3.2.19 - SERMON FOR SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE LENT - transfiguration
✠ May we be changed into your likeness, O Lord, our strength, redeemer and sustainer. Amen.
Paul talks time and again in his letters about the different relationship with God which is won for us through the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The images are encouragingly simple - the veil, the cross, the mirror. The results for us, as expressed in today’s reading, sound simple - freedom, transformation, access to God and growing in glory. When Paul turns to how this is won, it ceases to be simple - a mixture of apocalyptic battle with evil and Paschal sacrifice, of great strength and terrifying weakness. All this resulting in the high priesthood of Christ, and our freedom from sin - which people have argued about ever since. In the coming weeks we at St. Mary’s are encouraged to read carefully the Gospel of John, where much of the theology in Paul and in our creeds began to be drawn together alongside the Gospel story. I hope you will join me in trying to get our heads around some of it, and becoming more secure in what we say we believe. If Lent achieves some of that, what joy.
On this Sunday just before Lent begins, we are given less of the difficult theology and more of the encouragement. The story of the Transfiguration, actually celebrated by the church on 6th August, sits well at just this time of year, when traditionally, we set out to reduce the glory of our church furniture, the pleasures we allow ourselves, and distractions from the outside world. We do this to focus more clearly on God, on what God was doing in the incarnation and death of Jesus, and on what that means for us. Somewhere, we know that to do this will involve looking at our part in the sin of the world, and most of us would go a long way rather than do that. So to give us an incentive to go forward in the process, today’s readings give us a chance to think about glory.
What does that word mean to you? To me, there’s a shining about it, probably something to do with a lifetime’s delight in grand sunsets and bright blue skies. There’s also a feeling: something breathless, yet more alive. Glory has a power to astonish, to wake up. It’s more like falling in love than anything else human. And it’s this that Christ’s work on the Cross offers us: the chance to become more like God, to take up some of that mantle of glory ourselves.
With Moses, we can be illuminated by receiving the Word of God. I know how many years I took before realising that reading some scripture every day was not a chore I really should do, but an opportunity to be spoken with by God, and something I could simply look forward to. Recently I’ve been realising some of the ways I have said “no” to God - seeing scripture as a chore was certainly one of them. True, not all of scripture is obviously edifying - I’ve recently been revisiting Numbers and sighing over the antics of Joseph and his brothers, over the grim sentence given to the Egyptians in order for the power of the Lord to be revealed. Sometimes such scripture is a way to start thinking and praying about the sin of the world - which desperately needs our thoughts and prayers.
The main point of these stories is God’s power to save, to transform desperate situations. Not for nothing has the story of the exodus from Egypt come down to us and been threaded into our Eucharistic prayers. As it was important for people just after that exodus, it is important now to remember that God loves us no matter what, that his action is always to save, that the incarnation was not just about solidarity but the price of our freedom.
Our own sin and that of the world makes it hard to look at God at all, let alone honestly and in the face. But when he shines his light on us, we can, as Paul says, be bold. We can turn to him, confident not in our own worthiness, but in Christ who speaks for us.
You might find it hard to enter into the idea of apocalypse - when the Son of Man will come in clouds of glory. It’s been downgraded, as have most other religious images, in our secular times. It’s a terrifying film, perhaps, which can be seen, shuddered at and eventually forgotten. Even the people arguing for urgent action to save our planet from ourselves use it as something that puts humanity at the centre of things. In the Bible, apocalypse is an image of God’s action to put things right that have gone wrong in the world. The terror of cataclysmic change is necessary, because sin has such a strong hold. Anyone who has battled with a personal sin would understand that. They would also understand a little about the glory that comes the other side, as resurrection follows the Cross. Glory isn’t simple.
Peter, James and John don’t seem to have fully understood what they were witnessing on that mountain. They focussed on the vision, not the fact that Jesus was discussing his death. Glory isn’t simple. But we too can pause and bask in it for this Sunday - why not? The glory, the opportunity to be close to God, to take the next small step closer to him, all of those things are true. We may know that during Lent we will have to face the cost of bringing us back, but for now let us thank God for the share he gives us in Himself.