Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Sunday 6 August 2023 – Tessa Lang

From St Luke, chapter 9: v 28 and 29
“And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took
Peter and John and James and went up to a mountain to pray.
And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his
raiment was white and glistering.”
And
From 2 Peter, chapter 1: v 19
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well
that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the
day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”

Good morning, and welcome back to the Holy Mountain for the
Transfiguration, an event so radically illuminating and foundational that
we encounter it twice every liturgical year, at two different fixed times.
One sits as the tollgate to the Lenten passage at the close of Epiphany
season, when we can hear its message as motivation and comfort for
the long weeks of penitence and reflection ahead. It uplifts a reluctant
pilgrim with a glimpse of the Christ, the son of God who became fully
man – ie. what he was not – whilst remaining what he has ever been –
fully divine. It is a fit time, between Christmas and Pentecost, to reprise
the miraculous events of Jesus’ incarnation in earthly space and time
and take heart in his glory and redemptive love. Each of these events –
from birth and presentation in the Temple to Passion and Resurrection –
has multiple ties back to the Hebrew scriptures and are deeply
embedded in writings of the Prophets. From Genesis to Malachi, these
steppingstones lead only to Christ, concealed in plain sight in the Old
Testament, revealed in divine purpose and glory in the New.

Some 5 months later, the 6th of August is the date for the official Feast
of the Transfiguration, so it does not always occur on a Sunday. Any
day of the week, I love the word ‘feast’; it creates an anticipation of
bounty, joy, good company and in my mind, fully deserves its own
Sunday. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘feast’ is defined as a
“commemoration of sacred mysteries and events in the history of our
redemption”. It is not a “cunningly devised fable”, not myth or
metaphor, but eyewitness reports from a time and place. Our second
invitation to witness the majesty of the living God comes in Week 10 of
the long season following Pentecost, a stretch of “after Trinity” Sundays
that examine the nature of the Kingdom of God, and the conduct and
mission of his Church. Into a season of instruction and application
drops a shining moment of elevation from this world to that which is
eternal, yet available to be grasped here and now, if briefly. As Jill
describes it in C S Lewis’ The Silver Chair, this experience is “too
exciting and scrumptious for words”. Luke describes eyewitness
accounts of Jesus emerging from a veil of flesh to a metamorphosis so
beyond human understanding it cannot be described as anything other
than ‘altered’ or changed, arrayed in pure light, radiating energy that
literally flames and sparks with self-generated power: the Son of God
as the life-giving, glistering sun.

The Transfiguration is included in all three Synoptic Gospels, and in
Second Peter. The fourth gospel writer, John, also an eyewitness, does
not mention the specific incident. Instead, it seems to have irradiated
his entire book with the message and metaphysical wonder of the
experience. How else could his Prologue speak of “the Word made
flesh” who not only lives amongst us as well as in the bosom of the
Father, and is the Word that expresses the Father as it calls all things
into life?

It is interesting that all three gospels cite the trigger for the
Transfiguration experience as Peter’s confession that Jesus is the
Christ of God. For the first time in nearly 3 years of living and travelling
with Jesus, witnessing him preach, heal, cast out demons, feed the
multitudes, resurrect the dead, subdue wind and water, Peter is moved
to speak as himself and not as others speak. It is an opening of his
mind, a John Donne-like “battering of his heart”, Luke follows it soon
after by recording Peter’s impetuous speech on the Mountain, spoken
from a place of faith beyond his ability or need to understand. Jesus
recognised it as such.

We may find it more difficult to credit such ability to discount a nearly
numberless sequence of miracles! For us, seeing is close to believing,
as in an often-paraphrased quote from a Poe short story “Believe
nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” The
emergence of deep fake images hint at the danger in such an
assumption. One of the churches in Wittenberg where Luther nailed his
95 Theses to the door now boasts a Chatgpt priest dispensing a
blessing for a donation! Radio 4 reports it does a brisk business.
Both are a reminder we alone can do nothing, create nothing to gain
forgiveness, redemption, and eternal life without a live faith in the living
God.

For the Jews, a deeply imbedded tradition of holy men doing
miraculous deeds as moved by God poses a different barrier to
discerning divinity. Seeing is not believing unless reported by reliable
sources. The bar is high because some their people have seen and
recorded miracles such as Moses parting the waters, ascending Mt
Sinai to receive the Law, feeding the children of Israel for 40 years
wandering in the desert. Or Elijah triumphing over 450 prophets of
Baal, bringing the widow’s son back to life and passing straight from
earth to heaven in a fiery chariot. The prophets acted as God’s proxy
because the Scriptures told them that no mortal can tolerate the sight of
God almighty. Divinity must always be veiled, separate, apart, not
walking about looking like everyone else.

They also believed that the appearance of the Messiah would produce a
total transformation: an imminent restoration of their people to the
Promised Land and reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, fully
aligned with Mosaic Law and the Prophets. Advance organisation
would be provided by Elijah, returned to serve his nation after being
‘taken up’ from Mount Carmel centuries before. The Kingdom would
manifest on Earth as a righteous and triumphant upgrade in preparation
for the Last Day, when God’s people would be resurrected all at once,
soul and body re-joined. They knew that resurrection was possible as it
occurs 3 times in the Torah scriptures, when God brought the dead
back to life acting through the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Instead, Jesus confuses them by giving strict instructions to keep this
joyous news strictly to themselves until AFTER his time of suffering,
death, and resurrection, to be mirrored in a difficult life for his followers.
At this point, Luke tells us that Jesus withdrew to pray as was his habit,
this time taking Peter, John and James, his closest disciples. In Jewish
tradition, neither sight nor hearing counted for evidence unless there
were 2 or 3 witnesses.

It was while he prayed that Jesus’ transfiguration spontaneously
occurred. Next Moses and Elijah appeared in glory: the lawgiver and
nation-builder with the prophet and defender of the faith, both having
departed the earth centuries before. Here is a mind-bending disruption
of the time-space continuum, a multiverse on a mountaintop, where
Jesus Christ, the patriarch and the prophet discuss what Luke
describes as Jesus’ imminent ‘decease’ which he ‘should accomplish’
in Jerusalem. How will he achieve the ultimate Passover, where his
sacrifice is sufficient to justify the sinner once and for all? Do Moses
and Elijah appear to ask Jesus about his plans and satisfy the curiosity
of ages past, or did they know enough to lend him support before his
passion? After all, Moses did have early form in Passover
accomplishment. Is the scene one from the divine eternal present,
providing a glimpse of each Hebrew’s mountaintop moments
simultaneously from what we would call the past?

We recall the time the Patriarch received the Law from the Almighty on
Mount Sinai. Though cloaked in cloud, divine radiance yet caused
Moses’ face to reflect a glow too bright for Hebrew eyes. However, the
protective veil worn to return to the tribes was soon removed when
reflected glory faded. Moses may represent God’s gift of the Law, the
foundation of Jewish religion, but he was a sinful man with conscious
murder on his hand and display of lethal temper, doubt, and arrogance
as God’s appointed leader of his people that deprived him of entrance to
the Promised Land although the Almighty himself undertook his burial.
Now he stood, redeemed and glorified, once again on holy ground.

The Prophet’s epic battle against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel
saw him spared death in anticipation of returning to prepare the way for
the Messiah. His role now assigned to John the Baptist’s preaching of
repentance and Baptism; he too stands in the presence of the living
Christ on the holy mountain. Once again, he is empowered by God and
represents the 40 or so prophets who throughout the ages have put
down markers that lead to our redemption through Jesus Christ whose
creative love sustains all life.

All too human, the disciples fail in prayer and fall asleep, so do not hear
the full discourse. Were they overcome by doubt, overwhelmed by the
prospect of the last Passover and Passion? Did they lack the
imagination to grasp the moment as did Thomas Aquinas, who when
confounded by doubt, chose to believe in a bigger God, a more
miraculous salvation? C K Chesterton calls this “believing in MORE
reality, not less”. The shock and wonder of such a spiritual awakening
kept the writer alert to the blessings and pitfalls that beset the Christian,
given imaginative life in The Screwtape Letters, written from a senior to
a junior devil. John Bunyan had written about this territory, the road
from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City in The Pilgrim’s
Progress, hundreds of years earlier. Considerably earlier still was St.
Augustine’s epic “The City of God”. Although the way is unique and
planned for each of us, the path is well known, taking us both higher
and deeper in everyday relationship with God.

When the disciples do wake, Luke tells us simply that they “saw his
glory and the two men that stood with him”. There is no doubt who is
the source of power. No sooner did they spy Moses and Elijah than
they departed, spurring Peter to speak up. “It is good, Lord, to be here”
cried out Peter the impetuous, not knowing what he said, or why, but as
a spontaneous expression of the joy of this mountaintop moment of
communion with God. He wants to DO something to keep it going, build
tabernacles, set up camp, keep eternity present, skip straight to glory
past suffering, death, and resurrection. But we have not yet
accomplished that height in God’s plan.

The words barely out of Peter’s mouth, a cloud comes and overshadows
them with God’s awesome presence, delivering the abiding take-away
from this momentary enlightenment:

“This is my beloved son: hear him.” And believe every word in the
biggest, most direct, most remarkable way. Because of his unique
person within the Trinity, Christ hears God and passes the Word to us.
In turn, God hears his Son’s prayers on our behalf.

The first time we hear God the Father affirm his son’s divinity, he speaks
to John at the Baptism of Jesus. This time, at the Transfiguration, he
speaks to the key disciples. Now that Jesus is crucified and risen, he
speaks through his son to all of us, endlessly available. Enjoy the light
shows and glimpses of the unseen should you be graced with them in
your lived life. And always pay attention to the Word as Christ walks
with you, sometimes to a mountaintop moment, always back down
again, through the spiritual landscape of your life. Stay connected
through prayer and with each other. Tis Good, Lord, to be here. AMEN

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