Sunday, February 10, 2013

Glory framed with death: the Transfiguration

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 
Our gospel reading today begins with some interesting words: Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. St Luke does not begin the passage like that by accident; he does so in order to connect what is to come after, the Transfiguration, with the words that Jesus had spoken around a week earlier. So what were those words? 

If you are someone who is thoroughly familiar with the Gospels, you will know, of course, that what St Luke is talking about is the passage where Jesus first tells his disciples that he is going to suffer and die … and that if they are to be his disciples they must also be willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. And you'll also know that the scene that immediately follows the Transfiguration, where Jesus heals a boy, ends with Jesus making a further prediction of his own death.

The Transfiguration is framed by Jesus' predictions of his his suffering and death. Which puts a sombre twist on a scene where Jesus is presented in such glory. And make no mistake, the Transfiguration, mysterious though it is, is one of glory. Compare what happens to Jesus with what happens to Moses in our reading from Exodus: Moses' face shines, but only his face, and he shines with a reflected glory, as a result of his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Jesus on the other hand shines all over – his face and his clothes become dazzling white – and he begins to shine while praying … before the cloud, before the voice from heaven … Jesus is not shining with a reflected Glory … his terrible, terrifying brightness is a revelation of his Glory; it comes from within; it shows who he is; because if Moses shone as a result of his meeting with God, then Jesus shining of his own power displays that he is himself God … a revelation which confirmed by the voice from heaven: This is my Son, my Chosen one; listen to him!'

The scene is laden with irony I think. Jesus is revealed in his Glory to his closest disciples, the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. What is their reaction? Confusion and terror. Confusion, demonstrated by St Peter's words about setting up three dwellings on the mountains; words which, in case we didn't get it, the Evangelist points out are uttered only because St Peter doesn't know what he is saying. And terror, when the cloud surrounds them, Christ, & those with whom he speaks. Given that, it is hardly surprising that Peter, James, & John do not speak of this event afterwards; they do not know what to make of it. And if they, his inner circle can not at that time draw meaning from it, and react in such a way, what hope is there for the others of understanding it? The time is not yet right.

And when will the time be right? Let us return to the frame, which are Jesus' own predictions of his suffering and death. Sometimes it is the frame that is the most important part of a picture, because it provides the focus for what it contains. So what does it mean that the divine Glory that we have in the Transfiguration is framed by our Saviour speaking of his death? Perhaps to underline that Jesus can only be understood in these terms. That it is not enough to think of Jesus as a good man who happened to die … but that he was God himself who entered into our world knowing from the beginning that it would entail his dying for us … and not just any death, but the cruelest and most painful death that the world of his time could provide. The time to understand the Transfiguration and its meaning will not be until after Jesus has died in the cross, been laid in the tomb, and then overcome death itself by rising again to life.

I began by saying that it was no accident that St Luke begins today's Gospel by reminding us of the passage that went before, the passage that contains Jesus' first prediction of his passion. Neither is it an accident that today's reading about the Transfiguration takes place today, on the last Sunday before Lent. Because it is after this scene that the focus of the Gospel changes, indeed the focus of Jesus ministry. From this point on, Jesus begins his journey towards Jerusalem; from this point his story is completely under the shadow of the cross

Bear this in mind as you begin your journey through Lent next weekend ... that, and his Father's command that we should listen to him. Your journey over this time is also to Jerusalem to suffer and die with Jesus … 
Listen to him; he told his disciples they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.  And so must you, who are also his disciples, do likewise. This penitential season is a time for you to take up your cross, to suffer and die to self with your Saviour, and rise to new life in him … a new life that I pray all will find: in the name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon Notes, Sunday before Lent 2013 

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