Sermon delivered by Jeff Lowndes (Reader) at Evensong on Sun 7 August 2016 to celebrate The Transfiguration of our Lord.
Sermon – The Radiance of God (Luke 9.28-36)
When we read the bible we’re confronted by stories and images, many of which are confusing. However, they aren’t always meant to hit us with some clear solid blinding truth, but to fire our imagination – entering our mind, often when we’re not expecting it. For example, Jesus said “Where God is – is like a mustard seed.” What’s that supposed to mean? That surely needs our imagination.
I like the continuity of the Old & New Testament, and some scripture lessons are like bookends. At one end of the shelf Moses receives 10 Commandments on Mt Sinai. When he came down, having been in the presence of God, his face shone so brightly that the people of Israel had to cover their eyes.
At the other end of the bookshelf we have Jesus going up Mount Herman where his clothing became white and dazzling – a voice came out of the cloud saying, ‘ This is my beloved Son, listen to him! So we listen! As we listen for God’s word, let’s look closer at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and in particular, think about the radiance of God.
What was it about being in the presence of God that changed the Israelites in the wilderness – the disciples on Mount Herman?
In the bible, mountains and high places are synonymous with the majesty and dominion of God. He gave Moses those Commandments on Mount Sinai. Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Elijah challenged the priests of Bal on mount Carmel. The temple was built on Mount Zion. Jesus was crucified on Mount Calvary and ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives.
Even now, it’s common for those who want to get in touch with the nearness of God to go to the mountains and high places. Many of you will know that our own +Mark loves going there, and Fr Tad the priest in Fochabers climbs Munros and high places to find God, rest and refreshment.
I admire them and wish I could be more like them – to break away, go up on a mountain and spend time alone with God in prayer. To be honest such places scare me, I find excuses not to go – I’m not fit enough, I’m too busy, too old. But my gut feeling is that we would benefit from time up there, or simply on our own equivalent personal mountaintop – listening for that still small voice.
Some enjoy retreats, perhaps at Pluscarden. Perhaps for Gill it’s in her caravan retreat, for Rev Christopher it’s getting away on a bicycle – for me it’s out into landscapes and churches to take photographs. This evening we are in an upper room!
Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain. He was bathed in the light. We know about Moses on Mount Sinai and now here’s Jesus on Mount Herman – what is it that’s so apparent about those who’ve been in God’s presence? Perhaps such people are around us all the time – but we are so used to them being there and doing what they do in their own quiet way that we just don’t see them.
Recently I was in Tesco and spotted two nuns from the convent in Elgin simply shopping. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention but on this day there was something striking about them. Their clothing – their habits – really shone out brighter than bright – their faces had a radiance – they had a quiet positive aura of joy and peace which reached out to me. And something drew me to them – to say ‘The Lord be with you’ and thank them for their presence and the work that they do here. They blessed me in return and I think they were both surprised and pleased that I had acknowledged them. We all need encouragement!
In religious art saints are often depicted with a circle or aura behind them, meant to represent their holiness. It also reveals that those who walked with God, glow with the radiance of His presence.
Throughout scripture, light is a symbol of God, so that whenever we come into His presence, we’re filled with the light of His love and, like a prism, that radiance is reflected and refracted through us to illumine and enlighten others. The closer that we walk with God then the brighter will be our path, and our light for others to follow.
As Jesus prayed to God and his appearance was changed, he was joined by Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets of the Jewish faith. The voice from the cloud said ‘This is my beloved son, listen to him’! So if there was any question as to who Jesus was, there was no mystery about it now – He’s the Christ, the son of God.
The disciples were bewildered, awe struck. Peter said “Master, let’s make tents for you, Moses and Elijah. Perhaps he was trying to hold on to the experience.
However, there was more to it than that. The booths recall the Feast of Booths, one of 3 major festivals of the Jewish Faith. It was a thanksgiving celebration observed each year at the completion of harvest.
But importantly, it marked a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel – and with faith, we can now see that his transfiguration is a new covenant being established in Jesus Christ – a covenant that will be symbolised for all time, not by booths – but by the Cross at Calvary.
Peter wanted to build booths but Jesus said no. And just like that it was over. The cloud, Moses and Elijah vanished and Jesus was left alone with his disciples.
Mountain top experiences are important, to be remembered but perhaps they’re not meant to last forever – we use what we’ve experienced – to be renewed – and to change!
And this is a truth we all need to remember. Whether our religious experience is a long slow climb, or like that of Paul, who was blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus; or John Wesley, who felt his heart strangely warmed at Aldersgate.
The real test of Christianity is not the ecstasy of the mountain top experience, but the life we live thereafter, the love, care and compassion that we show for others in the valley below. Jesus met that test didn’t he! For no sooner had he got down off the mountain than he was met by a woman with a sick child, who begged for his mercy and healing kindness – even for Christ the glory of the mountaintop was short-lived – and life went on.
But the transfiguration was a turning point in his life – no longer would he continue his ministry in Galilee, his hour had come, and so he set off for Jerusalem.
We too are transfigured in the presence of God, and in our life with Christ. So, when we come down from our own personal mountaintop experience, how will we change when we walk in the valley with people we know, and importantly, those we don’t know?
What seeds of hope can we sow and where will they land. Will it make a difference to us – and to others? Will we use our imagination and break the chains that bind us in ‘old ways and prejudices’.
Well, do things really change – can we change? “How long, O Lord, how long?” is the cry of a Hebrew poet thousands of years ago. It’s a cry that burns in the heart, and from the lips of those who look at the world and weep at yet another tragedy – and there is much to weep about in our world today. There seems to be an increase in racist and hate incidents in our own country and abroad, with people being abused, even killed.
Maybe we are good at keeping such sentiments under the surface, until they are given sanction by the erosion of the social inhibitors that normally keep them in check. But racism, prejudice and hate rarely begin as a screaming campaign of violence, coming out of nowhere; they start as a seed that gets watered by silence, rumour and mis-information.
So what’s the answer? Do Christians have an antidote to all that? Well, we can start with – “love others as ourselves”! You may think of others?
One of the stories Jesus told is pertinent here. The place where God is to be found is like a mustard seed – tiny, easy to tread on. Yet, where it takes root – hidden from sight – it has the potential to grow into a tree whose branches offer a place of refuge and a home for the birds of the air.
But those branches don’t get to choose which birds make their nests among them. Could it be that our nation is a great tree and we are the seeds and branches – can our imagination, faith and trust take us that far? This is a picture not just of hospitality, but of nurture.
For if racism and violence grow from small seeds that are allowed to take root in the hearts and minds of our children, then it is equally true that these will be challenged, indeed they have to be challenged, not by wishful silence, but by the planting, watering and nurturing of seeds that grow hope, commitment and love.
I speak from experience having been brought up in N Ireland to literally hate and shun ‘the other side’. Christ is still at work on my transfiguration – changing my bad seed to one that is more worthy of him.
It is not enough to dig up the bad seed; a good one has to be planted in its place.
And this is where I would like to end – simply by saying that for us to celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus, is to renew our commitment to him – to recognise him as the Son of God and the Lord and Saviour of our lives – for us to be transfigured – changed – and to be ready, like the mustard seed, to grow where our Lord places us in His Kingdom.
It’s to sing with Charles Wesley, ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true, the only light, sun of righteousness, arise, triumph o’er the shades of night; Dayspring from on high, be near, daystar in my heart appear’.
And it’s to pray without ceasing, ‘Visit, then this soul of mine; pierce the gloom of sin and grief; fill me radiancy divine, scatter all my unbelief; More and more thyself display, shining to the perfect day.
May the Lord increase our understanding of His Holy Word.