Sermon at St James, Colwall, for Trinity 11 2016
Daniel 7:9-10,13-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36
To hear the sermon as you read:
I know they say time goes quicker as you get older but I was astonished to see that Transfiguration reading appear when I checked out the lectionary for this week. These readings are supposed to be on a three year cycle and it seems like barely yesterday when I was last reflecting on that reading and the glory of the Lord.
So i checked what pass for my records and it wasn’t actually yesterday but it was early February, just six months ago, in Coddington so at least my grasp of time isn’t completely shot yet. But perhaps also there’s something in this reading that I’m being called to pay attention to.
But before that, how about that Daniel reading? Just another piece of old testament mumbo-jumbo did you think? And if we’d had the whole chapter, preferably from the KJV, instead of edited highlights you’d have had the full works - ravaging beasts getting progressively scarier till we get one with multiple horns of all sizes, then heavenly multitudes, judgement, death and destruction. The full apocalypse. For starters. You could be forgiven for thinking what was all that about?
But the strange thing is, that chapter, Daniel 7 is hugely important in the development of the thinking of the Jews and early Christians and as a consequence, has helped to shape the theology that we now receive thousands of years later. I can’t begin to do it justice so I’m just going to focus on three details - one a phrase, one fairly frivolous thing and one absolutely fundamental.
I do like the way that sometimes a phrase will crop up and you think Ah! I never knew that’s where it came from. The ancient of days, how many times have we sung that? Well, this is where it comes from, Daniel chapter 7, KJV of course, it appears three times as a name for God.
It’s a lovely phrase given extra resonance by its place in that hymn. I guess the original writer and the King James translators would be quietly pleased with themselves to know just how familiar and resonant it had become. Not quite so pleased perhaps to know what had become of their description of the ancient of days - whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool.
Just last week, Chris Sennett was denouncing that image of God in white robes sitting on a cloud as ... not entirely helpful, shall we say. Comics and sceptics through the years have had great fun with the image. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in church, but in the Far Side cartoons which you may be familiar with, Gary Larson was never averse to depicting God as an old man in his white robes and hair. One that amused me was titled God returning home after the immaculate conception. It had God just about to stroll in to the kitchen where Mrs God was standing with a frying pan looking distinctly less than pleased.
But this comic, faintly ridiculous image was absolutely not what the writer intended. Human-like images of God are remarkably rare in the bible and this one is intended to use the dazzling whiteness and great age of the ancient of days to show God as pure and wise. And to contrast this purity and wisdom with the insanity that has gone before - that’s what we miss by not hearing the whole passage. Because it’s actually intensely political - the readers at the time would have recognised those four horrendous beasts I mentioned and all their ghastly activities as representing the earthly powers and events of their time.
So to recap, the biblical writer has really been quite skilful in depicting these kingdoms as wild, fierce, and predatory animals with unnatural features. They have too many heads, or too many wings, or too many horns. But in contrast, the Ancient of Days resembles a human! He’s benign, he’s on our side.
So, moving on to the more fundamental thing … Not only is Daniel’s vision of God human-like, so is his vision
of God’s agent:
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of
Of course we’ll never know who Daniel had in mind as his son of man but it doesn’t take much imagination to
detect a link between Daniel’s vision and the way the gospel writers portrayed Jesus. In particular he was the
one, singled out by God in our gospel reading:
This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!
The idea of the one through whom the world would be saved links back directly to this vision and at the transfiguration, God’s voice from the clouds confirms that Jesus is that one.
You do have to feel a bit sorry for Peter. There he is at this sensational event, present, we are told, at a moment when prophecy became reality and all he wants to do is commemorate the moment. If it happened today, we’d have the mobile phones out in a flash and get our snaps and videos up on Social media in no time wouldn’t we? Where’s the harm in that? Well, there must have been some harm it seems, because the instant he’d spoken he got a proper slap on the wrist as the light and glory immediately turned to dark and cold, and he’s told in no uncertain terms to listen to Jesus rather than wasting his efforts trying to preserve the moment.
Perhaps Peter thought this event somehow meant the beginning of God’s glorious reign in the best of all possible worlds, a bit like in Daniel’s vision for the son of man: To him was given dominion and glory and kingship. But Jesus knew it wasn’t to be like that. Not yet. As the one through whom the world would be saved, he was to die on the cross and the commemoration he was to institute was nothing to do with Peter’s tabernacles or dwelling places. It was to do with blood and death and being crucified. It was the meal we’re about to share and our understanding of it is surely enhanced by seeing it as going back to the ancient of days. It isn’t some routine get-together. To quote catholic doctrine: the Eucharist is the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated down the age. This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ … left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there.
The transfiguration recounts how God confirmed that Jesus was the chosen one, just as Daniel had seen in his vision - there would be one, and that’s what we assert in our communion, that Jesus is the one in whom we put our trust. The readings can come round as often as they like but the truth remains as ever was - Jesus is the one, we celebrate that today and every day.