We are about to start the holy season of Lent which begins with Ash Wednesday next week. It is a solemn time and one which we are encouraged by the church to observe faithfully and with rigour. I’ll be speaking later in this sermon about ways in which we may prepare to do this.
But today, just before Lent begins, we are given a glimpse of something else which is radically different. We are given a glimpse of the glory of God both in the Old Testament and Gospel readings today whilst in the Epistle, the writer reflects on Peter’s own experience of an eye witness to this revelation, an experience he shared with James and John.
Today I want to explore the significance of this for us particularly in the context of the Lenten journey which we are about to begin and for our ministry as disciples of Christ.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17.1-9, Mark 9.2-13 and Luke 9.28-36) which in itself is a mark of its significance. Each of these gospel writers record how Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain by themselves and there he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. The term ‘transfiguration’ literally means a complete change in form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state’ and this is what these disciples witnessed. What is more, they then saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus and heard a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him”. At this point the disciples are overcome with fear but Jesus comes to them, touches them and tells them not to be afraid. When they look up, they see only Jesus there and we are led to understand that the moment of transfiguration has ended.
So what is the Transfiguration about? At one level it is a revelation of Jesus to the disciples as the eternal glory of the Son, the second person of the Trinity, a revelation which was usually hidden or veiled during his earthly life. The presence of Moses with Jesus signified that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law, whilst the prophet Elijah represented the fulfilment in Jesus, of the prophecies contained in the Hebrew scriptures.
It is moment of profound importance and one which was to inspire the three disciples in their later ministry even if at the time, they were unable to grasp its full significance. It’s as if, when faced with an onion with all its many layers, they could only take in the outer ring and were unable to glimpse the deeper layers of meaning which lay with the Transfiguration of Jesus.
For us as well, it’s important that we come to understand the Transfiguration of Jesus is more than a denouement by God as to who Jesus really is. By this I mean it is more than a revelation of Jesus’ identify in the way we understand identity in human terms. To use a simple analogy, at the end of a detective story, the leading detective whether it be Hercule Poirot, Maigret, or whoever our favourite detective may be, often gathers all the suspects together and in a moment of high drama, reveals the identity of the murderer. Or, to take another example, in a number of Shakespeare plays, one of more characters is often in disguise because of the pressure of their current circumstances and it is only at the end of the play that their true identify is revealed.
However, the Transfiguration of Jesus is just about the revelation to the disciples of Jesus as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, profoundly important though this is. It is about what this is showing us about the nature of God, it’s about revealing to us what this means for us in the path Jesus will follow and it is about helping us to see more clearly, the purpose of our lives on earth as disciples of Jesus. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First of all, we glimpse in the Transfiguration, God’s overwhelming love and commitment to us – His creation. It is a revelation of pure love, which shows us the nature of His love for us which embraces us. Whoever we are, whatever state we are in and whatever we have done or failed to do, God is right there beside us. “We have glimpsed His glory”. And we have glimpsed His glory right alongside us in our lives.
Next, the Transfiguration of Jesus will show us what the living out of God’s love for us means as we look at the path that Jesus subsequently follows. For Jesus will take on the brokenness, the pain, bitterness and anger of our world and our fractured human relationships and by entering into the very depths of this pain, will transform through His love.
Then the Transfiguration shows us as disciples of Christ to be channels of the hope which Christ brings through the glimpses of glory that through God’s grace, we too may come to radiate in our own lives.
But the other lesson we see both from the Transfiguration of Jesus and also from the experience of Moses of which we’ve heard today, this love of God can only become a reality in our lives and in the lives of other people if we engage with the world not if we try to escape or avoid its pain.
For Moses is called by God to ascend Mount Sinai so that he may receive the tablets of stone bearing God’s law and commandments. He ascends the mountain on this mission, leaving Aaron and Hur as his deputies to lead the people of Israel and to guide them in his absence. We’re told that the glory of God covered the mountain and that on the seventh day, Moses was drawn into God’s presence and is instructed how to prepare the Ark of the Covenant, how to introduce the priestly worship and sacrifice and gives Moses the two precious tablets of the covenant. It is a moment of glory and a vision of what the perfect relationship of love and commitment between God and humankind might look like.
Yet no sooner has Moses started to descend the mountain, holding the previous tablets of the law and covenant, when he hears a strange sounds of revelling. As he hastens down, he realises to his absolute horror, that the people in his absence have given up on him. What is worse, they have given up on God, persuading Aaron to make for them a golden calf which they have started to worship instead.
In his fury, Moses dashes the tablets to the ground, crushes them to powder, mixes it with water and forces the Israelites to drink. He orders the Levites to slay those who have taken part in this sacrilege. But he then stands with the people, pleading with God and interceding for them in a priestly role that God will forgive them and restore them.
In a similar way, immediately after the Transfiguration, Jesus will descend from the mountain and on the way, will reveal to the disciples, that the way ahead is the Passion and Cross. There are no short-cuts. The pain, evil and suffering of this world have to be faced in all their depths so that the love of God may enter all these areas currently trapped in the darkness of human sin and stubbornness and bring redemption.
So we are seeing two points in the aftermath to the Transfiguration and to Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai which directly affect us. The first is that we see that God who loves us so much that He is prepared to come into our world to be alongside us as Jesus, then enters into the very depths of the world’s evil and pain to save us. The second point follows directly from this and is encapsulated in the response of Moses as leader of God ‘s people. He, in turn, will take on the role of priest interceding for the people in the depths of their sin and muddle. In the process, he too will become someone through whom they can glimpse the transfiguration which God offers for them to become a holy people dedicated to the Lord. As they do this, they can begin to enter into that role which God has appointed for them as His chosen people – to be the ones through whom those living in darkness, pain, sin and muddle can catch of glimpse of a very different future of hope, rooted on God.
On Friday I attended a special service at the World Council of Churches for the Installation of the Revd Professor Dr Jerry Pillay as the new Secretary General of the World Council Churches’. Having attended with Bishop Robert and the Church of England delegation, the Assembly of the WCC in Karlsruhe this year, it was very good to see him beginning his new role.
In his inaugural sermon, Professor Pillay spoke of the brokenness of our world today but then went on to tell us about our role and responsibilities as Christians across denominations to bring hope. He said:
‘Friends, in a world that is riddled with conflict, war, factions, political instability. Injustices, restlessness, suffering, strife and pain, we need to pause and take a deep ecumenical breathe to breathe God’s life and hope into the world’. ‘The ecumenical movement needs to pause, pray, engage and engage praxis (engaged action) to transform the world, to help it stand where God stands. In the face of injustices, war, conflicts and the danger to life and earth, we need to reclaim our prophetic witness’.
In these words, he was pointing to the mission of the WCC as it starts a new phase of its life under his leadership. But it was also a profoundly helpful pointer to us, as member churches, of our role and responsibility for this prophetic witness in the face of the darkness and suffering of the world.
Lent is a good time for us to contemplate how we too, in Christ, may we to become agents of transfiguration both in our individual lives and together as a church community here in Geneva. On Ash Wednesday next week, we will be setting off on our Lenten journey. As with all journeys, be they long or short, it’s important for us to prepare well in advance. So this Sunday, as we reflect on the implications of the Transfiguration and God’s revelation to Moses, let’s start to think and pray how we will use this Lent. What are the graces we are seeking from God? Who or what will guide us as we set out so that we don’t stray from the path? What will be take and what will strengthen and nourish us on our journey? And what do we pray that we may become as agents of transfiguration in the world as we move from Lent to the joy of Easter?