Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sunday next before Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for February 23, 2020.

The Sunday next before Lent:


Exodus 24:12-end
2 Peter 1:16-end
Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel reading today is Saint Matthew’s account of the transfiguration.  This was when our Lord took three of his closest disciples: Peter, James, and John and went up a mountain.  This is reminiscent of what Moses had done to receive the ten commandments from God.  Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed, before them and becomes ‘dazzlingly’ white.  Saint Peter, reflecting on this after Jesus had been raised from the dead and had ascended to his father, wrote in our second reading:
‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.’ (2 Peter 1:16)

If we are to understand the significance of this for us today, we need to see the context of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels.  Just before the transfiguration, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus famously asked his disciples who people said that he was.  They reported that people thought he was one of the prophets.  ‘But who do you say that I am,’ Jesus asked them.  Peter replied, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’.  Jesus told him that this insight had been given to him by God himself.

In what follows, however, Peter shows that he is not quite there yet.  When Jesus goes on to explain how being the Messiah means that he must suffer and die, Peter will have none of it, earning from Jesus the well-known reprimand, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’  Jesus continues to explain that not only must he suffer and die, but his disciples must expect the same.  What is more, dying to self is not to be a one-off event, it must be something that characterizes their daily lives.

Only those who lose their lives will save them, and any who seek to save their lives will lose them, Jesus warns.  He concludes:

‘For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ (Matthew 16:26)

Six days later, the transfiguration takes place.

Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  He is asking that in this life they forget about themselves and what they want and concentrate instead on serving him.  We, as his followers today, are to turn our back on this world and its attitudes, values, and priorities and accept suffering as a consequence, looking to the future and not to the present.  If we are to do this, we need to know that it is worth it and that the One who asks this commitment of us is worth it and can deliver on his promises.  Otherwise, we are simply deluding ourselves.

Even if Jesus is the Messiah, why should we have to make such great sacrifices for him?  Why, indeed, should we take any notice of him?

After all, many would be leaders make promises before they come to power.  Politicians, for example, promise much before they are elected.  ‘Support me and I will give you this and that,’ they tell us to secure our allegiance to them and to their cause.  Many make such promises cynically with no intention of keeping them.  Others do so sincerely enough, but, once they gain power, it turns out that they are not in a position to deliver on what they have promised.  How do we know that Jesus the Messiah is able to keep his promises?

It is at this point that God steps in.  As Jesus and his three disciples are alone at the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them.  They see him now not simply as a prophet and teacher, or even as the hoped for Messiah.  He is all this, but more, much more.  Jesus is, the Voice from heaven tells them, God’s Beloved Son.  Not a son in the sense that special people in the past were God’s son, but in a far deeper sense.

This had been what the Voice had said at Jesus’ baptism before Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tested - as we shall be thinking about on Wednesday as we begin Lent.

Now, however, the Voice from heaven adds a command: LISTEN TO HIM!  Jesus is God’s very own Son sent by him and we are to listen to him.  Not listen to him and then get on with our lives as if he hasn’t spoken but listen to him and do as exactly as he says knowing that our very lives depend on it.

There are three things, in particular, for us to take away from this today.

1. We too need to see Jesus for who he really is

Many, including sadly, Christians, are happy to see Jesus as a prophet or a religious teacher, even the greatest religious teacher, but no more.  We are happy with a fully human Jesus, but we don’t want a fully divine Jesus.  We have gone in for a kind of ‘reverse transfiguration’ in which the divine Jesus of the Church’s faith has been transfigured into something more palatable to us.

We are comfortable with the idea of Jesus the teacher who offers us good advice, but Jesus as God’s Son, who must be listened to and obeyed, is not something we are quite so keen on.

We are to follow Jesus not because we like what he says, nor for what he can do for us, we are to follow him because he is who he is.  For if he is who he claimed to be, then we would be mad not to follow him.

2. We need to be clear what he asks of us

Even though they had been given this amazing experience, Jesus’ disciples still didn’t get it, and it was only later that they realized the significance of what they had experienced and of what Jesus had taught them.  They had grasped that Jesus was special.  They now also had some insight into just how special, but they still could not accept what this meant for them in this life.

It was not long after the transfiguration that the disciples argued with one another over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  To their credit, they believed now that the Kingdom of God was coming and Jesus was to be the One who would bring it, but they still thought of it in terms of what was in it for them.  Jesus will not, however, allow them to think like this.  The Kingdom will bring many benefits to those who enter it, but the benefits are of an entirely different kind to those offered to us in this world and to receive them we need to renounce all that this world values and holds so dear.

Not for Jesus’ followers wealth, power, and greatness, but instead, in this life, suffering, sacrifice, and service.  And this is something that as Jesus’ followers we have to take seriously, so seriously that we must deal ruthlessly with anything that gets in the way of it.  Jesus tells his disciples bluntly:

‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.’ (Matthew 18:8-9)

3. We are, then, to do what he tells us to do

‘Listen to him’, said the Voice from heaven.

For if Jesus is who the Voice from heaven says he is, then listening to and obeying him is not just good advice, it is an instruction from God himself that we ignore at our peril.  Knowing who Jesus really is and what it is he requires of us, it is now left to us to just do it.

It will, however, not be easy, and it will mean going against all the advice that we receive from the teachers of this world.  It will mean losing ourselves instead of finding ourselves; it will mean self-denial rather than self-fulfilment; it will mean renouncing material wealth and ambition and acquiring instead ‘treasure in heaven’.  It will mean seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness rather than pursuing pleasure and success.

Jesus wants us to give our lives to him.  And as the saints and martyrs found, this may literally cost us our lives in this world.  For most of us, however, it won’t mean having physically to die for our faith, but it will mean taking our faith and commitment to Jesus seriously and that will involve taking risks.

Following Jesus will be tough and at times lonely.  In the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been reading for the past few Sundays, Jesus says:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

For Saint John, looking back in his Gospel on the ministry of Jesus, the transfiguration was not the first or only time Jesus revealed his true glory.  Jesus did so with his first miracle when he turned water into wine.  On that occasion, the Blessed Virgin Mary said to the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.  As we prepare to enter Lent, she would say it to us.

Today, we too hear the Voice from heaven announce:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’

‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’


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