A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday Before Lent
11th February 2018
Mark 9: 2 – 11
During this service Isla Cheetham was baptised
If ever you make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land you can visit the place where tradition has it that Jesus was transfigured. It’s called Mount Tabor and it’s quite a striking hill which sits out in the middle of a plain. It’s on the front cover of our order of service. Getting up the Mount of Transfiguration can be a little hair-raising. It’s only got a single-track road going to the top and you’re transported there by a team of Israeli Arab taxi drivers who seem to think that taking the trip up, not to mention down, at considerable speed will enhance your enjoyment of the experience. So they speed up and down the mountain, keeping in touch with each other on radios, just in case a car going up meets a car going down and by the time you get to the top, you’re so grateful to God that your worship is bound to be sincere out of sheer survival, and by the time you get back to the bottom, all you want is a stiff drink.
Still, the view at the top is memorable as you look out over the plain of Megiddo and the church at the top is built to commemorate this amazing moment in the Gospels where Jesus’s glory is allowed to be seen. More of that in a moment.
It being the Holy Land, of course, every holy site has a church built on top of it and the Mount of Transfiguration is no different. Many of the churches that exist today in Israel and Palestine were built by an Italian Franciscan monk called Antonio Barluzzi and, in general, he tends towards the rather grandiose and imposing, with hints of the sort of architecture that Mussolini favoured in his rebuilding of Italy. These, in general, tend to be built to command a sense of awe and majesty which, in the case of the story of the Transfiguration is no bad thing, because awe and majesty are exactly what the story is about. If you manage to survive the taxi journey down, it is the gold mosaic of Christ transfigured that will stick in your mind.
Of course, there was nothing at the top of the Mountain of Transfiguration when Jesus took Peter, James and John up there. So empty was it that Peter, we’re told, wants to build three little shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, who stand there in their glory. There’s nothing there. But Peter really doesn’t know what he’s saying, says Mark. What he needs to do, in this supreme moment of spiritual revelation is not to engage in a building project, however simple and hospitable providing shelter might be, but to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. So the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] listen to him!’
One of the ironies about the history of the Christian church is that we’ve spent more time doing what Peter did than what the voice from heaven tells us to do. We’ve often been more interested in bricks and mortar than in listening to God. Now don’t get me wrong here – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have places of worship in which to gather, and I’m not saying that, once we’ve got buildings, they cannot help us in our worship. Absolutely not. For many people, a place of worship and a place to worship is a key element in what it means to be a people of God. But what I’m saying is that, in this moment when Jesus is revealed in glory, it is not a building, nor a place, but a person that will be how we meet God, and in what that person says. The place where we most see the glory of God, this story tells us, whether it’s shining in a bold moment of spiritual revelation, or in the ordinary moments of his life, when he’s just hanging out with the disciples, is in Jesus Christ. More of him in a moment
But first, as we bring these two delightful children to baptism today, I’d like to start by inviting you to focus on them as a way in which you, their parents, godparents and family, can and will see God. There’s a famous quote from a writer in the early Church called Irenaeus, who says this, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” What he’s saying is that the more alive, the more rounded, the more whole and fulfilled these children can be – which has nothing to do with wealth and possessions I should ask – the more like this they can be, the more you will see God’s glory in them. You don’t need to go to the top of a mountain to find God in God’s glory. Or even to church – although it’s a good thing to go to church. You can find God in Isla, in Leon and in one another. That’s part of why we are called as Christians to have respect and reverence for every person. Because in and through them you can see the glory of God.
But you don’t have to be sorted to see the glory. It’s not about the body beautiful or the fashion catwalk, having the best education that money can buy. I was powerfully reminded about this yesterday afternoon as we finished the General Synod meeting in Westminster, and we debated Valuing Children with Down’s Syndrome. Speaker after speaker reminded us – through their own experience of knowing Down’s kids, or through other experiences of living with disability – that living like this can be just as life-enhancing and life giving as anyone else can be. At the end of the debate, which was unanimously passed and will contribute to making representations to Government about medical research and Down’s, at the end of the debate, we watched a short video of a dozen or so children with Down’s simply saying “thank you” to us. As I looked around, there were many wet eyes. Whether we are able-bodied or disabled, God’s glory is there to be seen and discovered.
But at this very special moment in the ministry of Jesus, as he prepares to lay aside his glory completely and head towards his crucifixion, his closest disciples see what a “human being fully alive” looks like. They catch a glimpse of Jesus so full of God’s presence that his divinity as well as his humanity are on view. Perhaps Jesus appears like this for a moment to fortify them for what is about to follow – suffering, betrayal and death. Perhaps, as they face these coming days of darkness, they need even more closely to listen to what Jesus is saying.
For us, too, when we face the challenges of life, be those the challenges of raising our children, the challenges of the culture we live in, the challenges of poor health, physical or mental, or just the challenges of making sense of a world that often doesn’t make sense, we can do no worse than taking those words from heaven to heart. “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus when you don’t know what to do, listen to Jesus when suffering and all that comes with it enters your life, listen to Jesus for a sense of purpose when all around seems chaotic. As we baptise Leon and Isla today, in a sense listening to Jesus is what their parents and godparents commit to doing being a Christian is more than anything else. Because, as they and as each one of us take time to listen to Jesus Christ, we can find in him not just wisdom for living and a path through the dark patches of life, but the way to glory itself. Because, we Christians believe, that what his disciples see in him on the top of this strange looking mountain, is what we are destined for as we listen to him. A life which grows in meaning and purpose, in hope and in healing, and a life which ultimately leads to the glory of God itself. What a prospect for Leon, Isla and us all. “Listen to him.” Amen.