Introduction and Call to Worship
We come to worship the God who transfigures our lives and enables us to talk to him, face to face. Let us come into God’s presence with confidence and joy.
First Reading Exodus 24:12-18
God calls Moses up a high mountain, covered in God’s glory.
Second Reading 2 Peter 1:16-21
Peter reminds his hearers that he was an eyewitness as God glorified Jesus.
Gospel Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain, where they witness his transfiguration.
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.” (Matthew 17:2)
Have you ever felt like you have been working on something for ages, only to get to the summit, “the destination”, to find that everything has changed? What you set out to do changes you and the conclusion is often not the destination you envisaged at the start? Those engaged in education or business know all too well just how important change is, even when it can feel so very difficult. Change gives opportunity; to renew, experience, learn and achieve something. But sometimes, it can be a bad experience depending upon the situation or circumstances, such as bereavement, loss of employment or unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
Every new challenge, person or opportunity in our life teaches us something; a fact not lost on Saint John Henry Newman, recently canonised by the Roman Catholic Church. He was an English theologian and poet, first an Anglican priest before converting to Rome, and later a Cardinal. In the 19th century he was an important and yet quite controversial figure in the religious history of England. He knew all about change. He wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (See John Henry Newman - Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine - 1845)
For Newman, to live is to change, not simply going with the crowd or moving with the times, but truly changing in Christian love, transforming to be closer to God by listening in prayer.
The Gospel writers also understand this need for human beings to change, to draw closer to God. And our Lord himself changes his mission, from healing and teaching to salvation and the cross, following his great transfiguration upon the mountain, as read this morning in the Gospel according to Matthew (see also Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28–36). Jesus becomes radiant, changed, shining with bright rays of light. This event is thought to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel, but none of the Synoptic Gospels identify it precisely. Yet these accounts do identify those present with our Lord; three of his apostles, Peter, James and John. And from the Old Testament Jesus is joined by Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah who was one of the greatest Prophets. They “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31) In an instant everything changes. Jesus’ focus is now Jerusalem and the Cross; a change which the Law and the Prophets point forward to, with Jesus as the Messiah who will suffer. (This foreshadows Jesus' own explanation, on the road to Emmaus, of the Scriptures pointing to himself, see Luke 24: 27 & 32). Then there is a voice, who identifies Jesus as "Son", mirroring the accounts of our Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan when God declares who Jesus is.
The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment of change in the Gospel narratives and the setting on the mountain is presented as a touching place; human nature meets God, the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point earthing everything. Wow!
Change happens even to the Emmanuel! You may recall how, after his baptism, Jesus had to go into the desert and face temptation before he could begin his ministry of calling, teaching, healing and loving. (We will hear more about that next week!) Now, after his transfiguration, Jesus must change direction, with the destination being the cross and forgiveness and, through his own sacrificial offering of himself, face the power of evil again. It’s a life changing, spiritual journey we will now trace through Lent to Holy Week and Good Friday. Do take part, for it will change you, I promise that! So much in life’s journey changes us and those we journey with, not least in worship, and holy places too. Our St Mary’s, with its beautiful atmosphere of prayer, leads us deeper in our relationship with the Lord but, friends, if we are honest, faith can still seem like a slog to the summit. We can feel ourselves weary from our daily lives, trudging up ever higher hurdles. Then, when we think we have arrived at the top, we face reality enveloped by a terrifying cloud! In worship we seek to reach the summit in order that we may dare to gaze upon the face of Christ, in the hope that we may be transfigured in prayer and through the sacraments; just like his disciples who watch on, participate in awe, wonder and, no doubt, fear.
So, what is our response to the glory of Jesus, revealed before us at his Transfiguration? Are we ready for change? The sight of the Lord of Life and Love, shining like the sun, must have been glorious, indeed wonderful, as well as downright frightening! But God never leaves us comfortless; the command from the cloud is simple, we are to “Listen to Him,” listen to Jesus.
I don’t need to tell you that we are at a time of great change in the world and I suspect that we may well fear the cloud that is sweeping in; from climate change to issues of morality, political instability and a radically reforming society; terrorism or illness – Coronavirus for one. Change is all around us. Even in the good old Church of England an agenda for change is all about us; just ask the staff at Church House Guildford who could tell you a thing or two about that. Perhaps as hard as it is, change is inevitable, but it’s not always a bad thing. Cardinal Newman saw that and he trusted his future to Jesus in prayer and worship. He continued to trek up that spiritual mountain in the hope of glimpsing something of the face of Christ. What of you?
Friends in faith, are you good at listening to Jesus? Just pause for a moment and think. Do you do what God commanded from the clouds, and listen to the voice of our Lord? Here at St Mary’s Church in beautiful Thorpe we are entering a period when we need to listen attentively to what Jesus is saying to us, as we long for our church life to be spiritually and physically transformed further. We will shortly engage in a time of renewal as we seek to update our Church Development Plan and priorities post 2020. We have achieved so much; there is a lot to celebrate! Wonderful things achieved by God’s grace and blessing and some hard work too but change is inevitable, and the longer-term journey is always before us.
It is through prayer that we look upon the face of Christ and discover ourselves to be loved by God, forgiven our failings and transfigured by his creative glory. By remaining faithful in our regular worship, as we trek up the hill of Transfiguration with Jesus, our faces can shine with prayer, St Mary’s renew, and our presence transform the lives of many. We can bring positive change to others in faith. The promise of the Transfiguration of Jesus is that, like Christ, our lives too can be changed. In all that we are about here in Thorpe and in our daily lives may we pray, and “Listen to Him!” Amen.
1. Change is a fact of life not lost on Saint John Henry Newman.
2. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration is full of references to the Old Testament.
3. Moses and Elijah point to the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of the scriptures.
4. As we prepare for Lent and a new Church Development plan, we need to listen to Jesus with a renewed commitment to prayer.