Sunday next before Lent

26 feb 2017

9am and Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Gilly Myers, Precentor

Readings: Exodus 24.12-18; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9


the biblical and lectionary placing of the Transfiguration

The reading that we have heard from Matthew’s Gospel this morning is called the Transfiguration, and in each of the synoptic Gospels – Mark, Luke and Matthew – this account follows the declaration made at Caesarea Philippi by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. In that conversation Jesus then went on to explain that the disciples had completely the wrong idea about the kind of messiah that he is.  They had the idea of a powerful and victorious leader, sweeping in to rescue the people from the Romans, the latest power in a sequence of oppressive or occupying rulers over Israel. But no – contrary to this – Jesus said that he was to face suffering, being killed and on the third day to rise again. Peter had protested at Jesus’ words, but he may not have been the only one to find what Jesus was saying hard to handle.

In the Church’s liturgical calendar of festivals, we concentrate on the event of the Transfiguration in August, when it has a day all to itself.

We find, however, that we also hear the account of the Transfiguration each year on the Sunday before Lent, and this is because it is the point at which, in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark, Jesus reaches a pivotal point in his life. Up until now the emphasis of his ministry has been on teaching and healing; at this point there is a dramatic change of gear, as he turns his face to Jerusalem, and the events that await him there in the days leading up to his crucifixion.

This echoes our change of focus in the liturgical calendar, as we approach Ash Wednesday this coming week, and impending days of Lent.

What a difference a few weeks makes…

At the end of today’s Gospel we hear Jesus telling Peter, James and John, who had witnessed the transfiguration, that they were to tell no-one about it until after he had been raised from the dead. Why might they have been told to keep such an astonishing experience to themselves?

It is worth reflecting, on why their viewpoint might be so different after the resurrection, looking at the parallels and contrasts between the transfiguration and the crucifixion, for they are very striking.*

Here, on this mountain, Jesus is revealed in glory; on the mount of crucifixion, he is crucified in shame.

Here, Jesus’ clothes are dazzling white; there, Jesus is stripped bare, and soldiers throw lots for his clothes.

Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, representing Israel’s law and the prophets; there, Jesus hangs between a pair of criminals.

Here, there is a bright cloud overshadowing them; there, darkness covers all the land.

Here, Peter jumps in to attend to these three great figures; there, he hides in shame, having denied Jesus three times.

Here, the voice of God is heard speaking from the cloud, affirming who Jesus is, telling the disciples to listen to him; there, a pagan soldier declares in surprise that ‘Truly, this man was God’s son!’**

In hindsight

Todays’ reading from the second letter of Peter, demonstrates how the experience of the transfiguration enabled one of the eye witnesses to encourage the Church even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

By the time that this letter was written, some of the converts to Christianity were beginning to doubt. The early church expected that Jesus’ Second Coming would be imminent, and as the years passed by, they began to wonder about the truth of what they believed. They were feeling discouraged and misled, and needed to hear confirmation that they had made the right choice. And Peter writes to them to confirm them in their conviction, to recount once more the awesome manifestation in which he was included on the mountain top, and to reiterate that Jesus is indeed God’s ‘Son, the beloved’.***

And when we remember that we are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we might find it helpful to hold the transfiguration and the crucifixion side by side. The mountain top and the hill top, the one lending interpretation to the other. 

For we learn that the love, power, joy and beauty of God is found in the suffering, sorrow and tears of the cross.   

And through each of these momentous events in the life of Jesus, the same call sounds through – ‘this is my Son, listen to him’.

* Tom Wright: Matthew for Everyone Part Two; SPCK 2002
**Matthew 27.54
***Matthew 17.5