Transfiguring the Mountains and the Valleys

Rev Ken Howcroft’s service on the Transfiguration last Sunday has created a great deal of interest. The sermon has been has been reproduced here, along with the related bible readings and hymns.

Extracts from a Speech/Sermon by the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr in December 1964

Dr King made this speech having been to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent work in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. On his return, he immediately addressed a meeting of supporters in New York. In this address he recommits himself to the work. He does it by entering into the story of the Transfiguration and making it his own. In that story Jesus takes some of his followers up a mountain, where they suddenly see things as God would have them be. Meanwhile other followers of Jesus are down in the valley trying, and failing, to help a young boy whose life is in a mess and out of control, and his desperate parents. Jesus comes striding down the mountain with the first group of disciples to sort things out.

Martin Luther King Jr enters into this gospel story. It illuminates his own experience. His own experience helps him understand the story better. He is not just talking about part of the gospel. He is living it out. [He was already receiving death threats, and was eventually assassinated in 1968.]

I wish I could stay here tonight…. but the valley calls me.

I wish I could stay here tonight. I wish I could stay on this great mountain of transfiguration that has come to me over these last ten days. But there are some nine hundred and seventy odd million of my black brothers and sisters down in the state of Mississippi, most of whom cannot register and vote. I have got to go back to valley, my friends!

I wish I could stay here. I would love to continue to pass through the lines and meet the great people of the world. Though there are some humble people down in the valley. Their little children are born every day. Clouds of inferiority are floating in their little mental skies because they do not think they are anybody. And somebody’s got to give them hope. I have got to go back to the Valley, and try to give them a little hope!

I wish I could stay on this mountain top tonight. I wish the last ten days could somehow be stretched out ad infinitum, but somehow something reminds me that millions and millions of God’s children – many of them are white! – are caught in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society, and because of my humanity, I have got to go back to the valley to try to help them.

I wish I could stay here tonight…

“The healing of the lunatic boy” by John Reilly (1928-2010) A painting in the Methodist Modern Art Collection

“The healing of the lunatic boy” by John Reilly (1928-2010)
A painting in the Methodist Modern Art Collection

 

This painting engages with the same gospel story as Martin Luther King Jr’s speech/sermon. It is the story of the transfiguration on the mountain, and its immediate aftermath in the valley.

Either side of the picture there is darkness. In the darkness on the right as you look at it are three, shadowy, grey forms of people. The one in the middle is a young boy who is in a mess. His body is contorted. He is writhing in the grip of some strong energy: the version of the story in Matthew’s gospel suggests that he might be epileptic.

Are the two figures around him his parents? Or disciples of Jesus who are trying to help? Or one of each? Or what? In any event, they seem to be failing to calm him and help him, and are on the point of despairing.

In the middle of the picture we seem to have the same young boy, this time standing upright, calm and well. Next to him is an adult figure, in dazzling white clothes, radiating a golden light that divides the darkness. It is Jesus, as the disciples Peter, James and John saw him on the mountain of transfiguration, when they suddenly saw him as God saw him, and began to see the God in him and the glory of God shining through him. One of his hands is over the boy’s head as if he has just laid hands on him and is now pointing him back to his parents. The other is raised in blessing.

The boy’s shirt reflects the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ tunic. His right hand seems to be lowered, accepting the blessing. His left hand seems almost to be waving farewell.

The mountain and the valley are levelled out. The experience on the mountain and the experience n the valley are intimately connected. They need each other. They lead to each other.

 

Matthew 17: 1-9, 14-20

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’….

…. 14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ 17Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ 18And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 20He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

It is a very weird story, the story of the Transfiguration. It is not the sort of thing – I am tempted to say “Thank God!” – that happens every day. It did not happen every day then, either, in the time of Jesus.

This was a very specific moment. We talk about it as “transfiguration” and we often hone in on the fact that Jesus suddenly looked different; that his clothes became gleaming bright; and that he somehow was changed.

But that is a wonderful way of missing the point. It was not Jesus who was changed. It was the way that Peter, James and John (the inner few who had gone with him up the mountain) saw him that was changed. It was their perceptions that were transformed. It was the same Jesus, but they now suddenly saw him as he had perhaps begun to see himself when he had been baptised. They began to see him as, perhaps, God saw him. They began to see him in terms of God. They began to see the God in him: the God that was in him every day, when he was not gleaming bright as an angel, but was doing ‘ordinary’ things – preaching, teaching, eating, meeting people, challenging people, comforting people, healing people, dealing with people in the messes of their ordinary lives. They began to see that God was in him then as well, not just in extraordinary moments, but amidst the ordinary things in ordinary time. Seeing him on that mountain top, and seeing the God in him there opened their eyes to see the God in him in the rest of what was happening as well.

And then… well, I love the stories of the disciples throughout the gospels: they managed to get so much wrong so much of the time that there is hope for you and me yet! On this occasion they react in a very human way. They say “Well, if we have got this incredible experience of God, this sense of God in life, this wonderful sense of God in Jesus, then we want to hang on to it! We want to hold on to that spiritual high. Let’s stop here!”. So, “Let’s build shelters”, says Peter. “Let’s stay here. Let’s hang on to this as long as we can”.

Over the years, as a minister, I have met many, many people who, if I wanted to be critical, I would say were people who had a spiritual high, sometimes several decades ago: an experience of Jesus, or an experience of God, or an experience of the Holy Spirit. They had one of those a long time ago, and they keep it like a trophy or a medallion. They keep it in a cupboard on display, and every now and again they take it out and polish it, and then put it back again. It is a memento of a past experience, not a sign of a continuing, living experience.

For what really matters is how that experience of God, that spiritual high, opens your eyes to live in the valleys, to live in the ordinariness of life. Trying to hang on to it is the wrong way. We have to go back to the valley.

Down there, in the valley, there are other disciples who are desperately trying to do the sort of things that they know that Jesus would want them to do. Things like trying to help those parents, and that desperately convoluted child. They are trying to do their best, but it does not seem good enough. They are trying to do their best, but they are trying to do it without that insight into and experience of God and God’s love that Peter, James and John had had on the mountain. Those in the valley need to go onto the mountain; and those on the mountain need to go down to the valley.

Worship is at the heart of what it means to be a church; and worship and mission are inextricable. When we come to worship, it is as if we are going up the mountain. The scriptures again and again talk about going up the mountain to meet with God and be with God; to have an experience of God and see the glory of God’s love. When we come to worship, we come from the ordinariness, from the ups and downs, and the sorrows, and the pains, and the joys, and the gladnesses of our daily lives. We come from the busy-ness, and sometimes the boredom of everyday-ness. We come here, and we gather together. And we hope to meet with God, and to see God. But what then matters is how the God we meet here will go with us, and how we will see God’s love in the valleys of our daily lives as we go back to them.

Martin Luther King Jr lived this story. He saw himself in it. He saw himself as one of the disciples on the mountain top. He saw himself as someone who had to go back with his Lord to the valley, to give hope to the hopeless in their everyday lives.

Who are the people in our world, in Solihull, in our community, who need to hear a word of hope? To have a vision of God’s love for them? And what are we going to do about it? Because that is the sort of church that God is calling us to be: a church which goes from the valley to the mountain, and the mountain to the valley. But we may be tempted to stop going from one to the other, and settle down somewhere in between, where it is nice.

 


 

Hymns & Psalms 158 Stay, Master, stay upon this heavenly hill

  1. Stay, Master, stay, upon this heavenly hill;
    A little longer, let us linger still;
    With all the mighty ones of old beside,
    Near to the aweful Presence still abide;
    Before the throne of light we trembling stand,
    And catch a glimpse into the spirit land.
  2. Stay, Master, stay! We breathe a purer air;
    This life is not the life that waits us there;
    Thoughts, feelings, flashes, glimpses come and go;
    We cannot speak them—nay, we do not know;
    Wrapped in this cloud of light we seem to be
    The thing we fain would grow—eternally.
  3. No! saith the Lord, the hour is past, we go;
    Our home, our life, our duties lie below.
    While here we kneel upon the mount of prayer,
    The plough lies waiting in the furrow there.
    Here we sought God that we might know His will;
    There we must do it, serve Him, seek Him still.

                              Samuel Greg (1804-76)

 

Exodus 24: 12-18

12 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’

15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

How on earth did those early disciples manage to make sense of that incredible experience of the Transfiguration? Did you notice the detail in the gospel reading a few minutes ago of how when they were on top of the mountain and starting to come down, Jesus told the ones who were with him not to say anything about what had happened until after the resurrection? That is because he knew that they were confused, and that it would take time for them to understand the significance of what they had seen and begun to experience. It would take time for them to begin to sort it out in their minds. Interestingly, they are told to get on with things down in the valley which acted out what they had seen even before they fully understood it. There is a lesson for us there.

So, how did they start to come to terms with it all? Well, they went back to find the clues in the scriptures. They reflected on what they had experienced with the help of the stories that they had grown up with. What, for example, were they to make of the fact that they did not just see Jesus suddenly transfigured, but saw him in the presence or context of Moses and Elijah? What had Moses and Elijah got to do with anything? What did they represent?

We normally answer that – and I have doubtless preached many sermons to that effect myself – by saying that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets. And, indeed, they do to an extent. But Jewish tradition then and now does not talk so much about Moses as a law-giver, but as a prophet. Moreover, one of the great expectations at the time of Jesus was that people were looking for another prophet like Moses.

Why was Moses seen as a prophet? It was because Moses had a vision of God and what God is like, and of what the world is like if it is in tune with God. So, in the reading from Exodus that you have just heard, you hear of Moses and Joshua going up the mountain and having that experience of God, and hearing God speaking. They start to express their vision of what God is like, and what the world as it was in their time would be like when it was in tune with God. Then what they have articulated starts to get written down. The basic principles of it get chiselled onto tablets of stone, as the story goes, which become a record and reminder of it all. The tablets are handed to Moses to pass on to future generations. And this is the means through which God speaks to the people. It is the means by which God’s voice is heard amongst the people.

Moses is a prophet because he is speaking on God’s behalf, sharing the vision, enabling the people to hear their God speaking to them in the here and now. Elijah did the same. Elijah too went up mountains and had visions of God and experiences of God, but we have not got time to read that story this morning – you will have to go away and look it up! But Elijah and all the later prophets did the same as Moses. They took their experience of God and the vision of God and God’s ways that they found articulated in the scriptures passed down to them, and they said “If that is what God is like, and if that is what it meant for the world to be in tune with God back then, in the circumstances of the past, then this is what that means for us now, in our time”. They applied it all to the religious, the social and the political circumstances of their own day. They urged people to live out what it meant to be God’s people in their own time, and their own place. They took the principles of what it meant to be God’s people as they applied to people wandering as nomads through a wilderness and re-applied them to the different circumstances of people who lived in cities. They were taking visions of God that are articulated in scripture, and they were applying them, re-applying them, re-interpreting them in the present age.

That is what the early followers of Jesus did. They began to get a glimpse of God in Jesus. They began to get a glimpse of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, to live in God’s way as God’s people in their day and age. They had a direct experience of all this. To help them understand it, they went back to the scriptures. They found that the scriptures helped them understand their experience; and their experience helped them understand the scriptures. As a result, they were able to re-articulate the vision of God prophetically for their age. That in turn was what gave people hope in their time.

That is what Christians have done ever since.   That is what we as a church are called to do, to take the vision of Jesus, the vision of what God is like; to understand our experience with the help of the scriptures, and understand the scriptures in new ways because of our experience; and to re-express it all in our age. We have to enter the story that we find in the scriptures and live it out in our lives, the life of our community, the life of our world.

We have got to go up the mountain. Looking to catch a glimpse of God’s glory is almost the most important thing we do. We gather round the scriptures, we gather round the table, we gather in prayer; and we disperse into the valleys of the world, taking the light of that glory with us.

The danger, of course, is that we neither pay attention to the scriptures, nor reflect on our experience in the light of them. We neither go up the mountain, nor out into the valley. Are we a Grand Old Duke of York type church, neither up nor down, building our shelters half way up? Or are we a people prepared to take the risk of opening our eyes to the glory of God, and going to the valley to bring that hope to others? Pray God it is the latter.

Amen.

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