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The Transfiguration: Luke 9 v28-36                 

6 August 2017

How do you define a mountain?

A hill over 1000 ft? That would make Cleeve Hill a mountain! The view is great, but, I don’t think we can say the highest point in Gloucestershire is a mountain.

Something with a nicely shaped peak and with snow on top in winter? Something with a good all round view? Maybe something that gives you a feel of euphoria when you get to the top, a sense of achievement, or total exhaustion, or that experience of needing to shelter from the gale?

Something where the downhill pressure on joints ends up feeling worse than the uphill climb?

Mountains are Biblical and are associated with key Biblical figures: Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Paul doesn’t seem to have been much of a mountaineer, probably spending quite a lot of his time seasick. Moses, Elijah and Jesus have dramatic and mysterious meetings with God on the tops of mountains. They are in the presence of God’s glory, but, the real challenge begins when they get down the mountain again, back to the reality and everyday-ness of the lowlands, or the valley, or the plain.

Moses, in Exodus 24, speaks with God face to face, and Moses own face shines with the reflected glory. The people are afraid to go near him, never mind God. He receives the law on tablets of stone and brings them down the mountain (you’re not supposed to remove great chunks of stone from hills these days!).

At the foot of Mt Sinai, well, trouble. Moses witnesses the outrageous behaviour of the Israelites, the idol of the golden calf, the permissive activities, and he smashes the tablets of stone. What an anti-climax. Now what do I do Lord?

Elijah, on the top of Mt Carmel, defeats the prophets of the God Baal in a test of God’s power. Israel’s God triumphs and Elijah suggests that perhaps Baal has taken a loo break just at the wrong time! Triumph? No sooner is Elijah back down the mountain than Jezebel is after his blood and Elijah has to flee for his life into the wilderness.

Jesus, with the disciples on the mount of Hermon, most likely, is transfigured, dramatically dazzling those who witness it, and in the presence of Moses and Elijah. God speaks; ‘This is my son, listen to him’. Similar words as at Jesus’ baptism telling us that, here is another commissioning for Jesus; last time for his preaching and teaching, this time for his coming passion and death. The glory of the mountain is to be followed by a different kind of glory, through trial and suffering and death, once Jesus has come down the mountain and travels to Jerusalem.

The disciples too know the glory of the mountain experience; ‘it is good to be here’ says Peter. But, once down the mountain there is frustration and confusion for them in not being able to cast out the demon from the possessed child foaming at the mouth. The glory of the mountain top, is followed by the messiness and struggle of the everyday on the plain.

Do we sense a familiarity in some way with this theme? We can recall moments of glory in our own lives –family celebrations, visiting places we’d always wanted to get to, standing on the top of that mountain, basking in some beautiful music or gathered up into joy through worship, having got through a really challenging day without mishap and being congratulated, holding  a newborn baby in our arms. Times, when we have been, as it were, on the mountain top and dazzled with moments of glory, of God’s mysterious presence and real blessing.

But then, we can very quickly feel back down on the valley floor, the plain of the everyday and its troubles. The sudden illness, the hurtful words, the mistakes when we should have known better, the pressure of time to get everything done. This was brought home to me when I met a man recently, who told me that 2 days after a wonderful family celebration for he and his wife’s 40th wedding anniversary, she was told she had terminal cancer. What a dramatic and challenging contrast in experience and feeling. But, he said, their wedding anniversary experience made all the difference to facing the illness. Transfiguration on the mountain makes the difference to the struggles of the plain.

Kathy Keay gives us a prompt about this in a short piece she’s written:

That which I give my energy to, which I love, hate, find challenging, demanding, frustrating, rewarding:

This is my work- that which I must do, on a daily basis, in order to live, and to prove, that I am fully alive.

Lord, thank-you that as we work in the world, engaging our best energies, in that which is before us, you work within us, through that same struggle, the fabric of our redemption’.

The glory of God in us, indwells in the everydayness of us.

Tom Denny has several stained-glass windows in this cathedral His largest is in Durham Cathedral: the transfiguration window. The huge space of white light in the shape of a cross spreads out from the centre and is scattered through the everyday places and people that surround it across the window. We face our challenges bathed in the light of the transfigured Christ.

For us now, the light of transfiguration on the mountain is the glory of the crucified and risen Christ. The dazzle of that glory fills us with the activity of the Holy Spirit of God working through our joys and sorrows. This is the divine light working in the fabric our lives lived out on the plain of daily life, to redeem and transform.

In Tom’s window is the figure of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who was, for a time, Bishop of Durham. His most famous writing was on the transfiguration of Christ. He said:

you place the circumstances and events which daunt you, frighten you and challenge you, in the setting of the eternal, just as Christ with his passion before him was observed to be transfused with light’. 

It’s almost as if we are living figures in a stained-glass window. The light of the glory of Jesus Christ shines through us and the condition of our lives, and beyond into that which we love, and affect, and have to do with. Whatever our challenges ahead, we are to know ourselves transfused with the light and glory of Christ, and the Spirit of his redemption and healing at work, in and through us.

Ramsey said, ‘the message of the transfiguration is this; that Jesus on his way to death is in glory’.

It’s been put for us in this way by the 17th century poet, John Donne:

‘Dispel, O Lord, O Father of lights, all clouds of doubt, and the darkness about our earthly course, that in thy light we may see light and come both to know thee as we are known, and to love as we are loved; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

Canon Richard Mitchell

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