Sermon - Transfiguration (Last Sunday before Lent) Year C- | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Hills and valleys and people and God
[Note: this sermon was preached on a special occasion, the centenary of the congregation at a time when I had not been very long in my last parish. I took the theme of Transfiguration from the Lectionary, but the illustrations and applications are specific to the occasion. Because it was an historic occasion, I have left it as it was written the with the local allusions, except for a few corrections, but it will need other details for other situations. For more general treatments of the gospel readings on the Transfiguration see sermons for this Sunday in Years A and B: Myth and reality and From another world .]
One of the things I like about Templestowe is the hills. There are grand hills further away. Here they are small and close with intimate valleys in between so that we have a sense of openness to wide horizons when we look out from the top and a sense of belonging in community when we are below and surrounded by familiar features. It reminds me of the hills of Tasmania where I grew up, although they are on a grander scale. I still have etched in my memory the scene from the front verandah of the farm house when I was born from where we could look out up the long valley of the Ringarooma River ten miles and more to the hills beyond the farming districts and if you lift up your eyes you can see in wintertime the snow covered top of Mount Maurice above the middle of the range. I often used to wonder what it was like up on the top of that mountain but never went there until one day many years later when I went on a bush walk up that way with my brother and two of our sons. After climbing through the wet forest and then some dense scrub we came out onto an open plateau of heathland; it was springtime and here above the trees was a natural garden, a wild mass of flowers, of different kinds of herbs and shrubs, a few ponds and little lake, and from there we could look out beyond the foothills over the settled parts beneath to the dim distant spot where my brother and I had as children gazed in the opposite direction. My camera was soon hard at work on my hobby of photographing wildflowers, and before long I had taken a whole role of film of the native plants in this natural wonderland: so I was able in a very limited way to capture the moment.
Jesus went to the mountains
Mountain top experiences are a natural part of life. They are special times of spiritual significance. They may be times of excitement or times of quiet renewal. The Gospel writers tell us of many times when Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, into a desert place or up on a mountain. These wilderness experiences were often, not always, associated with significant events in his life: after his baptism when he was acknowledged as the Son of God and he was tempted in the wilderness about how he would use his power as Messiah [Matt 4:1ff; Mark 1:12ff; Luke 4:1ff]; when John the Baptist was killed [Matt 14:13; Mark 6:31-32; John 6:3; Luke 9:12] although that was interrupted and delayed by the crowds which followed him and we remember the story as the feeding of the 5000, but he did go on have his quiet time after that [Matthew 14:23; John 6:15; Mark 6:46]. It was probably something similar which gave us the sermon on the mount [Matthew 5-7]. There was also the feeding of the 4000 [Matt 15:29-33; Mark 8] which we tend to forget because it is similar to the other story, but it probably represents a fairly common experience of shared meals and of movement between crowds and lonely places. One significant time was when he spent the night in prayer before he chose the twelve apostles [Luke 6:12; Mark 3:13]. There were other times when he simply went off to pray [Luke 4:42; Luke 5:15-16]. [See endnote ].
Why did Jesus go into the wilderness?
It is clear that the main thing Jesus did when he withdrew from the crowds to go into desert or mountain places alone was to pray. Sometimes he took his closest companions, but even then it seems that, as in the garden at the end, he would go a little further to be by himself, to commune with God the Father in prayer. This fits the pattern of prayer that he taught his disciples:
There were, of course those times when he delayed his departure to meet with people because of his compassion for them, and he even received them when they hunted him down and found him out in the desert hills; but then, as after feeding the 5000, it is significant that he went on to fulfil his purpose of prayer.
But did he really feel closer to God on a mountain? Or was it just to get away? Do mountains have a special place in the worship of God? The ancient Israelites thought so. Many of their early shrines were built on mountain tops, but after the temple was built in Jerusalem (also a mountain, Mount Zion) the use of the old sites was discouraged to bring people to the temple; but after Solomon's kingdom divided, not long after the temple was built, the people of the Northern Kingdom continued to worship at the mountain shrines. Their descendants in the time of Jesus were the Samaritans and that is why the woman at the well in Samaria said to Jesus in that strange conversation he had with her alone when his disciples were surprised to find him talking with a woman [John 4:20-23],
That is another story, but two things stand out:
1. he defended the Jewish practices which he continued to follow in going to the temple and in regular worship at the synagogue: he did not provide any excuse for those who would substitute a wilderness experience for worship in the congregation and its sacred places;
2. then he saw beyond all human limitations and concluded:
The place does not matter: it is the direct personal relationship with God that is important; and not just any old spirituality, but knowing the true God who was known to the Jews, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to whom the prophets constantly referred; and this brings us to that strange event on the mountain we call the transfiguration, when he was seen in the company of Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament men of God.
It was an other-worldly experience. Matthew says it was a vision but it was not a dream. Jesus had a strange light about him, an aura, you might say: (doxa = glory); the idea of the halo come from this; bright shining light is described at several points in the Bible when angels appear or there is a direct encounter with God. It reminds me of the light seen by Paul on the road to Damascus, and in a different way the light people today say they have seen in near death experiences.
On this last Sunday of the season following Epiphany, concerning the uncovering of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, we are reminded of the shining glory that the disciples saw in him through a special revelation on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Shining light and shining faces traditionally display evidence of being very near to the presence of God. Moses had to wear a veil because his face shone so brightly when he came down from the mountain after talking with God and receiving the law of the old covenant.
Paul refers to this when he writes to the Corinthians about seeing the glory of God without faces being veiled, but still in a baffling way like reflections in a mirror, probably not a very good mirror, which is appropriate to the clouded vision of earthly humanity. Nevertheless it was a transforming experience to see God in Christ as Christian believers soon came to know for themselves.
Regarding the glory of Christ: later reflections of the Transfiguration
Paul recalled it for the Corinthians:
I think we are wrong to rationalize these experiences and try to understand them in everyday materialistic terms. There is a mystery about the presence of God, and at the same time an objectivity about meetings with God. There on the mountain Peter, James and John beheld the glory of the Lord and knew Jesus as they had not known him before. Peter even wanted to build a house and stay there, it was so good. Incidently there were separate houses for Moses and Elijah, but the disciples would have been in the house with Jesus. They wanted to stay with him beside the mighty ones of old and in the eternal Presence. But they had to go.
We cannot stay in the mountain
When I was young we used sometimes to sing of this unwillingness to back to the ordinary world when we were about to go home after the uplifting experience of an Easter camp:
Stay, Master, stay upon this heavenly hill:
A little longer, let us linger still;
With all the mighty ones of old beside,
Near to the awful Presence still abide;
Before the throne of light we trembling stand,
And catch a glimpse into the spirit-land.
Stay, Master, stay! We breathe a purer air;
This life is not the life that waits us there:
Thoughts, feelings, flashes, glimpses come and go;
We cannot speak them - nay, we do not know;
Wrapt in this cloud of light we seem to be
The thing we fain we grow - eternally.
No, saith the Lord, the hour is past, we go;
Our home, our life, our duties lie below.
While here we kneel upon the mount of prayer,
The plough lies waiting in the furrow there.
Here we sought God that we might know His will;
There we must do it, serve Him, seek Him still.
If man aspires to reach the throne of God,
O'er the dull plains of earth must lie the road:
He who best does his lowly duty here,
Shall mount the highest in a nobler sphere:
At God's own feet our spirits seek their rest,
And he is nearest Him who serves Him best.
So what do we do?
Where there are hills, there are also valleys. We are called back into community life. Is that what its all about after all? To be inspired by the high experience for service in the valleys?
Back in the memory of the farm where I grew up, a little way from where I learned to look out to the mountains with wonder, it was possible to look down into a steep sided valley where one could see, several hundred feet below, the small town or village where I went to school. One does not have the same sense of wonder looking down, but when you are actually down there amongst the people the feeling is quite different: there is warmth and challenge and another kind of delight in the village setting, especially in meeting people we know. The valleys of Templestowe must once, in the farming days before the area became a suburb, have had that familiar security when the people who lived here all knew each other, and even now, although it is one undivided portion of the sprawling metropolitan area, it still has something of the character of a village. I was struck by this on Friday. [See note at heading re local conditions and the following details.]
I think I can give you a glimpse of village life, even here: Early in the morning, although not as early as I usually go, I was walking in Westerfolds Park and came across two members of the congregation, Elaine Dodds and Helen Salomon. We stopped and chatted and I was able to pass on some information from the meeting of the night before, for the notices Elaine was typing, about when the Sunday School would restart. As I came up the hill in Milne Street on the way back passed the Beavis' place I saw Jan Higgins coming down and we arranged how she would pick something later for the Newsletter and take it to Catherine Beavis. Along Atkinson Street I decided to drop in and talk with Marie Haines about some minor changes in the music for the centenary services. Meanwhile Ron Gaudion had dropped in at the manse about the same thing and I had missed him, but I caught up with him later and got things organised so that the new organ could be heard. Coming past the church I had a brief conversation with Ivan Hitchcock about chairs and we agreed to leave all decisions on such things to Marie Mackrell, but I still had to catch up with her about some details for the order of proceedings for Saturday afternoon and I had deliberately walked by her place on the corner in Milne Street. Now, later she came by but I missed her, but believe it or not I met her too, later, accidently, after a brief walk up the street during which I saw Barbara Dun, I think it was, driving by and then I ran into Barbara Young and asked her to think about taking on a responsibility which the meeting the night before had suggested I put to her; and then she had no sooner disappeared, than, in a shop, Noelene Stevens spoke to me, and I was able to tell her that I had already spoken with Barbara about the matter we had discussed at the meeting; and then as I came back across Wood Street I saw Marie Mackrell coming out of the car park and we completed our business.
That is by no means the whole story, but it is, I think, is a fair sample of village life, and I don't even know half the members of the congregation yet. It is not like that in Templestowe everyday, but in a real village I suppose it might have been, as I guess it was here around a hundred years ago, and I would still like this to be in some sense `The Church in the Village'. And if it is a village church it will have about it the character of fellowship, service and involvement. [As Bonhoeffer put it] We tend to think of God as being out on the perimeter where human powers give out, so in modern life the church is pushed to outskirts, it does not appear in prime time, but traditionally the church stands at the centre of the village.
This is the message I would give you. Those who go the mountain to be with God are called back into the life of the community as servants, and in a minute we will sing the servant song. That only makes sense if you have actually been to the mountain; and you are especially well equipped to serve if you have been there with Jesus. In this sense the community needs the church, not just a social welfare agency. There is scarcely anything more relevant to the needs of the community today than that relationship with the spirit world beyond, which the Transfiguration represents; and at the same time, in contrast, there is scarcely anything more relevant to our spiritual journeys than that warm human interaction that is the life of the village. God is both near and far, closer than breathing and higher than the highest mountains, and if we don't know him in both ways we don't know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So it is a great blessing that in Christ:
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Endnote: when Jesus went into the wilderness
When Jesus was tempted
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -- Matthew 4:1
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. -- Mark 1:12
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. -- Mark 1:13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, -- Luke 4:1
When John the Baptist was killed, followed by feeding the 5000
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. -- Matthew 14:13
He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. -- Mark 6:31
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. -- Mark 6:32
Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. -- John 6:3
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, "Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place." -- Luke 9:12
After feeding the 5000
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, -- Matthew 14:23
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. -- John 6:15
After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. -- Mark 6:46
The sermon on the mount
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. -- Matthew 5:1ff
Before feeding the 4000
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. -- Matthew 15:29
The disciples said to him, "Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?" -- Matthew 15:33
His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" -- Mark 8:4
When he appointed the twelve
He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. -- Mark 3:13
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. -- Luke 6:12
Apparently as a general practice for prayer and recreation
At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. -- Luke 4:42
But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. -- Luke 5:15
But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. -- Luke 5:16
[End of note]
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