Sermons from St
Dr Fred Nye, Sunday, 6th August,
If I have a favourite prayer it is probably the General Thanksgiving, when we praise God above all for ‘the redemption of the world by Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’. These few words sum up the whole of our salvation history. The experience of the Transfiguration does the same – proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah promised in the scriptures, assuring the disciples of the real presence of God in their Master, praying with them there on the mountain top, and pointing forward to the future glories of the Resurrection and of the world to come. But Luke sandwiches this transcendent experience between two harsh realities. Before they climb the mountain Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus immediately warns his followers that this will involve suffering and death. And as soon as they return to the valley, Our Lord is confronted by a noisy crowd, and by the tragedy of a young boy whose life is totally overshadowed by epilepsy.
We don’t really have time this morning to go into every aspect of the Transfiguration, because Luke gives us so much to think about. The presence of Moses (standing for the Law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) certainly affirm Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah promised in the scriptures. And yet their message for the disciples is the same as his, that his destiny in Jerusalem will be departure, Exodus. To drive home the point, Peter James and John almost miss the whole experience through weariness and sleep – just as later they would fail to keep awake when Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, in drowsy confusion, even tries to put up some shelters, trying perhaps to capture the moment, to build something familiar and reassuring and secure, rather than face the awesome reality of God on earth. And then comes the moment of holy terror, when the presence of God overshadows everything, just as the Spirit had descended on Mary at the Incarnation, just as the Sprit had descended on Jesus at his baptism. And the still small voice speaks: ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!’ Our Lord’s relationship with his Father was the whole essence of his being and mission. It was his guide and inspiration. And yet his status as the Son of God was also to be the stumbling block that sent him to the Cross – the words that would later stick in the craw of his accusers. Then ‘the chief priests and scribes gathered together… and asked ‘Are you then the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ Then they said ‘What further testimony do we need?’
The Transfiguration is not an easy story. If we want some help with it, we can do no better than read St. Peter’s second letter, when shortly before his death and martyrdom, Peter poignantly records his memories of that dawn on the mountain top. Peter does not re-tell the story for its own sake, but to help his readers, to help us, to be the kind of people we are called to be. Peter was always aware that Christians have a life of exile – it often feels as if we are resident aliens in a world estranged from God. As we enter a new chapter in our church life, with a new parish priest, we pray for a renewal of our Christian mission. But we will no doubt still have to face dangers and difficulties, and threats of one sort or another to our future growth. And yet ‘God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom’. The Christian life cannot be lived just ‘for now’, but neither is it merely ‘for later’. It is lived now, in this transitory and uncertain world, in the light of a glorious and timeless future. And the story of the Transfiguration helps us to achieve that balance.
A footnote, if I may. I don’t of course know exactly what took place on the Mount of the Transfiguration – but strange things can happen in the dawn light, particularly in winter. On 2nd February 1461 the 18 year old Duke of York prepared to do battle with the Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross, in Herefordshire. His troops were exhausted and demoralised, but soon after dawn not one, but three suns appeared in the sky. Declaring the sight to be a sign of the Holy Trinity’s favour, Edward rallied his troops, and the Lancastrian army was routed. The phenomenon is of course a natural one, caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting the sun’s rays and so producing two extra images, or ‘sun dogs’. I’m not suggesting that this is the whole basis for the Transfiguration story – but rather that it is impossible to divorce our experience of the physical world from our interpretation of it. The miracle of our world, and the Providence of God, together enable us always to see things in a new light – this is the very foundation of faith itself.
I might take this one stage further. It is possible to stand on a high mountain, when the sun is low, and see your own shadow projected on to the clouds in front of you, surrounded by a rainbow-coloured halo or ‘glory’. On experiencing this for himself, the poet Goethe wrote ‘Who could know heaven but by heaven’s gift, and discover God save one who shares himself in the divine?’ An optimistic view of humanity maybe, and one that Christians may only dare to hope for. But Our Lord’s transforming truth and beauty continue to draw us on, to follow him down into the valley of the world’s uncertain shadows, and to begin again the adventure of the Kingdom.