Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany and the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. In some churches this is the last time we might sing any Alleluias until the long weeks before Easter have passed. This is the Sunday before we begin a journey through a kind of wilderness, until we get to the story of the Passion and finally to the joy of Easter. This is the Sunday to buy up the chocolate on the Fair Trade stall and make sure it gets eaten, to pick up the flyer about our Lent groups and to order the book, and in some chuches it would be the last Sunday for a while for the flower arrangers to worry about. This is the last Sunday before Lent. And the Gospel reading is the story of the Transfiguration.
I hadn’t noticed before, until someone pointed it out, that having the story of the Transfiguration on this Sunday just before Lent means that the whole of Lent is framed by two stories that are rather similar. There are two stories – when you think about it – where Jesus goes off with just Peter, James and John and something happens. The first one is the one we heard today – where they go up a mountain and Jesus’ face shines and his glory is revealed. And there is a voice from heaven, and God speaks the same loving words that we heard at Jesus’ baptism – ‘this is my beloved..’ . And the disciples are sore afraid and fall to the ground. But there’s another story, right near the end of the Gospel, when we hear how Jesus took the same three disciples away, Peter, James and John, but this time not up a mountain, but into a garden – Gethsemane. And in this story there is no comforting voice from heaven, and it is Jesus who throws himself onto the ground, deeply grieved and afraid even to death, and prays that the cup might be taken from him. And Peter, James and John just sleep through it all and he is alone… One a story about glory, and one a story about suffering. One a story up a mountain and one in a garden. One where Jesus tells them not to be afraid, and one where he is afraid himself. One in which his face shone, and one where his face is distorted with praying and tears. These two stories, so similar and yet so different, will frame the journey through the weeks we have come to call Lent. And they beg us to ask how we are going to hold them together or at least make sense of them.
But you might say that, in some ways, stories like these frame our own journey through life too. I could preach a sermon about the way that knowing God can change our lives forever, and make them filled with joy and glory and fervour. I could say that ‘being saved’ is about shining faces and overcoming fear and relentless joy. Or I could preach a sermon about how we have to embrace suffering, accept whatever life brings including the suffering and the struggle and hard work. I could have us all on our feet singing Alleluias or I could have us on our knees praying for courage to endure and strength to work for the Kingdom. And I imagine, because I know you a little, that we’ve all known both of the realities to which these stories might point. We’ve all known joy, ecstasy even. We’ve known the joys of love, of birth, of friendship and faith, of intellectual discovery or physical triumph. We can all understand that moment when someone gets to the end of a race and the thrill of it is past compare. We can all remember those moments when we knew that God was with us and that life was beautiful and good. But we can also feel the reality of those days when life is frankly hard and grim and when fear and grief bring us to our knees, when we wonder what the point is and whether we can go on, when we cannot rest for anguish and sorrow, for ourselves or another. We have all, I should think been up that mountain of joy and light… and we have all been in the dark shades of that garden, feeling weak in flesh and spirit, longing for the cup of suffering to be taken away. And we might wonder whether it is just fortune or luck that says who gets most of which in life. We look ahead and wonder whether we can hope for a little more mountain before the weeds of the garden grow round our feet. We ask ourselves how we will cope in the garden and pray that we won’t be crushed, even if we already know what crushing feels like. But is there another way to look at these two stories, another way to steer a path between them, another way to take our journey through life? Is there a way to hold these two stories together, so that they show us one reality, one God, one Saviour?
I don’t know whether you listen to Radio 4 and Thought for the Day. But there was one that I remember by Sam Wells, the Vicar at St Martin in the Fields in London. He was telling the story of the time when a friend of his had learned that his cancer had returned. He told his friend that he would pray for him, as any good priest and any good Christian would, but then he realised that he had to think about what to pray, and what to pray for. He could pray for a miracle, for a cure, for a happy ending. But somehow he knew that wasn’t quite realistic or even fair. So perhaps he could pray for acceptance, for him and his friend to accept what had happened and, in that phrase we often use, to ‘come to terms’ with it. But he didn’t think that was good enough either somehow. Why should we ‘come to terms’ with what is so obviously tragic and terrible? That wasn’t honouring the love he had for his friend and it’s hard to see why any of us should simply ‘give in’ to what is so obviously life denying and fearful. So he found a third way to pray. He prayed that if the time ahead can’t be happy, make it beautiful. ‘Make this a time when my friend finds a depth of love that he’s never known before’. He prayed that his friend would find ‘a richer sense of the wonder of living, a joyful thankfulness for what he’s seen and known, an ability to bless others as they face daunting challenges themselves, and a piercing insight into the heart of God.’ And then he said,
‘The word for this is transfiguration. My friend hasn’t got long. The truth is, none of us have really got all that long. My prayer is that over these days and weeks he discovers what his real nature and destiny are, so that when his last day comes, we gather round him and say not only, ‘That was tragedy’, but also, ‘that was glory’.
And maybe this is something that these two stories from the Gospel – the one up the mountain and the one in the garden – can show us and tell us about the ways of God. Our faith, if it is worth anything really, is never a way of escaping the mess and struggle and pain of human life. But neither is it simply a way of accepting it or putting up with it. Faith is way of transform our lives, of making them beautiful whatever comes to us.
The truth is, I think, that when God touches our lives, it is not that we are suddenly taken to a different world where pain never comes and where nothing puzzling or bad ever happens. God is not a fairy godmother turning stones into bread or pumpkins into carriages. But somehow God is able to transfigure our lives, to make it possible for us to see them and experience them differently, even when the most awful things are happening or when we are deep in the garden of sorrow. Because the truth is that the whole of Jesus’ story is a story of transfiguration. That’s why whoever it was who wrote John’s Gospel thought that it was only finally on the cross that Jesus’ glory was fully made known. It was actually even on the mountain of crucifixion that he transfigured human life, showing it differently, living and dying differently, and making it possible for us to see our own lives and the meaning of everything in a new way. The transfiguring, the transforming of life, can happen in the garden and on the mountain, and God comes to transform even the darkness with a new kind of light. God’s love comes like candlelight onto human faces and makes us beautiful.
One of the things that good counselling can do for all of us is to help us see something about ourselves or the world through a different frame – to transfigure it you might say. You think that terrible mistake you made has destroyed all sense that you could be a good person. But how about seeing it as something that has shaped the whole and new person you are becoming? You see your difficult childhood as something that defines you always, but how about seeing it as the first chapter of a story that will have a very different ending? You think your shyness is a burden to others, but how about seeing it as providing room for others to speak and to find their voice? You see yourself as too emotional, too excitable, too passionate – but how about receiving those things as gifts that make you uniquely you? I know there have been moments in my own life when I have suddenly seen it through a different frame, and recognised that the version of my life that I’d resented and hated or been ashamed of could be re-cast, in a different light. This is transguration. If it can’t always be happy, then let it be beautiful. If I can’t always be clever, let me be kind. If I am often afraid and anxious, then let others see in me an echo of their own familiar fear and find reassurance. If I cannot be perfect, then let me nonetheless be beloved of God.
I’m sure that Jesus did not always have a shining face and a white garment. He lived as we do, among the sweat and dirt and struggle of human life. He looked as we do. And when he was facing suffering and death, he was afraid, as we would be, and he longed and prayed for a different story. But his life was somehow, in a way that the Peter, James and John sometimes saw more clearly than others, a human life transfigured and transformed by the touch of the light of God. Even, it turns out, in the garden of Gethsemane, his life was lit by a new meaning and a new hope. Even that terrible Friday could be understood, transfigured by God’s presence and purpose within it, as Good Friday. Even a cross could become or be made a sign – and a sign not of violence and hatred, but of love and atonement. And his life, in turn, transforms ours, as we see and know what human life could really be or become.
So, what do I wish for all of you and what do I pray? I pray that you will know joy on the great mountain highs of life. I pray that you will have someone beside you in the garden moments when life crushes you – and I will be with you if you will have me. And I pray that if it can’t all be happy, that it will be beautiful, and that if there is tragedy there will be glory too. And I pray that God will transfigure and transform all our lives and all our faces with the light of love. Amen.