This sermon was preached by Rev Caroline on Sunday 26 February 2017. Broadband issues prevented us bring it to you earlier.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking to a packed church in Memphis trying to stir the conscience of America. As he did so he recounted the struggle for human rights and the challenge that continued to lay ahead. As his speech reached its climax he declared “I have been to the mountaintop”. That quotation was referring to Moses and, as the audience (roaring and clapping their approval to the reference to that ancient story of liberation) yearned for their own freedom, King ended his speech with the words “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he was assassinated.
Our passage from Exodus was inspirational for the civil rights movement. Moses has led the Israelites from oppression and they were making their way towards a promised land that they do not know. Their time in the wilderness tested their faith and Moses is given a prolonged glimpse of God’s glory during this time of withdrawal to the mountain top. He was so transfigured by the experience that, on return to camp, he wore a veil so that others could bear to be in his presence. The encounter gave him strength to continue with his mission. There must have been times, as their journey to the Promised Land continued, where he looked back on and drew strength from that encounter with God just as we look back to our own mountain top experiences to sustain our spiritual journey.
Today’s gospel brings us Matthew recounting the experience of Peter, James and John as they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top – an account that is retold in the oral tradition of the time in our reading from 2 Peter. Through this we have the handing down this account of Jesus’ transfiguration to future generations stressing the truth of this experience and confirming Jesus as the Son of God through his transformation and the voice of God heard on the mountain top confirming his identity.
Both Moses and Jesus were seen to be anointed for their task ahead just as we are anointed through faith in Jesus for the task of shining his light into the world around us. Moses spending 40 days in the presence of God gave him a reflection of that glory that the world could clearly see.
Jesus, when he was transfigured, received that honour and glory first hand. His status was affirmed. The voice from heaven is directed to the onlookers and, through their sharing of this encounter, with generations of believers down the centuries. This has confirmed all that the prophets have said.
Whilst there is controversy over the authorship of the second book of Peter, the author of the letter clearly evidences (with 2 male eye witnesses to be culturally admissible) God’s awesome revelation of Jesus’ divinity. It is one thing to be aware of God creator of the world and present in it – it is quite another to have a clear revelation of the importance of the truth that the man that they knew, Jesus, is God with us. Both Matthew and Mark talk about Jesus coming again in a cloud with power and glory. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top the revelation was also anticipating this second coming.
There had been controversy over the truth of the gospels therefore Peter is keen, in his account of the transfiguration, to stress the honour of God who made the promise of the Messiah and the honour of the prophets and teachers who have relayed that promise down the centuries. By relaying these stories the community of believers become eye witnesses to what happened on the mountain. This keeps Jesus’ followers robust in keeping the faith whilst keeping at bay those who, at the time, that would describe it as myths.
Both the evidence of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and the anticipation of his return are key truths that Peter wants us to hold on to when he says: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
Martin Luther King Jr sought to keep the light of hope in civil rights alight in the hearts of his listeners. Peter wants us to keep the light of hope of Jesus’ return alive in the hearts of believers.
These beautiful words invite us down the generations to be attentive to where God is revealing his presence and his power today. We need to hold on to knowing that the identity of the Messiah has been confirmed even in the midst of the darkness of the world and its challenges to faith. Those moments of revelation may not always be the large and startling epiphanies like the transfiguration that Peter, James and John witnessed – there may be more subtle moments of revelation. But, we are reminded that we are all called to become “God Spotters” noticing where God is working in our lives and communities and sharing that witness to build up the community of faith as a whole. We are being encouraged to return to our mountain top experiences when we were more deeply aware of the light of Christ touching our lives and hold onto those in the quiet of our hearts to strengthen and develop sustain us during times of trial.
Reliable statements from a community of faith have the effect of shining light into the dark places in the world and our community rather than subscribing to the pessimism expressed by many around us. This is the message of hope that we carry in our heart through the blessing of our faith. The reliable prophetic voices that the world yearns to hear that draw people towards Christ and the encouragement that there is another way that we can live our lives in spiritual freedom.
So how do we become that reliable prophetic voice in the world around us? We follow the instruction of God himself about his Son: “listen to him” – discerning his voice above the clamour of the false prophets of the world.
There were plenty of false prophets around then and these continue down the generations. When prophesies come from our own mind we need to seek God’s affirmation through the spirit of God breathing his life and truth into them. Our reading from 2 Peter stresses that it is the spirit that confirms true prophets and dispels the false. He is setting the scene for denouncing false prophets.
So who are the false prophets in society today?
Kerry Moscoguiri from Amnesty International reports a rise in hate crime inspired by dangerous ideas shared by politicians in various parts of the world. The Guardian reported that Brexit campaigning had the real and sinister impact of a 57% spike in reported hate crime the week after the vote.
We also only need to look at the media to see the evil and violent impact of false prophets twisting the words of true faith to inspire others to religious hatred.
The writer of our passage from 2 Peter today is stressing the need for withdrawal to read the scriptures with the Spirit breathing God’s voice into our hearts as we interpret what we read lest we find ourselves missing what a God wants to speak to our hearts in our time and place.
In this last Sunday before Lent begins, we are being invited by the readings to enter into the wonder of Jesus, Son of God, revealing the Father to his people and leading them into deeper relationship with Him. To spend time climbing to that holy place of encounter with our Lord. We can only have relationship if we spend time with someone and communicate with them in whatever way seems appropriate….words, silence, actions….to name but a few. We are invited to read the scriptures through a narrow lens allowing the lightness of the spirit to sweep through the words and feed our hearts.
It is in that direct encounter with Jesus that we, too, become transfigured and reveal his light in the darkness around us. Moses entered the cloud on the Holy mountain alone and encountered God alone in his divine splendour where he received the gift of the law. In Matthew’s account, Jesus is accompanied to the mountain top with 3 witnesses to reveal God’s splendour but, by contrast, it is the person of Jesus that returns down the mountain and out into the world. Both the law and Jesus are part of God’s enduring covenant with humanity and both serve to help the community of faith enter into a life giving relationship with their Heavenly Father. Let us embark on our Lenten journey this week inspired by the transfiguration of Jesus to walk more closely in his light and may we be transfigured too by his presence in our lives to the glory of God. Amen.