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Up and Down Mountains – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Title: Up and Down Mountains

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor.

Readings: Exodus 24:12-end, 2 Peter 1:16-end, Matthew 17:1-9

Date: Sunday next before Lent, 19th February 2023

If you were looking for a gift to buy someone you love, you might be tempted to treat them to a gift ‘experience’. A few years ago, we clubbed together to buy my dad an ‘experience’ flying a Spitfire. My sister bought me a ‘Birds of Prey’ Experience, so I spent the day with some pretty spectacular peregrine falcons. There are ‘supercar’ experiences, ‘cooking experiences’, ‘heritage experiences’. In these packages you are given the mountain top experience, the best experience there is, an insight into another world where you become a pilot, a racing driver, a Michelin star chef. If only every day was like this, you think, as you sip champagne and revel in being treated like royalty.

So here’s a thought experiment for you: if you were going to share the Christian ‘experience’, what would you include in the package?

Some people think the Christian life is a ready-made mountain top experience, full of light and glory and exhilaration, some people think that Christians are shiny, happy, perfect people all the time. But, we wouldn’t be presenting the whole picture, the truthful picture of what living the Christian life is like, if we didn’t acknowledge that it’s not all about the mountain top experience, it’s also about daily life and sacrifice, transfiguring the world through our witness, living out the Christian life at work, at home, at school, in times of sadness and challenge as well as times of joy.

For most of the time, and for most of us, the Christian experience is about the climb, the hard, day by day, journey of discipleship, the slips, trips and slides, the one step-forwards and the two steps back, the moments of terror as we lose our grip, the disorientation as we are affected by the altitude, the scratches and bruises as we scramble to the summit: The Christian experience is often about determination and discipline.  And then, once we reach the peak, once we experience the glory of being on top of the world, we come to realise we can’t stay there forever.

Peter, James and John try to make a camp there on the mountain, they want to stay, ‘shall we make three dwellings?’ they ask. Rather like Mary Magdalene in the Garden, who tries to cling on to the risen Jesus: we can’t live on the mountain top. Our experience of God is never meant to be an escape from the world where we are.

We have to come back to earth and begin a descent which may be just as challenging as the climb. But, oh, what a joy it has been to experience the light on the top of the mountain, and how we have been changed by it, and through that dazzling experience we can return to our ordinary lives with that vision in our hearts to guide us and to strengthen us for the next ascent.

Our life is a cycle of comings and goings, of ups and downs, of mountain top experiences as well as time spent at the rock bottom, facing what seems like insurmountable challenges. We might think of our lives in terms of extremes, of highs and lows, of places where God is and places where God isn’t, we might think that the Christian life is only about the glory on the mountaintop and not about the struggle on the way.

But today, as we hear again the story of the transfiguration we are invited to see the glory of God as something which permeates the whole created order, we are called to realise that wherever we travel, glory is under our feet.  We are shown that there is no longer a heaven and an earth but one kingdom under Christ and the exhilaration we experience on the mountaintop becomes part of our daily lives, so that our lived experience as a Christian, even in the tough times when the challenges ahead of us seem impossible, our lived experience as a Christian in the world is always shot through with glory: whether we are experiencing grief or gladness, whether prosperity or poverty, whether health or sickness, life or death: the God of glory is with us.

Christ takes our humanity with all of its faults and failures up to God on the mountain, and God comes with us in Christ as we descend back down to earth. This is a gospel for the plains as well as the peaks, for the wilderness as well as the mountain top.

On this Sunday before Lent, we are all given a vision which speaks of the transfiguration of our world, the ultimate revelation of Christ in Glory, where heaven and earth are one, when old and new are entwined, when past and future are made real in one glorious present.

The disciples are given a mountain top experience, as their preparation to walk with Christ in his suffering, a turn of events which will quickly gather pace once they descend the mountain.  We are about to embark on a journey through Lent which will bring us face to face with the depths of our broken humanity, when we are confronted with ourselves in all of our sin. On Wednesday we will be called to self-examination and asked to consider our mortality, our meanness, hypocrisy, and obsession with the self. It’s salutary spiritual work for all of us, we all sit before God’s judgement in need of mercy and forgiveness. As we are about to start climbing this particular mountain, we do so in the knowledge that we have already been recipients of God’s glory.

The Gospel of Transfiguration is then, a source of Christian confidence: it means we can dare greatly and live hopefully in the present as we are called to see a future shaped by God.

Such a gospel, writes Michael Ramsey, transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the here-and-now. As Christ reveals another world on the holy mountain, he also reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who will change it from glory to glory.

Jesus prepared his disciples to bear the scandal of the cross by showing them the means of grace and the hope of glory. This week, we are given an assurance that the light and glory of God will be with us in every human experience we are party to. Whether going up or coming down, we move always and only from glory to glory, and that is the experience we are all called to share as a gift, with the world Christ came to save.

To him, be glory forever. Amen.




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