Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday next before Lent (23 February 2020) by the Revd Canon James Milne

Worship
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12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday next before Lent (23 February 2020) by the Revd Canon James Milne

The Reverend Canon Dr Anne Tomlinson, Principal, The Scottish Episcopal Institute, reflects on reconciling our transfiguring mountain-top experiences with daily life.


2 Kings 2, 1-12; Matthew 17, 1-23


May I speak in the name of God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit.
It was, without a doubt, a touchstone experience in our lives. A few sublime moments full of light and glory. Oh, we can’t explain it rationally. It was beyond our understanding, a mysterious epiphany, unexplainable in ordinary words - though others have tried to systematise it. No, for us it was a brilliant light show, a divine son et lumière, an extravagance of effulgence like that which Elisha saw, describable only by the tongues of poets.

In that moment we were whole,

our wrists as fresh and pure as water from a well,
our hands made new to handle holy things,
the source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed.*


We were eyewitnesses. We perceived our Master in a new way, ‘we saw His glory, the glory He has from the Father’ (John 1, 14); His human body a luminous ikon, divinity revealed. And in the ensuing darkness, dazzled, we heard God’s voice resonating through our veins, tingling the harmonics of our souls. We fell prostrate to the ground before that divine majesty in fear and awe, wonder and worship. It was, I tell you, the peak experience of our lives, a moment ‘both in and out of time’, when the veil that covers the sublime was removed and God gave us a glimpse of how the world really is, ‘deep down things’.


Our Master sensed our terror and with reassuring words and gentle touch urged us to our feet. ‘The world rolled back into its place’ and we saw Him as before – but all had somehow changed. For now we knew that there was more to life than could ever be told or understood. We had seen through to the heart of the matter, to the radiant Kingdom which is already here and yet a long way off.


You ask, ‘did it change us?’ Well, yes - and no. We had to leave the mountain-top and trudge downwards to the plain below where all the usual disappointments crowded in afresh: the needs and seekings of so many folk, our failure to deal with a fraction of those demands; our untransfigured natures. Oh yes! that was the worst of all, that was our deepest pain – our failure to be faithful to our Lord, our fearfulness (despite his tranquil words), our feuding and our fights, our unsupportiveness the night before He died, our cowardice at the Cross.


And yet, and yet .. that moment on the mountain fuelled our later lives; our work of witness, our attempts to serve, our travels across land and sea to spread God’s word. That moment on the mountain gave us strength and an enduring hope; reminded us each time our faith felt weak of Whom we served and why; refreshed our waning spirits with new impetus; renewed our vigour and our sense of call. Little by little, despite the setbacks, we became more like our Lord, our minds renewed, our souls transformed, edging our way from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3, 18).


Yes, we were changed by that transfiguring experience. It was good to be there, truly it was.


This afternoon you and I have also climbed Mount Tabor. God has revealed Godself to us in this act of worship; in this time set apart from the dailiness of our lives; in the majesty of this place; in the company of others. God has spoken to us in the words of scripture and through the transporting language of music. And for a little while the veil has been removed; we have been addressed and our souls touched.


Maybe we came into this place in anxious mood and have heard Christ’s words of reassurance ‘Do not be afraid’.
Maybe we came into this place feeling lonesome or discouraged, and have felt His gentle touch mediated to us in the care shown to us by a welcome or another worshipper, a tangible assurance of His presence on the road ahead.
Maybe we came into this place worn down by the falsehood and cynicism of the world around us, and have experienced the healing power of beauty, the darkness of our mood lit up by the divine dazzlement.
Maybe we have heard words of reassurance, of affirmation, of guidance. Of ‘softnesse and peace, and joy and love and blisse’.**
Maybe, just maybe, we too can say ‘it is good to be here’. Being in the presence of the glorified Christ in worship is indeed a wonderful place to be.


But mountain-tops are not places in which to dwell for long; the air is thin up there and soon we can feel light-headed and a little unsteady. We are not meant to remain in such a state of ecstasy. For in such moments we are acted upon by God, presented to ourselves afresh. ‘What we encounter in contemplation of God is not only to be looked at but to be lived in’ (Augustine Conf. VII, 20). Out of such encounters stem changed behaviours, new ways of being ‘strenuously worked out’ (Louth) through the rest of our lives.


No, it is not for us to try to remain in the heights of ecstatic contemplation clinging to those moments of glory and seeking to freeze time, Havisham-like. ‘Get up’ (v.7) says Christ, and come down to earth again, to the mundanity of the plain where demons dwell.
There will be many sorrows there, inexplicable evils, uncontrollable events and needs you cannot assuage. You will indeed need to be prepared to walk my via dolorosa and share my cup, face trials and betrayals, death and the darkness. But turn with me now towards the glory of Calvary that this mountain-top experience has prefigured.


And so, obediently, we turn our faces towards Lent, to the strictures of a more disciplined life, to our need to listen more closely to the beloved Son and see Him only (v.8). We know all too well the deserts and the darkness ahead, the wilderness of temptation, the perils of the call to sacrifice and servanthood. We too will be ‘greatly distressed’ (v.23) and sometime overwhelmed. At times it will be as if ‘all that radiant Kingdom lies forlorn.


But let us hold fast to our touchstone experiences, whether it be here this afternoon or on other Tabors. Those places where we have perceived
that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in Him alone the Father is well pleased***.


Those mountain-top experiences will help us walk through the ‘disquietude of the world’**** with more courage because we view ‘the things that frighten us within the transfiguring frame’ (Ramsey). So let us hold fast to them, carrying in our mind’s eye the assurance of a world transfigured, until we are brought
into the house and gate of heaven … where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity*****
And where we will say, for ever, ‘it is good to be here’.

 


* Muir, E. ‘The Transfiguration’ The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir The Association for Scottish Literary Studies 1991, 185- 187
** ‘Sounding heaven and earth’, the closing voluntary, is inspired by ‘Prayer’, a sonnet by George Herbert, from which these words come.
*** Ramsey, A.M. The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ Wipf and Stock 2009, 144
**** Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration American Prayer Book
***** Donne, J. Dean of St Paul’s. ‘Our Last Awakening’ https://www.stmw.org/donne.html