A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 19 February 2023
There are two occasions in Jesus’ adult life that are described by the gospel writers as ‘glimpses behind the scene’. The two occasions are Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration. On both occasions, the gospel writers refer to something being seen – a vision is given; and also, to something being heard – a voice speaks.
You’ll recall that at Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist is said to see the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. A voice is then described as coming from heaven and saying to Jesus:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.’
The purpose of this is to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective – that the Holy Spirit dwells with him and God’s favour rests on him. So, while we can think of this as a spiritual experience granted to John the Baptist and even to Jesus himself, it’s perhaps better to see Jesus’ baptism as theology in the form of a story – and that’s why it’s so rich in symbolism.
The same is true in the second ‘glimpse behind the scene’. Jesus is transfigured, his face is said to shine like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Two other figures appear talking with him, Moses and Elijah. A cloud overshadows them and a voice is heard to say:
‘This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
Again, the purpose is to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective – he’s someone with whom Moses and Elijah talk, God’s favour rests on him and we are commanded by the voice to listen to him. Yes, this may be a spiritual experience granted to Peter, James and John and even to Jesus himself, but perhaps more usefully we can think of it as theology in the form of a story – and it’s another story rich in symbolism.
Take the cloud, for instance. In scripture, a cloud is often used to signify the presence of God. The mountain too is a place of encounter with the divine. And in today’s first reading both the cloud and the mountain come together.
We heard that when Moses went up Mount Sinai:
‘the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the
Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it
for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses
out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of
the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the
mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses
entered the cloud and went up on the mountain.’
The story of Christ’s transfiguration draws on this rich imagery from the story of Moses, and uses it to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective. He, like Moses, is someone with whom God speaks to face to face, ‘as one speaks to a friend’ (Exodus 33.11).
Clearer reference to a spiritual experience is perhaps found in today’s reading from the second letter of Peter. There we were invited to be attentive to the story of the transfiguration because it’s like:
‘a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star
rises in your hearts.’
The author is suggesting that there’s something glowing, luminous if you like, that the eye of faith can perceive in the person of Christ and which, wonderfully, can be ours too – the morning star rising in our hearts.
So, the story of Christ’s transfiguration is closely linked to our own life of faith, our own growth in holiness and our own potential to be transformed by the beauty of God.
Christ reveals the capacity for all us to be ‘changed from glory into glory’ as we shall soon sing. Or again as our collect suggests, we pray ‘that we may be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.’
There’s an invitation here for us to take seriously the ongoing, day-to-day process of growing in holiness – and that’s what we’re invited to give particular attention to each Lent.
Lent is an opportunity to grow closer to God.
We do this by simplifying our lives, concentrating a little more on the important things such as prayer, and repairing broken relationships and broken patterns in our lives.
It’s an invitation that goes out each year for us to take a positive step, so that our lives and our convictions can be just a little more closely aligned.
May the morning star rise in each of our hearts this Lent.