A sermon preached by Eleanor Childs on 3 February 2019
Sometimes life just seems to be all about the daily round, keeping the house in order, going to work, getting the children to school, paying the mortgage, meeting friends, looking forward to holidays. And that’s enough to keep most of us busy. But occasionally something happens to open our eyes to another reality, above and beyond the visible and physical. It can be an experience of the awesomeness of nature, falling in love, heavenly music, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a car crash or an encounter with God.
That’s what our gospel passage is about: the disciples’ experience of another reality above and beyond the everyday. Mind you, you couldn’t have described their everyday life previous to this as routine, or earthbound. As they followed Jesus, they saw him heal the sick, raise the dead, and he has just fed 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus’ popularity was at its height. The crowds were following. In the previous chapter to today’s He has just asked the disciples who they think he is and Peter has declared, ‘The Christ of God.’ At last they have real insight into his true identity. Excitement and expectation must have been building. Jesus’ kingdom of righteousness and peace and justice and freedom from oppression is going to be set up, and they are on board, in key positions.
Except that just after Peter’s acclamation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ of God, Jesus warned them that he must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment and put to death, and on the third day he would rise again. He added that all those who wanted to follow him must also be prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. He didn’t want to nurture any false hopes in them which would be dashed by the course of events that he knew lay ahead of him. After the miracles the disciples had witnessed, which spoke of another reality, the coming of the kingdom of God, this just didn’t fit with their hopes and expectations. Matthew in recording the same incident tells us that Peter remonstrated with Jesus and was sharply rebuked.
The event described in today’s gospel, we are told, took place a week after this. It says Jesus ‘took Peter, John and James with him and went up a mountain to pray.’ Why go up a mountain to pray? That’s a bit of an effort, isn’t it, – to climb a mountain to pray. I imagine it was partly to escape crowds following them, and to be alone. But I sometimes think we all have to climb a mountain, metaphorically speaking, in order to pray. There can be so many distractions and calls on our time in life that we have to make a real effort and preparation in order to clear a space in our lives to be still and available to God in prayer. That’s what Jesus and his disciples did.
Jesus always sought in every detail of his life to know and do his Father’s will. Prayer was essential to him and he delighted in relationship with his Father. This time of prayer was a very special one for him. He was at a critical juncture in his ministry. The signs or miracles he had performed had indicated that the kingdom of God was at hand. His disciples at last had some glimmers as to his true identity. He was just about to set out for Jerusalem and the Cross and before He took this crucial step He sought God’s face in prayer. And it was there on the Mountain that the disciples had the experience of another layer of reality, a parallel reality, the eternal kingdom of God. They see as Jesus prays that his face and clothes take on a dazzling radiance, and talking to him are Moses and Elijah. They too, we are told, are clad ‘in glorious splendour.’ These are the two great figures of Israel’s history, representing the Law and the Prophets. Moses is the great figure of the OT who had superintended the offering of the Passover sacrifice which preceded the Israelites’ departure from slavery in Egypt – what is known as the Exodus. He was Israel’s lawgiver, receiving the 10 Commandments from God. Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, who lived in a later era, apart from doing great miracles, turned Israel’s heart back to the covenant God had made with them. Separated in time by centuries, these 2 great figures of Israel’s history appear here on the mountain talking with Jesus.
And what are they talking about? It says, ‘They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.‘ The word for ‘departure’ in Greek is ‘exodus’. Jesus’s sacrifice of his life will initiate a new exodus from the slavery of sin, and by sin we mean all that binds human beings and contaminates their relationships with one another and with God. Jesus died to open the way into the freedom of God’s kingdom where forgiveness, acceptance, joy and service are the order of the day. These 2 great figures from Israel’s life and history, Moses and Elijah, had ministries which prefigured that of Jesus and here they are talking with Jesus about what he is going to accomplish.
A lot of people, even some who claim to be Christian, see Jesus as a good man and great teacher who fell foul of the authorities and was wrongfully executed. But those are not the facts. Scripture makes it clear time and again that Jesus offered himself deliberately as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Look at the language used, ‘They spoke about his departure (ie.exodus) which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’ ‘To bring to fulfilment’: that was his mission. To reconcile alienated humanity to a holy God, through the sacrifice of his pure and holy life. It was deliberate, pre-planned. All the imagery here – lightning, brightness, glorious splendour indicates the purity and holiness of this heavenly realm. The kingdom of God is of a different order from earthly kingdoms and it was not going to be made accessible in response to public request or the power of the sword or merit points for good behaviour. No, it was to be available through faith in Christ and his atoning death.
The three disciples are awed by the radiance they see, and of course, Peter rushes in where angels fear to tread. ‘Master, it is good to be here. Let us put 3 shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.‘ It’s a very human response to a spiritual experience, isn’t it? Let us do something to hang on to this moment, to fix it, get a handle on it. Let’s make a shrine, put up a cathedral. But a cloud envelops them and they are afraid, for they are in the presence of an awesome God who speaks to them and says, ‘This is my son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ First of all we notice God is not going to let anyone be put on a par with his son, not even the most revered and holy of his people, Moses and Elijah. God will allow no human being to be worshipped as Jesus is. And what he most requires of us is not that we make shrines which are external things which usually come under the control of a religious establishment but that we listen to him. Through Jesus God speaks to us and invites us into relationship.
And listening is hard for us. If I’d been there, I might have wanted to talk – ‘Wow, did you see that? Where did they come from? What was that light?’ Except maybe the awesomeness and otherness of it all might have shocked me into silence. The disciples hadn’t been very good at listening to Jesus in the previous chapter when he spoke about his death and resurrection, because their minds were probably excited by miracles and influenced by their own expectations and agendas for the Messiah. Here Peter’s agenda or bright idea got in the way. Unless we learn to listen very carefully we will not discern God’s agenda for, as Scripture says, God’s ways are not our ways. In fact they often go against the grain. What disciple would ever have dreamt that going to a humiliating death on the cross was in God’s plan? Jesus knew these disciples needed some insight into God’s plan if they were going to experience his crucifixion with their faith intact. That is why he took them up the mountain with him. They were granted a glimpse into another level of reality above and beyond the mundane. Jesus had constant contact with both realities simultaneously throughout his life. When we put our faith in him, we too have access to spiritual reality but we still need to listen very intently to God or we may just follow our own bright ideas as Peter was ready to do. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that we will have amazing visions of God – though some Christians do. This experience was a one-off for the disciples, and it was followed by an experience of abject failure when they descended from the mountain. Following Him, though, does mean that our eyes will be open to the reality of God’s amazing love for us, and his offer of forgiveness and new life in Christ. That will involve us in learning to listen to him and discern His action in our world.
And how we learn to listen to him is a whole other subject – not for this morning!