A sermon preached by the Revd. Peter Wolton on 15th February 2015
This year the church will celebrate the Transfiguration on 6th August. Yet we also read the story of the Transfiguration today on the Sunday before Lent starts. Why?
I expect a number of us may have come across the book the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, published fifteen years ago.
Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point". It’s that magic moment when an idea or trend or movement tips and starts to spread.
He tells the story of “Hush Puppies,” the world’s first casual shoe. The suede shoes with their basset hound were introduced to the world in 1958 and early adoptors included Warren Beatty, Perry Como and our very own Prince Philip. Five years later one in ten adults in the US owned a pair. But by the early 1990s they were only selling 30,000 pairs a year and the owners were thinking of ceasing production. Hush Puppies were difficult to get hold of except through “Mom and Pop” stores in trendy artistic areas such as the Village and SoHo in New York. Creatives thought they were “dead chic.” Fashion designer Isaac Mizahri wore them for personal use. Then in Autumn 1995 a designer John Bartlett said he wanted to use Hush Puppies as accessories for his Spring collection, followed by Anna Sui (famed for her timeless designs and ability to transcend eras with historical and culturally inspired collections). A few months later, in Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzpatrick put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound on the roof of his store and gutted his adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies department. By the end of the 1990s Hush Puppies were selling 1.6million shoes. A trend started by word of mouth and then following neighbours and peers had “tipped” into a global phenomenon. And today annual sales are close to 20 million across 120 countries. Quite a result from a near death experience.
So what has all this got to do with the Transfiguration? Quite simply, the Transfiguration and the events in the week leading up to it, is the “Tipping point”, the threshold moment, in Jesus’ ministry. It is the time when the disciples move from identifying Jesus as a special leader to understanding the reality of his ministry. From identification to understanding reality.
Jesus’ ministry from the call of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, three of whom will be present at the Transfiguration, with healings and preaching and casting out of devils and miracles heralded a new era. All this took place in an occupied country full of fear, so unsurprisingly Jesus would strictly order that such events should not be made known. But as the ministry developed, “the more he ordered people to keep things quiet, the more they proclaimed it.” The growing conclusion was that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of Man who would do some or all of three things:
· decisively defeat Israel’s enemies
· cleanse or rebuild the Temple
· bring God’s justice “that rich, restoring, purging, healing power to bear in both Israel and the rest of the world.”
Then six days before the Transfiguration Jesus asks a very direct question: “Who do you say I am?”
Peter, and some would say as was his habit, answers:
“You are the Messiah.” This is really dangerous stuff. The Romans won’t like it and maybe other authorities too. Think of some the most chilling literature about life in occupied countries or those ruled by tyrants, the knock at the door in the dead of night, people disappearing or public executions. Roman Palestine had all that. It is scary.
So Jesus has to rapidly teach the disciples the true nature of his mission. From now on it is going to be very different from what they are expecting, and exceptionally difficult. He is going to be rejected by the authorities and the chief priests and killed. And after three days he will rise again. Not the disciples’ idea of a Messiah at all. Consternation is the background to the Transfiguration.
The week of the Transfiguration is when the ministry tips decisively towards the events of Holy week and the resurrection. The inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John accompany our Lord up a mountain where Jesus prays - and this is very important- he prays - and then is seen by the disciples, who are “weighed down with sleep” according to St. Luke, as a dazzling presence conversing with Moses and Elijah.
The presence of Moses and Elijah indicates sole divine authority had been given to Jesus. After witnessing the Transfiguration the disciples came down the mountain very different people and to understand that glory will come from the cross, a new biblical but un-heard of idea of glory.
And some weeks later, before the crucifixion the same trio of disciples will, once again, need to be awoken by a praying Jesus, this time in the Garden of Gethsemane. The disciples asleep on the mountain, the disciples asleep in the Garden, and a praying Jesus, a sort of symmetric set of bookends to Lent.
At the Transfiguration, a number of voices are heard. I would like to focus on two and what they mean for us. My namesake Peter “Rabbi it is good for us to be here.” And the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
Peter’s words remind us how good it for us to be here today, in St. George’s worshipping in freedom and without fear, nourished by the gift of ritual which Father James spoke about last Sunday.
“We hear again and again of the importance of love of God and love of one’s neighbour – that sums up all of the commandments. The transformation of our character, our lives, our habits, quietly happens as we come to church week by week, to hear God’s word and to receive simple gifts of bread and wine, and we are reminded that we, here in Campden Hill in 2015, are the body of Christ.”
It is indeed good that we are here. A seventh century abbot of St. Catherine’s, Mt. Sinai wrote of this gift: “What greater happiness or higher honour could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light. Here in our hearts, Christ takes up abode together with the Father saying as he enters our hearts: “Today salvation has come to this house.” With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings and there, where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.”
Let us remember Peter’s words when we are in church and try to make our hearts a tabernacle for Jesus.
It is good for us to be here, and with the coming of Lent we can prepare ourselves for some deep listening. “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him” is a perfect commandment for Lent. Lent is about listening. We can listen to God in many ways during Lent and here are three suggestions:
· Through prayer.
· By attending lectures, and I commend the Kensington Council of Churches Lent course “Walking & Praying with Christians of the Middle East.” Some of us were privileged to hear Iraqi Archbishop Warda of Erbil speak this week on the crisis our brothers and sisters are facing. The Lent course is so timely.
· And thirdly, by coming to our United Benefice “Why me?” programme of Lenten addresses at the 6.30 pm Sunday Mass at St. John’s.
The Transfiguration was the tipping point in Jesus’ ministry and is one of the bookends of Lent. It reminds us of the opportunity we have to live as children of the Light of the World, how blessed we are to know Christ, how good it is to be here and to come to St. George’s each Sunday, and the chance Lent gives to us to do some deep listening.
We pray that our Lents may be tipping points in our lives and through our lives we may do for the growth of gospel what those users of Hush Puppies did in the 1990s, that others may sense the radiance of Christ in us, so that they too may be tipped evermore towards the wealth of His eternal blessings.