Sunday next before Lent

Sermon: Sunday 12 February 2012

Sunday next before Lent

The Revd Canon Barry Naylor, Urban Canon

Today is the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins and the Gospel reading we heard just now is the one set for this particular Sunday each year – it speaks to us of the glory of Christ, transfigured before he sets his face to go up to Jerusalem and his passion.  On the Mount of Transfiguration we see his glory manifest in one particular way and on the Hill of Calvary is a very different manner – the glory shines there, not in a resplendent bright light but in a dead body nailed to a cross.

The Transfiguration is given much greater emphasis in the Churches of the East than here in the West – it embodies a series of signs and symbols witnessing to an encounter with the Divine and affirms the divinity of the Christ in powerful and symbolic ways.

Firstly it was a manifestation on a mountain and, in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was in the mountains where God was particularly expected to be encountered – the great encounters between God and Moses on Mount Sinai being the most notable but also Mount Horeb, where both Moses and Elijah encountered God, and Mount Carmel, where Elijah destroyed the prophets of Baal and several others.  The mountain and the wilderness were places of both divine encounter and spiritual battle.

The presence of the cloud, out of which the voice spoke, was no mountain mist floating across the scene but also a sign of the divine presence – Moses walked up into the cloud on Sinai and the people of Hebrews were guided by day, on their great Exodus journey, by a pillar of cloud going before them.

At night the pillar of cloud turned into a pillar of fire (representations of both engraved in our west doors) and after Moses encountered God we are told his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil.  The presence of God was known by Moses, also in the midst of the burning bush.

All these were indications of a theophany, a manifestation of the Divine, and this is confirmed by the voice that comes out of the cloud, reminding us of the voice that was heard as Jesus rose from the waters of Baptism in the River Jordan: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’.

The story continues, to tell us that at the side of Jesus were Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, the very heart of the revelation of God to the Hebrew people.

There can be no doubt what the Gospel writer is trying to tell us about Jesus, but, in spite of all this, Peter, James and John failed to understand who Jesus was and how to respond – their rather inappropriate offer to build three shelters indicates this.  The Evangelist tells us: ‘[Peter] did not know what to say, they were so terrified’.

‘If only Jesus were here now,’ – would it be any different?

After the manifestation – Jesus is there alone – the voice from the cloud pointed to him as the one to whom the disciples should listen.  He is not on an equal footing with those great heroes of the past Moses and Elijah, he is not just one of the three great spiritual figures; when they disappear he is the one who remains.  It is Jesus to whom we must listen, the one who St Paul reminds us in our Epistle is ‘image of God’.  God has given us knowledge of the light of his glory ‘in the face of Jesus Christ’.

They then left the mountain and Michael Ramsey, in a reflection on this passage, wrote:

The scene on the mount speaks to us today but we are not allowed to linger there.  We are bidden to journey on to Calvary and there learn of the darkness and the desolation which are the true cost of the glory’

And so, with the picture of the gloriously transfigured Christ in our minds, and the Divine voice commanding us to listen to him, we now turn to the days of Lent and to his approaching passion and death when we see the divine glory revealed in the same Christ but, this time, nailed to a cross.

The glory revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration was a glory that seems to make sense of a revelation of glory, what it should be (even though Peter and his companions singularly failed to respond appropriately).  All the familiar signs were there – hill, cloud, light, old heroes of the faith, a voice from heaven.  The glory of the cross, however, is not so easy to understand.  St Paul wrote in our reading today ‘We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord’; in his first Letter he wrote ‘We proclaim Christ crucified’ – his lordship shines out from the cross, from his expression of utter, uncompromising obedience to the way, and the means, of love.

During Lent we are invited by prayer, by study, by self-sacrifice, by almsgiving, to enter more deeply into an experience and understanding of the glory of the cross and how we should proclaim this expression of the divine glory today, here in Leicester.

The glory of the cross speaks more powerfully to those who are broken, dispossessed, poor, ridiculed, to those who are victims and these are the very ones who should have a priority in the life of the Church, in the life of Jesus’ disciples today, as they were the priority of Jesus in his earthly life – the Jesus glorified both on the Mount of Transfiguration and the Mount of Calvary.

We are invited to make good use of these coming days to remove whatever things we can identify, in our own lives and in the life of the Church, that veil our proclamation of the glory of God in Christ Jesus and having removed those veils, truly to live transfigured lives that radiate the Good News, the Good News of God’s boundless love, embracing all but particularly directed at the poorest and most vulnerable.  And it is in the reality of that love made manifest that we see his glory most wonderfully revealed.

To him and to him alone be the glory!

Have a good and a spiritually profitable Lent!


© The Revd Canon Barry Naylor