Vicar's Sermon - 26th February 2017
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The outline of today’s gospel reading is simple. Jesus takes three of his disciples up a hill or mountain. He leaves them whilst he heads further up the mountain for some peace and quiet and then…well then the heaven’s descend to the earth, God’s voice is heard from in the middle of a pea soup fog or cloud and Jesus is seen to ‘glow’ brighter than the brightest light….the thing is, He didn’t use any moisturiser, let alone Ponds Flawless radiance with Gen Activ. So ‘What on earth just happened? How are we meant to hear this? Are we talking about something that ‘really’ happened or are we in the realms of ‘picture language here’? And either way, what do we make of this story which we call The Transfiguration.
We are given this story at this point in the church year every year: the week before Lent begins. The Sunday that should see us gearing up to journey with Jesus through the 40 days of Lent towards Holy Week and Easter. And then the story comes again (when we are all on holiday) in August. It even has its own day then: August 6th which (by one of those curious accidents of fate) ties it to the same day when the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It is clearly important an important story, but why?
Perhaps some context might help? In the gospel accounts we have reached a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He has been teaching and preaching in the Northern part of Israel, in and around Galilee. He has become well known…popular even with the local villagers but now he turns to Jerusalem, which is a different ‘kettle of fish’. Jerusalem is the centre of Jewish power, the capital city ruled (uneasily) by the Roman Governor. Already Jesus has brushed with the Jewish leaders – they want rid of him, that’s clear. In the previous verses of the gospel Jesus has asked his disciples the 6 million dollar question: who do you think I am? And Peter, speaking for the rest, has declared that they believe him to be the Messiah: God’s chosen and anointed one. So far, so good. Except Peter’s understanding of what God’s Messiah might do and be is defective: Jesus tells him that far from bringing about a popular uprising against Roman rule he must fulfil God’s purposes by giving his life for his people – he will be crucified. That doesn’t go down so well – nor does Jesus’ invitation to his followers to ‘take up their own cross’ and follow him.
So Jesus, as he ascends the mountain is aware that he is about to face a long and difficult ordeal. Faithfulness – and Jesus’ faithfulness to God and His purposes is surely about to be tested – has more in common with a marathon than with a 100-meter sprint. The direction of Jesus’ ministry has been set, now he places himself before God on the mountain – this is the calm before the storm, the patient waiting before the time comes to move.
The clue, I think, to what takes place on the mountain is in Jesus’ aligning himself with the will of God. I know full well that as Christians we believe that He was always ‘at one’ with God’s will, freely choosing obedience to God at every moment of every day. Yes, but this story made this ongoing reality clear both to his disciples and to us as God pulls back the veil and allows us to see him ‘transfigured’. There is a connection with last week’s sermon I which I spoke about the creation story. You might remember that Christian theology regards creation not just as a one off event that took place in a far and distant past but as something that God is doing right here and right now – His life pulsing through every atom and particle of this church, of the light through the windows and the sounds of the morning, of the seat you are sat on, of the people sat near you. The glory of God is nearer to us than we might imagine – and it is ‘released’ as we freely open ourselves up to its presence, as we make space in our lives for Him to show himself through us. Remember – we are made in the image of God, male and female he created them – our purpose, as human beings, is to reflect His image, to show His presence.
On the Mountain Jesus’ openness to what God wants of Him is what brings about the ‘transfiguration’ …which makes me think that, in our own small way we can reflect God’s glory too. This, of course, is nothing to do with how many wrinkles you can get rid of…or which skin products you use to do so. It is about turning towards God our Father and allowing His light to shine through us. The most obvious word for how we do this is ‘prayer’ but ‘prayer’ is far more than ‘hands together and eyes closed’ – more akin to hands and heart open to receive what God might offer and eyes open to see Him at work.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, quotes an Austrian Benedictine monk as saying that prayer is best described in two words ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up and look around you.’ I quote, ‘Prayer is more than saying prayers at set times. Prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in The Midst.’.
So every moment can be transfigured. Every thing can be transfigured. Every one can be transfigured. You can be transfigured…and I, because transfiguration is not something I buy or achieve but is God’s purpose for us and His gift….and it is total, far more than just skin deep.
So what to do? It seems too simple a take home message for a sermon to say ‘Wake up’, except that I know full well that I go through day after day with my eyes closed and maybe you do too. And I know full well that being alive to God’s presence takes practice. It involves learning to see in new ways. It involves acts of recollection – consciously reflecting on where His Spirit has been at work. It involves voicing gratitude for His gifts – because until we do so we have not fully acknowledged the Giver. These things I commend to you through Lent – Wake up, God’s glory is all around.