Sunday before Lent – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – 19th February 2023

Exodus 24.12-18; Psalm 99; 2Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

It is perhaps inevitable, given the job I do, that I am intrigued by the question of what we are doing here. Doing here, in worship, as we gather week by week. At a time when church can seem an ever more minority interest in Britain, the question of what are we doing here seems an important one to answer articulately, non-defensively, hopefully.

And that important question comes to mind today, because I think our readings provide something of an answer, or at least a template of what we are doing here.

But to explore that idea we need to pay attention to the numbers in our readings. In the reading from Exodus we heard: Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. The seventh day is the day that Moses is called into the cloud, into the glory of God, to receive the commandments that will shape the people of Israel in their new life after the Exodus from Egypt. But the seventh day is of course, the Sabbath day; the day that echoes the day in the account from Genesis when creation reaches fulfilment, and God rests, and sees that the creation is good. The practice of Sabbath – beginning for the people of Israel on the evening of the sixth day, and into the seventh – is rooted in that understanding of creation; the practice of Sabbath is the effort to participate in that same creative rhythm of work and rest. But rest is not simply the ceasing of work, but the enjoyment of creation, the seeing of the good creation, the participation in the glory of God’s creation. Later in the book of Exodus, after Moses has entered the cloud a second time, he will return from that glory with his face shining.

Our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel omitted the opening clause of the first sentence. Chapter 17 verse 1 reads, Six days later Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. That reference to ‘six days later’ is omitted from our reading because it’s not clear in that context to what it refers – what is it six days later than? The answer to that question is that the events that our Gospel describes, happen six days after Jesus has outlined his coming suffering and death; has made it clear that his way will be the way of passion and crucifixion. So six days after Jesus has outlined to his disciples the redemptive work of suffering that is his way, on the seventh day, he takes Peter and James and John up a high mountain, and there see Jesus transfigured. The events that unfold are freighted with the significance of that seventh day, the day of rest, recuperation, restoration, of glory.

Peter, James and John are brought to see the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus. They see him in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the great forebears in faith who embody the law and the prophets. Peter suggests building dwellings to capture the moment perhaps. They hear the words of God: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ In response they are overcome by fear, awe and wonder. But Jesus comes and touches them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And so they return back down the mountain, back to that way of the passion, into the daily realities of Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching and confrontation.

George Herbert’s great poem, Prayer is a collection of different images, descriptions, windows into prayer – what prayer might be, what it feels like, what it does. I could spend the whole sermon exploring those, but I want to focus on one particular phrase. After a series of images that explore prayer as our response in the midst of suffering and trouble – Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear – after that series of passionate images, Herbert offers this phrase: The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.

The poem itself transposes, turns, on that phrase. From ideas which explore prayer as our cries directed at God, prayer, after this transposing, becomes the place where we receive something, are altered in the encounter. Until the poem ends with the wonderful final image of prayer as ‘something understood.’

The six days world transposing in an hour. That is the experience of the disciples taken up the mountain by Jesus. And it is our experience too, as week by week, on the seventh day, we gather. We come with our experience of suffering, of the world out of joint. And we are invited into a place of rest, refreshment, restoration, regeneration, of glory. We have built dwellings to capture that moment – none more glorious than this Cathedral. But the heart of it is elsewhere – it is in the engaging with our forebears in faith, with Moses and Elijah and Christ himself as we read and explore the scriptures. It is in hearing God’s word of love addressed to Christ, and through him, all of us. It is allowing ourselves to be open to awe and wonder, and to hear Christ’s words that are at the heart of his Gospel: Get up and do not be afraid. The transfiguration – the six days world transposing in an hour – is a pattern of what we do, what might happen to us, as we gather here in prayer and worship.

This is not some plea for a return to Scottish Sabbatarianism, in all it’s oppressive dourness. The world has moved on from that. But in a world where there often seems no rhythm, where every day threatens to be the same, and we rush on with no space for reflection, rest, regeneration, awe and words of love, we need to gather, to ascend the mountain, encounter the glory of Christ in bread broken and wine poured out. So that we might return to the plain, to everyday life clearer about the presence of God even in the midst of suffering; to walk the way of Christ as something understood. Amen.