Do not be afraid: a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, 2 March 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 March 2014: Year A, Transfiguration Sunday

SERMON
Texts: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17.1-9

Do not be afraid
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today we’ve reached the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and the last Sunday before Lent, and the Lectionary always gives us the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on this day. We’ve heard how Jesus took his disciples to the top of a mountain, where they saw him mysteriously change- his face ‘shining like the sun’, his clothes ‘dazzling white’, he seemed to glow with a strange light.

Funnily enough, I was thinking about all this on Thursday night, starting to write this sermon, when I heard about something which made me leave my desk, jump in the car, and take the family up a hill to see some strange lights. We were at Culloden Battlefield, overlooking the Moray Firth, and the strange lights were the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. Last year we were on the west coast when there was a good display, but we couldn’t see anything because it was cloudy where we were. But this week the sky was clear, and so for the first time, we saw the Northern Lights in all their dazzling, ethereal beauty. It was quite a show!

Aurora at Stonehaven last week. Image from BBC News

It’s very difficult to describe the aurora if you haven’t see it. One thing that happened, for example, was that at times, it seemed that the sky was a dark curtain, on to which someone was shining a torch. Sometimes it reminded me of shimmering curtains, or vast plumes of thin, coloured smoke. It looked like a light show, or very strange fireworks, but on a vast scale (almost half the sky this week!). The combination of light and colour makes them see like they have been put there by an artist, but the scale is to vast to be human.

The scientific explanation is that Aurora Borealis is caused by subatomic particles, which fly out from the sun, are caught by the earth’s magnetic field, and light up as they hit the atmosphere. It’s relatively rare for the aurora to be so bright. What we were seeing was the results of a storm on the face of the sun a few days before- and we were able to see them because it was a clear night. The lights we are seeing are very high in space, and cover thousands of miles. And it all had its origins in a storm on the face of the sun, which was causing far more particles to be flying through space than usual. Even if you know something of the scientific explanation, that doesn’t detract from the wonder of it all. In fact, knowing the explanation makes me even more in awe of the phenomena.

Light- in the sky or elsewhere- has always held a fascination for human beings. Nowadays we can be surrounded by light all the time, if we wan. So much so that our artificial light sometimes blinds us to the beauty of natural light. There’s an observatory up at Culloden Battlefield, for its there’s a big sky there, and it’s well away from street lights. One chap we met up there with a very fancy camera told me he hadn’t expected the aurora, he’d just gone up to take pictures of the stars and planets. There’s even an area in Galloway which has been designated a ‘dark sky park’, because there’s little street lighting, and amateur astronomers can enjoy the dark skies to practice their hobbies. For astronomers talk about ‘light pollution’- when the glow of artificial light blocks the natural lights of the night sky. It means that many millions of people living in huge cities never get to see the stars- unlike their ancestors.

We’re used to seeing fancy lights. I’ve been to shows on Broadway and in the West End where the lighting was very clever. I’ve seen firework and light shows on the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day and on Edinburgh Castle at the end of the Festival, and both were spectacular and magical. But the aurora was something else. It was nature putting our human efforts into perspective.

On the mountain top, the disciples saw Jesus somehow change, as if he were giving off a strange light. If you ask me what happened on the mountain of the transfiguration, I have to say I don’t know. Matthew, Mark and Luke have the story, and the fact that it’s in three of the four gospels suggests to me that it was an important event. But we can work out what the story means. The image of Jesus glowing harks back to the Old Testament, which often uses light as a sign of the presence of God. During the Exodus from Egypt, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Moses is shown as the one human who comes close to seeing the glory of God. We are told that he saw something of the ‘dazzling light of God’s presence’ (Exodus 34.18-23), and that ‘When Moses went down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord’- so much so that he had to wear a veil’ (Exodus 24.29-35).

The experience of Jesus and the disciples on the mountain of the transfiguration mirrors the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai. It takes place on a high mountain; light indicates the presence of God; and God speaks. And, indeed, the disciples see Moses and the Old Testament prophet Elijah talking with Jesus. It is as if Jesus is the new Moses, the new lawmaker.

There are two aspects which I’d like to draw out from the story. Firstly, this is a story in which God makes it clear who Jesus is. A voice from heaven says, ‘This is my own dear Son, which whom I am pleased- listen to him!’ Something similar happened, you may remember, at Jesus baptism. We’re told by Matthew the Gospel writer that as Jesus came up from the water of the Jordan river, ‘heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.” (Matthew 3.16-17). The baptism of Jesus, and the transfiguration, are stories in which God tells us who Jesus is. Jesus has this incredibly close relationship to the divine, closer than any human being who ever lived. So when we encounter Jesus, we encounter God. God has given his guarantee. The life and teachings of Jesus bring us very, very close to God, closer than anyone else can bring us.

The letter of Peter purports to be a letter from the disciple Peter. And in the passage we read, we seem to hear Peter speak to us directly about the incident on the mountain. So this passage interprets the story for us, and its an interpretation by someone who claimed to be there. In fact, there is quite a lot of doubt among the scholars that this is the genuine voice of Peter speaking here. But nonetheless, there is a claim to authenticity. The writer of this letter reminds us to pay attention to what has been handed on to us about Jesus. He writes:
We have not depended on made-up stories in making known to you the mighty coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. With our own eyes we saw his greatness. 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!” We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.
Whoever wrote 2 Peter was up against ‘made-up stories’, people extrapolating odd claims from their own very idiosyncratic version interpretations of the Bible. I noticed when I did some research on this week that you could find people who interpreted the story of the transfiguration as proof that Jesus was actually an alien from outer space. There is no end to ‘made-up stories’ supposedly based on the Bible. But this letter of Peter reminds us that truth is to be found when we don’t speculate or get into myths, but instead stay close to the what we know about Jesus.  For God has said of Jesus, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased- listen to him!’ We are to listen to Christ, because he is the measure of truth, because God decided to reveal his glory through him. Truth about God is found in the life and teachings of Christ- handed down by the apostles. As the voice from heaven says’ ‘listen to him’- for it is Christ who teaches us what God is like .

Secondly- as the voice speaks on the mountain of the transfiguration, it’s perhaps not surprising that we hear that the disciples there panicked: ‘When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground’. And who can blame them- bright lights, ancestors appearing, and then a voice from heaven- no wonder they were terrified. But that terror is followed by a moment of great compassion: ‘Jesus came to them and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid!” So they looked up and saw no one there but Jesus’. If it is true that Jesus shows us what God is like, then our God is a God of compassion.

Yet to experience God’s presence so strongly must often make us fear. In Exodus, we’re told that, ‘all the people looked at Moses and saw that his face was shining, and they were afraid to go near him’ (Exodus 34.30). And yet, God’s word to us in that terrifying situation is often ‘Do not be afraid’. When Abraham has a vision of God, God speaks to him and says, ‘Do not be afraid; I am with you’ (Genesis 26.24). We hear of the Apostle Paul having a vision one night, in which God says to him, ‘Do not be afraid, but keep on speaking and do not give up’ (Acts 18.9). When the angel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah, it is with the words ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you’ (Luke 1.30). Again and again, throughout the Bible, we hear those words: Do not be afraid.

When, instead of making up our own fantasies about the Bible, we stay close to the Christ we find there, we find that we need not be afraid. Yes, we should be in awe of God- and this week I was reminded what awe is, looking at something marvellous that made me feel quite small, out there in the dark at Culloden watching the sky. But if awe turns to fear, Christ, God’s own Son, reaches out, touches us, and says, gently, ‘Do not be afraid’. The great, high, mighty God, creator of the universe, who dwells, as the hymn says, ‘in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes’ has come among us in Jesus Christ, full of compassion for us. And so now we know that we need not be afraid. And if we need not be afraid of God, why should be we afraid of anything?

Ascription of Praise

To the King of the ages,
immortal, invisible,
the only God,
be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17 NRSV

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo