Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
26th Feb 2017
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year A
“And he was transfigured before them” Matthew 17.2
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Matthew, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and wonder and draws us into itself, rather like an icon. Here, with Peter, James and John we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. This is a meeting with the Jesus who is becoming Christ. To experience such things is to witness God’s own glory. In dazzling imagery, the poet Hopkins describes this as something of shock:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
This glory of God is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals within it a terrible dark secret amid the thick shadow and dark cloud of the world’s unknowing. The secret is the one which points us to the stark reality of the Cross. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, a comforting hymn by and large, there comes a strong sense of foreboding. this Transfiguration Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a solemn key text for the Sunday before Lent, even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August. It speaks of that word ‘Redemption’, which is only to be won, as we already know, through Christ’s suffering and death:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
To see Christ’s glory is to own the sacrifice of his life unto death. This stands for the encapsulation of Christian faith and witness. And in that witness lies the full weight of Jesus’ ministry with the seriousness of human suffering; of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness in the experience of pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. The God who reveals himself is a vital God, whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword:
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder, then that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. The disciples are big on consolation and they want to stay on the mountain which is a supreme kind of comfort zone. The mountain is both a place of revelation and a necessary and challenging point of departure. The paradox lies in the God who draws you unto Himself and send you (perhaps unwillingly) out. This is the truth for us and for God and there is no other. The life of God is to be found beyond your own need for mere maintenance.
The power of God’s glory is the one which is transformative for our lives and not dormant.
As we approach the beginning of Lent The Church is igniting in the life of the faithful the acceptance of this challenging truth. To witness the Transfiguration of Christ is to witness the being drawn in with awe and wonder and the being called out in readiness to trace the pattern of his redemption in our own lives. We are being beckoned by the words of the disciple Thomas,
Let us go with him, that we might die with him. (John 11.16)
We have a great Lent leaflet this year which is packed with a lot if suggestions to help you through Lent, from suggested reading, to forms of Bible study and prayer, to an invitation to come to Stations of the Cross, to Lent Groups and so on. As your Church we want you to be helped to keep a good Lent. More than any other part of the Church’s year, Lent is a significant period of time, and a time too which is distinctly ‘set apart’. It is time for you to respond to what God is giving you in Jesus Chris. To inhabit the place of the revelation of God’s love is to go with it, or rather to go with Jesus Christ.
The suggestions in the leaflet are just that, but some (or one) of them may strike you as worthwhile. The great preachers and writers have always warned against an excess of duty over and above and the contemplation of the love of Jesus Himself in silence and in awe and wonder. But there is a balance and we shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to work at our apathy, either. Perhaps we approach the Transfiguration from our usual habitat, the market place, and catch glimpses of the holy mountain and its glory. It matters not. What matters is that today you are being invited in no uncertain terms to inhabit the glory which the Transfiguration promises, a glory shot through with the call of Christ to follow him more closely.. For as St Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans
If we have become one in a death like his, we will most surely become
one in a Resurrection like his. Romans 6.3
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
‘Transfiguration’ Edwin Muir (1887-1959)
Of +Michael Ramsey from his Chaplain, Rev. John Andrew.
The Transfiguration and its theology intrigued Michael. I heard him several times produce a masterly summation of it in which he ‘earthed’ for us an application of this particular truth about Christ. It went something like this: “You place the events and circumstances which daunt you, and frighten you, and damage you, in the setting of the Eternal – just as Christ himself upon the Mount with his Passion and death before him was observed to be transfused with light, the Shekinah. “We are,” Michael said, “to avail ourselves of the liberation, from fear, despair, cowardice, and compromise, if we can see the things that frighten us within the transfiguring frame.”