even necessarily denying ourselves; but it is about getting on with what God really wants us to do: to make his love known in our world that is in such need of it. As we are anointed with our Lenten ash on Wednesday we are reminded there is ‘No turning-back’ in answering God’s call especially this Lent. Amen