Matthew 17.1-9, 2 Peter 1.16-21
There’s no neat way of saying what the transfiguration of Jesus is all about, instead our challenge here is to try and identify parts of the story which will help us and others recognise God, what he has done, continues to do and what is offered to us.
As people of faith we should have minds open to encounters with God which aren’t always easy to explain to others. Mystical, spiritual experiences or that sense of uplift and wellbeing doesn’t always need to be categorised and explained. If we feel secure in God’s love then our response is more likely to be about giving thanks and praising him rather than trying to rationalise everything.
If we imagine the mountain as a stage setting there are the central characters of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Also on stage Peter, James and John complete the setting as they look on. But then there’s all of us spectators watching them, perhaps finding some personal meaning in the events, perhaps just wondering how the characters really interrelate or quite likely left scratching our heads. And what about Peter, he seems unsure whether he belongs in the story or whether he should be part of the stage set construction crew!
Perhaps Peter came out with all he said about making dwellings just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths.
Maybe there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.
‘Listen to him.’ Like theatre and comedy timing is everything. Because Peter gets excited, blurts out a load of stuff as he gets caught up in the moment it would be easy to miss this small detail from Matthew, its actually so important in feeling what happened rather than explaining it, he says ‘while he was still talking’. I love little details like this that bring things alive yet can often be missed in our first reading of a text. We all know people who mean well but simply talk too much, don’t pause for thought or to allow a response, sometimes they don’t even appear to have the need for breath. So while Peter was still talking, we sense that he may have been stopped in his tracks when he hears ‘this is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him,’ says the voice from the cloud.
The voice from the cloud doesn’t say listen to me and Jesus doesn’t appear to have said anything up to this point so what exactly are we to listen to?
Is it possible that the words were intended as loving assurance from God to his Son? At this stage Jesus is isolated, separated from family, often misunderstood by his own disciples and facing the prospect of what is to come, (Jane Williams). For me his humanity shows through as he surely draws strength and confidence in the knowledge that his father approves.
Yet it also remains a key question for us to ponder. How are we to listen to Christ?
One apparent piece of guidance is that we will need to stop talking and then we can think about how we might listen. Not only stop talking, stop texting, whatsapping, facebooking and generally distracting ourselves from the life changing need to make time to try and listen to what the Son of God might have to tell us.
We’ve all grown used to the pace of life speeding up, gadgets and technology remind us that there’s no need to waste time, stay connected and keep working on the move, people walking along with their heads down wearing tiny earpods, air buds or great big headphones staring at a device and sometimes bumping into us seems perfectly reasonable to most. It’s not that there isn’t a time and a place, after all the Church of England has its apps and you might follow our own church on twitter.
Yet it’s more likely to make people stare nowadays if we see someone simply sitting on a bench, empty handed staring into space or with their eyes closed. Are you alright we are most likely to say. Have you lost your mobile device?
As we approach Lent I feel we need to seize the opportunity to do nothing. For some this will come more naturally than others, for some it will be a more realistic prospect than for others. But for all of us, some time spent doing no earthly task is possible and if we try to listen to Jesus who knows what we might hear.
Solitude can be a wonderful thing and should not be confused with loneliness. Solitude combined with inaction could make space to think deeply about things that really matter, to be rooted in the love of God through Jesus in a way that makes our times of work and activity more meaningful and sustainable.
The Dutch priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote:
In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness. Just those words require us to stop and think. We can learn much in this respect from the old tree in the Tao story about a carpenter and his apprentice:
A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: "Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?"
The apprentice looked at his master and said: "No . . . why?"
"Well," the carpenter said, "because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax."
For many lent is a time of rediscovering self-discipline and often this manifests itself in forms of fasting and abstention. Nouwen suggested an alternative when he wrote ‘Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on.
Put it on your to do list, your shopping list even, keep some time empty.
As we prepare to start Lent on Wednesday it’s good to consider how the transfiguration points towards something.
I find it helpful to follow advice from Tom Wright to reflect upon the ‘strange parallel and contrast’ of today’s scene of transfiguration with that of the crucifixion.
We’ve heard today of Jesus revealed in glory with clothes that are dazzling white, at the crucifixion his clothes will be stripped from him and gambled over by soldiers.
Here he is with two great biblical figures Elijah and Moses, who represent the prophets and the law, there on the cross he will be flanked by two criminals.
A bright cloud overshadowed them in todays reading, at the crucifixion darkness will descend over the whole land.’
In today’s reading Peter can barely contain his enthusiasm as he speaks out yet at the time of crucifixion he will be hiding after denying that he knows Jesus.
Matthew tells us that God declares ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!’ At the cross it’s left for a centurion to tell us ‘truly this man was God’s son!’
It is a fitting meditation as we look towards lent and the opportunities this offers us to focus on our journey with God. There’s a hint that we are invited to discover and know God in different ways at different life stages and as we find ourselves in contrasting situations.
If we bring the contrast into our daily lives we may think of situations such as a loving family home versus an unsafe hate filled situation, a time of health, strong faith and well being versus a time of suffering, fear and doubt.
Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time we are encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.
‘Listen to him’ we are told. As we find Jesus’ words in the bible and as we open our hearts to his message we can be sure that he is there with us in every situation good or bad and that his merciful love for us cannot be overcome by darkness, hate or betrayal.
23rd February 2020