Light On The Mountain

Sunday, 23 February 2020 10:30

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matthew 17:2)

There’s a line in the Rolling Stones song ‘Satisfaction’ that goes, “I’m watching my TV, when a man comes on and tells me how white my shirts can be”. Back in the day, clean white shirts were the order of the day. Persil’s advertising slogan was that it washed whiter than white, which would be unfortunate if your laundry started out brightly coloured. For some reason these are the sorts of things that drift through my mind when I come to preach on the Transfiguration. 

The transfiguration occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels. It’s possible that it was in John’s mind when he started writing his Gospel. The second letter of Peter refers to it - most Bible scholars think that letter wasn’t actually written by Peter, but by an unnamed Christian of the Second Century. I could bore you with the scholarly details if you like, but the point is that for early Christians this episode was clearly well-known and important. Way more important than an advert for soap powder.

So why? First of all, this takes place on a high mountain and, on that mountain Elijah and Moses appear with him. This, in our readings this morning, is put alongside Moses’s encounter with God on Mount Sinai, when the glory of God shone on that mountain top, just as it shone, though Christ on this mountain top. More than that, though, Sinai - or Horeb - was also the mountain where Elijah encountered God when he fled there in fear of Ahab and Jezebel.

There are those who say that the identification of Christ with God was an idea invented by later Christians and that it doesn’t actually appear in the documents of the New Testament, except, perhaps, John’s Gospel. I’d suggest that this passage does exactly that. In Christ, in these moments, the glory of God shines on the mountain top just as it shone for Moses on Sinai. In these moments for the core three disciples, Peter, James and John, maybe the penny drops. Maybe they get it that the same God who wrote the Law and adopted their people as his people, who had strengthened Elijah for difficult times ahead, was right there in front of them. That the light of the world was shining on that mountain and it was shining through the man they had chosen to follow.

Which explains why Christ’s face shone like the Sun. Back to his clothes becoming dazzling white. Clothes are a human thing. They are made by human beings out of ordinary stuff - flax, cotton, wool. Here they become whiter than white and we’re back to Persil, but not quite. I think that, for early Christians and for every generation of Christians since then, this has huge symbolic significance. The point about Moses and Elijah appearing with Christ is that it emphasises that Jesus is the culmination of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity.

Through Christ, all that is ordinary and mundane and flawed and fallible is redeemed. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the reason God came into this world in the life of a human being apparently as ordinary and mundane as you and me. It’s why Christ went to the Cross - a symbol at the time of just how awful human beings can be - and why his Resurrection is so important. It offers all of us the hope that we can be washed clean - as dazzlingly white as Christ’s clothes on that mountain.

Some say that Jesus must have spent some time among the Essenes - the Jewish sect that wrote the Dead Sea scrolls. Excavation of their sites has uncovered baths that indicate that they spent a lot of time bathing to become ritually clean. When John the Baptist called the people of Israel to repentance he offered baptism - an immersion in water to make them clean; an important thing in a culture bound about with so many rules and commandments that they were bound to mess up sometimes and would need to be cleansed of their sins. “Purge me with hyssop”, it says in the Psalms. “Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” Dazzlingly white, in fact.

I said that the Jews were bound to mess up sometimes. They’re not alone in that. We all do. We all get caught up in the temptations of the world. We are all, sometimes, less than we know, deep down, we are meant to be. We are all, sometimes, selfish and thoughtless. We all, sometimes, do stuff we regret because none of us is perfect. For most of us, most of time, they won’t be big, terrible things but you only have to look at what happened in Germany in the 30’s to see how human fallibility can  take us into very dark places. No amount of bathing can wash us clean. But, through the Cross of Christ and his Resurrection we can be washed dazzlingly white as far as God is concerned.

What for? Note that Christ’s clothes - these things of the world like you and me - are not just white. They are dazzling white. The light of Heaven shines through them as it shone through Christ. Ordinary, mundane things, through Christ, can become translucent to the light of Heaven. Ordinary, flawed, sometimes broken people can, through Christ become translucent to the light of God. The light that shone on the mountain can shine today in the most unexpected of places. In the least likely of people.

That’s why this passage was so important to early Christians. It gave them a sense of purpose and challenge that led them to change the world. It gave them a sense of their role in God’s involvement with humanity, even if they were often apparently the most insignificant people in society - slaves, washerwomen, fishermen. It gave significance to what is, for me, the most astounding thing Jesus ever said. “You are the light of the world.” Then he followed it up with a sentence that is so important in the light of our reading this morning: “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Sometimes, I think, we huddle in buildings like this and think that this is what the Christian faith is. No. The Christian faith is about finding our purpose and taking up the challenge of the Gospel - yes, God washes you dazzlingly white, but why? What for? What for if not to try to be better? To be kinder and more generous? To be more forgiving and more caring? To embrace more fully the explosive idea of the Christian faith that everybody matters. Whatever their background, whatever their flaws, whatever they’ve done in their lives, everybody matters. Whatever language they speak, whatever clothes they wear, whatever fear they are fleeing from, everybody matters. Everybody matters enough for God to come into this world in the life of someone that, seemingly, didn’t matter enough to avoid being nailed to a cross.

When we live that idea the light of Heaven shines through us - the light that is the love of God for all his children. When we live that idea we, like Christ, become translucent to the light of Heaven and the love of God shines in the world. I get the feeling that the world we live in is getting harsher and colder. It’s throwing up walls and getting more judgemental of those who are broken by the ways of the world. If we can do anything - it doesn’t matter how little it seems - to challenge that then we can embrace Christ’s call to be that city that is built on the height: to be light to the world. We too can be translucent to the light of Heaven: the light on the mountain.

Lord God, you shone through your Son on the mountain. Shine through us. Shine in all we do and say. Shine in our compassion for those who are hurting. Shine in our choices. Shine in our lives


Preached at Gretna: St Andrew's