The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      6th August 2017
We beheld his glory (John 1.14)
Handley Stevens

Transfiguration, Year A
Psalm 97
OT Reading: Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14
NT Reading: 2 Peter 1.16-19
Gospel         : Luke 9.28-36
Text: We beheld his glory (John 1.14)

The article on to-day’s readings in the Church Times notes that the Transfiguration has provoked considerable divergence among generations of interpreters, which is a polite way of saying that many have questioned whether it is a reliable account of something which actually happened.  So if you are among the sceptics this morning, you are in good company.  For my part, whilst I would not insist on every detail, I do believe that the glory of heaven can and does break through into this world, particularly in answer to prayer, and I’ll tell you why.

A few years ago, I was lying on a hospital trolley outside an operating theatre, when I suddenly felt frightened.  The operation I faced was a routine tidying up job, and I knew there was no reason to be afraid.  But the room was dark and I felt abandoned, alone.  Not knowing what else to do, I recited the Lord’s prayer. The words weren’t particularly apposite; it was just a silent cry for help, but it came from the depth of my heart, and as I came to the end, affirming the kingdom and the power and the glory of God, I felt surrounded by a bright light.  I was of course heavily drugged, so you can put it down to that.  But whatever happened, I was profoundly reassured, as I relaxed gratefully into unconsciousness.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter and James and John were probably drowsy, as they rested with Jesus after climbing up into the bare hills overlooking the Lake of Galilee.  Luke is the only evangelist who tells us that Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray, taking the three disciples with him.  We don’t know what he prayed about, but Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with him ‘about his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (Luke 8.31) and very soon after coming down from the mountain, we read that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.57).  If this was indeed what he needed to pray about, his purpose may have been to take Peter, James and John with him, to seek his Father’s blessing on them, both in the coming crisis, and in any continuing leadership role after his death, if it came to that.  Perhaps the Transfiguration was his Father’s answer to such a prayer, both affirming Jesus in his own intentions, and strengthening the faith of his three closest disciples.

In that drowsy state of half waking and half sleeping, Peter, James and John experience a dazzling sense of the glory that surrounded Jesus, and shone from him.  As a cloud drifts over them, they see, or think they see him in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the towering Old Testament figures who epitomise the twin pillars of their faith, the Law and the Prophets.  Peter suggests building shrines to all three figures to mark the spot, but instead they hear a voice commanding them to listen to Jesus’ words.  Then the cloud drifts away, and in the clear light of day they are soon brought down to earth in more ways than one.  The sense of mystery has gone, and Jesus, sitting alone, is once again his ordinary self. 

Moreover, in all three gospel accounts any reflected glory the disciples may have felt is very quickly dispelled by their failure to heal the epileptic boy who is brought to them.  No wonder they didn’t tell anyone about it.  They must have wondered what, if anything, had happened.  But the memory refused to go away, they did listen to Jesus, and later, as they looked back on his life and death in the light of the resurrection, the full significance of what they had seen and heard dawned upon them, as our second reading put it, like the morning star rising in their hearts (2 Peter 1.19).
We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1.14).  Those are of course John’s words.  He does not write about the Transfiguration as such.  Yet its message is deeply embedded in the way he constructs his gospel.  After the wedding at Cana, when the water was changed to wine, he comments: Jesus did this, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory (John 2.11).   Then, in the second half of his gospel, John recalls the teaching which prepared the disciples to see in Jesus’ death and resurrection the ultimate revelation of his glory.

Paul carries the process of revelation a stage further, when he urges the Corinthians to turn their faces to the Lord who is the Spirit, so that as they see the glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, they may themselves be transformed into the same glorious image, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3.18). In the words of our familiar hymn, ‘changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place’.

Poetic imagery it may be. But if we pay close attention to Jesus’ words, listening carefully to him as the voice from the cloud commanded, if we allow the truth of his words and of his very being to seep into our hearts, through our reading of the Bible, through prayer and worship, keeping company with him in this communion of bread and wine, then the glory which was his glory, full of grace and truth, will begin to be reflected – however imperfectly - in our lives.
Jesus’ glory was visible to those who had eyes to see it in his words and deeds of grace and truth.  It broke through dramatically for Peter and James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. The voice from heaven commands us all, as it commanded them, to keep looking to Jesus and listening to him.  If we look and listen attentively, the glory which is the expression of his grace and his truth has the power to change our lives.

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