A Sermon from Sherborne
Transfiguration: a sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 26th February by The Reverend Ron Martin, Assistant Curate (and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital).
2 Peter 1:16-21. Matthew 17:1-9
The transfiguration could be described as the culminating point of Christ’s public life, just as his baptism was its starting point and his ascension its completion. Since arriving in the district of Caesarea Philippi, just to the north of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples have gone through quite a process in their understanding of Jesus and his mission. They have learned of the coming passion with all the hostility and menace that will surround Jesus and his closest followers leading up to it. Jesus is not trying to scare them but to prepare them for events to come so that his disciples, who often failed to see, had some chance of avoiding walking blindly into the storm ahead of them. After he has begun to prepare the ground for them Jesus then takes three of his disciples apart to witness his transfiguration. Mathew uses the Hellenistic Greek word metemorphothe, from which we get the word metamorphosis, to explain this phenomenon and goes on to expound the meaning of the word by stating that, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The dazzling light emanated from Christ’s body as if it was an interior shining of his divinity. It was a miracle but unlike the other miracles of Jesus, this one is enacted upon him. In this miracle Jesus himself is the object of miraculous intervention. And within this miracle at this culminating point in his public life, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets, to confirm that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one of God. God himself speaks from heaven and declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This event is recorded in all three synoptic gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke and alluded to in the Gospel of John 1:14, “And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And of course we have the author of Peter’s second letter speak of it in our lesson this morning. So there is good biblical evidence for this quite extraordinary event where human nature meets God, the temporal meets the divine. Where, just after Jesus has foretold his passion to his disciples, he takes three of them with him on a journey, away from the world with all it’s rush and competing demands and impending hostility and suffering; he takes Peter, James and John up a mountain where he is revealed, in his metemorphothe, his transfiguration, as the bridge between heaven and earth, God’s own Son whom God himself commands that we listen to.
To give someone our undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow upon another. To spend time and pay attention to another – there are few gifts I can think of that are quite as life affirming and powerful as this. “Pay Attention!” were two words I frequently heard as a boy at school. I never really appreciated how important those two words were. I still don’t really, for they seem to me to be among the most important and profound life changing words I know. ‘Pay attention!’ When was the last time someone paid attention to you? How did it make you feel? What difference did it make to you? And if no one has paid you attention for a long time – how painful it is to be reminded of this absence and the longing it stirs up in our hearts? A longing to be noticed, to be heard, to be understood, to be loved; to be paid attention.
God pays attention to us. The incarnate God in Christ endured unutterable torment and torture to reveal in his passion, the extent of his love for us, his desire to be with us, and to pay us his attention. When we understand in here, in our hearts, that the God of heaven and earth pays us such careful and costly attention, our lives can experience transfiguration, the radiant light and love of God within; and our lives can be metamorphosed so that we too become bridges between heaven and earth, between broken, lonely humanity and the God who loves us and holds us in his palm and never lets us go.
But in order for our lives to be transfigured, we need to put in some effort. You notice in our Gospel that Jesus takes three of his closest confidantes to one side and with them he climbs a mountain. He takes himself off, with some effort, to a secluded spot, and it is there that his being is transfigured. We too can take ourselves aside from the world to draw close to God in prayer. Prayer can act as a bridge between heaven and earth. Prayer can open our hearts and minds to the loving, gentle, peaceful presence of God. Prayer can transfigure our lives so that God in all his Glory shines through our living and caring in the world. Prayer is a way in which we pay attention to God, and God reveals himself to be always paying attention to us. But it takes a little effort. It doesn’t simply happen. We have to make space and time. We have to take ourselves aside from all that fills our lives. We have to practice prayer, paying attention, listening for the still small voice within. In fact the greater part of prayer is not to speak but to listen, to encounter to be with God. It is an act of the will. To deliberately set aside space and time to pray, even when it is the last thing we feel like doing. To consciously place ourselves in the presence of God. Archbishop Michael Ramsay in his most enduring and best loved book, The Christian Priest Today, says of prayer, “Try to think of it more simply: it means putting yourself near God, with God, in a time of quietness every day. You put yourself with him just as you are, in the feebleness of your concentration, in your lack of warmth and desire, not trying to manufacture pious thoughts or phrases. You put yourself with God, empty perhaps, but hungry and thirsty for him; and if in sincerity you cannot say that you want God you can perhaps tell him that you want to want him; and if you cannot say even that, perhaps you can say that you want to want to want him! Thus you can be very near him in your naked sincerity; and he will do the rest…”
Our diocese has given us a very useful tool for this Lent. It’s called Praying Together – a little book of daily readings and reflections and prayers that we can all use. Best of all (music to a Scotsman’s ears) it’s free! I hope you, along with me, will take a copy of this book as you leave the Abbey today and make use of it this coming Lent. It may be the start of something quite remarkable and life affirming. A daily encounter with the living God who can transfigure even our lives and through his love and glory shining through us, can reach out in love and attention to our neighbours. Amen.