What I said this Sunday – Sunday next before Lent

Here’s my sermon for the Sunday before Lent, often known as Transfiguration Sunday.

Matthew 17.1-9

There is a sign on the wall in the fracture clinic in East Surrey Hospital. It begins “I love the NHS” in that annoying way where someone thinks it’s really clever to replace the word love with a red heart.

And then – and here’s a test to see how much you can remember from the English grammar you learned at school – goes on (and my apologies to anyone here who works for the NHS) to use the techniques of hyperbole and antithesis to get across the point it wants to make to those apparently very wicked people who miss their appointment but don’t let anyone know. And who presumably aren’t there to read the sign in any case.

It begins with hyperbole – that’s the term for exaggerating something in order to make a point: “If you miss your appointment you are letting everyone down.” Everyone? Including themselves perhaps? The Prime Minister? Mr and Mrs Smith of 42 Acacia Avenue, Thornton Heath? Me? Hardly! I certainly don’t feel let down if someone misses their appointment and I suspect they don’t either.
Then it moves into antithesis – stating the opposite of what is actually the case. Missing your appointment, it says, “means longer waits, wasted staff time, wasted money.” Actually, since we all know that the time of an appointment is actually the beginning of a long wait, with a nurse popping out every once in a while to apologise that “we’re sorry that we’re now running two hours late” the knowledge that someone has missed their appointment is surely a cause for celebration as it means your wait won’t be so long. And presumably far from wasting staff time they’ll actually get home sooner.

Don’t you just love the NHS!

Back to hyperbole and antithesis in a moment, as we look at today’s gospel reading. Today’s gospel tells us of the event that we call The Transfiguration. Let’s begin by giving the events some context.
Verse 1 of Matthew chapter 7 actually begins with the words “Six days later… Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John.” Six days later than what? In fact, this is six days after Simon’s great confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has been asking the disciples who people think he is? And then he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” And it is Simon who replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (which is Greek for rock,) and on this rock I will build my church.” And here we are, six days later, with Jesus being transfigured on a mountain in front of his three closest friends – an event that seems pretty far removed from the way of suffering and the cross that Jesus has been telling his disciples in inevitable.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit the Holy Land, your itinerary probably included a trip up the mountain of the Transfiguration, which traditionally is Mount Tabor in Galilee – first recorded as such in the third century. Mount Tabor even gets a mention in our offertory hymn this morning. It’s a spectacular sight, rising from the plain 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, and the views from the top are amazing. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint those of you who have been there, but it’s extremely unlikely that Mount Tabor was the sight of the Transfiguration. And for two reasons. Firstly, remember that Jesus and the disciples have been in Caesarea Philippi, which was some way to the north of Galilee in Gentile country – nowhere near Mount Tabour. And secondly, anyone going up Mount Tabor at the time of Jesus would have found themselves, not in the peace and quiet of a mountain summit, but in the middle of a fortified city.

The probable site was Mount Hermon, much further to the north and on the border between Syria and Lebanon today, the highest and only snow-capped mountain in Palestine and which dominated the area. The best explanation that I have come across for people believing that Mount Tabor was the actual site is that when pilgrims began to visit the Holy Land in the third century, locals – as with locals everywhere always looking to make a bit of money out of the tourists – soon worked out that Mount Tabor was nearer to Jerusalem and a much easier climb than Mount Hermon. So pilgrims were taken to Mount Tabor and told “This is where it happened!”

Well, whichever mountain top it happened on, this is where Jesus resorted to using hyperbole and antithesis, though in a visual rather than a verbal way. Remember that Simon – now called Peter – has just made his great declaration of faith at Caeserea Philippi. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps the others weren’t quite as sure as Peter, and needed convincing. Well, whatever Jesus’ reasons for taking the three men up a mountain, he shows them in the most spectacular way imaginable that he is who he says he is. This isn’t just hyperbole – this is hyper-hyperbole! And by appearing with Moses and Elijah – who represent the Law and the Prophets – he was determined to leave them in no doubt about his divinity and his mission.

And yet, this remarkable event seems to be the very antithesis of what Jesus has been saying about his ministry, and about how he must suffer and die. Immediately after describing this event, Matthew goes on to tell us how Jesus from that time on tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed before being raised. And then he tells them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ The ministry of Jesus – and the ministry of those who would be his followers – is a ministry carried out in the shadow of the cross and not a ministry spent basking in the light of glory. For that, we must wait until this life is over.

The Transfiguration is a moment, a glimpse of the divine in the midst of the harsh reality of everyday life as a disciple of Jesus. On the one hand it affirms for the disciples the divinity of Jesus. and on the other it begins to give the disciples eyes to see God’s light in the chaos to come: death, loss, fear and resurrection, the work of the early church. It invited the disciples, as Saint Paul put it in his second letter to the Corinthians, to live in

“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).

For in a way the Transfiguration offers the disciples a paradox. There is absolutely nothing they can do to save themselves from the suffering that the followers of Christ must endure. But there is also no way that they can shield themselves from the light of God that will continue to shine into their darkest moments. As Maryetta Anschutz puts it in her comment upon this passage:

“The mountain was the way for God to prepare a human band of companions for the sacred journey, to offer something to hold onto when they descend into the crushing world below.”

And the Transfiguration has the same purpose for us. For we too must follow the same course as the disciples. Just as for the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, there comes that moment when each of us must answer the question put by Jesus: ‘who do you say that I am?’ Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it:

‘who is Jesus Christ for us today?’

And if we answer as Peter and say, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ then we must accept, like the disciples, the reality that bearing a cross means for us. For Jesus makes it clear that true discipleship means taking up the cross and the suffering that goes with it, not building glorious churches and cathedrals and constantly having fun in church.

We follow Jesus on the way of the cross – that is our calling. But the Transfiguration is for us, as well as for Peter and James and John, a sign that no matter how dark the shadow of suffering and the cross may feel in this life, the light of the divine Jesus will always shine into it – and will continue to shine for ever once we pass through the gateway of death and enter the eternal glory of heaven.