We were delighted to welcome the new Thames North Synod Moderator, Revd George Watt, to St Andrew’s on 27th February. Here is his sermon.
Exodus 34.29-35 NRSVA
Luke 9.28- 37-43 NRSVAA
Back to reality
Both our readings today are extraordinary, out of this world. And there may be times (and now may be such a time for some of us), where we want to escape the realities of the world we find ourselves in. The disciples had just been forewarned that their beloved master was about to suffer, and not just suffer but to die. I suspect that with such news it was hard to hear the bottom line, that he would also rise to life again. Some of us may see only a bleak future ahead of us because of our situation or because of our ill health.
And collectively we are deeply affected by what has happened in the Ukraine over the last week. We have been living in a period of relative peace, but not without justification the current situation might be seen as the worst our world has faced since the Second World War, although of course it depends on your perspective and there have been many traumas, threats and dangers which have been more localised. And our Old Testament reading is the story of a people enslaved who escaped but found themselves without home or security for 40 years in an environment where they have been entirely dependent on God’s provision and going through some, well to put it frankly some very difficult experiences.
What relief and joy then for the disciples and Moses to be plucked from the reality of life into a new glorious, light filled alternative world, if not universe. For Peter, James and John, it was a moment beyond their wildest dreams. If for any time they thought that Jesus was just an ordinary man, here he is transfigured and reflects the glory of God. Not being high priests they never had the privilege of being able to personally enter into the Holy of holies and meet with God. And yet, there on that mountain it was as if they had and indeed it surpassed the experience because here they were ordinary people, on an ordinary day in an ordinary place glimpsing God and knowing that they were in a holy place. And to emphasise they found themselves in the company of two heroes of the faith Moses and Elijah. Moses the law giver who himself was transfigured by the Shekinah or glory of God and Elijah who had the end of his life is said to have been whisked away by chariot in death to heaven itself.
It is perhaps not surprising that they wanted to build three dwellings to mark the pace where they had had that amazing encounter. And perhaps they wanted something of the spirit of Moses, Elijah and Jesus to continue to live on on the earth. But there may be another significance of wanting to build the dwellings or booths as they are sometimes called, because at the Jewish festival of Sukkot or Booths marks the end of the exile. So rather than being oblivious about what was really happening they may well have had a sense in which their exodus was coming to an end and the promised land was on the horizon. The occupation by the Romans meant their country was not the place of freedom and life it used to be and the legalism of their faith had robbed them of vision and of hope. I doubt they fully realised how this exodus and wilderness experience would end but on that day they could see that it might and all was not lost.
I wonder whether we have had anything like the experience of Moses or of the discipleship. I think many of us would jump to say not. And yet I suspect that we have even in smaller, less dramatic ways. One of the things about my new role is that I am able to attend worship in churches without having to lead worship. Last week when I turned up at a church, I was asked if I was there to check up on them. I replied that I had genuinely come to worship not to spy. And I was able to worship, I was also able to hear God speaking. The preacher was concluding a series on the Lord’s prayer and spoke about the concluding part ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory – there’s that word glory again glory. Although they are not words we find at the end of the Lord’s prayer they are consistent with words of worship we find in the Bible. The preacher pointed out that in Jesus’ time when someone led a prayer the congregation would finish the prayer. And certainly, the words ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and glory is a very appropriate ending to the words of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a kind of Doxology , focusing back on God as it does at the start of the prayer.
It made think that when it comes to that part of the prayer, I want to raise my head, open my eyes and look up in the hope of seeing God. It is a transfigurative moment in the prayer. When we come to worship may we come expecting that we will encounter God again and in new ways. And as we do so we will be transformed as I believe the disciples would have been and Moses certainly was. I wonder as we leave Church will people see in us something of the light of the glory of God in our faces and in our actions. Do we leave church looking as though we have just been to the dentist or been in the presence of God?
There is a pattern in both our readings. Moses and the Disciples go up a mountain leaving behind the cares of and concerns of life, they have an experience of transfiguration. But then they return, yes to the very same cares and concerns, but they would never be the same again.
The day after the transfiguration Jesus heals the boy with demons. Luke makes a clear connection between the two. They are not two different events in the life of Jesus. Jesus having being transfigured was empowered to deal with a sad and challenging situation. He modelled for the disciples what ministry should be like. We (and I am firmly of the view that we are all ministers – although our ministries will vary), we need those moments of encounters with God and glimpses of his glory to be effective. Chapter 9 of Luke begins with the disciples being told that they are able to go and bring healing to those who are sick. If I was there I would want to protest and say who am I to heal and what resources do I have. The answer is there in the transfiguration. We can’t do God’s work without his help.
And to make the point in the following chapter in Luke, Jesus sends out 70 followers to witness and bring God’s love, mercy and healing to the neighbourhood. The Transfiguration changes the impossible to the possible, the too hard to do to what can be on. And hang on for a moment, so it wasn’t just the 12 disciples but 70 followers who were sent out.
You see we can see how Moses and a select number of disciples have that holy encounter with God, surely there was something holy about them already. But God isn’t exclusive but wants to be inclusive. It isn’t just a few apparently holy people that he calls and sends. It is all of our calling. It isn’t just ministers or elders (or Moderators come to that) it is all who want to walk the way, living the life of Jesus today. Don’t forget that discipleship means to be a learner. All of us perhaps should be walking around with ‘L’ plates.
When I was putting this service together the phrase ‘back to reality’ came to mind. It echoes those lines from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landside
No escape from reality.
Life can be harsh and brutal but God doesn’t want to leave it that way and he wants to use us to bring about transformation. Moses returned with the law, which by New Testament times had become legalism, but God’s intention was that it should bring life. But he returned not just with the tablets of stone but also with a reflection of the glory of God etched on his face. That would have been true of Jesus and the disciples too. Transfiguration isn’t just for us to experience but it is for us to reflect in our words and actions so that people may know life, life in all its fulness. Transfiguration and our encounter with God is not meant to leave us feeling hopeless but full of hope. We will have come with our cares and burdens, may we go at least glimpsing how things might be different and how we might play a part in that.