Sermon for the Sunday before Lent: Peace – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 27 February 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (2 Corinthians Ch 2: v 12 – Ch 4: v 2; Luke Ch 9: 28 – 43a)

Some 60 years ago the first Russian cosmonaut, Yury Gagarin returned from his space trip and it was said that he declared that he had not seen God. However, it is also alleged that Gagarin never actually said those words and that the phrase originated from a speech made by Nikita Khrushchev referencing the space trip. Of such material do legends spring. Whatever the truth of the matter, Christians were surprised – not by the failure to see God but by the assumption that, just because we talk about heaven being up there, we mean it literally. For a start, since we live on a spherical planet, we know that “up” for us is diametrically opposed to “up” for those living in the southern hemisphere. All the same, height has been important for many civilisations. Indeed, many religions have found spiritual exaltation in mountains and special value in great height.

The Egyptians built pyramids and aligned them with the stars – the great pyramid of Giza even had a shaft pointing to the star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, possibly because they thought this would allow the soul of the Pharaoh to reach the stars and join the gods. You can’t get much higher than the galaxies and constellations. The Mayans created great buildings which seemed to replicate the form of distant mountains. The Greeks placed the home of their gods on Mount Olympus. As for the Bible, well, early on we have the story of the tower of Babel – a human construction which soared up into the heavens and so implicitly approached the home of God himself. The story registers the alarm of the Lord who is said to perceive that, human beings working together would be able to achieve great enterprises and so puts an end to cooperation by giving them lots of different languages.

In the book Exodus God summons Moses to the top of Mt Sinai for the giving of the 10 commandments and various other laws and rules.

Later on, in the Old Testament in 1 Kings, Elijah flees for his life and ends up at another mountain, Mt Horeb where he is made aware of God’s presence in a particular and special way. He is then given a prophetic commission. Mountains then have been symbols of God’s heavenly home but just that – a symbol.

Now, as we are but a few days from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, our Gospel reading gives us Jesus going up a mountain. He climbs up with his inner core of disciples and allows them to experience with him a marvellous spiritual event which we call the Transfiguration. The disciples perceive the presence of Moses and Elijah and traditionally these two are seen as representing the Law and the Prophets.

The top of the mountain gives us the first of a series of contrasts in the account. This one is the contrast between the height of the mountain with the low ground level at the bottom. Then we have the wonder of the spiritual experience contrasted with the failure of the disciples once they were back in normal life again. The quiet and peace of the mountain top contrasts with the noisy throng at its foot; the exaltation of prayer contrasted with the problems to be faced once ordinary life was again encountered. Christ’s relationship with God was unveiled on the height and concealed again on the lower ground. Which experience was the more real do you think?

To us earthbound mortals what we see and hear and touch seems most real to us while the spiritual appears ephemeral. Many in the West would judge the tangible to be worth pursuing and they pour their talents into acquiring more and more while they accuse those who find meaning in religion and worship as peddling illusions. A low value is placed on churches therefore and fewer attend services in the West as a materialistic philosophy and outlook spread.

What Christians maintain is that the material world is unreliable and will ultimately let people down whereas the spiritual is real and of priceless value.

We read in Exodus that when Moses came down from the mountain his face shone – the people assumed it was because he had been in close contact with God. So Moses put a veil over his face and only removed it on further trips up the mountain. St. Paul repurposes the image to speak of the Jews as having a veil which concealed the truth to be found in Jesus so that their understanding was compromised. Only by turning to Jesus would the veil be removed and the light of truth shine out.

We come to church to strengthen our links with God and strip the veil from our minds. Services with the words of the liturgy and the inspiration of music help us up the mountain so that we may share in Christ’s transfiguration and worship him. We can again be made aware of where true reality lies.

But down we come again and have to wrestle with the noisy clamouring world where things don’t work as we would wish. Even a short interruption in the electricity supply can stop so many of our gadgets and labour-saving appliances from working. There is a tug of war between generating the electricity we need to heat our homes and run our machines and the search for ways of doing that without contributing to climate change.

Even worse there can be so little peace in our world, so much violence and tragedy. Our minds are filled with news from the Ukraine and we are outraged by the accounts of death and injury which are always the consequences of war and battle. We pray for our leaders as they wrestle with difficult decisions and are aware of how little influence we can bring to bear. The Archbishops have issued a letter which begins:

“Many of us will have troubled hearts as we watch with horror the attack by Russia on Ukraine. As we have already said, this attack is an act of evil, imperilling as it does the relative peace and security that Europe has enjoyed for so long. The attack by one nation on a free, democratic country has rightly provoked outrage, sanctions and condemnation.

We lament with the people of Ukraine, and we pray for the innocent, the frightened and those who have lost loved ones, homes, and family. We continue to call for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces as well as wide-ranging efforts to ensure peace, stability and security.”

Christ brought the deep prayer of the mountain top to bare on the child with convulsions so that his agitation was quelled and replaced with a deep peace. We need that deep peace of Christ’s prayer in our lives too so that we may share in his transfiguring experience.