Sermon on Sunday 23rd February 2020 at Mojacar
Based on Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21 and Matthew 17:1-9
Opening prayer: May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
As any who know me will be aware, I have a real love of mountains, even having lived on the summit of one for a good many years when first we moved to Spain, so found the scriptures set for today, each of which, including the Psalm, had we read it, made reference to mountains, truly inspiring. Unfortunately of course, Britain, where most of us here grew up, is a bit short of what I’d consider real mountains. After all, the highest in England, Scafell Pike, at 3209 ft is a mere molehill compared with many in this part of Spain, and even Ben Nevis, the highest in Britain, at 4411 ft is only just above a third the height of Mulhacen (11413 ft), a mere 70 miles away from this Church.
But of course, especially where mountains are concerned, size really isn’t everything. My favourite of all has to be Helvellyn, which at 3117 ft is no more than a pimple, but it’s the mountain which, at 12 years of age I first climbed in company with my older brother and utterly fell in love with the challenge of the ascent and the incredible majesty of the summit with its views to eternity, reached after a fairly tough scramble from the end of Striding Edge. That introduction was pretty incredible, but in the subsequent years I’ve visited that beautiful mountain in deep snow; at dawn on Midsummer’s Day and in numerous other conditions and it never fails to inspire, to remind me of the magnificence of the Creator and the insignificance of we mortals who dare to explore such amazing natural wonders.
So, knowing the effect mountains have on myself, increasing my awareness of God and making Him seem closer, I’m not surprised how often mountains feature throughout the Bible. In our first reading, in Exodus 19 we heard of Moses climbing Mount Sinai (named as Horeb in the Deuteronomy account), to receive the Law from the hand of God. Then again, if we look at 1 Kings 19, we read of Elijah climbing that same mountain whilst escaping from the King who sought to kill him, and there, at the top of the mountain, God passed by and allowed Elijah to sense His presence, not in the storm, the earthquake or fire, but in the calming stillness of silence.
And again today in our Gospel, we read of Jesus, with Peter, James and John climbing a “very high mountain”, where it says “He was transfigured before them, appearing a dazzling white”. The Gospel account doesn’t name this mountain and there is much debate as to exactly which mountain this was. The favourite would seem to be Mount Tabor, but at a mere 1886 ft, I can’t see that being described as a very high mountain, leaving the likely alternatives as Hermon, which at 9232 ft is indeed very high, or Sinai/Horeb at 7497 ft., which I must admit is my particular guess. Why? Well Jesus rarely did anything without reason, and Matthew tells us that Moses and Elijah met him at the top of this mountain. Remembering that these two had both met God at the summit of Sinai, I feel it likely that Jesus would select that same mountain to emphasise the significance of that moment, so although not certain, it seems quite likely that this is the mountain where Jesus met Moses and Elijah and was ‘transfigured’ in front of his 3 key disciples.
But being human, these disciples missed the point, seeing not the pre-eminence of Jesus, so much greater than either Moses or Elijah, but rather, they saw the 3 as equals. So instead of listening in awed silence to the conversation between them (and wouldn’t we just have loved to have known what they were saying, though Luke in his account states that they were speaking of his death, “which he was shortly to accomplish at Jerusalem”) Peter, as we so often do, interrupts them with his own ideas, to build 3 shelters; one for each of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. And isn’t that just typical! Mountains are wonderful places where we can find so powerful a reminder of the awesome presence of God. Yet so often people desecrate them, constructing instead some monument of human achievement. So the magnificent summit of Kilimanjaro (19342 ft) is ruined by a quite hideous creation, strewn with memorabilia and messages from hundreds of folk who have previously made it to the top (a temptation I can assure you I resisted), and the same seems to be true for most of the major mountains around the World.
I have never personally made it to the top of Mount Everest, which at 29029 ft is the World’s highest mountain, but am reliably told that this is ruined by the amount of rubbish, including empty oxygen and drink bottles and other detritus that litter the path. And yes, Helvellyn, my favourite, is similarly adorned, though here at least the construction, being a dry-stone wall in the shape of a cross, has some purpose in providing shelter for future walkers against the howling gales that regularly batter that summit. And Peter, it seems had similar ideas, to create something of enduring value, in the form of three shelters.
And it was at this moment that God intervened, as so often He does when we mere mortals try to ignore him and pursue our own plans. For as Peter was still speaking, the disciples were suddenly engulfed by a very dense, yet bright cloud and they heard a voice, far louder and more commanding than Peter’s, effectively instructing him to be quiet and listen to Jesus. The disciples, Peter included, we’re told fell to the ground, terrified. And who can blame them? Perhaps their first sensible action that day, for they at last realised, perhaps only subconsciously, just who Jesus was and how great was his power; at last understanding that however great Moses and Elijah may have been, Jesus was in an entirely different league. For as the voice had declared “This is my beloved son. Listen to Him.” And I often wonder where the emphasis came in those 3 words.
Was it, I wonder “LISTEN to Him!” or “Listen to HIM!” Or did it contain an element of both?. They needed to learn to Listen. As do we, so often. They’d heard Jesus teaching them, but had they really listened? Their minds were filled with their own ideas, like building shelters, useful perhaps; but they needed to stop and listen. And how true that so often is for us. We have all these great ideas as to how we could build the Church and do so many wonderful things, but what we need to learn from this episode, so often is to stop, to be quiet and to listen. Don’t tell God what we think he needs, but rather ask Him to tell us, and then Listen.
On the other hand perhaps the message was primarily about who they should listen to. They needed to appreciate, however great Moses and Elijah may be, it was Jesus they had to listen to, not them, nor anyone else. And again this is a lesson we so need for ourselves. There are so many distractions around; so many great teachers and leaders we can follow. But we must at all times remember that it’s Jesus we should listen to and nobody else, however good, unless they are directing all our attention on Him. And we note the effect of obeying that instruction, for we’re told that Jesus came and touched them, telling them to get up and not be afraid. And to me, the greatest lesson came as they obeyed that instruction, for Matthew tells us “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” And this is a text I was fortunate enough to have engraved in my mind from my youngest memories, for on the landing at the top of our staircase at home where I grew up, was the text, embroidered by my mother: “They saw no man, save Jesus only.”
And did Peter learn from this? The words he wrote in the letter we heard as our second lesson suggest that this experience over the following years changed his life. Not perhaps immediately as just a short while later he was to deny he’d ever known Jesus, but after consideration, as he explains in his letter how on that mountain he personally witnessed the glorification of Jesus confirmed by the voice of none other than the Almighty God. Peter makes no reference in this letter of Moses, Elijah, nor anyone else as he concentrates on the greatness of Jesus alone, as indeed should we.
So the question for us perhaps is whether we can learn from this incident. Have we glorified Jesus in our lives, to listen to him alone? Or are we at times distracted by others we admire, respect or revere? There’s no problem in valuing the contribution of others in our Christian development, but we need at all times to be careful to recognise that He, Jesus, is the almighty son of God, Holy and unique and that we must therefore listen to Him and Him alone. Then, as with the disciples, we may be enabled to look up and see no one but Jesus only.