A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 23 February 2020 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
Each year, on this Sunday next before Lent, we have the theme of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The hearing of this wonderful story, and the preaching of it, can prepare us for the challenges and austerity of the Season of Lent, shortly to come upon us on Ash Wednesday.
The story of the Transfiguration is told in the first three Gospels. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain to pray, taking with him his closest disciples – Peter, James and John. On the mountain top the three disciples are granted a vision of Jesus in glory, and especially the nature of his divinity. Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter wants the two visitors to remain with Jesus, and he offers to build each of them a tent. A cloud descends upon the mountain and a voice from the cloud echoes the words heard at the Baptism of Jesus – that he is God’s son. Here, on the Mount of Transfiguration, everyone must listen to his words.
This beautiful story is a reference point in the Gospel narrative for everyone involved.
It is a reference point for Jesus. In each of the Gospels there is the Confession of St Peter, about a week earlier, at Caesarea Philippi, in which he declares that Jesus is none other than the Christ, the anointed one, of God. Jesus sees his ministry and the journey that he must undertake, ending with suffering and death, as something planned and necessary to fulfil the prophecy of Scripture.
The reference point also applies to the disciples who, in the months to come, experience many hardships and difficulties. As they remember back to the experience of the Transfiguration, they can be reassured in their minds of the true identity of Jesus as the divine Son of God. The journey to the cross, which is shared by Jesus and his companions, becomes a road full of pitfalls and potential disasters; but, in spite of it all, the loving purpose of God for his Son shines through.
And there is a reference point for us who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Our lives, just like the lives of the disciples, are also full of moments of potential disaster, pain and virtual despair. We also have the vision of the glorified Jesus before us, especially living now, after the Resurrection. The vision of the glorified Christ can give us the reassurance of God’s love for us and everyone as we also journey carrying our own cross. In the pain and desolation, the ugliness and utter darkness of human existence, shines the clear bright light of God and his endless love and care for all his children.
Peter wanted to make the experience of the Transfiguration permanent.
We can see that he was foolish to think like that. The vision of Christ in glory was to be transitory – it could never be kept separate from continuing human life. The disciples were to join Jesus in his descent from the mountain to the plain where they continued their normal lives. Today, pilgrims to the Holy Land, follow the same pattern. Having ascended the mountain (usually Mount Tabor) and seen a glimpse of the glory remembered there, we return to the everyday world in which we live, but carrying with us a vision which gives us a continuous reminder of Christ’s glory and the abiding light and love of our heavenly Father.
The richness of this story includes the past, present and future – and it is one of Glory.
Moses and Elijah are seen speaking with Jesus. There is a link between Jesus and the Old Testament figure of Moses, the Law Giver. Elijah can be understood as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, especially with the work and mission of John the Baptist, believed by many to be the figure of Elijah returned to Earth. Jesus is present in his earthly ministry. Now, on the mountain, the heavenly glory of Jesus is shown. Some scholars see this showing as relating to the End Time – the Parousia, when Jesus will shine with a heavenly light as he returns to Earth, coming on the clouds of heaven.
This bright radiance with which Jesus shines, is the same light experienced by Moses when he communed with God on Mount Sinai. You may remember that Moses had to cover his face with a veil when he came down the mountain and spoke with his fellow humans. It is the light which filled Solomon’s Temple at its Dedication, and also illuminated the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. That same light shone on the Damascus Road at St Paul’s conversion. It is the ‘Glory of God’, sometimes described at the Shekinah.
I love the way in which the Shekinah is portrayed in Christian art.
In the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field outside Bethlehem, there are beautiful murals depicting the traditional Christmas scene. Two particular images stand out. One is of the shepherds out in the field with their sheep – they are showered by the heavenly light of the angels, the Shekinah. Then, there is another scene of the Shekinah of God showering the same light onto the shepherds – but this time from the Star. For me, this is a wonderful way of merging the glory of God shown by angels and the Star, which are separated in different Gospels in the New Testament, but united through the motif of the Shekinah.
St Paul writes on unveiled glory in his Second Letter to the Church in Corinth:
…it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4.6.)
I conclude with a summary and an invitation.
The summary is written by Michael Ramsey:
Though Mark does not dwell upon the pre-existence of Christ, his gospel is the gospel of the Son of God. Beside the contrast between the future events of the Passion and the Parousia there is the ever-present contrast between the Divine Sonship and the earthly ministry wherein the Divine Son is hidden and humiliated. On the mount of Transfiguration a veil is withdrawn, and the glory which the disciples are allowed to see is not only the glory of a future event, but the glory of Him who is the Son of God.
The invitation is from Br. Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Today, as on the day of your baptism, allow God to re-clothe you, to transform you, to transfigure you, that like Christ, you too may shine forth “in raiments dazzling white.”