Sermon: Evensong, 8th Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017, St Alban’s



Dr Ruth Shatford

Exodus 24:12-18;  Psalm 2;  Matthew 17:1-9

Occasionally some sets of lectionary readings are not so easy to see as a piece, but in tonight’s selection, the Exodus reading and the gospel reading really form an almost elegant pair, with some aspects of the psalm highlighting points from each and forming a link between them.

Biblical writers have used various images to try to represent God to God’s people, doing the undoable.  The priestly writer spoke of the glory of God in terms of a descending cloud and a devouring fire.  These pictures rightly give us hints and a feeling rather than give such specific imagery that they would be guilty of trying to make God less than God, in a being we could fully understand.  The presence of God always remains somewhat elusive and as one commentator puts it, there is always a dynamic tension between divine self-disclosure and divine self-concealment.  There remains mystery even in the face of revelation.  He phrases it well when he says that the proximity of God creates a memory and an anticipation of certitude but always defies human appropriation.    The presence is foreshadowed and hinted at, but remains beyond our total grasp.

In the Exodus reading tonight, there are two definite strands or perspectives concerning God’s presence.  Although they may almost sound to be contradictory, there is the nearness of God and the sovereignty of God.  This text is a strong witness to God’s commitment to be intimately involved with His people, set as it is in the context of the communal meal to celebrate the sealing of the covenant, a meal where Moses, Aaron and 70 elders sat down to eat together before God.

But let’s put the reading into a bigger context still.  In Exodus 19 we have recorded that God is revealed in a display of awesome terror, thoughts picked up in the psalm, where thunder and lightning, as well as thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a trumpet represent the presence of God, causing the people to tremble.  The references in this chapter to the Lord descending in fire, the smoke going up and the mountain shaking also express the theme of God’s elusive presence.   In interpreting chapter 24, we need to hold on to the burning terror of the theophany of chapter 19 but in balance with the presence of God in a type of the Eucharistic meal that is celebrated where a new, starkly contrasting avenue of communication has been opened to God’s people in the making of a covenant.

Moses proceeded up the mountain to be in God’s immediate presence and he stayed in the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights, idiom for “a very long time”.  In chapter 34, when Moses had had another encounter with the living God, we read that “his face shone because he had been talking with God”.  In our gospel reading, in Matthew 17, we see that Moses’ transformative encounter with God underlies the Transfiguration of Jesus, where His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  Jesus is echoing and embodying Moses’ encounter with the divine presence.

From the divine presence in the cloud, Moses received the law and commandments, forming a link between God’s presence that gives rise to the response of worship, and God’s covenant demands on his people.  The link is thus made between worship and the law.  The law is to be seen as God’s enduring presence with His people, and God’s presence is to be realised wherever the law is followed.

Let me move now to the gospel reading for tonight from Matthew 17.

Today is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday.  When I was a young person in the Young Anglican Fellowship, our big annual celebration was the Feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th.  I think that the transfer of this feast day has been done with a great deal of purpose and thought and I want to explain why.

The chapter that precedes tonight’s gospel reading is pivotal.  Late in chapter 16, Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  and continues with “But who do you say I am?”.  To this, Simon Peter answered “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”, to which Jesus responds: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”.  Then we are told that from that time on, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer… that he must be killed and on the third day, be raised to life.  Up till this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus had been on the signs and debates of Jesus, his miracles and his radical teaching.  After this confession of Peter’s, Jesus became much more direct with his disciples and it was the beginning of setting his face towards Jerusalem.

So the Transfiguration came straight after Peter’s confession and seems to be crucial in preparing the disciples for the untrodden road ahead.  Others thought Jesus was one of the prophets returned.  Jesus now sought, in the light of Peter’s confession, to teach his disciples what it meant that he was the Son of God.  The people generally had thought that the Messiah would be a militaristic figure, who would lead Israel against her enemies and secure the kingdom of God on earth or even re-establish the glorious kingdom of Solomon.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, after the feeding of the five thousand, there was a move among the people to grab Jesus there and then to make him king.  Jesus overturned this popular idea with his disciples once Peter made his confession that Jesus was the Messiah.  The popular expectation did not seem to take account of Isaiah 53, where it was  foretold that the Messiah would die an inglorious death, apparently defeated by his enemies.

So it was in this atmosphere of what must have been some confusion among the disciples or at least in an atmosphere of trying to process and come to grips with what Jesus had said to them, that the Transfiguration occurred.    Six days after Peter’s confession, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain where they witnessed an amazing sight.  Jesus was glorified right before their eyes and was joined by the long dead Moses and Elijah, lawgiver and prophet, both of whom were themselves recorded as having seen an appearance of God in their lifetimes, in like manner to the way the glory of God had been manifest as told in the Old Testament scriptures.  The voice the disciples heard said the same words as had been said of Jesus at his baptism “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”

Recall the background for a moment:  the disciples had shared in Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah.  They had a mistaken notion as to what that meant.  Jesus spoke of his impending death, which probably turned upside down their idea of his Messiahship and would have left them confused.  The transfiguration was a powerful confirmation of Peter’s confession.  It showed the three chosen disciples that Jesus was not just a teacher, nor a prophet, but was indeed, no less than the Son of God, the Messiah.   God’s words at this event strongly commanded that Jesus be heard;  the Transfiguration was a statement about the authority of Jesus, a demonstration by God that Jesus is Lord.    Against the background of the warning that Jesus would face an ignominious death, there was the encouragement given in the transfiguration that Jesus shared the glory of God and dare we say, the very nature of God.  This would of course, have fallen into place when after the resurrection and the ascension, the disciples recollected this event and could see its significance in a different way.  Although it is not recorded by Matthew in tonight’s reading, Luke’s version of this event tells us that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his approaching death in Jerusalem.  References to Jesus’ death and resurrection surround the Matthew telling of the transfiguration and together these parts of the narrative make it clear that the event was meant to be interpreted in the light of those coming events.  Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell anyone about the event until after his resurrection.  Jesus himself thereby placed this event in the context of his forthcoming death and resurrection.    The glory that lay in store for Jesus would not come through war with Rome, but here was a preview of it, the glory to be attained through death and resurrection.  I wonder if the disciples were able to think of this when Jesus turned his face steadfastly to Jerusalem to face the future they would rather not have known about.

The transfiguration was not a random event, but one precisely sequenced, as it were, to foreshadow the Messiahship he would embrace.

I now really appreciate the placement of the feast of the Transfiguration here at the end of the season of Epiphany and at the threshold of Lent and the journey to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It not only makes good sense, but the Transfiguration teaches us so much about all these events.

May we be encouraged by these readings.  May we learn to not always need the cognitive and to impose meaning, but sit reflectively with the sense of the transcendent, contemplate the glory and the majesty of God through all our senses.  May we, like the disciples in Matthew’s version of the story, express reverence and awe at this event and as our cloud disappears, see only Jesus.  When they were overwhelmed, Jesus approached and touched them, encouraging them to rise and not be afraid.  This was a moment of profound grace for those friends of Jesus, being lifted from their smallness and inadequacy by him.  May we seek that grace from Jesus too, from the Jesus who leads us out to love and to serve, giving ourselves for and to others.