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10.00am Sung Eucharist – Sunday 3 March 2019
Does it matter when we read the Bible? I don’t mean whether we read it in the morning or evening, but when, in relation to the pattern of the Christian Year. I’m a firm believer that when we read the Bible is almost as important as what we read there – that the context of reading has a profound impact on how we read Scripture and apply it to our lives.
Today’s Gospel reading is St Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. That’s an event which has its own date in the Christian calendar – 6 August. But since the 1960s, all the mainstream churches have been reading one or other of the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration on this final Sunday before Lent. Why?
Well, as I’m always saying to Canon Michael, lectionaries – the schemes which tell us which bits of the Bible to read in worship – are not random! Today’s readings are there for a purpose. Today, the Sunday next before Lent, is a watershed Sunday – a gear change. It marks a shift from the Christmas cycle of time into the Easter cycle of time. That first cycle unpacks for us what it means for God to share our life through the birth of Jesus. We prepared during Advent, we celebrated the birth at Christmas, and in the Epiphany season we explored who Jesus is. And now we begin the Easter cycle, in which we delve into the mystery of salvation – the truth that, in Jesus, God shares our life for a purpose, and that purpose is to change it, for ever, through Jesus’ death and resurrection and by sending us the Holy Spirit. The Easter cycle takes us on a journey which begins this coming Wednesday, winds its way through Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and reaches its culmination at Pentecost. So today is a turning point in the year – a threshold – a liminal day – in which we cross from one period of time to another.
And the point of immersing ourselves in cycles of time within the Christian year is that we allow them to form us, year on year. Times and seasons are a formational spiral; as we hit a new season, we never repeat the spiritual journey of last year, because we’ve moved on. The circumstances of the past year’s journey have impacted on us so that we face Lent, Holy Week and Easter afresh, and ready to be formed still further into the people God made us to be.
So what about the Transfiguration, and why is that passage in particular read today? The account sits at a point of transition in Jesus’ earthly life. Luke sets it almost literally as a watershed in the middle of the Gospel. It follows teaching and miracles and, although more of the same follow, it’s clear that after the Transfiguration, Jesus – identified as God’s chosen one – is set on a particular course as he heads towards Jerusalem – the city in which he will die and rise from death, and in which the Holy Spirit will be given. So it marks a gear change in Jesus’ ministry.
The Transfiguration appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And although there are subtle differences from one Gospel to the next, the basics are the same. Jesus ascends a mountain with Peter, James and John to pray; his appearance changes; Moses and Elijah are seen; Peter makes a remark which shows that he totally misinterprets the situation; a cloud covers them and God’s voice is heard: ‘this is my Son – listen to him.’
Supernatural / Prayer
We need to recognise that, above all things, the Transfiguration was a supernatural event – one of those occasions when the living God breaks forcefully into the life of the world. It’s easy, in the daily business of life, to ignore the fact that, as Christians, we are people of the supernatural – that at the root of what we believe is that God has broken into, and continues to break into, our world of time and space. Holy places, such as this cathedral, are a constant reminder of that ‘otherness’ which lies at the heart of our faith. The medieval builders of the Minster were about creating ‘otherness on earth’ – cathedral music is about exactly the same thing: not manufacturing the conditions, but providing a fertile context for the supernatural to shine through.
And the particular event of the Transfiguration came about as a result of Jesus and his disciples going up the mountain to pray. Mountains and hills have often been seen as spiritually significant places, but even if we live in the Vale of York, we can still pray. Not all of us will see visions, or hear directly the voice of God, but without exception prayer offers us the space and opens up the capacity for our spirits to connect with God’s Spirit. As we approach Lent, I would like to encourage you to make use of the weekly Silence in the Minster – each Thursday evening, beginning on 14 March. These offer us the opportunity to be genuinely still before God, to listen, and to pray in quiet, and in the time-honoured service of Compline.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the mountain is usually given great theological significance: Moses as the giver of the Law, and Elijah as first among the Prophets. But we don’t need to be OT scholars to grasp that what Moses and Elijah stand for is the past. Jesus is at a threshold in his life: what he is about to do in Jerusalem will have a profound effect on the course of history, but the saving work of Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere – it has a past.
Each of us, too, has a past – and as we reflect on Jesus standing between the past of Moses and Elijah, and the future in Jerusalem – we can take to heart that God is the God of our past and our future. Who we are is human beings who carry the image of God – that’s true for absolutely everyone. Who we have become over time is the result of a complex interplay of circumstance, chance and choice. But who we shall be is rooted in Jesus and our relationship with him.
Lent is an excellent time to take stock – to reflect on the past, on where we’ve come from – and remind ourselves that God has been with us in that past. It’s a good exercise sometimes to look back over our lives and think about where God has been with us in our journey. And as we trace the hand of God through time, we are in a good place to ask God to show us what we are being called to become.
Reflection on our past can sometimes lead to an unhealthy pre-occupation with mistakes or choices we wish we hadn’t made – and this can be destructive and compromise the wholeness which God wills for us.
St Peter is our model here. He was someone who, despite having the best of intentions, always managed to put his foot in it, to get it wrong, and – on one occasion – to seriously let Jesus down. But ultimately it was Peter who was chosen to be the rock on whom the whole Church was to be built.
At the Transfiguration, he seems to have been totally mesmerised by the experience. He says to Jesus:
‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
He wants to fossilize a good experience, without looking beyond, to where that experience might be pointing.
I am glad, both that I am called Peter, and that I was ordained and have served in this Cathedral which bears his dedication. Because it’s a constant reminder that God deals with each of us realistically and as we are – helping us put mistakes behind us and start again. A reminder that past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future possibilities!
Listen to him
Well, the disciples’ cosy experience soon passed and gave way to sheer terror as a cloud covered the mountain. And here the Gospel records a profound and disturbing manifestation of God’s presence, experienced through the voice:
‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
And that was that. Jesus was left alone with the disciples – and life continued on its course. But that is rather what life can be like. It’s not an endless succession of mountain-top experiences but peaks, troughs and a good bit of trudging along level ground. The key, though, for Peter, James and John – and the key for us – is that we recognise who Jesus really is and we listen to him.
The season of Lent which lies ahead has for many centuries been kept as a time of drawing close to God. St James reminds us in his epistle that if we draw near to God, then God will draw near to us. The danger is that we think, ‘Ah yes, another Lent, another year’ rather than, ‘this Lent, this year.’ As we enter the Easter cycle another time, let us dig deep, as we open ourselves to God’s transforming love.
God of everlasting mercy,
who sent your Son to save us:
remind us of your goodness,
increase your grace within us,
that we may know your power to change and save.
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
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