Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 19 February 2023.
• First Reading: Exodus 24: 12–18 (Moses summoned to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone with the law and commandments)
• Epistle: 2 Peter 1: 16–21 (Eyewitnesses of His majesty, not cleverly devised stories)
• Gospel: Matthew 17: 1–9 (The transfiguration of Jesus)
Many years ago on a family holiday in the south of France, we did a day trip into Spain. One part of that trip involved driving into the Pyrenees mountains and at one stage the road led into low lying clouds on top of the mountains.
I was aged about six, and did not know very much about Spain – or anything else for that matter, but of one I was certain: that if we went into that cloud we would never come out again. The feeling was overwhelming. Well, we did go into that mountain top cloud – but did we come out of it in the same state as we went in? I am not so sure about that.
There was a definite sense that strange and mysterious thing happened in mountains especially those capped with clouds. This was a place of danger, and of otherness. You just never knew. Who could say who or what was watching and waiting for us as we went up that road?
Out of the mouths and all that – there was an understanding and an expectation that things might not be completely safe.
And yet in the Bible, the glory of God – the Shekinah – is described as a cloud of unbelievable and unapproachable brightness. A place from which thunders and lightnings proceed and where the voice of God is very clear and totally unanswerable. Except possibly, ‘Yes, Lord.’
Now we are in the place where Moses and Joshua went up to meet with God. Joshua stayed back while Moses went on and abode in the presence of God for 40 days. And he came back not only with the voice of God ringing in his ears but with the voice of God written down. 10 sentences, some of which were very succinct.
These would be the House Rules for the House of Israel. They started with 4 concerning their relationship with God and then finished with 6 concerning their relationships with one another.
We like to think that this was the spiritual, moral and political foundation not only for the people of Israel but for all who followed in their footsteps as they worshipped God and as they related to one another, but somehow they have all been eroded by human expediency and convenience.
None of the first 4 is observed by our society, and come to think of it, none of the last 6 carries much weight either.
That is where we are.
But then there is another mountain, some 1200 years later. Maybe not very craggy or even very lofty. The mountains of Israel do not compare that well with the Cairngorms. Maybe the Campsies are a better comparison. But for the purposes of Jesus, it was mountain enough. It was not about the height or ruggedness but the remoteness and provided that there was nobody else there then that was enough.
Again, Jesus went up bringing Peter and James and John along. There was something He wanted them to see. No amount of telling would be enough, but they would have something to say in due course.
Again there was a delay and the disciples became drowsy and fell asleep. Waking up, they were in a different place. Jesus was speaking to two others – but nobody else had come up the mountain with them.
This time it was about completing the work that both Moses and Elijah had been given on Mount Sinai. The law and the prophets would be brought to their completion and yet would be renewed and revived by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Law would be condensed down to the command to love God above and before all other things and it would be sealed by the blood of Jesus, the one perfect and complete sacrifice.
And yes, they were to love their neighbours, and then one another with the same commitment that Jesus had shown them.
The prophets would be completed and redefined by the gospels, yet to be written, and nobody was going to have the right to set them aside, and certainly not for their political or cultural convenience. The Word of God is not lightly tampered with or manipulated for the sake of a short-lived popularity.
If Jesus had wanted popularity He could have had it for the asking, but that was never the purpose of His life on the earth. No, the issues here were about far more than the life and death of Jesus. They were about the life and death of the whole of humanity. The future of civilization and learning and art and all human institutions.
It is tempting for us to say of the Transfiguration of Jesus ‘Oh, how spiritual!’ and then to carry on with our own lives and interests. To savour the thought of the cloud but not its utter seriousness and gravity. This is never something to be trivialized or reduced to bite-sized chunks so that people can take it at their leisure and convenience.
The Transfiguration of Jesus looks back at the law and the prophets and forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Above it all and overshadowing it is that cloud of unspeakable holiness and unapproachable glory from which comes the voice of God, and speaking of Jesus: LISTEN TO HIM.
When we start doing that then we will also be far more able to listen to one another with ears of understanding and of insight. It is the starting point for being the people of God that He always wanted us to be.