Sermon preached on Transfiguration Sunday (6 August 2017) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on Transfiguration Sunday (6 August 2017) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

On the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the Dean encourages us to 'take time this week to be still with God, to discover in the cloud the God who cannot be grasped, but who we pray will grasp us, and in Jesus lead us home.'

72 years ago today the first atomic bomb used in war exploded above Hiroshima in Japan, and the nuclear age began. For the first time humanity had the means to destroy the human world in an instant. And ever since then we have lived in its shadow: many of us will have grown up with the fear of nuclear war and disaster, a fear which after being eclipsed for a while by anxiety about climate change is rearing its head again in relation to North Korea. And the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants among others over the last 40 years have reminded us of the potential for radioactive devastation. The mushroom cloud will not cease to hang over us.

However, it’s not Hiroshima that we primarily remember today in the Christian Church – it’s a much more profound event, an event which is about life and hope, not war and death; an event which challenges us about the very nature of reality: what we call the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Most of us I guess live our lives without thinking much about why and what for. Partly because we’re just busy with the day by day work of living; partly because we hope for a better future for ourselves and those we care about; perhaps because it’s not fashionable any more to think about God and death and ultimate values, because we are followers of science and so what we can’t see or prove doesn’t exist for us.

Whether or not you describe yourself as a religious or spiritual person, there are times for almost everyone, when faced with death or despair, injustice or doubt, that we wonder about the point of it all; whether there’s more to life than this, and whether what we believe about God and the world, either way, is true. Are we more than the temporarily animated dust of ancient stars?

Such questions have been around ever since humanity began thinking. And the Transfiguration which we remember today is a tantalising glimpse that there is indeed more to life than dust and death: a glimpse of how we’re to be transformed into something greater, not as isolated individuals but in relationship, not on our own but as part of a much greater story, of which this life is but a beginning.

You’ve just heard the Transfiguration story read: Jesus and his three most trusted disciples climb a mountain to pray, when Jesus is seen to change appearance and talk with two of the great figures from Jewish history, and the disciples are terrified as a cloud covers them and God speaks of his beloved Son.

The story comes in each of the first three gospels, just after the point when the disciples have realised that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the saviour of the Jewish people, and Jesus has begun to try and make them realise that he’s not a political Messiah who’s going to make war on the Romans, but has come to suffer and die and be raised again from the dead for the sake of others. ‘Try and hang on to life and you’ll lose it’ says Jesus; ‘lose your life for my sake and you’ll find it.’ And then comes this vision of Transfiguration, before Jesus comes down from the mountain-top with God and goes on his way towards Jerusalem and his suffering and death.

There are three particular things to note about this story as Luke tells it. The first is that Luke makes it very explicit that the Transfiguration shows Jesus fulfilling the hopes of the Jewish people for a new Messiah. It’s not only that he speaks with Moses and Elijah representing law and prophecy. In your English version it says that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing the departure of Jesus at Jerusalem. The Greek word for ‘departure’ is ‘exodus’: so Jesus is the new Moses, leading all God’s people back to God through his own exodus, his journey to God in which we can all participate.

The second particular point in Luke is that, while Matthew and Mark emphasise the dazzling white of his clothes and his face, only Luke says that the appearance of his face was changed, that he looked different – a detail which prefigures the difficulty the disciples had in recognising Jesus after the resurrection, when having gone through death he appears different from when he was alive; a detail which tells us that we too have the capacity for transformation, that God calls us to become who we really are by the life of God in us, that as St Paul says, we will all be changed from one degree of glory to another.

And the third point is that it’s only Luke who tells us that the Transfiguration happened while Jesus was praying: that it was in the intensity of Jesus’ relationship with God, in openness with God, that the glory of God shone out through him.

The Transfiguration is not only a promise that Jesus will lead us on the way through death and resurrection, on the new exodus to God. It’s also that we will become part of that exodus story together with others, not on our own: that renewed humanity comes through relationship, not only with God, but also with the other followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration was about the transforming closeness of God: but it was in the company of those closest to him that Jesus entered so intimately into the company of God.

So how does this Transfiguration help us with the question of the meaning of life and what if anything lies beyond? One way of understanding it is that Jesus himself, in facing up to his suffering, needed the assurance of God’s love and presence in him: and we can, in the face of our own hardships, our exodus and death, find that assurance of love holding us as we keep company with God in prayer and discover God’s love in the companions God gives us.

Many years ago when my daughters were very young and we were on a cheap church caravan holiday in Scotland, I walked them up a high mountain in the western Highlands on one of those dull dreary days. As we went up we disappeared into low cloud and mist, and struggled on to the rocky top of the mountain. And as we got to the top, for a few minutes the cloud thinned below us and we could glimpse the sea and our caravan way below us and how far we had come, before the cloud swirled back in and the view was lost.

Proof of the world that lies beyond this one is tantalising and fleeting, a passing gift not a possession, yet nonetheless real. The disciples are terrified by the cloud which covers them on the mountain. This isn’t the mushroom cloud of nuclear destruction, fear and death, nor the Scotch mist of every day cares and worries. This is the cloud which covers the presence of God, as when God spoke to the people of Israel on the mountain of Sinai many centuries before; the cloud which also covers Jesus and hides away the prophets with whom he speaks. There is no easy way to God, no leaving the clouds behind and getting a clear view. Rather, we have to enter into the cloud to find God’s love alongside us in Jesus, the cloud of God’s loving and overwhelming presence, in which, not despite which, we can glimpse the glory of God.

There’s an ancient English book on prayer written some 650 years ago called the Cloud of Unknowing, which speaks of God as hidden in cloud, unknowable and yet approachable by those who love and long for the presence of God. The anonymous author says:

‘God may well be loved, but not thought. By love God can be caught and held, but by thinking never.…. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.’

In the Transfiguration we glimpse the reality which lies beyond what we think we know and experience, and see that prayer and love is at its heart. Take time this week to be still with God, to discover in the cloud the God who cannot be grasped, but who we pray will grasp us, and in Jesus lead us home.