Sermon for the Eve of the Transfiguration
Exodus 24.12-end; John 12.27-36a
I should warn you that you nearly didn’t get a sermon tonight – there has been too much going on in the Olympics that has been seriously distracting. Yesterday we saw six gold medals, each accompanied by tremendous excitement and wonderful stories. And then Andy Murray this afternoon was really special. There has been glory in the past few days, and, I hope, in the coming days as well.
But without wanting to take away from the enjoyment of the Olympics, it is a very different sort of glory that we are to consider this evening. Tonight we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus. You will remember the story, at the mid-point of Jesus’ ministry, straight after Peter has for the first time dared to say out loud that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain to see his glory revealed as his clothes turn dazzling white, and Jesus is placed between Moses and Elijah. Peter then suggests making three booths, one for Jesus and one each for Moses and Elijah. And then the voice of God is heard saying ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’. Then, as suddenly as it began, it is gone and Jesus alone is left. The Transfiguration is a rich and allusive story which stands at the very heart of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
All of this has strong resonances with our Old Testament reading this evening. Moses takes Joshua and goes up the mountain and the glory of the Lord settles on Mount Sinai “like a devouring fire”. It is an awe-inspiring sight. The glory of the Lord is the presence of God, and throughout the Old Testament we find this to be the case. Where the glory of God is, there God is. God is never without his glory, and his glory is the best clue we have to where God is present. The glory of God speaks of the power of God and of the holiness of God. Thus the Psalmist can urge: “Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength … The voice of the Lord strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, Glory!” (Psalm 29). And in the great vision of Isaiah, the angels say the words that are spoken at every Eucharist: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.3). The glory of God on Mount Sinai is his presence, his power and his holiness.
And our readings this evening take us from the glory of the Lord on Sinai, to the troubled and hurting Jesus. St John’s Gospel contains an account of neither the Transfiguration nor of the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. But our reading tonight is the closest it gets to both of them. This reading from chapter 12 comes right at the end of St John’s account of Jesus public ministry – in chapter 13 we come to the last supper. It begins with Jesus troubled and considering asking God to save him from what lies ahead. But Jesus chooses obedience, ‘for this purpose I have come to this hour,’ he says, ‘Father, glorify thy name’. Here we see Jesus afraid in the face of what is about to happen, but nevertheless choosing to follow the path that lies ahead. Here is Gethsemane. Here we see the humanity of Jesus, in fearing what lies ahead. Here we see the obedience of Jesus, in choosing the path set before him. And here, St John is clear, we see the glory of Jesus. Here is also the Transfiguration.
Glory has been a theme of St John’s Gospel since the very start, when in the prologue, that great reading that we hear every Christmas, we learn that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory’ (John 1.14). St John is telling us that Jesus is the glory of God. Jesus is the place where we see God’s presence, his power and his holiness. The Transfiguration tells us this also – it is in Jesus that we see the Glory of God in its fullest form. More than that, it is in the human and suffering Jesus that we see the Glory of God in its fullest form. Here, in St John’s Gethsemane, we hear the voice from heaven saying that God has glorified his name in Jesus. And a few verses later Jesus speaks of being lifted up. Just in case we missed it, St John tells us that this is ‘to show by what death he was to die’. The Glory of God is seen, above all, in the crucified Jesus.
Here, then, is a good way of understanding the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is a holding together of the Glory of God and the passion of Jesus. It shows us that the whole of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, from his birth to his death, is infused with God’s Glory. It shows us that the whole of Jesus’ life, from his existence as the Word at the beginning of all things to his risen life with us now, points to the cross. It shows us that the God whose presence, power and holiness we see on Mount Sinai is most fully seen in the torturous death of Jesus on a rubbish dump just outside Jerusalem. This is, as St John tells us, the judgment of the world. The glory of God is seen in Jesus. Those who look for glory elsewhere will find only a shallow copy, a fake. This is judgment – that all other sources of glory are fake.
The Transfiguration holds together the Glory of God and the Passion of Jesus. But this is not a piece of interesting theology. It is something that must be lived, by you and me each day. Here we are returned to the commitment and the dedication of the Olympic athletes. They devote their lives to their sport, we no less are to dedicate our lives to living the Gospel. As we do so we will find that we are living out the Transfiguration. We will find that we are drawn into the presence, power and holiness of God, and that we enter into the Glory of God which holds all things together.
We are drawn into presence of God as we discover that in Christ the universe is transfigured: the spiritual and the material are held together. In Jesus, the Word made flesh, we have seen the glory of God. That means that Christians are profoundly interested in the material world. It is no accident that the first western scientists were Christians. It is no accident that Christians throughout history have been concerned with the bodily needs of people: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless. In Jesus, the Word made flesh, we have seen the glory of God. We continue to see the glory of God in human flesh on the streets of Derby, in the carnage of Syria and in the joys and pains of all human life. That is why we as a Cathedral collect food for the Padley Centre. That is why we as a Cathedral are interested in Derby becoming a city of Sanctuary. In practical ways, small and great, we hold together the material and the spiritual. In doing so we enter into the presence of God and behold his Glory.
We are drawn into the power of God as we discover that in Christ pain and death is transfigured: in him hope and suffering held together. Suffering does not cease to be suffering. Jesus approaches his death with fear and questioning. But it is capable of being transfigured into something that is creative and fruitful for God. The offering of even our suffering as something that God can use to further his purposes is one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. But it is an offering we can make. Think of the victims of terror, whose forgiveness opens possibilities for reconciliation in the future. Or of the parents of a teenager dead from a drug overdose whose work in raising awareness of the dangers of drugs changes the lives of other young people. Or of you and I when we allow our pain to turn us outwards to others in compassion, rather than inwards in self-pity. The great All Saints window in this Cathedral shows the triumph of light as the whole of creation is put back together. But in doing so, it keeps the cross at the centre of it. It is around the suffering of the cross that the new creation happens. It holds together hope and suffering and as it does so we enter into the power of God and behold his glory.
The Transfiguration holds together the Glory of God and the Passion of Jesus. It transfigures the universe as it holds together the material and the spiritual. It transfigures pain and death as it holds together hope and suffering. We are drawn into the presence and the power of God and we behold his glory. And, finally, we are drawn into the holiness of God as we discover that in Christ, our understanding of God is transfigured – in him the God of Sinai and the God of Calvary are held together. Despite various attempts, we simply cannot understand Jesus without knowing the Old Testament. But we cannot understand the Old Testament without the passion of Jesus. Think of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explaining the Scriptures to them. Explaining why the Jewish scriptures, in direct and indirect ways, point to the suffering and death of Jesus. And think of ourselves, with all the temptations we face to find God in the glamour of success and the ease of life, and to find only failure in pain and suffering. The death of Jesus transfigures our understanding of God – it holds together the God of Sinai and the God of Calvary, and as it does so we enter the holiness of God and behold God’s glory.
The Transfiguration holds together the Glory of God and the Passion of Jesus. The whole of God’s glory is seen in the crucified Jesus, and the crucified Jesus is the whole of God’s glory. As we celebrate this feast, we are brought into the presence, the power and the holiness of God that we may behold his glory as day by day we take up our cross and follow him. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 5.8.12.