Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21 & Matthew 17:1-9.
I was listening to music on the radio the other day, and a track was announced by DJ and music producer Calvin Harris, ‘My Way’. Oh, I thought, this will be interesting, someone doing something with an old Frank Sinatra classic. But no, it wasn’t ‘I did it My Way’, but ‘you were the one thing in My Way’. Quite a different song, quite a different sentiment. The same title but, set it in a different context and it gives quite a different meaning.
The experience of James, John and especially Peter, in their time on the mountain top with Jesus that we heard about from Matthew’s gospel and the second letter of Peter, was set in a very particular context. The mountain top venue, the face (and clothes) shining as if from exposure to the presence of God, the presence of figures representing God’s historical communication with his people, that is the Law and the Prophets; all these things are designed to set the scene in the hearer’s mind of Moses, while leading the people of Israel through their wilderness years, receiving the law and the commandments at the top of a mountain, enveloped in a shining cloud and whose face continued to shine after he had met with God. Matthew regularly alludes to Jesus as the New Moses, leading God’s people through the desert to the promised land, showing the glory of God’s presence.
Another thing to note is that the shape of Matthew’s gospel is made very deliberately, to emphasise certain themes running through the story. Besides the theme of the new Moses, this gospel is set up to make obvious that Jesus is being shown to the world. There are epiphanies at different points of the story, where the glory of God, the wonder that resides in every created thing however ordinary it seems, breaks out for a moment to remind those who see that there is more, there is mystery and splendour. Although we cannot completely know or describe, or hem in the God who is all around and within and beyond us, God still comes close to be known in the ways that we can manage, bit by bit, more and closer, surprised and questioning as we may be.
I mentioned epiphanies. There are points in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life where he is revealed to us, to the world, made known. A bit like different settings on a Facebook account (so I am told) some are available to everyone; some messages are to a particular, representative group, or just to a single person.
The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, bringing their gifts, is a bit like a small Facebook group which then connects with whole of the world outside the Jewish faith, the Gentiles. The glory of God is discerned in this child, his presence and his potential.
Peter and James and John are the core of Jesus’ disciples, like a close group of Facebook friends who have privileged access to Jesus private thoughts, accompany him when he needs rest and reflection, don’t share these things outside the group, until he lets them know the time is right. They glimpse the ever-present glory which walks beside them looking completely ordinary every day. It shakes them, fills them with awe, but then the familiar Jesus is beside them, encouraging them to go on.
The third epiphany that Matthew includes in his gospel is the point which we have been turning towards in the cycle of the church year since Candlemas; the death of Jesus on the cross. This is indeed a showing of him to the world, but in order to recognise God’s glory here we need to adjust our idea of that glory. Glory in this fuller sense is showing the reality of the wonder of God, the reality of love which continues through reactions of rejection and violence, the reality of a life lived and offered so that everyone may live their own lives to the full, a life which does not put its own survival above the wholeness of anyone and everyone. This is like a Facebook group for everyone, even for those who don’t belong to it.
The other thing about these epiphany encounters is that they call out to those who experience them, God has invited them out of their feelings of stability and comfort and drawn them to a place where they can either choose a journey without a detailed map, or go home and try to forget. The Magi set out on a perilous journey in terms of the travelling and the political problems they had to negotiate. On the mountain, Peter, James and John saw a glimpse of the splendour of God which gripped them with fear, and this so soon after Peter had voiced his conviction that Jesus was the messiah. Yet they chose to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the melee of life alongside him.
On the hill of Calvary Jesus’ shaken followers felt their hopes and certainties unravelling as the body on the cross presented to them what the frightened, power-hungry, safety-seeking world does when offered the freedom that comes from God’s love.
Fr Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit priest and once a chaplain at Glasgow University, spoke some years ago, on the BBC radio programme, Something Understood.
God is most easily, if painfully, found when we lose our securities. And when the really profound securities go you’re either left with despair or with the question: ‘Is there anything?’, and I think it’s there, that glimpse of God, when everything else seems to have gone.
God, of God’s very nature, is beyond our thinking or imagining. God goes before his people, a pillar of cloud; God is always ahead of us. I love that description: ‘God is a beckoning word’, calling us out from ourselves. God is the transcendent one; God cannot be domesticated, can’t be tamed, can’t be enclosed or defined. And that’s the exciting thing in God; that’s why the church calls itself the Pilgrim People: it’s on a journey, it hasn’t arrived yet, it’s still wandering.
So, let’s give that some context –
‘But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up, and do not be afraid.’