St John the Baptist Parish Church
Sunday 11th february 2018 at 8am
In the presence of God the prophets quake,
and those who know you fall to their knees.
Open our eyes to see your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
After his triumph on Mount Carmel, Elijah escaped again from King Ahab, to Mount Horeb. It was there that he encountered the Lord in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ and was commanded to anoint Elisha as his successor by throwing his mantle over him (1 Kings 19.1-21). Now, although Elijah wants to meet the Lord alone, he lets Elisha accompany him across the Jordan. Because Elisha sees the death of an old man returning to the wilderness as nothing less than his ascension into heaven, he inherits Elijah’s spirit, receiving ‘the double portion’ of the firstborn son (Deuteronomy 21.17). Elisha also inherits Elijah’s mantle, which enables him to part and cross the Jordan (vv.13-14), returning to continue the prophetic ministry to Israel.
The New Testament reading reflects the pain of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church. Much of this was caused by the different ways in which Paul and his rivals read their treasured Jewish Scriptures. Paul reads Genesis in the light of Christ, since the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (Genesis 1.3-5) illuminates our hearts with the light of Jesus Christ. It is the God who said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’ (Genesis 1.26) who is most fully revealed in ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’. ‘The god of this world’ is served by darkness and death, but the risen Lord turns believers to light and life.
The timing of the transfiguration, ‘after six days’, seems significant, and recalls Exodus 24.15-18: ‘The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud…Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.’ Elijah, ‘a prophet like Moses’ (Deuteronomy 18.18), journeyed for forty days and nights to the same mountain, where he met God in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ When Moses came back down the mountain ‘the skin of his face was shining’ (Exodus 34.29-30) and Elijah ascended to heaven with ‘a chariot of fire and horses of fire’. On this seventh day, perhaps suggesting the climax of creation, Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus, who himself is dazzling white with the presence of God. This could be representative of the testimony of Scripture to his death and resurrection, announced by a young man also in white (Mark 16.5-6).
This mountain is not Sinai but one far to the north in the Gentile region of Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Peter’s uncertainty, calling Jesus ‘Rabbi’ and attempting to keep him there with Moses and Elijah, reflects a Jewish-Christian hesitancy about the Gentile mission. But Peter, James and John are themselves embraced by the overshadowing cloud of God’s presence and instructed to listen to God’s beloved Son. In the light of his resurrection they will understand that everyone is invited to follow ‘the Son of Man’, becoming human beings crowned with the glory and honour of God (Psalm 8.4-5).
How do we see the links between today’s readings?
The dying Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan, as did his successor Elisha returning alone. They are prophets like Moses, who parted the sea as the people escaped their oppressors (Exodus 14.21-22) and whose successor Joshua cut off the waters as they crossed the Jordan into the promised land (Joshua 3). But neither Moses nor Elijah was accompanied when they met God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24; 1 Kings 19), whereas Jesus’ disciples were with him when, with Moses and Elijah, they were overshadowed by the cloud of God’s transforming presence. Paul tells the church in Corinth that God has shone in our hearts with the glorious light in Jesus’ face. He speaks of unbelievers, blinded by god of the world, are they simply looking in the wrong direction, preoccupied with careers, family, wealth and other worldly cares? Is it helpful to think of the dazzling light of the transfigured Christ as ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, something that that completely changes our perception of reality? Although, the transfigured Jesus frightened his disciples at first, he is the light of the world, whose message of love, mercy and truth we are encouraged to take to the dark places of the world.
As we have heard, Elisha, Peter, James and John all saw examples of God’s glory, but in different ways. Elisha knew what was happening to Elijah, but seems to have been in ‘denial’. Have you had an experience that you found difficult to believe? Or an occasion when you have found it difficult to accept unbelievable news?
The disciples experience was very different, the sight of the transfigured Jesus left them dazzled in more ways than one. Did they feel awe, terror, a sense of their own inadequacy? A feeling of desolation as the vision dissipated? Peter was so confused that he just said the first thing that came into his mind, until he heard a voice telling him to focus on Jesus. Can you think of times when you have been so excited, but also a little bit scared – perhaps saying or doing something without thinking, even something a bit silly?
Elisha, on the other hand, was able to stay calm and say the right thing, and he received a gift that helped him throughout his life and ministry. Elisah and Peter both went on to have very important – but very different – ministries. Who are you more like, Peter or Elisha – or are you a bit of both?
This week important steps are being taken in Westminster towards determining many basic facts about post-Brexit Britain. Will many working people lose employment? Will particular regions and devolved jurisdictions be able to prosper? What will happen to European citizens here? Will we, or some other group, get what we want or lose heavily?
The three disciples looked fearfully into dazzling light. The ambiguous gains of Brexit generate fear and anxiety. Change whether for better, or worse, is coming. The news is dominated by factional claims and counter claims, while others try to please everyone.
The disciples saw Jesus transformed by God’s glory and later, after the Resurrection, that same glory in a world changed not in petty ways or in small details but utterly, stunningly, transformed. Are we too keen to jump on the things that particularly irk us about Brexit – or indeed, failing to leave? Do we shout only to delay the arrival of something we dislike? Are we more concerned about small personal inconveniences than potential communal gains or even serious mistakes?
Peter tried to control his disquiet by offering containment, ‘dwellings’. He wanted control. Like us, he was human. We confront the spectacle of all the political parties, and of groups within those parties, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland with special interests, clamouring, desperate to secure their particular corner of the argument. Individuals also want control over their futures. The disciples were told to ‘listen’ and, though fearful, trusted. Listening with respect to others is difficult, especially when small factional gains seem easily within grasp, and larger more generous and inclusive goals lie beyond the horizon. Should we place more trust in our politicians, those from the EU, and even those taking opposing positions, acknowledging that some at least see further than we do?
The vision prevailed; the disciples listened, obeyed and waited to tell until after the Resurrection. Brexit turmoil is facilitated by time pressure, references to clocks ticking and fixed deadlines. Disquieting fragments of information leak out. Nothing visibly happened immediately after the Transfiguration, because the disciples refrained from speaking about or acting on their experience. But God’s purposes were progressing. If we feel God needs human hands to sustain good purposes in the world, we may need to remember the stable institutions of democracy working steadily through the law, constitutions and electoral mandates, and, rather than scrabbling frantically for advantage, let them operate.
Hanging on to the hope they had found in Jesus, the disciples weathered the trauma of the Transfiguration. God has a plan, bigger than our best hopes, but also strong enough to contain our worst fears. Would it be good to approach Brexit with this is in mind, expecting an inclusive future, good if not yet glorious, and not making self-interested demands?
Let us pray
Lord of light, we go in your name
to bring your glory into our world.
May we shine
with the joy, peace and hope of your Holy Spirit,
so that people see in us
the face and glory of Jesus Christ.