I want to begin this morning by asking you to think back to a time when God was especially real to you or you felt his presence very close to you.
For me, such occasions are not times of great ecstasy or wild inhibition, but moments when I may be moved to tears by the wonder of God and the tenderness of his love; times when the pages of the scriptures seem particularly real and relevant. These are the moments when faith feels well placed; I sense the peace of God and hope over comes all fear.
The last such moment was last Sunday in St Mark’s while singing the words of a contemporary hymn which seemed to ignite a fresh burst of spiritual energy. Sometimes, I may feel God come alive for me in a passage of scripture or a prayer someone else prays. It may be while with family and friends or in place of particular beauty. Looking back, it has often happened, as it does for many, in the context of a Christian gathering, retreat or camp for young people.
So what might be yours? How significant or precious are these times to you? How do they help sustain and grow your faith?
Today is the last Sunday before Lent and our readings have a clear focus for us: the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus. The gospel reading (Matthew 17.1-9) describes how Jesus leads three of his disciples, Peter, James and John up a mountain. While there, Jesus is transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. We get the word ‘metamorphoses’ from the Greek word used here for transfiguration. I understand Harry Potter was capable of some ‘transfiguration’ too. It is about being transformed into something different. On this mountain, Jesus becomes a different being. It is still Jesus of course, but for a moment, he loses his frail human body, the one which will be tortured on the cross and acquires instead a shining countenance which accurately reflects who he really is. As Peter put it later when he came to write the words of today’s New Testament reading: ‘…we had been witnesses of his majesty.’ (2 Peter 1.16)
The mountain in question is thought to be Mount Tabor which lies south west of the Sea of Galilee. It is striking, conical in shape, and rises abruptly from the surrounding plain. The events which the gospel writers record took place here are supernatural and other worldly. Besides Jesus taking on a body which is more in keeping with his true identity as Lord and Christ, he is joined by Moses and Elijah, seemingly in bodily form, such that they may engage in conversation. The whole occasion is so real that Peter wants to make dwellings or shelters of some kind so that this otherworldly experience can be prolonged. Just as he is speaking, the disciples hear the voice of God from a bright or shining cloud designating Jesus as his beloved Son, words which had been last heard at Jesus’ baptism. Filled with fear, they fall to the ground. When Jesus comes over to touch them, everything has returned to normal. No-one is there bar Jesus, now returned to what was for them his usual appearance.
The transfiguration is unique in the bible and yet it draws on elements from a number of other experiences people have of God. Our Old Testament reading tells of Moses on another Mountain, Mount Sinai. Again God is perceived as present in the cloud. Later, we learn that Moses’ face shone because he had been with God. Elijah, the other character present with Jesus, also experiences the presence of God just when he is at a low ebb. Again, it is on a mountain, Horeb this time, but God is not in the whirl wind or in the fire…but the still small voice of calm.
The transfiguration has a number of lessons to teach us. It links with other similar moments in the bible accounts to tell us that God does reach into our world to speak directly. For Jesus, it was vital that he received this divine affirmation before he began the journey to Jerusalem that would culminate in the crucifixion. In the transfiguration, we glimpse who Jesus really is, that it is the Lord of Lord’s, the beloved Son of God, who will be nailed to the cross, that his ministry and work is continuous with Moses and Elijah, with the law and prophets of the Old Testament.
The special moments recorded in the bible including Paul’s Damascus Road adventure or John’s vision in the book of Revelation all serve particular purposes and are part of the divine stamp on the stories at the heart of our faith. It is important that we reflect and meditate upon them seeking to understand them better and allow them to encourage us in our faith while not feeling in slightest way let down because God has not yet zapped us on the Chester road or accosted us on some mountain.
We can also usefully be encouraged by learning about the experiences Christians have had of God through history and in our world of today. Books abound on the mystic Celtic saints and the great divines of the church. Reading Christian biography can be a really effective way of helping our own faith to grow. Why not use Lent as a time to read such a book? Mana Christian Bookshop in Charles Street has a good selection or simply google ‘Christian Biography’ for some ideas. Songs of Praise over the years has also interviewed many people who have shared with the nation the ways in which God has touched them or become real to them in one way or another.
All this does come with warning. Do not expect to have the same experience as those you hear of and read about. Even more importantly, do not feel that you are in some way inferior or that God is less interested in you because your experiences of him do not match up to those you read off. It is inevitable that those which make it into print or on television will be more dramatic or have longer term consequences. That does not make them better. Your experience of God matters just as your special times with your loved ones matter to you.
So hold on to those times when God has been especially real to you. Do not expect them to last. The transfiguration did not last for Jesus, but I am sure it was a moment to which he returned again and again as the cross loomed and the debates with Scribes and Pharisees wore him down. Just because we don’t feel God close to us all the time does not mean he is not there. So bless him for those special moments. Allow them to support and encourage you through the ordinary times or even the desert times.
Place yourself so that you may know more of God’s blessing you. If Moses had not ventured up the mountain, he would not have spent time with God. Jesus arose early to pray, he stole himself away from everyday life to be with God. We must all intentionally do the same. Sunday by Sunday worship is just that, but there should be top ups too. Courses, small groups, prayer meetings, time alone with God, conferences retreats and pilgrimages. All of them can be occasions when we have fresh experience of God. Make time, make space. Ask and seek his face, his presence. Be patient and the Lord will encourage and bless you.
Sunday Before Lent. Transfiguration Sunday 26.02.2017