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In Death and Life, God With Us

February 23, 2020

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Matthew 17.1-9, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 23rd February 2020, the Sunday next before Lent.

Here’s a literary mystery. The story of the transfiguration appears in every gospel except John’s, and the accounts are very similar. But only in Matthew’s, the one we heard today, is there a small exchange between Jesus and his disciples, after the voice has come from a cloud saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’.

The addition is: when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and they were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them saying, ‘Rise and have no fear.’

Today we’re going to find out why that’s there, after we’ve noticed what’s coming up for us.

Because Lent is on the way next Wednesday, beginning the tough climb to Easter. The starry wonder of the Nativity is well behind us as we turn towards the dust, sweat and blood of the Passion.

The story of the Transfiguration given to us today is an encouragement to follow Christ on the hard road ahead. There’s a mountain of antagonism and aggression for him to climb, and a final ascent to a cross, where his face will be obscured by three hours of darkness, and he’ll cry out in pain and perplexity; so we need something to hold onto to help us unlock this mystery.

In the Transfiguration, Matthew offers a key to the puzzle of the cross.

And indeed, the cross is a puzzle, so hard to take into our lives, however many times we might cross ourselves in church. If we think of Jesus as just a good man executed for standing uncompromisingly against evil, then there’s nothing much to explain. His death on a cross just goes to prove the way the world is, a place where no good deed remains unpunished.

That’s a very unremarkable and uninspiring vision.

There’s only one place to begin to get hold of Lent – and to allow Lent to get hold of us – and that’s with the question of God. Can God have anything to do with the squalid mess of conspiracy, violence, cowardice, betrayal and hypocrisy which we call the sin of the world – a slime of iniquity which spreads like a slick to snuff out goodness and extinguish hope? How on earth is God involved in this terrible story?

The slime is our story. We are not the good guys; at best, we’re hanging on. We are the ones searching for something other than the fearful compromises we know all too well. We are the ones hoping for rebirth into glory, for birdsong and laughter, for the sun to break through the clouds. We follow the story of Lent because of our present predicament, because of our pressing need, because we thirst for life.

It’s not at all obvious how an instrument of execution, the cross, can in any way be a sign of universal hope, but the Transfiguration gives us the key.

As Matthew tells the story, he’s remembering Moses coming down from Mount Sanai with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand. Moses didn’t know that the skin of his face shone because he’s been talking with God. It is only Matthew among the evangelists who dares to spell this out, and even to crank up the intensity: on the high mountain Jesus’ face shone like the sun, he tells us, and his garments became white as light.

Mark and Luke can only manage the clothes being ‘intensely’ or ‘dazzling’ white respectively, but neither of them talks about Jesus’ face directly. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, though, definitely outshines Moses.

There’s no doubt where this brightness comes from lighting up the face of Jesus. The cloud which descends on the mountain, overshadowing them, is there in every telling of the story, but in Matthew it is a bright cloud. It is a cloud blazing with the presence of God.

At this moment of Transfiguration God is undoubtedly present with Jesus, making his face shine like the sun.

Now in Luke’s Gospel the disciples are afraid because they enter the cloud, but in Matthew the bright cloud doesn’t scare them; rather, they react (even more dramatically) to God’s voice coming from a cloud saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’.

As they hear this voice, with its command to listen, they fall on their faces and are overcome by fear.

We asked the question earlier how God can be involved in the Lenten story, and this is the key Matthew gives us. God is involved fully through Jesus his beloved Son, his anointed representative, his appointed agent. If you want to see what God is doing in the whole sorry story of human suffering, look to Jesus; if you want to hear what God is saying, listen to Jesus. God rarely speaks out from the heavens, but if we listen to Jesus we will always hear him speaking.

We will hear God speaking, then, even when there’s no bright cloud surrounding Jesus but rather skies turned black, even when Jesus is flanked by thieves rather than the great prophets of Israel, even when his garments are torn rather than shining. It’s still God’s Son who dies at Golgotha, as the centurion at the foot of the cross confesses. And like the disciples witnessing the Transfiguration, he also is overcome by fear as he sees the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

In telling of the Transfiguration Matthew wants us to see and hear God-with-us in Jesus before the climb gets too steep. He wants us to understand God’s sponsorship of Jesus in all that lies ahead.

So God is not only involved in the Lenten world, he is fully invested in it. He is battling within it for our salvation, shouldering our sin and sorrow, tasting the death that was our own due punishment.

On Ash Wednesday especially we fall on our faces before the splendour of this God, remembering that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.

However, Matthew doesn’t leave the disciples overcome. He adds: but Jesus came and touched them saying, ‘Rise and have no fear.’

It is true that in Christ GOD is with us and that is awesome, but also that in Christ God is WITH us, and that’s a boundless consolation. The Jesus whose transfiguration reveals his deepest identity as God’s Son remains human, one of us – someone who can approach and touch us and commission us: ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.

We stand up so that he can take and lead us through the morass of sin and death, and bring us to bright, resurrection light.

The cross is a puzzle because it seems at first sight to add nothing to the sum total of human happiness: one more pointless death; one more wasted life; more failed promises. And yet if we follow the Lenten story in the light of Transfiguration, we’ll move beyond that: we’ll see God in Jesus steering a firm path through the deep waters of death; we’ll see God in Jesus making a perfect sacrifice of self-sacrificial love; we’ll see God in Jesus forging an everlasting covenant between God and humanity.

The account of the Transfiguration ends dramatically, with the disciples looking up and seeing no one except Jesus alone. No cloud, no voice, no prophetic vision remains.

But we must never forget what we’ve seen and heard on this mountain; we sorely need it to take in the terror and glory of the cross. There, where the sinews of the human condition are stripped and laid bare, we most need to listen to God’s beloved Son, and there rise and not be afraid, because in death and in life God is with us.