Todays readings for: Last Sunday of Epiphany Year A 2017 - Also known as 'The Transfiguration of Christ' Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 224 2 Peter 1:26-21 Matthew 17:1-9
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
Transfiguration, what does it mean? What is its significance for us as we struggle along in our day to day lives? Did you notice that when the epistle writer, who is writing into the tradition of the apostles, though very unlikely to actually be Peter, chooses something to reference the majesty of God dwelling in Jesus, he or she, chooses the transfiguration rather than the resurrection? The account of the transfiguration witnessed to by Peter, James and John allows us to see a couple of really vital things. The first is a window into the trinity and the second following from that is about how God relates to our world.
The story of Moses going up the mountain and being also to an extent transfigured- not that we got that bit in today’s reading- is clearly being referenced in the gospel account. The second time that Moses comes down he doesn’t realise it but his face is glowing with God’s glory. Do you remember Von Daniken in the 70’s who was sure that it was because aliens had arrived in a space ship that was radio active? That is taking the text very literally isn’t it? I think myself that this account of Jesus’ glory is rather an attempt to put into words something, which is inexpressible, about the metamorphosis of Jesus. Metamorphosis is the Greek word that we translate as transfiguration. Now all of us who have done a bit of geology know that substances, for example lime stone, when put under pressure and heat can become, without any essential change, marble. We have taken this Greek idea of a change of visible or tangible state, while the essential nature remains and used it for scientific understanding. In this gospel account it points to the reality that Jesus, human man, was in essence God, and somehow the disciples who were present were able to perceive this altered state, in this particular moment.
The reference to Moses and Elijah, just like earlier references in the gospels, is making clear the link to the God of Abraham, the God of the Old Testament, but are also very much framing this as an eschatological text- this is a story of the end times- in a sense the beginning of the end. Elijah is the herald of the end. So the link is important- if the transfiguration signals the beginning of the end it is very important for us to understand that Jesus, to whom this occurs, is also God. This is not an end time when God has withdrawn from God’s creation but rather an end time in which God is immanent.
And that is the great message of this passage, I think, that God is both transcendent and immanent. God is God, above, beyond, majestic, all-powerful, dazzling and untouchable. God is in the bright cloud of unknowing. And yet, human Peter, mistaken Peter, can still be in relationship with God.
I always feel a bit sorry for Peter here. Here he is in this completely overwhelming situation and he is trying to do his best. What he suggests is not quite as silly as it sounds to us. Peter is not suggesting that he builds three houses for them to dwell in as our translation has it, rather he is suggesting that he builds booths, temporary shelters, with three sides and a latticed kind of top through which the stars are visible. I believe that a good Jewish shelter for the festival of Succoth, allows one to see at least three stars. This goes all the way back to Jacob who in Genesis 33 builds shelters for himself and his livestock at Succoth. The Festival of Succoth is basically a harvest festival when the farmers gathering the harvest would sleep outside in the fields. The Festival became one the great Pilgrimage festivals, so Peter is referring to that. I have been puzzling about why he would associate the Harvest Festival with the appearance of Moses and Elijah and all I can come up with is that the harvest comes at the end of the agricultural year so if the appearance of Moses and Elijah signals the end perhaps that is the connection. There is also a connection with Moses, in that the festival of Succoth is a reminder of the temporary nature of the structures built while the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness as part of the Exodus experience. However, Peter, who is reacting in a very human way is completely overawed by God, who speaks from the cloud.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him.” This is an affirmation of relationship- Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is beloved and Jesus is given authority to speak. This is an expression, in terms accessible to the human beings, of the relationship that exists at the heart of God, which is Trinity.
Richard Rohr, in his book The Divine Dance writes about our fumbling attempt to describe and realise Trinity, “Not exactly One… and yet perfectly One; not exactly Three but yet Three too!” We struggle with the concept and with expressing it, but mercifully we can and do experience it. We are drawn into the relationship that exists at the heart of God. Rohr says, “the principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional and moves you towards preference; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.” And this attempt to understand the relationship within God is exemplified in this transfiguration experience.
We have heard these words before, of course at the moment of Baptism where the three persons in relationship are expressed as Father who speaks, Son who receives and Holy Spirit who anoints. I think that it is important to note that all these descriptions in the bible are approximations, put into terms that we can relate to, not definitive statements.
When the disciples hear God speaking they fall to the ground, overcome by fear. It was obviously overwhelming. And Jesus comes and touches them to help them back into consciousness. And here we see God immanent in our world, God who touches us whether literally or figuratively and brings us back to ourselves. God who draws us into the great dance of love. In this picture of the transfiguration of Jesus we begin to understand that God is a God of relationship and that God while shining with light is also able to touch us. God is both transcendent and immanent. And in the relationship of love within God there is room for the relationship of love for God’s creation and between the parts of God’s creation.
And this leads me back to righteousness, which we have been discussing over the last number of weeks. The fact that God loves, ultimately means that God cannot tolerate unrighteousness. Man’s inhumanity to man breaks that law of love, and so Jesus teaches us to be righteous, to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves because we are all caught up in the great dance of love, which is trinity. God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus because he is speaking God’s truth to them and he will enable them to take part, rather than to fall on the ground overwhelmed by God.
It is in being so loved by God, ourselves, that we find the strength and joy that enables us to love others. It is in the love of the creator for the beloved Son, and sons and daughters, that we are able to grow into the fullness of all we are called to be by God. Salt and light showing the world that God loves.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that we might believe in him and have eternal life” or perhaps eternal being is a better way of putting it. We are drawn into this metamorphosis, this change of state by the love of God. We are transformed, St Paul says, from one degree of glory to another, and that is our transfiguration, touched by Jesus and drawn into the great dance of the Trinity, which is the dance of love. And it is through God’s great mercy, in forgiving the fumbling attempts we have of understanding God’s glory and grace and of forgiving us for our lack of love for others that should inspire exactly that love. We are forgiven so we can forgive; we are loved so that we can love.
So in the transfiguration of Jesus we are able to glimpse the great perichoretic dance of the Trinity, which is the dance of eternal love.