2 March 2014

The Transforming Presence of God

A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday Year A

Over the next four years we will be treated to -- or subjected to, depending on how you look at it -- to a series of centenary commemorations of the events of the Great War of 1914-18. From Amiens to Ypres, Cambrai to Vimy Ridge, we will be invited to remember the mud and bloodshed and incredible waste of the first modern, fully mechanised war. So much of our modern, 21st century world, good and bad, began in the trenches of France and Flanders, from new medical treatments to new movements in art and literature to politics. So it will be a good four years for documentary watchers, pundits, war buffs, and battle recreators.

However one area that I am sure will not come up is theology, which was transformed in ways that are still percolating through the system by an originally German movement called 'demythologising'. If you were sitting in a pew in the 1960s or 70s you probably heard about that from theology students or assistant curates, but you probably didn't hear that demythologising too was a product of the trenches, where some of its founders served as chaplains to the troops. At least one of them has written movingly of his experience, and what he perceived as his failure to preach the Gospel under those conditions to men who would soon be facing death and mutilation, especially at times like the feasts of the Ascension or the Transfiguration, when we celebrate some of the moments in which God in Christ is particularly revealed.

Somehow in the crucible of war an awareness of God's ability to break into our lives, as God had done in Jesus in the past, had been lost, and the response of these wounded pastors was to radically repackage the message in a way that they hoped would reach those like themselves, who had lost a part of their faith. I can't say that I agree with their response but I do think they identified a problem that has only spread since their day, a problem that was born out of war and destruction and our reactions to it.

We look at the story of Scripture, the story of our spiritual ancestors, and we see God constantly breaking into the mundane. Of course this should come as no surprise -- the Bible has been put together as an account of and a reflection on humankind's encounters with God and on God's self-revelation in Jesus, both Messiah and Son. Some of us still perceive God breaking into the everyday world, in our lives and the lives of those around us or through the liturgy and sacraments of the church. But many of us have lost that sense and for such people God seems far away -- indeed we have all experienced moments in which we shared that feeling, as though God were on the other side of a barrier that we could not cross. Perhaps what we need is a change of perspective. Perhaps we need to look more closely for signs of God in our lives or ask whether we are doing enough to make ourselves open to God's coming. But unfortunately the reaction of far too many modern men and women is to assume that God simply doesn't break into the mundane, if God ever did: people long ago may have believed such things, but we know better now, and understand that it just doesn't happen....

The problem is largely one of expectation -- if I assume that God will not be present in my life and the lives of those around me, I will miss any indication that God might be there. Fortunately for us Peter, James, and John made no such assumptions. In fact they put themselves deliberately in a situation in which they expected the presence of God. Three of the gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration of Christ -- only Luke adds the detail that Jesus and his three friends went apart to the mountain to pray but Matthew likely expected his readers to get it without being told. He like Mark depicts Jesus as going apart to pray and shows us Jesus telling his disciples to go apart into a private place to pray.

So, led by Jesus, part of his little company of disciples go apart to a remote area to pray, knowing that such places (whether remote nature or quiet corners of a busy city) help create the space for God. And while they were there the three disciples had one of those moments of overpowering clarity in which everything suddenly fits together and we see a pattern in our lives or in the world around us that wasn't there before. They see Jesus in a new light -- literally, because in their vision his face and clothing all shone -- and with him appeared the figures of Moses and Elijah. Recognising that conjunction of the Law and the Prophets with the figure of Jesus who is both Messiah and Son as a sign of God's nearness, Peter wants to build tabernacles or dwellings like the one that the people of Israel made in their desert wanderings to shelter the Ark of the Covenant. In that moment of clarity, Peter knows that he and James and John are in the presence of God and in fact the three of them hear a voice speak from heaven as at Jesus' Baptism before the vision comes to an end because they become afraid.

Why don't these things happen to us? The obvious answer is that we are not living two thousand years ago and part of that small group of men and women who accompanied Jesus during his years of ministry! But as I said earlier part of it is our expectations. We need to learn the lessons of peace rather than the lessons of war which led to our problem in the first place. So we need to stop thinking that divine revelation is something that no longer happens, if it ever did, and create, as Peter, James, and John did, the right time and space to be open to God's presence in God's world. For some of us that is being in a church either alone or at a liturgy; for others it is being in a quiet place for meditation; for still others it is being away from people altogether on a hillside or in woodland. But it is always intentional and prayerful.

What sort of clarity of vision we will receive we can't predict, anymore than those three disciples could predict what they would receive. And we know that prayerful waiting on God takes time and practice. But our epistle reading gives us a sense of what can come of that clarity. To the disciples who experienced it, the transfiguration vision brought a moment in which they saw and clearly understood Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, the fulfilment of God's purpose. This in turn brought confirmation of the truth of the prophecies about the Messiah and his coming and an understanding of what prophecy is and is not. In opening themselves to God's presence on the mountain, they became open to the working of the Spirit, which sends the gift of prophecy to men and women. The same Spirit also made them -- and us -- open to understand and interpret the Spirit's voice, not alone, according to our own individual ideas, but in community with one another and with the Spirit as well.

This is the end of the Epiphany season, the season that celebrates God's manifestation of God's self and God's plan to men and women. That manifestation is nowhere more clear than it is in the Transfiguration of Jesus. As we shift into Lent we begin to prepare for another manifestation of God's self and God's plan, the one that takes place on Friday afternoon and is ratified in the dawning light of Sunday morning. To be ready for that manifestation we need to use the lessons of the Transfiguration, to open ourselves to the possibility of God's presence in our lives and our worship and to listen to Jesus who is both Messiah and Son, God's eternal Word to God's world and especially to God's people.

By opening ourselves up to God, we make it possible to be in God's presence, even now, in modern times that seem so closed to that very idea. We come today to the Eucharist in the same spirit, opening ourselves to God's presence in the bread and wine broken together, in community, for our needs and the needs of the world. The three disciples did not know how transformative their experience on the holy mountain was going to be and we don't know when we open ourselves to God how we will be transformed because of it. Let us pray to be made more like those disciples, who learned from the Spirit on the mountain to listen to Jesus' words. Amen.