This sermon is based on the story of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9
When the television show 'Grumpy Old Men' first made an appearance, my husband and I enjoyed watching it immensely. We'd sit there, laughing, and we both agreed that - yes - my husband is a grumpy old man.
But then, one Christmas season, I got my comeuppance, didn't I?
Because there was a new show on television called 'Grumpy Old Women'. And my husband laughed at me and said 'You're a grumpy old woman!' And I had to laugh and agree with him.
The gist of all the comments of the grumpy old men and women, of course, is that things were better 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years ago.
They say that when most people yearn for the 'Good Old Days', that they yearn for a mythical Golden Age that they most likely didn't live through. That era is part of the story of 'When we were a great society'. And it may not be a real era at all.
I'm not sure about exactly when the British golden era was, but I have a fair idea of what it looks like: A farming village in mid-summer that Constable could have painted, with happy obedient children in their Sunday best walking to church with their plump, rosy-cheeked parents.
And we hear the British Christian media harking back to that golden age a lot. Whenever it was, that age was 'When we were a Christian society'.
Transfiguration and Transformation
I think Mark's Gospel gives us some hints that when Peter, James and John went up to the mountain-top with Jesus that they were yearning for a Golden Era of Israel.
Just before his excursion up the mountain, Jesus has told the twelve that the Messiah must suffer and die and Peter has rebuked Jesus for saying such things.
But the experience on the mountain-top, now that's more like it! I reckon this experience is a lot more like what Peter, James and John had in mind. The three of them, alone with Jesus and two great immortal - literally - figures of Israel's Golden Age: Moses and Elijah.
The Transfiguration is a divine manifestation of God on earth.
Peter wants to stay here. In his mind, this is why he became a disciple of Jesus. This is what he's been waiting for. As far as Peter is concerned, this place on the mountain is the Real Deal. The goal has been obtained.
But the Transfiguration is also a transformation.
The Transfiguration doesn't bless the past or the idea that God's people need to go back to a Golden Age. As with all supposed Golden Ages, that Golden Age of Israel never actually existed.
And the Transfiguration certainly doesn't call us to stay in the present.
When the disciples look like wanting to bask in the glow of this fantastical other-worldy moment, Jesus moves them all smartly down from the mountaintop back into the everyday world.
The Transfiguration is about moving into the future, but it's not a future that will look like that Golden Age that we are imagining.
It's not the future where the Messiah cannot die, as Peter imagines. And it's not a future where Jesus is going to be a supernatural conquering king, as James and John imagine when they ask him, just a few verses from now, to sit at his right and left when he reigns in glory.
The Transfiguration is a transformation: not only of the world but also a transformation of our way of thinking about God and his Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God, and God himself, are not to be found only on the mountain-top and only in the Spiritual Realms, they are also to be found in the nitty-gritty of everyday life.
In Matthew's Gospel, this story stands right at the transition-point between the first part of the Gospel in which we hear about Jesus' ministry and teaching. And the second part of the Gospel in which we hear that the Messiah must suffer and die.
This glorious manifestation of God doesn't come at some triumphant point in the life of Jesus. It comes at the point when the disciples and the readers are only just beginning to come to terms with the idea that Jesus' glorious divine mission on earth is not to be a supernatural superhero but it is, in fact, to die a very human death.
How appropriate, therefore, that we should read this story today, in the Sunday before Lent.
The story of the Transfiguration is a story of transformation and it is also a
revelation of Jesus' glory.
The glory of Jesus that is revealed in the Transfiguration is the glory of the cross.
Jesus will destroy sin, death and the power of evil not by obliterating them, but by submitting himself to their full fury.
But Jesus has to come down off the mountain in order to accomplish this mission.
And human notions of 'spirituality' and of what it means to encounter God need to come down off the mountain too.
To be a Christian is not to seek to live always on the mountain-top. To be a Christian is not to put God in a box labelled 'spirit' or 'prayer' and to ignore his presence in the physical world. To be a Christian is not to yearn for a Golden Past nor is it even to believe that salvation will only happen in the future.
Our God is a God whose salvation centres in the very fact that he became human, took on our sins, suffered and died.
Christianity properly understood says that God is in the here and now. Where-ever we go, when we encounter joy and sadness or health or pain, God is there. In fact, God was there before we ever got there ourselves.
The Christian God is to be found in the here and now and God's presence is to be found in suffering and death as much as in health and life.
My prayer for us this morning is that the Transfiguration will transform our hearts so that we can become ever more open to the presence of God in our world. As we come to encounter our Lord present in the Eucharist, may the Spirit of Christ grow in our hearts so that we may see the presence of God in the people and the world around us. Amen