Sermon for High Mass – Sunday next before Lent Sunday 7 February 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
On Wednesday when we will be back in church for the beginning of Lent, won’t we? – when our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross in ash, the priest will say to us: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words which echo the Book of Genesis – in Genesis Adam – humanity is made from adamah – the mud, the dirt, the ground. The ashes which give the day its name are a reminder of our mortality. We are also told to: “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” The ashes are a sign of our fallen-ness, our separation from God, our expulsion from paradise.
But if mortality and sin were the only things that Ash Wednesday says to us, we might as well stay at home. What point would there be in undertaking the discipline of Lent, all that self-examination and confession, that fasting and abstinence, prayer and meditation on scripture, of following Christ on the way to his passion and death, if all that the future holds for us is death and oblivion? We might as well enjoy ourselves as best we can: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
But the Gospel we are called to believe in says something more about us: that we creatures of dust are meant for glory. The Gospel of the Transfiguration which we have heard today is, first and foremost, about Jesus Christ but it is also about us who are his brothers and sisters.
The three disciples whom he takes with him on this mountain experience are given an advance glimpse, an epiphany, a manifestation, a revelation, of his divinity, of the glory which is his from the beginning with the Father – as John’s Gospel puts it – and which will be his in the kingdom of God. The humanity of Jesus, the flesh, the dust, the matter, which he has taken in the incarnation, which he shares with us and we with him, is transfigured as a sign too of the glory for which we are meant in God.’s purposes.
Mark and Matthew also tell us of the transfiguration, but Luke gives tells it in his distinctive way.
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
In Luke important things happen when Jesus is at prayer: at his baptism it is while he is praying that he hears God speaking to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” And immediately after this experience, as we will hear next Sunday, he is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to undergo the forty days of fasting and testing which is echoed in the forty days of Lent.
And on the night before his death, he will take that same inner group of disciples with him to pray in the Garden of Gethesemane. And then too, they will be heavy with sleep; which I hope you aren’t just yet.
In baptism, transfiguration and Gethsemane, the divine guidance of Jesus’ life becomes visible.
Now, as he prays on the mountain, the place of withdrawal for meeting with God, Jesus is prepared for his meeting with Moses and Elijah: he takes on the form of glory suitable for the heavenly sphere, a form of glory which anticipates that which will be his by right, beyond his death and resurrection. Jesus, as though translated into heaven, is found to be in the presence of the glorified figures of Moses and Elijah.
They are the two figures in the scriptures who meet with God on Mt. Sinai/Horeb. They represent the sweep of the unfolding purposes of God that leads to the role of Jesus:
- Moses is Jesus’ great predecessor in his role in the formation of the people of God.
- Elijah is, historically, the restorer of the people, and the one who, in Jewish hope, would return before God’s final intervention in the world.
For Luke they signify that what God is doing now in Jesus is both in line with his ways of working in the past, but also goes beyond them.
Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his ‘departure’, literally his ‘exodus’, which is to be accomplished in Jerusalem. They mean his death, but death seen not as the end but as the way in which he will depart from this world to the glory of heaven (cf. v51).
Jesus’ journey to glory at God’s right hand has its beginnings in a shameful death in Jerusalem. That death will bring deliverance for the human race which can be compared to but exceeds the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under Moses. With the coming journey to Jerusalem which dominates the remainder of the pre-passion account, Luke will mark Jesu’ commitment to the mode of departure to which he has been summoned by God. Jesus’ view of his own destiny is confirmed by these heavenly visitors.
So far, the account has focused on Jesus. Now Luke switches his attention and ours to the disciples. And from this point he will tell the story from their point of view. They see the scene of heavenly glory, but only just, as they are heavy with sleep. Human frailty can so easily stand between believers and what God wants us to see and hear.
The heavenly visitors look as if they are about to leave, but Peter wants to keep the scene intact rather than return to the disturbing prospect of the blood-stained pathway to glory: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He does not realize that to do as he suggests would be at odds with God’s purpose: “Peter did not know what he said.”
The response to Peter does not come from Jesus but from the voice from the cloud of the divine presence which envelops them all. Cloud and voice together call to mind God’s speaking from Mount Sinai to Moses (Exodus 19.16, Duet. 5.21). The voice echoes too the words spoken at the baptism, but now it speaks to the disciples not Jesus: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”
The focus is on the need to listen to Jesus; to hear what he has begun to say about the way of the cross for himself and for his followers. The voice of God insists that they must, against all their natural inclinations, listen to Jesus as he speaks of suffering as the way to glory; as he calls on them to give up their own lives to gain them, to take up their own crosses and to follow him.
It is not possible, and it is not right, to freeze this moment of glory. It vanishes and Jesus is alone. The mountaintop experience has passed and what remains is the way of the cross as the way to permanence of glory. They have seen the glory which belongs by right to Jesus, but it belongs to him the other side of death and resurrection.
The disciples have been overwhelmed by their experience. They cannot yet understand its full significance. Only after the resurrection will Jesus’ opening of the scriptures to them illuminate his suffering path to glory. Only with the coming of the Holy Spirit will they be able to speak out.
And what of us latter-day disciples? Well, we have come not to the mount of transfiguration but to this house of prayer: a place quite deliberately designed and intended to reflect something of the glory of God and the transfiguration of the material world which he has created.
And in our worship, in word and sacrament, liturgy and music, we experience something of that same foretaste of heavenly glory which the disciples shared on the holy mountain.
In the liturgy of the word, in the proclamation of the Gospel, we hear the risen Christ speaking to us: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We stand to pay attention. We make the sign of the cross on our brow, our lips and our breast, that his words may be in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts: in our thoughts and words, our wills and our love; that those words transform our lives.
We come to this service from our daily lives but we do not leave those lives behind at the foot of the mountain. We bring our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, those who are on our hearts and minds, with us as we confess our failures to follow Christ and as we pray for our world and its needs, the sick and suffering. Worship is not an escape from reality but a going deeper into the reality of God’s loving purpose for us.
We bring bread and wine to the altar: the signs of God’s gifts and our labours; signs of God’s providential care for us, but also of our abuse and waste of his creation and of our fellow-creatures, of a world in which children go hungry while we throw food away, a world in which the wine which should be a sign of celebration and joy is also the means of addiction and human degradation. But these things are signs too of the risen and glorified Christ’s transformation of these fruits of the earth and the work of human hands to be foretastes of the kingdom in which our humanity and our world will find the glory for which God has made them.
And having received the bread of heaven and the wine of the kingdom, we are sent back into the world to love and serve the Lord; to follow him on the way of the cross; to be the bearers of his peace in a world of war and violence and cruelty and division; to show that the glory of humankind is to be found not in the exercise of power but in the love which gives of itself.