The Transfiguration—when men and mountains meet

Sermon at St James, Sunday next before Lent, 19 February 2023

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

To listen to (an imperfect) recording of the sermon as you read:

I realise that some people suffer from vertigo but for the rest of us there is something inspiring and uplifting about high places. The Malvern Hills, the Brecon Beacons are attractive because they give us a different perspective. The rocks have been there for millions of years and most of the trees are centuries old. Time feels different in the mountains. We can surely understand the ambition of those people who are determined to climb every one of the 214 peaks called the Wainwrights in the Lake District or the 282 Munros in Scotland. Such hills and mountains are of nothing, of course, compared to the Alps or Himalayas but all of them lift us out of the humdrum, raise our spirits and make us look at the land below in a new way.

It was the author of the hymn Jerusalem, William Blake, who wrote: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet, this is not done by jostling in the street.”

Our three lessons today take us up a mountain. In the first we climb with Moses and Joshua up Mount Sinai which is a peak of over 7000 feet. Perhaps they simply went into the foothills to get away from the hurly burly of the Israelites below them. They were high enough to be lost from sight in a cloud and there with God’s help they figured out how their people were to lead their lives, in other words the law by which Jews lived their lives for centuries – The Torah. God spoke to Moses and Joshua on the mountain, and they heard his voice.

Then we can jump to our Gospel reading from Matthew with its account of the Transfiguration. Jesus took his three chief apostles, Peter, James and John away from the crowds to the quiet serenity of a mountain. He is trying to give them an insight into who he is and what his ministry is all about. It’s an ‘away day’ in the mountains, if you like. What happens is quite extraordinary and unexpected because they suddenly have an experience which takes them completely out of themselves. There is their friend and teacher standing with Moses the father of their nation and also with Elijah the pugnacious defender of God against Baal worship. They are being given a taste of the glory of God’s presence and they gasp in wonder. Great things are done when men and mountains and God meet.

The vision is as clear as any mountain view on a good day. This man, Jesus, is the heir of Moses and Elijah. He is in the line of the Law and the prophets. He is the long-expected Messiah.

It’s therefore no surprise then when we recall the words of our second lesson today, words of Peter himself as he recalls the Transfiguration. “We had been eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty when that voice was conveyed to him, ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

This must have been an experience that Peter could never forget, an experience that was life-changing and drove him to become one of the founders of our faith.

There is one more thought. When we watched the funeral of the Queen and when we watch large outdoor events our television companies use cameras with enormously long lenses which bring distant details into focus. So, we see the horses and crowds seemingly all very close together when we know that there is really distance between them. This is called foreshortening—the effect of using a long telephoto lens on a camera. The vision of the Transfiguration is a kind of foreshortening. There is Jesus and his three friends in the foreground and then there are Elijah and Moses brought together in one picture despite the centuries between them.

Why don’t we put ourselves also in that picture. You and me standing there with Jesus and his disciples behind us and then Elijah and Moses—a foreshortening of time and a foreshortening of our faith giving us a vision to take into Lent which starts next Wednesday.