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Sunday next before Lent 2007

Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 18 February at 18:00


Written and delivered by Peter Large, Diocesan Reader
Text: Luke 9: 30-31 " Suddenly they saw two men Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were to speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."

When you are training to be a Reader, one of the things that you learn very early on is that you will very rarely be called upon to preach at the great festivals of the Church. Your boss the vicar will ensure that Christmas Day, Easter Day, Pentecost, patronal festival and harvest festival are grabbed by him as the major preaching high spots of the year. When however it comes to the more difficult festivals such as Trinity Sunday and the Transfiguration, then your vicar will be very happy to see a Reader in the pulpit. Now you might think that this is a sort of urban legend or a stuffy idea put about by Readers with old-fashioned vicars, so let me give you a few personal statistics. I have been a reader for 22 years and preached even when I was a trainee. During that time I have preached once on Christmas Day, and once on Easter Day to a congregation of eight at St Etheldreda's, West Halton, but I have preached on Trinity Sunday at least half-a-dozen times and preached about the Transfiguration at least four or five times. Accordingly, it is not always possible to think of something new to say on these rather special occasions, and the Transfiguration in particular is an event which is puzzling, difficult and demands quite some thought to understand it.

I think we can ask three questions about the Transfiguration of Jesus. The first is, what exactly happened? The second is, why did it happen and why at that particular time? And the third is, what is the significance and meaning of the event both at that time and to us sitting in the pews (or rather chairs) today?

Firstly, what exactly happened? There are a number of points to note about the text that we heard just now. The first is that it was a shared experience. Unlike most of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples after the resurrection; when he was standing with them on the top of the mountain, all the three witnesses saw his appearance changed and saw two figures appear with him. We do not know how they knew that these two figures were Moses and Elijah. It is unlikely that the two prophets would have appeared as we see them in stained-glass windows, with Moses carrying his stone tablets of the law. The second thing is that the three apostles had been asleep, and only when they awoke did they see the changed appearance of Jesus and the two men talking with him. But it seems clear that they really were awake when Peter spoke and when the cloud came down and enveloped them. We note also that the three were so shaken by this experience, that they told no one about it. So what we have here is a shared vision. Jesus's power suddenly becomes manifest. He is for a few moments unrecognisable as the man who climbed the mountain with them. And the things that the three witnesses saw are full of symbolism. Only afterwards did they appreciate the significance of the change in Jesus's appearance, the appearance or maybe we should say apparition of the two prophets, and the descent of the cloud, although the voice that they heard should have given them a clue as to what was happening.

Why did it happen and why are at that point in time? It happened because after the confession of Peter that Jesus was God's Messiah, a few verses earlier before this morning's reading begins, Jesus needed to give the disciples a further clue as to his identity, to get across the message that maybe he was more than just the latest prophet from Galilee. And it happened at that time because after Jesus had told them that he was the Messiah, he had gone on to tell them that the Salvation of the Jewish people could only be brought about by his death and resurrection. In other words, that he had to suffer before he could be glorified. So before Jesus and the twelve set off on the long trek to Jerusalem that occupies the next 10 chapters of Luke's Gospel, he has to convince them of his identity. We are told, presumably because the three witnesses heard the conversation, that the two prophets were discussing Jesus's exodus, his departure and the death that he was to die in Jerusalem and the glorification that would follow.
The whole event is full of symbolism. The most important piece of symbolism is that the three apostles had experienced a vision of God, a THEOPHANY. The kabod in Hebrew or δοξα in Greek, the glory of the presence of God, had manifested itself on the mountain. When Moses on Mount Sinai had seen God, his face had shone with a brilliant light and he had to keep it veiled before the people of Israel. The exodus, the departure of the Israelites from Egypt and their progression through the wilderness had been marked by the presence of God in a pillar of cloud. And throughout the Old Testament, in the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, these two things, shining light and cloud, had symbolised the kabod, the manifestation of the glory and presence of God. So up there on the mountain, the law as represented by Moses, and the prophets as represented by Elijah, are witnesses to the fulfilment of the prophecy in Deuteronomy 18 that God would raise up a new prophet who would bring salvation to Israel, in other words that the Messianic era has now dawned.

But of course God is not merely saying that Jesus is the latest prophet in whom his shekinah, the indwelling power of God, lies. The symbolism indicates that in Jesus, God is dwelling in humanity in a totally different sense. Jesus was not a man possessed by the Spirit of God. That is the fourth century heresy of Apollinarius. Jesus was a man who was also God.

So how does the mysterious and symbolism-ridden event of the Transfiguration impinge on our everyday lives? What is the relevance of that story to living as a man or woman or child in the twenty-first century? The three apostles felt the closeness of God when the cloud came down, so the first take-home message is that God is close to us. When we do what he wants, it is he who is working in us. When we fail to do what he wants, we are failing to surrender to his will. But we human beings are not zombies, with our minds and desires controlled from outside. We are believing, sentient human beings who voluntarily offer our wills to Jesus as the best way of achieving the extension of his kingdom of love. God can speak to us via our senses as well as via our consciences. Secondly, God speaks in symbols as well as in words, and sometimes the meaning of an event or a scene is God trying to tell us something. We tend not to think about how God communicates with us. We just assume that he will enter our minds and thoughts. We today may not experience an earthshaking theophany, because we are not all Peters or Jameses or Johns, but God uses the ordinary as well as the extraordinary to show us his love and support. In the words of William Blake:

To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower
to hold infinity in the palm of our hand, eternity in a hour.

But God communicates with us in other ways too: via our senses, as I've just mentioned, but also via our need for food, which God makes use of in this sacrament of the Eucharist, which is not merely a symbol of his love, but a channel by which we receive it and by which we are to pass on that love to our fellow human beings.

Although it is sometimes hard to realise it, we are not on our own. God's love, care and support are always there to keep us from falling, as long as we are trusting enough to rely on it. When we become fully aware of God's concern and love for us, we undergo an experience as awesome as the revelation of God to the three apostles on the mountain.



Last updated: 22 July, 2007.

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