A Sermon by David Barton
The Sunday before Lent. 26 Feb 2017
The Sunday before Lent, and story of the Transfiguration – and a wonderful set of readings! And through all three is “the mountain”. And the idea of it rolling down the centuries. Moses on the mountain. Then Jesus on the mountain with Moses, Elijah and three of his disciples. And then that middle reading from 2 Peter – which is last in terms of the time it was written of course: “We were with him in the mountain.” it says. People think that the transfiguration took place on Mount Herman. But we don’t really know where it was. And that’s important. Because mountains have special significance in Matthew. They are, for him mysterious, symbolic. There is this. And he tells us about the sermon on the mount – though when Luke’s writes about the same thing, it seems to have been on a level plain! And at the end of the gospel the Ascension takes place “on a mountain”. Matthew thinks of Sinai, of course. But actually mountains always have a mysterious quality about them. We don’t forget the mountains we have climbed: the struggle to get up, the spreading views, and at the top the sense of being so high. The vast horizon, and us, so small in the middle of it.
Think of that sense of awe and mystery, and then notice the context. Six days later ….. this passage begins. Six days before this, Peter and the disciples had begun to understand just who Jesus might be. “You are the Messiah. Son of the living God.” Peter had blurted out. But Jesus’s response to that was an unexpected one. He began to talk about a Messiah who would suffer. Peter, you remember, was horrified: “This must never happen” he says. And on one level Peter was absolutely right. At this point Jesus had a huge following wherever he went. Those people would go, at the first hint of trouble. Who is going to follow a Messiah persecuted and crucified by the religious authorities? But Jesus is unmoved. “If you want to be my follower, take up your cross. If you try to save your life you’ll lose it. But if you throw away your life for my sake, you’ll save it.” It’s an extraordinary reversal of a human way of thinking. So these three disciples following Jesus up the mountain were confused and bewildered. And it’s not really clear that this extraordinary vision of Jesus, in the glory of God, with Moses and Elijah, cleared their minds and convinced them that Jesus was right and they were wrong. We always manage to think that God is on our side. We are slow to learn otherwise. Only after the resurrection do they understand.
I think this is an enormously important passage for us Christians. It’s one that, over the years I have returned to again and again. And perhaps the clue to understanding it lies in our experience of mountains. After all, climbing mountains is not always done in glorious weather with breathtaking views. All too often what begins in sunshine, turns to driving rain that makes the ascent a struggle, and at the top, thick cloud means there is nothing to see. Walking in mountains is a tough business. And dangerous.
That negative side may be part of the reason why the mountain is often seen as a picture of the Christian life. In other words it seems like an uphill struggle to be a Christian. We don’t all get rewarded with wondrous visions. For many of us believing is a hard business. Nor are we always respected for it. We live in a society that has dispensed with God. Church often seems irrelevant. And I guess we who preach don’t always say things that will help, or be interesting. And then there is the question of the tough things that come into our lives, like the illness of those we love, and our own frailty. All this set a deeply troubled world. So we wonder if our faith really has anything to say in the face of all of that. I have talked to enough people over the years to know that for many prayer is often bleak, empty, unrewarding. Hardly the high point of the day that they are led to expect.
But its for all those sorts of reasons that I have, over the years, constantly returned to this story, the transfiguration. Because light/vision/glory here are woven through with darkness and despair. Darkness in the confusion of the disciples, darkness in Jesus’ clear eyed understanding of what he will face in Jerusalem. And Moses and Elijah are there for those reasons too. Both of them spent time on Sinai in trouble and despair. Moses troubled about how he can manage the Israelites. Elijah fleeing there in fear of his life, hiding in a cave, and then coming out to face the storm and the earthquake, and then the sound of sheer silence, in which nothing is said and everything is understood.
The mountain is the place where we learn to see things in a different way. It’s about discipleship – and all of us here should think of ourselves as disciples, in other words, women and men who are learning. On the mountain that learning is about a new way of seeing, understanding. And therefore it’s about unlearning the way we have always looked at life. We think of darkness as the opposite of light, problems and hardship as things to be got through and forgotten about. But Jesus teaches that these are times when God is profoundly present. Here, on the mountain, the disciples confusion and failure to understand; Jesus’ own inner pain at facing what was to come – all of this is wrapped round with the light and power of God. No longer separate: darkness/light. It’s all one in God.
Someone once said to me that our inner life as Christians has two centres. God and ourselves, along with all that troubles us. When we pray we need to see that God draws a ring round both centres. All of it. So that even our troubles are illuminated with the light of God. To be a disciple is to learn not to divide things up, but to live within that all encompassing light of God. Its a call to live faithfully, hopefully, even when there seems to be no justification for doing so.
I don’t pretend that’s easy. Like the disciples we are slow to learn. But, to be personal for a moment, I would want to say that looking back, my own times of pain and confusion have turned out to be times of remarkable and unexpected blessing. Words are difficult to find here, but I’d want to describe a point where darkness and difficulty do not go away, but inexplicably shift, so that in essence everything becomes different. A God who I can easily think of as far away, I now discover is actually far, far too close to see. Disconcertingly near, but holding it all. Pain, or trouble do not go, but everything changes. Gregory of Nyssa, who writes in the fourth century, talks about being in a place where you don’t understand anything, and yet……you are aware of “luminous darkness”.
We are never, ever out of God’s hands. In God, darkness is not a place to be feared. Darkness is actually a place of healing.
But what of that last reference to mountains in the epistle “We were with him on the mountain”? You think, this is a letter from Peter, so it’s Peter’s remembering what we are told about in the gospel. But actually the Greek of this letter – in vocabulary and style – dates from long after Peter must have been dead. Maybe a disciple of Peter wrote it, and remembered Peter’s words. But the point is: he makes it his own. We can all say that. Our darkness, and the darkness and confusion of our world, are all held together in God’s healing light. We are all with him on the mountain. And we need to pay attention to that. As the writer says, its like a lamp, shining in a dark place.