26th February 2017
Last Sunday before Lent
Rev. Cheryl Collins
Some of you may remember that Humpty Dumpty was even keener on unbirthday presents than birthday presents. Even Humpty could see that there are more unbirth-days in a person’s life than birthdays- more occasions when we are just getting on with our normal lives than when we are the special person, the centre of attention.
‘There’s glory for you’ declares Humpty, and when challenged by Alice to explain himself declares that glory is a nice knockdown argument. Alice is not satisfied with this definition but Humpty is adamant that ‘When I use a word it means just what I chose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ It seems to me, looking at today’s passages that like Alice and Humpty our definition and God’s definition of glory might not quite match.
Matthew’s account of the transfiguration reveals the glory of God to be about something different from achievement and appearance, which is how glory often appears to us.
The first thing to notice about this appearance is that it is entirely on God’s terms and for God’s purposes.
It happens despite our misunderstanding. As we shall see the disciples constantly misunderstand what is going on. The transfiguration comes in the midst of teaching about Jesus’ passion and death, teaching which Peter has tried to reject. Here on the mountain he is eager to prolong the glory and forgo the suffering- but it cannot be done.
Yet despite our misunderstanding God still comes to us and makes Godself known to us. God is ‘I am as I am’, there is no room for the glorious argument that Humpty Dumpty longs for.
Not only is the transfiguration surrounded by teaching about the passion, but many commentators see it as a direct parallel: three figures on the mountain in glory, three figures on the cross of shame on the hill outside the city wall. The shame and the glory mysteriously belong together; they are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other; our mountain top experience takes place in the context of the struggle of our daily lives.
In Luke’s account of the same story Jesus is praying when he is transfigured. He is listening to God, surrendering himself in obedience, to God’s plan, to God’s timing, to God’s way. And he is comforted and encouraged by two other figures who have submitted to God’s call on their lives- Moses and Elijah. Do we surrender ourselves in prayer so that God can change us? Do we give space to meet God in our prayers and to let God show us things as they really are? Do we listen to God and let God transfigure us?
Matthew wants us to concentrate on the words which come from the cloud- this is the centre of his account of the scene. The glory shows and confirms the identity of Jesus- this is my Son, the beloved. And the voice urges us to listen to him. So the divine imprimatur is given to Jesus:
• to his teaching about the way of the cross which surrounds this account,
• to the challenge to imitate the divine compassion in his stories and sayings which invite us to see reality in a new way, to let it be transfigured by seeing it as God sees it,
• to his whole life as a sign of God’s glory lived out in a human life.
And afterwards, long after the crucifixion and resurrection, apostles will remind and encourage their flock by describing how ‘we were with him on the mountain’. We know the truth of who and what Jesus is.
Even Paul who manifestly wasn’t there in the flesh, wants us to be directed to ‘the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ Jesus shows us what God’s glory truly is- not superficial appearance or achievement- but self-surrender to save creation. Here we can see and know what God truly is.
The transfiguration reveals many things, to the disciples and to us. First of all, it is an encouragement. So, as we approach Lent and the journey to the cross, we are reminded of the glory, still present in the shame. And in our own lives these mountain top experiences, brief and fleeting as they often are, are an encouragement in our own pilgrimages, as God breaks through and shows us things as they really are.
So, the transfiguration also acts as a reality check. A reminder that it is God’s definition and not our own that we are working to. Peter got it wrong, but Jesus told him not to be afraid and led him back down the mountain – back to his own journey.
The transfiguration is also a clue- it is a theophany, a showing of God, in God’s way, in God’s good time and it says this is what I am like, follow me, listen to me, and find yourself close to me in Jesus, for we have the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
One of the commentators I like to read in preparing my sermons recently went through the unexpected death of her husband. She is an artist and wrote that this week was the first since the death of her husband some three months ago that she had been able to go back to painting. Her thoughts on this passage resonated with my own, yet come out of her particular experience so I reproduce part of them here.
She writes’ The week has provided a powerful reminder of a curious tension that the creative process (and life) asks us to hold: to claim and live into a vision, while at the same time, remaining open to the surprises that occur- those moments when, after weeks or months or sometimes years, our faithfulness in showing up and tending the vision suddenly draws us into a dramatic shift, a new way of seeing and working. Even as we lean in the direction of our vision, the process asks us to relax our hold on our fixed ideas and habitual patterns, so that we can recognize what waits to emerge.
I didn’t intentionally time my return to painting to occur in such close proximity to Transfiguration Sunday. Yet I have found myself noticing the resonance, and paying attention to what stirs for me in this story of the three who followed Jesus up the mountain and had to follow him back down again. Life has required me, in a painfully vivid fashion, to release what I had counted on most. As I navigate the new terrain of my life, I am continually faced with choices- in my painting, in my writing, in the agonizing sorting of my husband’s things, in every aspect of every unfolding day- about what to hold onto, and what to let go. In the midst of all this, our story this week asks me, in all the changing, what abides? In the leaving and letting go, what gift still goes with us? How will we allow ourselves to be transformed by the transfigured Christ who accompanies us in every place?
The story of the Transfiguration is not simply about learning to leave the mountaintop, or about releasing what we have grown attached to. It’s not just about resisting our desire to turn moments of transcendence into monuments. The story of the transfiguration us about opening our eyes to glory, allowing that glory to alter us, and becoming willing to walk where it leads us. The story urges us to trust that what we have seen, what we have known, will go with us. It assures us that the gifts received on the mountaintop will continue to illuminate us not only on level ground but even when we walk in the valley of the shadow.’ Amen, thank you Jan.
Let us pray
Luminous Christ, resplendent in your glory now, give us a glimpse of your radiant brilliance- not simply to dazzle, but to transfigure us, to change us from our dullness into light, so that we might reflect your splendour.