This Sermon was delivered at St Andrew’s North Lopham and St Remigius’ Royden on the morning of the 3rd March 2019. Readings: Luke 9:28-36, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I was sat in an armchair in a space which was more books than office. Each of the walls, from floor to ceiling, were adorned by aching shelves which overflowed with books. This cascade of knowledge sprawled across the small room in messy yet skillfully constructed piles. To my right, but almost shielded from view by the everpresent books, was a vacant chair, but my attention was on the man sat by the desk in front of me, whose eyes glimmered as he stroked his professorial grey beard.
With a conspiratorial grin, he leaned forward and said, “Have you ever thought about how Moses must have felt at the transfiguration? We talk a lot about how Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets of the Old Testament, about how Jesus is receiving the baton of ministry as he runs towards the Cross and the establishment of the New Covenant. We talk about the greek for “transfigured”, meta-mor-foh-si, and what on earth, or in heaven, it really means. But Samuel, how did Moses feel?”
I stared at him curiously, waiting for him to go on.
“Think about it. You’re Moses. You grew up a Prince of Egypt, you gave up everything fleeing a murder to become a Shepherd and you encounter a burning bush which, by the way, doesn’t char or burn as it should. You hear God and he tells you that you must go and tell Pharoh “Set my People free”. It’s hard. It’s long. But you do it. And the things you see and the adventures you have, boy are they something you could never have imagined in your wildest dreams. Everything is going well. The people of Israel are out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and you’re on your way to the Holy Land. When God speaks to you your face shines. You’re close now. The Holy Land is just over there. You can see it!
But then you mess up. Striking a rock twice instead of once as God told you and you’re out. You’ll never make it to the Promised land. You die and join in the heavenly feast with Abraham and Issac in God’s company.
Imagine you’re Moses at this feast. Then one day, an Angel comes by and says God needs a volunteer to take a message to Jesus in Israel – the promised land. It’s a no brainer, of course you’ll volunteer! So then when Jesus is shining on the mountain and talking to Moses and Elijah, well in my imagination while Elijah is focused and intent on discussing how Jesus will die in Jerusalem, maybe offering words of encouragement, Moses is sort of half listening. Nodding along, grinning as he takes in his surroundings and realises that he has finally made it to the Promised Land. Man, how must Moses have felt?”
My lecturer chuckled, and his joy of imaginatively playing with the scriptures as we were surrounded by volumes and volumes of academic books of varying kinds of exegetical and historical studies is something which has stuck with me ever since.
Because sometimes we can risk falling into the trap of trying to pin scripture down. To tame it, to pacify the impact it might have upon us. But the stories of Jesus such as here in the transfiguration are grounded in the reality of the disciples all too human and emotional responses. They were tired but jolted awake by the sudden transformation of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. They didn’t understand what was happening, but they didn’t want it to stop – hence Peter asking if they might make dwellings for them so they could stay longer because it was good! Then a cloud, a traditional sign of the presence of God, overshadowed them and they were terrified. Having heard the voice of God saying Jesus is his Son, they discover themselves to be alone with him. And they kept silent.
Seriously, we could talk at length about how the transfiguration is prefiguring of the resurrection, how with the resurrection and the baptism of Christ we find a threefold declaration that Jesus is the son of God, we could talk about how they safeguard us from the false idea that Jesus became God only after his death, but rather that Jesus lived as God since his birth by the Virgin Mary.
We could talk about a lot of different things but I’m intrigued by this idea of how we might faithfully play with scripture. With Ash Wednesday only days away, we’re on the precipice of Lent, of a season where we, the Church, reflect on our lives, and often on our shortcomings, and seek to reflect on the life and passion of Christ. Therefore it seems like a good time to reflect on this question.
At its heart, this idea of being playful with scripture comes down to our ideas of what we think is happening when we read scripture.
Is it a chore? Something we do, perhaps not as often as we feel we should, because we feel we ought to? Is there a sense of duty and reluctance?
Maybe it’s a habit, a part of our daily lives just as we brush our teeth or do the laundry.
Perhaps reading or hearing stories and passages of scripture is simply something which happens in Church on a Sunday, and depending on who reads it, and which passage it is, it may seem more or less interesting.
Or is reading scripture, somehow, a moment when God encounters us in our lives?
Clearly, the Curate would like to suggest that this last option is the way forward! The bible is not a dusty textbook which requires years of academic study to engage with. The bible is a collection of holy writings through which faith glimpses the face of God.
When we have a Communion Service we often hear the priest say:
Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ
which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you.
Eat and drink
in remembrance that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts
by faith with thanksgiving.
Feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
I believe that reading scripture is a similar activity to receiving the bread and wine. We believe that the bread and wine are, by the Holy Spirit present in them and in our hearts, the body and blood of Jesus.
In the same way, the words of Scripture, written by people in different times and places, are, by the presence of the Holy Spirit both in the authors, the words, and in our hearts, truly the word of God.
This word of God is not simply the spoken words of God as recorded in the words on the page, but is, in fact, the living Jesus Christ himself who makes himself known to us through those words. For Jesus is the living Word of God which is the revelation of God to humanity; just as Jesus was revealed in Glory to those Disciples on the mountain. However, an often overlooked aspect of God’s revelation to humanity, is that by God bringing knowledge of who he truly is into the experience of our humanity, our humanity enters into his presence and is transformed. That is, God makes himself known to us, and by so doing we are made known to God.
To read scripture, and to encounter the word of God is not to simply read a book but rather to be drawn into the story of God and his people through the unity we have with Jesus in his death and resurrection, and thereby with God and one another.
Therefore I would encourage you that when you read a passage of Scripture allow yourself to imagine. To play with the text. Perhaps you’ll wonder, as my lecturer did, how Moses felt. Perhaps you’ll read proverbs saying that fools don’t listen to advice, but the wise do and be reminded of that meeting the other day. Maybe there are adjectives in a story of Jesus performing a miracle which gives you a clue into different character’s emotions, emotions with which you might be familiar or which you might find surprising, unexpected. Playing with scripture, reading it and allowing your imagination to feed your reflections can help us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, ‘to see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, and, by the presence of the Spirit of the Lord within us, to be transformed from glory into Glory’.
Perhaps this Lent we might give ourselves permission to pursue Jesus in the scriptures as we reflect on his passion and resurrection, and by so doing come to a richer appreciation of all he means for us, so that we might glorify him and enjoy him forever.