Sermon for Transfiguration – 19th February 2023

The Transfiguration” by Raphael  (1483–1520) in the Pinacoteca Vaticana

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

When you’re in the depths of grief, you’re always asking the same question and that question is why. It’s not a philosophical why, it’s a cry that comes from the very middle of you, the cry of a wounded animal and in the silence we get in return, people do all sorts of things.

Ash Sarkar in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

The problem of evil, suffering, tragedy and where God fits in to such things has long been debated, and events such as the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria are bound to prompt us to ask the question all over again. When we ask the question, it’s in the silence we get in return that we might find the answer that we’re seeking.

There is, I think, a huge divide in their understanding of the idea of ‘God’ between people of faith and people without and this was glaringly evident in this week’s ‘Moral Maze’ which asked the question. 

Why does God allow suffering and tragedy to happen”.

Question posed in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

The atheist contributors clearly have an image of an all powerful God who’s in control of all that happens. But is that the sort of God that we believe and trust in? If suffering and tragedy are part of God’s master plan then I don’t want anything to do with God. No, we believe in a God that was born as a helpless baby and died a horrendous death as a result of human cruelty, a God who suffers.

The priest Giles Fraser put it so well when he said:

What is it about a man hanging on a cross or for that matter a baby in a manger that speaks to you of omnipotence?” “It doesn’t seem to me that the central images of Christianity speak of omnipotence. The central images are images of powerlessness not powerfulness” 

Giles Fraser in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

I might add that those images are images of sacrificial love in the face of suffering

The Islamic scholar Mona Siddiqui went on to say:

When I was watching the images, I heard people crying ‘God is great’ when they discovered life in the ruins, the ultimate expression of abiding help and gratitude

Mona Siddiqui in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

To which the atheist philosopher Louise Antony replied: 

I think that hope and gratitude is massively irrational” 

Louise Antony in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

in response to which Mona asked: 

People are free to express gratitude in the midst of tragedy and in spite of the suffering people continue to believe, why is that irrational?

Mona Siddiqui in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

Yesterday morning, I took Moss, our collie, for his morning walk up the road. It was all rather different to usual. The Dornoch Firth was enveloped in cloud and instead of being able to see for miles, we could only see things as they appeared out of the fog, familiar trees, bushes, tracks and gates all made strange. And the sounds were strange too, kind of echoey and amplified. Our usual route was transformed, we experienced it in a different way. 

In Matthew’s Gospel this morning, Jesus, Peter, John and James climbed a hill as did Moses and Joshua in Exodus. Did you spot any similarities between the passage from Exodus and that in Matthew’s Gospel? In both there’s climbing of a mountain to an encounter with God and if we’d had a slightly longer section from Exodus we’d see that they both have faces shining like the sun, they both have bright clouds, with voices coming out of them and in both there’s fear in the on-lookers.

None of this is coincidental. Matthew writes the whole of his account of the life of Jesus with the idea in mind that Jesus is a New Moses and that’s reflected in the way he describes events and in how his explanations are shaped.

This event is referred to as the Transfiguration and Peter, who generally seems to get things wrong, sees the transfiguration as what things have been leading up to – the end point for Jesus’ ministry. This is heaven and we’ve arrived and so we better sort things out by building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. But of course that’s not what it is about.

It would be better understood as the turning point in Jesus’ life. The point at which in His disciples eyes, He starts to be transformed from simply an amazing miracle worker into a suffering servant, who’ll sacrifice His life for the sin of the world. They move from being people who, like the atheists on the moral maze, don’t understand what God’s about, to people of faith who can see the reality of a suffering God.

Whilst much of what we heard in the Gospel this morning describes an external transformation:

he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Matthew 17:2

But in fact here’s a more subtle transfiguration, or metamorphosis at work here. The reality that was inside Jesus was revealed on the outside so that the disciples could see the reality of God through him.

If we wind forward to the end of Lent, to the crucifixion, we see the transfiguration and the crucifixion in both similarity and stark contrast, which underlines this metamorphosis.

The transfiguration takes place in private, Jesus is exalted, his garments glisten, he is high on a mountain flanked by two of the religious giants of the past, all is light. 

The crucifixion takes the form of a public humiliation, Jesus is stripped of his garments, raised high on a cross flanked by two rogues and all is darkness.

So what is all this to us? How does it affect us?

Well none of us can leave here exactly as we were when we arrived.. We’ll face trials and tribulations. There’ll be pain. There’ll be joy. There’ll be anguish. There’ll be delight. There’ll be suffering. But in all those things, we’ll encounter the powerless and loving God and we’ll understand the world differently because of our encounter here today. 


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