It’s about the divine meeting humanity
On 23rd Feb 2020 - the feast of the Transfiguration - Pete Stevenson gave the homily at Christ Church.
Mountains feature a lotin today’s readings. Moses on Mt Sinai, where he encounters God giving him the 10 commandments; Psalm 2, "I myself have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion." Let me announce the decree of the Lord: he said to me, "You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. Which is similar to the words Peter James and John heard during the transfiguration. Then Mathew’s Gospel reading describing the transfiguration. Mountains can be special places and it’s where Jesus revealed his divinity to a few chosen disciples. This Sunday is the last in epiphany and I will be using the word as a metaphor, for a light bulb moment, when we see the light, when things suddenly make more sense.
I had a work colleague who was quite evangelical about his atheism, according to him, everything could be explained by physics, chemistry or evolutionary forces. We were working in Scotland once and had a day off in the middle where we decided to tramp up a mountain. We got to the top, admired the sort of view that only Scotland can give; whereupon my atheist colleague asked himself ‘so why do I find it beautiful?’ I like to think it was a little epiphany for him. Not everything is explained by science.
The Transfiguration should have been an epiphany moment for Peter James and John with Moses representing the old law of the 10 commandments, Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Then Jesus came saying ‘You have heard it said...but I say unto you’, old testament laws about adultery, revenge, murder... and more that Mary touched on last week.
We might question why Elijah was there and not, for instance, Isaiah whose prophecies could relate to the Messiah. May be it was because Elijah was more of an itinerant prophet going from place to place. Commentators also relate the prophecy form Malachi about the coming of Elijah before the Messiah comes. A mischievous question I have, why is the transfiguration not recorded in John’s Gospel since John was there, this demonstration of God becoming man? The most common answer is, the whole of John’s gospel is about God becoming man and he didn’t see the need to include the transfiguration. In the opening chapter of John 1:14; The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of
grace and truth.
Another question, why didn’t Jesus take all the disciples? Throughout the gospels we read of Peter and the brothers James and John being especially close to Jesus, they were the only ones allowed in when Jesus brings Jarius’ daughter back to life, they are the only one Jesus wanted with him in the garden of Gethsemane. We have friends, but we have particular friends we will only share particular experiences. I think it’s all evidence of Jesus’ absolute humanity and this is what I want to concentrate on this morning. The divine and humanity meet.
Back in January Vestry and spouses met to enjoy a meal together. Since Father Thomas Meyers was with us that weekend, he was invited too and I sat next to him. Over the meal I asked him, what made you go into the priesthood? He answered ‘it’s what I’ve always wanted to do’, and went on to describe how, as a young man, he had an epiphany of what the transfiguration was about and I explained, well that’s interesting because in a month’s time I’m due to give a homily on that very reading, tell me more! What happened next I found fascinating/inspiring; he turned his chair towards me, looked at me with a smile and said ‘it’s about the divine meeting humanity, it brought me up in goose bumps, it still does, I’ve got them now!’
The divine meeting humanity. There is a cartoon of a church running a soup kitchen. In it there are the kindly ladies ladling out hot soup to the homeless who are queuing patiently with their bowls. Jesus is also in the cartoon and you might expect him to be behind the trestle tables ladling out the soup. But he isn’t, he’s in the middle of the queue patiently waiting holding his bowl. John 1:14, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling
In our efforts to be a saintly, to be salt of the earth and light of the world, (a subject of our last ChristKidz service), it possible to get a little ahead of ourselves. When we see someone in need, we may ask ‘how can I help you?’ and unwittingly may put ourselves higher than them; how can I (up here) help you (down there). The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us; the soup kitchen cartoon. Don’t dissect that too much or you might be in danger of doing nothing at all! But for example, if we need to comfort someone who’s grieving, the last thing they want is our explanation of why God allows suffering, equally, phrases like ‘God only takes the best’ don’t help much either. On the other hand, just being there and acknowledging their elephant in the room that others are avoiding can be helpful and if you have nothing useful to say, say nothing. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus got tired, irritated, frustrated, angry, all the things we relate to and think God doesn’t. If the Old Testament laws were like a manual saying do this and you’ll all be fine, part of the Gospel message is about being shown how. Imagine trying to learn to drive a car from a manual of words. Or riding a bike without an adult running behind steadying the saddle in a wide open grassy park?
During the witnessing of the transfiguration, Peter is so captivated that he wants to stay there, who knows, maybe forever, but that is denied them and they come back down to face chaos with an epileptic child the other disciples try to heal but fail. Sometime after the transfiguration comes the Garden of Gethsemane when he same three disciples fall asleep, then flee when Jesus is arrested. Then comes Peter’s denial. Even though they have witnessed something as dramatic as the transfiguration, it’s not enough to build a robust and long lasting faith. If we compared our stories, there would be some whose journey into faith was gradual and others could tell of an epiphany, a road to Damascus type of conversion, or figuratively (who knows, maybe literally) seeing a transfiguration. Whatever, the experience is not going to carry us for long.
So what purpose to Mountain top experiences serve? A truly inspiring sermon, a worshipful experience which might reduce you to tears or your knees, where, for a moment, you truly see a new horizon of God’s goodness and truth you had never seen before. They are good, very good, but they are not the answer; they’re not something to be chased in the way a storm chaser is looking out for the next dramatic storm. But they can be a foothold along the way. A point where we look back and say ‘we met God’. In the reading from 2 Peter; ‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty...”This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him.’ The author is saying, this really happened.
Acknowledge your own mountain top experiences did happen and use them to move on. They can be simple events. In my lifetime I must have listened to over 4000 sermons, including a few from Billy Graham. I can’t remember any of them, including my own! But I do remember one or two worship songs where I felt God was there for me and with me, nothing dramatic, no huge choirs. Usually I’ve felt God’s message to me has been ‘Come on Pete, we can do this’.
So, mountain top experiences; make the most of them acknowledge that God is meeting with you, but you can’t stay there! Lent begins this Wednesday. It’s not too late to sign up to 40 Acts, https://40acts.org.uk/ there is work to do! The divine meets the human to dwell amongst us.