Last Sunday was what we call in the Church of England the Sunday next before Lent. It is also known as Transfiguration Sunday, hence the theme of my sermon. We had a baptism during the service which I mentioned in the sermon – I’ve removed the name of the baby being baptised.
I don’t know about you, but personally I’ve not climbed many mountains in my life. Well, strictly speaking I don’t suppose I can claim to have climbed any, since I always take the easy route – train or chairlift.
I remember in particular the time when we took the train to the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales during a holiday, and although Jesus and his companions walked to the top of their mountain, we had a similar experience at the top – we were overshadowed by cloud. It was a gloriously sunny day. No clouds in sight. An ideal day for going up a mountain – the views, we assumed, would be spectacular. The train set off on its journey to the summit – and it was about a hundred feet up that we entered the cloud. And this was no ordinary cloud. All the way up it rained, it was freezing, and the wind was so bad that it was impossible to keep the cold and the wet out of the carriages. At the summit station the children flatly refused to climb the short path to the actual summit of the mountain. They kept warm in the station whileAnne-Marieand I braved the elements and climbed the last few feet – I’m not quite sure why, since the only view we got was about six feet in front of us, since it was so dark and the rain was pouring down.
I said that, like Jesus and his companions, we were overshadowed with cloud. In fact the word Mark uses doesn’t really mean “overshadowed” – its true meaning were we to translate it accurately is “overwhelmed” – and that’s exactly how we felt: overwhelmed. We struggled back down the path and back to the station. The weather was so bad at the top that there were parties of walkers who had climbed up – assuming that the weather was suitable, since it was at the bottom – who were desperate to get back down by train. We were relieved to be able to take the train back down – and about 100 feet from the bottom we emerged out of the cloud back into normal and gloriously sunny weather.
I wonder what was going through the minds of Peter and James and John as they climbed the mountain with Jesus. He hadn’t told them the reason for the journey. Perhaps, like us as we thought about going upSnowdon, they were thinking about the view from the top. We don’t know, sinceMarkgives us little to go on, but they certainly weren’t prepared for the experience that they got at the top. For at the top something amazing happened. We call this event “The Transfiguration”, and usually see it as something that happened to Jesus. But in reality the Transfiguration is something that happened to those three disciples.
To have a clear idea of what is going on – what Peter and James and John were experiencing – we need to remember two things. Firstly, throughout Scripture mountains are seen as places where people have an encounter with God. It is on a mountain, for example, that God gives the Law toMoses. In Mark’s gospel it is on a mountain that Jesus calls his disciples and it is on a mountain that Jesus goes to pray. Secondly, throughout the scriptures, a cloud symbolizes the presence of God, beginning with the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness by day. The most obvious parallel with our gospel reading today is the cloud that covered Mount Sinai when Moses ascended it.
And what happens to Peter and James and John are that at the moment of Transfiguration they have a vision of who Jesus really is, as he is shown in all his glory. And they see him talking to Moses and Elijah. It is an affirmation for them that he is who he appears to be, and that although at this point they do not understand how things must turn out – how Jesus must suffer and die and rise from the dead – he is the promised Messiah. And then they are overwhelmed by the cloud – symbolic of God’s presence – and God speaks to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him”.
Listen to him. Listen, says God, to my Son.
This event takes places just six days after a visit to Caesarea Philippi. And at Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked the disciples what people were saying about him. He wanted them to tell him who people thought he was: ‘What’s the gossip about me, then?’ And it was Peter who, at the end of the discussion said to him, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ And now Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain. While there, Jesus’ appearance is transfigured. They are shown in the most dramatic way that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. And then they hear the voice of God: ‘This is my Son, listen to him.’ Don’t bother listening to anyone else – just listen to Jesus.’
And that, in a nutshell, is what God is saying to each of us this morning. Don’t listen to anyone else – just listen to Jesus. The Church and Christianity have been much in the news over the last couple of weeks or so. First we had the National Secular Society bringing its case to prevent prayers being said at council meetings. Then Richard Dawkins published a survey which, he said, supported his view that Christianity was irrelevant because so many people who called themselves Christians didn’t go to church or didn’t take doctrine or the Bible literally.
And then the Queen began the fight back – reminding us all when she spoke to a gathering of faith leaders of the importance of maintaining the Christian heritage that we have in this country. And Baroness Warsi, a muslim who has just been to see the Pope, said the same to him. And now today, in our gospel reading, God reminds us – don’t listen to those who reject the message of my Son Jesus – just listen to him and you’ll be fine.
In a moment we will be sharing in a baptism. We will be going down to the font as N, supported by her parents and godparents, becomes a member of the Church. It’s an important moment in N’s life, as promises are made on her behalf about following Jesus. We promise today to ensure that as she grows up she also grows in the Christian faith. Now, in spite of what Richard Dawkins says about people who think of themselves as Christians – in the Church of England we do not promise at baptism to go to church every Sunday, we do not promise that we believe every word of the Bible literally. What we promise is that we will turn to Christ – that as we journey through life his is the voice that we want to guide us. Whatever that voice may mean, whatever that voice may say to us, in our own individual circumstances.
Today, we will ask that through her life N will know that voice. But it’s also an opportunity for all of us to remind ourselves of the importance of listening to that voice. And so when we come to the part of the baptism called The Decision we will all – not just N’s parents and godparents – join in the responses. We will together say to God, ‘Yes, we want to listen to Jesus.’
This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.