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Sermon for Transfiguration

Sunday next before Lent

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

We are coming to the end of Epiphany and soon we will be in Lent. But just at the end of this season we have the passage today from the Gospel of Matthew where the episode occurs in Jesus ministry which we call the ‘Transfiguration’. The word Epiphany could be expressed as ‘manifestation’, ‘disclosure’, ‘unveiling’, or ‘appearance.’ Very appropriately therefore the Transfiguration has been described as the greatest Epiphany ever ! This is an occasion when the disciples, Peter, James and John see a vision in which they hear a heavenly voice and see appearances of Moses and Elijah.

The Transfiguration is important because it reminds us that Christianity is not about a set of beliefs, or ideas, it is about a person - Jesus. Jesus was not an ordinary man, he was special and the Transfiguration shows us this. Christians believe that through Jesus we see God. Jesus is so special that his followers said
You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’  Matt 16:13

Jesus has been described as ‘God with skin on’ to put it in the traditional theological phrase, ‘God Incarnate’ or ‘God in flesh’.

Jesus lived in First Century in Palestine, he subsequently died by execution after he had seriously upset the Jewish leaders who handed him over to the Roman occupying force and Pontius Pilate. There is no reason to doubt that he lived, his life was so significant that not only is it recorded by the historians, our calendar is dated from his birth.

For an unbiased person it is not however about whether Jesus lived and died, it is more important to ask questions such as

  1. Who Jesus was?
  2. What he said and did?
  3. Why he died?

The fact that a first century Jew called Jesus died on a cross is a matter of historical record and it is hard to argue against. It is inconceivable that followers of Jesus would invent a story about their leader which involved crucifixion, a punishment reserved for the worst criminals, with all of its connotations of shame. These facts however are not the cause of serious dispute, the question is rather how we interpret those basic facts. Jesus died, but who was he and why did he die?

They followers of Jesus, his disciples, spoke about Jesus and put into writing in the Gospels their recollections of what he had said and done. They used the words and ideas of their time, ideas current in Judaism and paganism to express their view of who Jesus was. This makes some of what we read difficult to understand, such as when Jesus is referred to using a term current in Greek philosophy at the time ‘The Logos.’ or ‘Word’. In calling Jesus 'Logos' it meant that Jesus was God's way of speaking to us. God chose to communicate with us in the person of Jesus. It means that if we look at Jesus then we can know what God is saying to us. When the Gospel writer John tells us that Jesus is the Logos, he means that Jesus shows us how God is thinking, he is the visible presence of the mind of God. This so important, when we look at Jesus we look deep into the being of God himself. We see his compassion on the poor, we see his love for all and his willingness to be born in human form and literally give his life for us.

When speaking to Jews it was quite easy for the Gospel writers because the followers of Jesus saw him as the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures. Jesus was the promised ‘Messiah.’ So the writer of the Gospel of Matthew spends a great deal of time showing how Jesus could be seen to fulfil Old Testament promises. Terms which were very current in the Greek world were also applied to Jesus such as ‘Saviour.’ This was a title which was commonly used for the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar was ’The Saviour of the World.’  It is little wonder that the Christians caused such offence to Rome, when they ascribed to their poor Jewish executed criminal the same title reserved for the divine presence which ruled Rome.  

Jesus was clearly an ordinary man, he was flesh like us and had the same human senses and desires. 

  • He became tired (John 4:6)
  • He experienced physical thirst (John 19:28)
  • He knew physical hunger (Matthew 4:2)
  • He experienced physical weakness (Matthew 8:23-25)
  • He even allowed His body to cease functioning, as ours does when we die (Matthew 27:50)

ichthusHowever the stories of Jesus also seek to demonstrate that Jesus was extra ordinary. It is worth thinking how the fish came to be the symbol of faith for the early Christians - the five letters spelling out "fish" in Greek came to represent the slogan

"Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour"

I esus  -  Jesus

Ch ristus  -  Christ

Th eos  -  God

U ios  -  Son

S oter  -  Saviour

The earliest Christian writings were not the Gospels, which were written after 60AD, but rather the letters of the New Testament such as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 we read that the earliest Christians didn’t just think of Jesus as a great man, they actually worshipped Jesus as God.

We don’t understand how Jesus can be human and yet have the fullness of God in him, however one episode from the life of Jesus is helpful in showing these two elements. In the account of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat (Matthew 23-27). Jesus is shown to be exhausted and asleep in the boat but his divinity is shown when he stills the wind and the waves.

When we see Jesus it is the closest we can ever be to knowing what God is like. When we listen to the words of Jesus recorded by those who were prepared to lay down their lives for him, that is as close as we can get to listening to God’s teaching. It is not that Christians believe that God does not disclose himself to other people in other religions, rather the fact that in Jesus God takes flesh brings us to the most amazing truth that God has stepped close to us in a unique way - personally not in the words of  another, such as prophets like Moses and Elijah.

Jesus was a man, but he was not just a man, he was God and man. For Christians this is crucial, because Jesus becomes a unique and special bridge between God and humankind. The early Christian writers spoke of Jesus as a ‘Mediator’  (1 Timothy 2). The Apostle Paul said that God was in Jesus ’reconciling’ us to himself.  

In Jesus we see God in sort of scaled down version, but that scaled down version is mind blowing, for we are told that God regards us as his friends. The love of God is like the love of a man who will lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

I remember some years ago we had a church outing to see the ‘Passion of Christ’ a gruelling film indeed. We all came out feeling shell shocked at the very literal depiction of a crucifixion, it was truly horrible, but what that story does is to very graphically show us that God’s love for us will go all the way. We might find it hard to put into words what God is like or what he thinks of us, but that is what Jesus does. Jesus gives us a walking talking picture of who God is and what he thinks of you and me, that out of love for us God will endure the cross.

Everything in the Gospels tell us that the life of Jesus was building up to the cross. When he is born we are told that Mary and Joseph are to call the baby Jesus - because that name means ‘God saves’.  Jesus lives a remarkable life, gives amazing and inspiring teaching, but it is perfectly obvious that the climax of Jesus life is death on the cross. Jesus knows that his journey to Jerusalem will involve him paying the ultimate price - for his love, for God’s love for humankind.  Jesus sacrifices his love for God’s friends, for us.

This is such a wonderful story that not just theologians but writers of music, poetry and hymns have written and composed pieces of text and music ever since. God is not a distant judge who criticises and condemns us, but has humbled himself to meet with us on our terms and offers us forgiveness. Jesus told a story about a child who was really rude to his father, who went off and behaved horribly and squandered away an inheritance that his father had worked hard for all of his life. When in poverty the son comes crawling back offering to do lowly work we might expect the father to send him away or put him to hard labour to earn his keep. Instead Jesus spoke of the Father running to greet the foul creature and welcoming him back with open arms and a slap up feast. There is something which makes us question the logic of God’s love that can fail to hold a grudge. The message is clear, God is not like us - he is like Jesus. On very good days we may be able to show what God is like in small ways, but it is Jesus in his extraordinary willingness to lay down his life for us who really shows us what God is like.

In Jesus God has entered our humanity and made divinity understandable and if we are honest it beggars belief. It looks at times weak and very unlike the concepts of human power and authority which we live by every day. Jesus spoke about the blessings for the poor and the weak ones, he saved his kindest acts for the sick and the despised ones. He attacked those who lived well off lives whilst others suffered and he led by an example of selflessness which has never been seen since.

The outcome of who Jesus was and what Jesus did is that we should feel a sense of thankfulness. We can see that just like the father who welcomed the prodigal son, God forgives our foolish ways. When we look at the world around us we can easily lose faith in humanity and question our belief in God. Our world is clearly broken in many ways, we have damaged human relationships and we create wars and suffering on a global scale. We use world economies and trade to exploit those who are weaker than ourselves and we are resentful in sharing from our great wealth with those who do not even have bread to eat.

Jesus shows God offering us forgiveness and seeking to reconcile the broken world.  The overpowering love of God for the world is self evident in the cross, for Jesus died for sinners. Not for those who had improved themselves, or who had really made a good effort, but for sinners. The fact that Jesus died, that God died, for our world is important. It shows the seriousness of the condition in which we find ourselves. The forgiveness which God gives is not cheap it is painful and costly and demands from God a great sacrifice.  

The followers of Jesus were overwhelmed with him, their lives were turned upside down and they were prepared to go to tortured deaths rather than disown Jesus. Moreover they were more committed and animated in their discipleship after Jesus died than before! Until Jesus died they were somewhat clueless followers, constantly making mistakes and not catching on to his teaching. Jesus gave up everything and behaved like a servant whilst they jostled for first place among his followers. When Jesus was arrested they ran away, suddenly terrified by the authority held by the Jewish leaders and the occupying Roman forces. However after Jesus died they changed. The claimed that Jesus had been raised from death as he had promised and they claimed that Jesus had appeared among them and spoken with them. 
This is an amazing claim and one which we cannot either prove or disprove. However ever since the followers of Jesus have proclaimed Jesus risen life and have witnessed that by placing faith and trust in Jesus, God’s presence can literally be known in our own lives today. This is a claim which has continued for over two thousand years. Christians do not claim that they no longer experience doubts and fears, however even those who have really struggled, often through difficult circumstances, continue to hold this faith. Indeed throughout history Christians have often spoken of their faith in Jesus with most commitment at times of extreme persecution.

The same Jesus, who walked around teaching and challenging our ideas about God, who died on the cross and proclaimed that God loved the world, that same Jesus, Christians worship and follow today. He shows to us what God is like, offers us God’s forgiveness and he still changes lives as he did then.  It is as we take Jesus to our hearts that God’s presence is truly with us, making sense of this strange world and showing us that our seemingly worthless and transient lives really are important to God. It is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which gives meaning to our own lives and reassures us that all life is created by God and is sacred and precious. At the Transfiguration Jesus made an appearance or ‘Epiphany’ to his disciples. It is the same Jesus who still reveals, discloses or manifests himself to those who seek him today.

Lord Jesus, who revealed yourself to the disciples on the mountain of Transfiguration.
Reveal to me your glory that I may know your risen presence
and by your mighty power reflect the almighty love of God
that others may know his power to change and save