Today, the Christian Church recalls the events of the Transfiguration. This is an important, but highly mysterious event, recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke in their gospels. This is the sermon I preached today about the Transfiguration, based on a hymn in our Methodist hymn book entitled ‘Transfigured Christ, none comprehends’. The set readings today were Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9.
In a few minutes, I shall invite you to sing a hymn from our new book, Singing the Faith. It is entitled ‘Transfigured Christ, none comprehends’ and is written by the hymn writer Alan Gaunt. It is a hymn specifically written for this Sunday of the year, when we recall the events of the Transfiguration. Even though we shall be singing this to a familiar tune, I do appreciate that it can be very hard to take in new hymns immediately. We are usually so concerned with getting the words to fit that we don’t have time to take in their real meaning. So, for my sermon today I am going to work through the six short verses of the hymn and use them as the basis for my reflection on the mysterious passages that we have just heard read.
- Transfigured Christ, none comprehends
your majesty, whose splendour stuns
all waking souls; whose light transcends
the brightness of a thousand suns!
Perhaps the most pertinent words of this hymn are those two in the first line: “none comprehends”. In the passage, we’ve just heard read, story poor Peter, James and John really do not understand what has been going on. Peter’s slightly comical offer to make booths (or shelters) for the dazzling trio is cut short by God himself! As we read the passage, we too vainly struggle to comprehend exactly what is going on. And it is vital to recognise that this is a profoundly mysterious event and if we could fully understand it, we would be God!
In an age when everything is explicable and is scrutinised and commented upon endlessly, there is the sinful temptation to believe that we can explain all things. However, the Transfiguration belies this myth: God is ultimately transcendent – beyond all the limits of human comprehension, beyond the boundaries of time and space, beyond all the limits of our humanity. Indeed, it is only because God chose to reveal something of himself to us in scripture and, most importantly, chose to make himself human in the person of Jesus that we can begin to understand God: to catch a glimpse of what God is like and how he wants us to be. The transfiguration is a crucial reminder, though, in the middle of the gospels that Christ remained God – shining with “the brightness of a thousand suns” – even as he sat and ate and talked with the disciples. It was a vital reminder to them and us that we can never pigeonhole Christ, nor make God smaller than he truly is. But what else can we learn from this highly mysterious passage?
A vital clue to understanding what is going on here, are the people who appear with our Lord on the hilltop: Moses and Elijah. Let’s think about Moses first:
- You stand with Moses on the hill,
you speak of your new exodus:
the way through death, you will fulfil
by dying helpless on the cross.
The similarities between the Transfiguration and the passage we heard read from Exodus are very clear. In both, mountains are important – the idea of going up to meet our Lord (which we also see in Ezekiel and Revelation). In both, God’s presence is veiled by clouds (and there is a hint of the Second Coming here: “Lo he comes with clouds descending”). In both there are references to 6 days and 40 days, and any Jewish hearer of this story would have picked up all those references.
In one way, it all shows how Christ was standing in the tradition of Moses and the Law – how he was a sign of God’s continuing revelation to his people: he was part of their history. But it was also a sign that he was greater than Moses: that he had come to reshape Israel. Instead of God’s promise being confined solely to this one nation, and its twelve tribes, Christ would be the Moses for all peoples, through his twelve disciples. (Numbers are always significant in the Bible!) Just as Moses had led his people through the Red Sea in the Exodus, so would Christ ultimately lead all people through the Valley of Death to the new heaven and the new earth.
Something similar may be said about the other character on the mountain-top:
3. You stand here with Elijah too,
by whom the still small voice was heard:
and you, yourself, will prove God true,
made mute in death, Incarnate Word.
If Moses represents the Law in Jewish tradition, then Elijah stands for that other great strand in Old Testament writing: the prophets. In the book of Kings we again hear how Elijah encountered God on a mountain top, this time Mount Horeb (1 Kings. 19:8), and how he spent 40 days and 40 nights there. The parallels are again clear. The story of Elijah witnessed that God does not leave his people without a comforter or guide. Nor does he leave them without revelation; although, like the “still small voice” that Elijah heard on the mountain top, it may be easy for us to miss sometimes! Importantly, Elijah’s presence also reminds us of the costs of witnessing to the truth, especially in times when people do not want to hear. Both Moses and Elijah, and indeed all the prophets, suffered at the hands of their contemporaries because they sought to witness to the will of God to an often stiff-necked people. And Jesus would know that experience too and pay the ultimate price for his refusal to be silenced. Like Moses and Elijah, though, God would prove the truth of his eternal word by vindicating them all: by delivering his people through the Red Sea with Moses; by allowing Elijah to frustrate the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel; and ultimately by raising Christ from the dead on the third day.
We shall examine the next two verses together:
5. If we could bear your brightness here
and stay for ever in your light,
then we would conquer grief and fear,
and scorn the terrors of the night.
6. But, from the heights, you bring us down,
to share earth’s agonies with you,
where piercing thorns are made your crown
and death, accepted, proves love true.
Perhaps the most crucial means of understanding this mysterious event, though, is by recognising where it is placed in the gospel story. The Transfiguration appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospel, and they all place it in the same historical order roughly. Before it, we have questions about Jesus’s identity – we have various people like the disciples and Herod asking “Who is this Jesus?”. They have seen him work wonders and cure the sick, and it seems to be dawning on them all that he is more than just a travelling miracle-worker. A crisis is coming. Then, crucially, Jesus himself asks the same question to his own disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”. And the answer really comes at the Transfiguration. As at his baptism, it is the voice of God himself who confirms that this is “his own dear Son” (17:5). It is a supreme moment of revelation in the gospels.
As well as these questions of identity, though, in Matthew’s gospel the account is also sandwiched between two predictions by Jesus of his forthcoming death in Jerusalem. It’s really a pivotal point, and this is reflected in liturgical seasons we are experiencing today. Today is the end of the season of Epiphany and Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) marks the beginning of Lent. In some ways can think of this as two mountains with a deep valley in between. Today, we stand on Mount of Transfiguration and all is well: we would very much like to remain. Christ knows, though, that this is only part of his mission: now we must travel with him through Lent, on his way to Jerusalem. We must travel through the Valley of Despair, the Valley of Death, through the baying crowds at the gate on Palm Sunday, through the Last Supper, the betrayal, the Garden, the arrest, the flogging and torture, and ultimately to the Cross.
Christ himself may well have wished to have stayed on that mountain with Moses and Elijah, assured of God’s blessing and his presence. But if he had stayed there he would not have fulfilled his mission, nor would he have been our God. For only by leaving the mountain top was he able to claim his true humanity – to know the “terrors of the night” and “earth’s agonies”, as the hymn writer puts it –and ultimately to know what it feels like, on the cross, to know the absence of God. In stark contrast to the wonderfully assuring voice from heaven in this passage saying, “This is my son, the Beloved.” we hear the ultimate cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Just as we don’t leave Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, however, so we do not leave him on the Cross.
6. Majestic Christ, God’s well-loved Son,
if we must share your grief and loss,
transfigure us, when all is done,
with glory shining from your cross.
And this ultimately is the point of the Transfiguration story: the answer to the question “so what?”. The Transfiguration promises to us that the season of Lent, the season of Christ’s hiddenness, the season of grief and despair will ultimately come to an end. That the Garden of Gethsemane, the Cross and even death itself are not ultimately the last word. We are given a hint of what is to come on that glorious Easter morning, when once again Christ’s glory – “the glory as of a Father’s only Son”, as John put it – is once again revealed. The Transfiguration is the assurance that though we must leave the mountain top for now, and travel through the Valley of Death, we shall return to the mountain top on Easter Sunday morning, when once again the true glory of God is revealed.
During the dark days to come, the Transfiguration is the ultimate hope to which we all cling, and it is a reminder to us that we live as people both of this world and the next. That we are called not to stay safe and comfortable on the mountain top, knowing that we are saved, and blessed, and that all is well with the world – living in our comfortable little Christian bubble, smug and secure. Instead, we are called to descend from the mountain and live in the valley, to live amongst real people and real needs – as Christ himself chose to do – to open ourselves up to the risk of hurt and grief and pain and rejection in order to serve God and our brothers and sisters here. And the Transfiguration gives us the courage and strength so to do, because it reminds us that the joys and pains of human existence are not the last word. That we serve a transcendent God, who will one day reveal to each one of us the true glory of himself and his creation. A glory that we can only glimpse and imagine until, to quote another, perhaps even greater, hymn writer (Charles Wesley), we are…
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise!
Notes: The hymn quoted is ‘Transfigured Christ, none comprehends‘ – Alan Gaunt (b. 1935). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 261 Words: © 1991, Stainer & Bell Ltd, 23 Gruneisen Road, London N3 1DZ <www.stainer.co.uk>. The last words are quoted from ‘ Love divine, all loves excelling’ – Charles Wesley (1707-88).
Images: ‘Transfiguration‘ – Raphael; ‘The Transfiguration of Christ‘ – part of an iconostasis in Constantinople style (mid-12th century); ‘Transfiguration‘ – Fra Angelico; and detail of window from St John’s College, Cambridge.