Holy Communion 08/08/21 (10th Sunday after Trinity)
(Stephen Hamer -Diocesan Reader)
Based on Luke 9: 28-36
(alt Mark 9:2-8 and Matthew 17: 1-8)
also 2 Peter 1:16-19 (Epistle)
May my words be in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit
The Gospel reading for today is remembering an event recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke. The passage is entitled The Transfiguration of Our Lord. When this happens in the Bible it usually means it is important and worth reading all accounts to get a full picture – the same as we do at Christmas or Easter.
Today’s event is known as the Transfiguration – that is, when Jesus changed his appearance from looking like a mortal human being (like you and I) to a radiant being. It is an event not only recorded in all the gospels but also in the Epistles – letters written by the disciples. It was a defining moment
that subsequently had a great effect on them.
Imagine the scene – Jesus had gone up a mountain taking with him Peter and James plus John his brother. As Jesus was praying the three disciples noticed something very strange was happening - the appearance of Jesus changed. His face shone clear and bright like the sun, and His clothing became as white as lightning. The Gospel reading from Mark said his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the World could bleach them. This is a transfiguration – the change of form or appearance.
As if the change in the appearance of Jesus wasn’t enough to amaze or scare them, what happened next left them struggling for words. Alongside the brilliant form of Jesus appeared two other dazzling figures which the disciples recognised as Moses and Elijah. Moses represented the law (given to him on tablets of stone on Mt Sinai) and Elijah represented the prophets. These saints in glory were talking aloud with Jesus so the disciples could hear them speaking about the departure of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Peter began to speak and said to Jesus,
“Lord, it is good for us to be here? Let us put up three booths here -
one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
It is suggested that by now poor Peter was just about speechless, and merely blurted out this suggestion with little thought. I’ll be more charitable and would suggest maybe he was thinking, even if subconsciously.
Let me explain - Jesus and the disciples not only kept the Jewish festivals and laws, they knew their history and their relevance.
In late September / early October there is a major Jewish festival know as Feast of Booths or Shelters (Sukkot) – one of the three pilgrim festivals when historically the Jewish population travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The booth is reminiscent of the type of hut in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
During this seven day holiday, Jews construct and live in their hut (sukkah).
Families eat their meals, entertain guests, relax, and even sleep in the sukkah. Entertaining guests is important as during each day of the holiday, Jews invite seven spiritual "guests" to be with them in the sukkah.
These are known as the "Seven Shepherds of Israel" :
2. Isaac – Abraham’s son by Sarah
3. Jacob – Isaac’s son by Rebekah
4. Moses - the most influential of the Hebrew prophets
5. Aaron - Moses' brother and the first High Priest
6. Joseph - Jacob's most famous son
7. David - a very significant king of Israel,
and from whom the messiah will descend
According to tradition, each night a different one of the Seven Shepherds enters the sukkah first and the other six follow. Some people say a special prayer welcoming them to the sukkah in the order in which they come. Each has a unique lesson to teach that parallels the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit.
You ladies might be interested to learn that in recent times, some Jews have added seven spiritual women to enter their sukkah. These are the biblical Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah (a prophetess), Abigail, and Esther.
The custom of inviting guests to the sukkah extends to living guests as well as dead ancestors. Many people invite family, friends, neighbours, or people who are alone to join them for a snack or a meal. Anyone, including non-Jews, are more than welcome inside a sukkah.
So - Peter’s suggestion of building booths might well have been linked with his knowledge of the history behind the Festival of Booths and that a spiritual guest such as Moses would have been expected. Moses was now standing in front of him, along with the prophet Elijah who lived about 9thC BC. The passage of time, in this case many centuries, was irrelevant – spirit beings are not bound by time, which is a good thing as it allows the Holy Spirit to be here in this building right now.
Back to the Gospel story ... in v.34 it records that a cloud appeared and threw a shadow over them, and a voice came out of the cloud, saying,
This is My Son, whom I have chosen and love. Listen to him!
Imagine the effect of a voice coming out of a cloud - they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. As they got up and looked around, they suddenly no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they came back down the mountain, Jesus cautioned them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from among the dead - which we know was to be on Easter Day.
Scripture goes on to record that Peter, James & John carefully and faithfully kept the matter to themselves, but questioned and disputed with one another about what rising from among the dead meant. We know that this was Jesus predicting his death,
but for them to consider their beloved Rabbi dying and leaving them was part of a growing puzzle.
The Gospel reading today rather unhelpfully starts with the words ... about a week after Jesus had said these things Said what ?.... If you look back at what happened it was Jesus saying to the disciples that some of them would live to see the Kingdom of God come in its power. They did not appreciate what he was saying, but we have the gift of hindsight. We know that in dying, Jesus was to bring in the Kingdom of God.
You might be wondering where the transfiguration took place. Our thought patterns are predominantly derived from the Greek – that is we usually have more interest in the place or item rather than what happened or what it does. eg if I asked you to describe a pen. Greek thinking would probably say it is about 6” long and has a blue barrel, black ink and cost £2. Jewish thought would tend to ignore those superficial details and go straight to what it can do – you write with it. My aunt Flo (or Florence as she liked to be called) kept a holiday diary – it had lots of detail about where they went, the cost of travel, food, the weather – but little to describe what they did. The Bible, being written mainly by Jewish scholars, is usually the opposite – it tends to record the ‘what they did’ aspect and skip over precise details, such as location and time.
The transfiguration story doesn’t specifically state the exact location and it is remembered today at two sites in Israel. I’ve been to both and they are about 40 miles apart. Until the 4thC the site was believed to be on the slopes of Mt Hermon which is still favoured by many Christian guides. The location fits in well with the record in Mark’s gospel immediately before the Transfiguration story - it says states that Jesus and his disciples were in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. This lovely location, the source of the River Jordan, is at the foot of Mt Hermon - 2,814 m (9,230 feet).
Snaefell might be considerably smaller than Mt Hermon, but both have names that mean the same – snow mountain, and for the same reason – both can have snow on them in winter and spring. Both can experience swirling mists and be suddenly covered in cloud – places where the real and the imaginary can be rather thin – a bit like waking out of a dream. Both mountains are important to each nation as spiritual high places.
The alternative site for the Transfiguration is Mt Tabor - a strategically important fortress site which sticks up over 1500ft (460m) out of the flat Valley of the Jezreel. In 348AD Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that he preferred Mt. Tabor to Mt Hermon as the site of the Transfiguration. Thus by 570, three churches are recorded on Mt Tabor, dedicated as you might expect, to Christ, Moses and Elijah. Today there stands a very beautiful Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration with a most spectacular ceiling mural.
Returning to the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration.... what exactly was the purpose of Jesus taking Peter, James & John up the high mountain? It wasn’t to scare them, although they obviously were.
As I mentioned a few moments ago it wasn’t the first record of God being concealed in a cloud. The OT book of Exodus says that three months after escaping from Egypt across the Sea of Reeds, the Hebrew people were camping on the edge of the southern desert at the foot of the highest peak, Mt Sinai. Moses left them and climbed up the mountain into a cloud. There he met with God and returned 40 days later with the 10 Commandments.
Thinking about today’s Bible reading and the voice coming out of the cloud, starting with a statement “this is my beloved son” – the unique son of God. There are two other very important places in scripture where this acknowledgement of Jesus being the Son of God is repeated – Jesus’ baptism and at his crucifixion.
At the baptism, you might remember the KJV which in Matthew 27 says:
16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
And at his crucifixion: (Matthew 27)
54 Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
If we accept Jesus as the Son of God, we ought to consider what the voice in the cloud said – it ended with an instruction, that was to listen to him. Do we, do I, make the time?
We know from Deut 18 that there would come an even greater prophet than Moses – the Gospel writers, and ourselves, understand this to be Jesus. He is the beloved son of God, greater than either Moses or Elijah, and who will ultimately be glorified and worshipped by all. Orthodox Jews believe Deut 18 that there will be a greater prophet than Moses but do not accept that to be Jesus. Messianic Jews, as you might imagine by their name, recognise Jesus as the Messiah. Prophesy will be fulfilled but, in the manner and time that God choses.
The image of Jesus in the Transfiguration story was indeed a foretaste of his future glory. It was something the three disciples had witnessed and later on, Simon Peter, writing his second letter (Epistle) to the early Christians, says that they didn’t need to make up stories As Sheila read to us, in v16 it says - With our own eyes we saw his (God’s) greatness. 17 We were there when he was given honour and glory by God the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!” 18 We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.
We remember again the OT record of Moses ascent of Mt Sinai (Ex 24:9-18) in which he saw God’s glory and, as a result, the face of Moses shone. This dazzling radiance is often linked with heavenly things – the surrounding in glory. I’m encouraged by the Transfiguration passage that we might recognise saints who have gone before us – those family and friends who were righteous in God’s sight – as we can also be.
The hymns chosen for today fit the theme of the Transfiguration – eg the hymn Immortal, Invisible God only wise. They are mainly old tunes and words and may be a little difficult to understand. It is hardly surprising as the theme is mysterious as it deals with the super-natural. A more modern and lovely hymn, written in 1984, starts with the line Jesus is King, let the Earth be glad and each verse ends with the words He is surrounded with glory.
Hymn writers may struggle as our scientific World demands an explanation for everything - but transfiguration is one area for which science has no answer. The fact it cannot be explained does not mean it did not happen. For the three disciples it was very real - as can be our future with the risen King of Glory.