Sermon for the Sunday before Lent: A mountainous task – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 19 February 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (2 Peter Ch 1: v 16 – end; Matthew Ch 17: v 1 – 9)
Some little while ago when preaching a sermon at Castleton Church I happened to mention the Mayan city of Chichen itza which was constructed in the Yucatan peninsula, thinking that this was perhaps rather an exotic illustration of the point I was making. There is a Temple there, also called a castle, which has 4 stairways each with 91 steps and a final platform at the top making one for each day of the year. You can imagine my surprise when, after the service, a lady, perhaps not as nimble as once she had been, approached me and said: “It’s years since I climbed the steps of the Temple at Chichen itza.”
Over the years a number of Mayan buildings have been rescued from their hiding place in the dense jungle and one theory suggests that the tall castle like structures were built in imitation of the mountain ranges on the horizon.
Hills and mountains seem to have had an attraction amongst a number of different peoples and religions. Some of the Old Testament stories centre on high mountainous places – Moses received the stone tablets containing the 10 commandments on a mountain – mount Sinai and Elijah had an encounter with God on mount Horeb – probably another name for the same mountain but derived from a different textual tradition.
The high hills played an important part in the New Testament too and a number of times we are told that Jesus went up a hill to pray. He took himself away from the hustle and bustle of life in the plains and valleys and found peace in the hills so that he could think and search for God’s answer to the difficulties he faced and the decisions he had to make.
So it is that the Transfiguration took place on a high mountain and was a particularly significant experience for it came at a turning point in the life of Jesus. Until this time his ministry had progressed with varying success. He had taught the people, trained his band of disciples and healed the sick. But now Jesus seems to have come to the conclusion that his Messiahship was going to involve his own suffering and death. This was completely opposed to popular expectation which saw the Messiah as bringing about a triumphal victory. The disciples clearly find it difficult to understand or accept Jesus’ rejection of that triumphalist scenario. Peter’s words of rebuke at Caesarea Philippi, the disciples argument over who was going to be awarded the chief places in God’s kingdom – a sort of divine ministerial cabinet – all show the way their minds were working.
This particular time in his life was critical then as he takes his 3 closest disciples up the mountain to be with him in prayer and thus enable them to share for a brief moment in his spiritual experience and to see with his eyes. Perhaps such an experience is impossible to describe in words and so the account is filled with meaning through its symbolism. Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus representing the Law and the Prophets. Elijah it was who was expected to reappear as the forerunner of the Messiah. The OT describes how Moses and Elijah had each spoken with God on the mountain and how Moses’ face had shone with a golden glow after the experience.
The cloud which envelopes Jesus and the disciples also has a long OT history behind it, though it was the prophet Ezekiel who especially developed it. It was both a sign of the presence of God but also a way of veiling that presence from human sight since no one could look on the face of God and live. The ‘glory of God’ is in effect the phrase used to express that which people can perceive of the presence God on earth. Throughout the NT Christ is presented as the glory of God made visible on earth to those whose eyes are opened to see it. You will remember how St. John’s gospel frequently speaks of glory and how, for example, he writes about the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana of Galilee as “the first of the signs which revealed his glory.” At the transfiguration the cloud suffused with the brightest of light is a sign of that glory.
Peter summed up the reaction of the disciples to the transfiguration by his desire to build 3 shelters, as at the Feast of the Tabernacles, as though to make permanent this manifestation. But it was unnecessary and premature because before Christ’s glory can be permanently realised there must be the way of suffering and crucifixion. Today’s NT reading from 2 peter provides us with an insight into how the 3 disciples perceived the events on the mountain.
The Transfiguration, then, is an important link between the second part of the earthly ministry of Jesus with his resurrection while it also provides a bridge between the Old Testament and the New.
The Transfiguration speaks to us too for it reminds us of the spiritual dimension to all that we do in this life. We know that the material and temporal is destined to pass away. Our machines and our technology go wrong – they break down and require constant maintenance. So it is hard for us to live with an eye on the divine but that is what Lent call us to do and that time of prayer and reflection begins in a few short days on Ash Wednesday. It is all too easy to become so involved in everyday things that they absorb our time and attention and leave no room for what is much more important. But if we are open to the spiritual possibilities of our lives than we find God present with us and begin to see his transfiguring power at work. He alone can change what we do, and he alone can affect all that we are, so that we are prepared for the new life of his kingdom.
Lent may seem rather mountainous in the demands it makes but in truth we don’t need to climb a mountain or even the steps of Chichen itza. We just need to place ourselves in God’s hands and look to him to transfigure our lives and help us prepare for the Easter triumph as we share with Jesus in his resurrection.