Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Sunday next before Lent (14th February 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. Lent is approaching, with fleeting thoughts of Carnival and pancakes to remind us of the coming change. The story of the Transfiguration forms an elegant balance with the story of Christ’s Baptism that was the appointed text for the first Sunday of this season. On both occasions a voice from heaven proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” The three disciples, who were not present at Jesus’ Baptism, may not have made the connection, but it is easy for us to do so.

Placed at the end of the Epiphany season, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration leads us towards Lent, as Jesus comes down from the mountain to head towards the death of which he speaks as he descends. “Listen to him,” says the voice from the cloud, but Peter, James and John fail to do just that or at least fail to understand what they are listening to. “Listen to him” is a present imperative, implying continual or repeated action: “continue to listen to him” or “keep on listening to him”. These words “Listen to him" are also addressed to us, Jesus' latest disciples, exhorting  us to listen and watch as the Lord of Glory approaches his destiny in Jerusalem, so that we may more fully comprehend God’s purposes and work in Jesus.

The Transfiguration also foreshadows Easter. When the disciples fall to the ground in awe, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and tells them not just to stand up but literally to “be raised”. Jesus then tells them not to speak of this event until he himself has been raised, this time from death. There is something about the Transfiguration that cannot be understood until after the Resurrection. From our perspective we may be reminded of Jesus encouraging the disciples in his post-Resurrection appearances.

Jesus has brought his disciples Peter, James and John, up a high mountain. These three, who witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, will also be the three he chooses to stay with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ face and clothes are transformed. Jesus’ shining face may be an echo of Moses’ shining face after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. The three disciples have a glimpse of Jesus in his divine splendour, flanked by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. The Greek word used for Jesus’ Transfiguration (metamorphoomai) is the same word that Paul uses for our transformation. Jesus is transfigured as the divine radiance shines through him, but Christian disciples, then and now, need to be transformed. It is no surprise that it is the impetuous Peter who speaks to Jesus and proposes to erect three dwellings or tents for Jesus and his two illustrious visitors. 

Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration may seem odd, but there are various possible explanations. He may have wished to erect a booth or tabernacle, perhaps remembering the Feast of Tabernacles, as an appropriate response to this revelation. He may indeed have remembered the Jewish tradition (as described by the prophet Zechariah) that God would usher in the New Age, the day of the Lord, during the Feast of Tabernacles. In that case Peter will have realised that the Day of the Lord was at hand. Why should Jesus, Moses and Elijah have to construct their own booths for the occasion?

Equally Peter may simply have wished to preserve the event in some way, to capture something of the magnificence of the moment. Alternatively, Peter may simply have been struck, as many are when they are confronted by something unexpected and beyond their understanding, by the need to do something, anything.

Whatever the reason for Peter’s suggestion, his words are overtaken by a voice from heaven. Indeed in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration the voice from heaven actually interrupts Peter in mid flow. This voice from heaven pronounces Jesus blessed and commands the attention of the disciples. Whatever Peter, or we, may have been thinking, there is only one thing that is necessary, and that is to listen to the Beloved One.

When the Transfiguration is over, Moses and Elijah have gone, the voice is silent, and Jesus’ face and clothing have returned to normal, all that is left is Jesus. Whatever these signs and symbols may have meant, the disciples are once again with their Lord, their teacher, their friend. He will not leave them. He is indeed with them, and us, always, even to the end of the age.

Some of us will have had mountain-top experiences and can testify to their importance in our lives, but all of us have also to return to the plain. Others will rely on the testimony of others, testimony that we may encounter in Scripture, in our other reading, or in personal conversation. In the category of those inspired by other men’s glimpses we may include the nine Apostles who did not see Jesus transfigured! Nevertheless, whether we have glimpsed him ourselves or rely on the testimony of others, Jesus is there for us. On the mountain-top and in the plain, and in all the places between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again.

The story of the Transfiguration reminds us of God’s faithfulness through the ages. The presence of Moses and Elijah remind us of his spokesmen in the days of old. Jesus reveals himself in glory only to Peter, James and John, but this revelation is a gift to all, to the other disciples then and now who follow the Lord. For glimpses of God, even other men’s glimpses, are indeed gifts to us from the Lord.  

Ankara, of course, is a city built on hills, but in some of my postings to cities built on the plain I have been encouraged by the prospect of a visit to the local mountains. Similarly we may be encouraged in our own lives, when they seem to be spent on the plain, by the knowledge that there is a mountain, that Christ has appeared on it in glory, and that he has come down from it with his three disciples to join us on the plain. We will indeed never be deprived of his companionship, and one day we will celebrate God’s New Age together on the mountain of the Lord!