Sermon, Quinquagesima & Transfiguration, Sunday 27 February 2022 – Tessa Lang

From today’s reading of the Gospel of St Luke, 9: v28 & v35:
AND it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took Peter and John and James, and went up into a
mountain to pray.
And
there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son:
hear him.
Were I addressing a topic other than one anchored in the word of
God, any message would have been blown off course by events
since Friday 18th February. How can anyone speak with certainty
when the structure of the world we relied upon has changed in eight
days’ time?

At parish level, we are blessed to find ourselves together on a
Sunday as usual, albeit after extreme storm and in the throes of loss
from multiple departures, if mercifully buoyed by the presence of
new life, a third child and daughter for Drs. Matthias & Vickie Grebe,
Clementina. A sufficiency of life events in any month, I’m sure you
can agree. Then literally overnight, the larger world plunges into
destruction, bloodshed, and war on the European continent. The
brutal descent of an Iron Curtain in a new century and discordant
sounds of our own ugly chickens coming home to roost warn of dire
future events about to hatch.

Good news then, that our passage today prescribes a God-given
remedy for existential crises – prayer. From the opening verse, we
sense that something is amiss in Jesus’ inner circle, a disquiet that
has bubbled along and needs sorting. Gathering his hand-picked
three, Jesus takes them to the mountain for a prayer summit and a
glimpse of his kingdom come as essential preparation for what lies
ahead.

They have spent 3 dusty, impoverished years enabling his ministry.
Assertion of Jesus’ identity as the Christ of God the Father is a
recent development, yet they must keep this monumental fact to
themselves at his instruction. Rewarded with powers to heal and
preach; gratified by witnessing their master raising the dead, feeding
the multitudes, calming the storm, walking on water; the apostles
may well have felt dismay and disappointment when reminded that
the real-world result of the exercise is rejection and suffering,
followed by death and resurrection on the third day. Time was short
as Jerusalem and their last shared Passover loomed; Jesus
understood they needed a visceral experience of the ultimate finale
beyond Calvary – Christ appearing in all his glory – his
Transfiguration – when Jesus drops the veil cloaking his everlasting
deity whilst here on earth. Paradoxically, he is not the one who
changes; it is our eyes and ears and hearts that must open to
receive him.

Luke tells us his face and clothing shone impossibly bright, solar,
powered from within…translated in the KJV as ‘glistering’. The
apostles recognised him, not as they had known him in his everyday
human form, but in his divinity. They were overwhelmed by his
majesty, and the presence of that mind-blowing pair – Moses and
Elijah, in conversation with the Christ to learn at last how he will
complete his earthly mission in Jerusalem. (How they must have
pondered this fulfilment over the eons.) Patriarch and prophet have
their own history of mountain-top moments and similarly appeared
glorious in Jesus’ presence. We heard about this phenomenon in
today’s Old Testament reading, when Moses’ face glowed so
brightly following his nearness to God at the time of receiving the
Law that he wore a veil to protect the Hebrews’ eyes. Yet his
radiance was a fading one of reflection only, and Jesus’ is fully self sustaining,
the infinite energy source of all life.

Moses may represent the divine gift of the Law, but he was a sinful
man with the conscious murder of an Egyptian on his hands.
Although given a glimpse of the Promised Land from Mt. Sinai, he
was prevented from entering for his more critical failure to honour
God as the power producing water from dry rock during the
Hebrews’ desert wanderings. He was a mere mortal, a leader with
serious human faults of temper, doubt, self-aggrandisement. He
had been dead for many centuries, his body removed for
undisclosed burial by God himself, no doubt to frustrate a temptation
to make its resting place a shrine. Yet here he stood, recognisable,
in close company with the Christ of the Lord God – glorified,
forgiven, standing upon the ground of the Promised Land.

The prophet Elijah, also long departed, lived a dangerous life at a
time when the Hebrews split into two kingdoms and many
worshiped false gods and idols. At God’s direction and with his
power, Elijah restores life to a widow’s son, ends famine and
drought, vanquishes false priests with a winner-take-all test of the
powers of Yahweh and Baal atop Mount Carmel. As he crosses the
River Jordan and prepares the way for the tribes of Israel to enter at
last into the Promised Land, he is lifted into the heavens by
whirlwind in a chariot of fire, spared the passage of death. Yet here
he stood, recognisable, in close company with the Christ of the Lord
God – glorified, safe, standing upon the ground of the Promised
Land.

If this is the way God’s plan works out for sinful individuals who
strive to live in his love and fear, albeit imperfectly, then the trials
and perils of earthly life can be seen in context and with inklings of
the sense of its grand design. Brought to life for Peter, John, and
James then, and for us now and always, Transfiguration is the
visual and visceral expression of Jesus as the fulfilment of scripture
and prophecy. On that mountaintop, Jesus bestows the divine gift
of knowing him as God in his full, merciful glory.

This may always be beyond our understanding, but it can be our
experience through faith. Even if a glimpse of the Kingdom of God
overwhelms us as it did the apostles and we succumb to a similar
spiritual sleep, we like them, can awake in time to rejoice in
renewed belief.

“Tis 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! DO something to keep it going, build
tabernacles, set up camp, keep eternity present in his life. But that
is not how it works.

The words barely out of his mouth, a cloud comes and overshadows
them with the awesome presence of God to deliver the abiding takeaway
from this momentary enlightenment:
“This is my beloved son: hear him.”
The cloud vanishes, Jesus is once more alone, and there is nothing
to do but go with him down the mountain, across the plains and to
the appointed time of Calvary. Then pick up their cross and continue
to follow him to resurrection and thereafter.

We are in no less need to reconnect to glory – as we remember in
the readings, sing in today’s hymns, and observe in the fabric of our
worship with Comper’s sublime representation on the reredos above
the high altar.

For Transfiguration stands at the gateway to Lent, lighting our
spiritual path from today – Quinquagesima Sunday, culmination of
Shrovetide and the “gesima season” of preparation for the
Adventtide of self-examination and penance leading to Easter Day,
and welcome return to Alleleuia.

But first, and in the knowledge of what we have been reminded, let
there be pastry and feast in solidarity with the European tradition of
Festelavn, when children parade in costume, collecting alms for the
poor and worthy causes, stuffing Lenten buns laden with icing and
heaving with cream, and brandishing Shrovetide rods to tickle and
turn the tables on their sleeping parents this Sunday morning. Let
us give thanks for our shared Christian heritage and our abundance
of blessings knowing that if circumstances challenge or fail us, we
can rely on the word of God. All we are asked to do is to hear it.
Given that time is short and the matters at hand are critical, let us go
on to action Mary’s instruction to the servants at Cana – “do
whatever he tells you.” Begin with Jesus’ approach to tribulation:
seek out your mountain top moment and divine guidance through
prayer. Then walk with him down the mountain and throughout your
life. We give thanks to thee for thy great glory! Tis good, Lord to be
here! Amen.

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