A Glimpse of Glory
Preacher: Rt Rev Colin A M Sinclair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Readings: Matthew 17: 1-9; 2 Peter 1: 16-21
We all need special days, to put what we do into perspective; to rekindle the vision when we are in danger of losing it and to remind us of our calling and the contribution we can make. Today we remember the Founders and Benefactors of Scotland’s first University and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. We recall how, on 28th February 1411, the Bishop of St Andrew’s, Henry Wardlaw, granted a charter recognising what had been begun a year earlier in 1410, a centre for the pursuit of learning. Two years later the exiled Pope, Benedict XIII, issued six papal bulls conferring recognised University status to the University of St Andrew’s and the authority to grant degrees. Today, over 600 years later, we meet to remember and give thanks. We return to these events annually to remind us of what this great University means and our part in its ongoing story.
The Christian Faith also has memorable moments and days that unlock the heart of its faith and one of these we remember today in the story of the Transfiguration. Our lectionary reading comes just before we enter into the season of Lent, that dark and solemn path that leads us Good Friday and then beyond to Easter Day.
Today, as much as ever, we need as a Church, and, especially in the West, to remind ourselves that, beyond the current stresses and frailty of the institution and concerns about its future, we follow our Head and Founder, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. One day he prepared his followers for their uncertain future by giving them such a day to remember that they never forgot. How much that vision was needed both then and now!
The story begins a week before at a place called Caesarea Philippi where, prompted by our Lord’s searching question, “Who do you say that I am?” the disciples were granted the revelation that their leader was far more than even they had realised. He was not simply the talking point of the chattering classes, nor even the stand out figure of the day. Rather he was none other than the one long promised, and long hoped for. He was the Messiah, the focus for generations of so many prayers and dreams. At last things would change and for the better, and they were right at the centre of the action with ring-side seats for whatever action lay ahead.
But, at the very same time, as this truth was beginning to sink in and grip the disciples, Jesus shattered their hopes by redefining the mission of the Messiah. Now that they knew who he was, he could speak of why had come and he did so but in terms they found hard to accept. For he spoke not in terms of reigning but of rejection, not in terms of conquest but of a cross.
Yes he added a phrase about “being raised to life” but that was surely wishful thinking. For everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead- full stop. So the disciples closed their ears to what Jesus was trying to tell them and air-brushed the comment out of their thinking. They preferring to hang on to their hopes, consigning Jesus’ words to “a bad day” “indigestion” or perhaps “Presbyterian pessimism!”
For a week nothing happened, though no doubt their minds were going like chattering monkeys and, out of earshot, the disciples would be talking about those moments again and again. For the words once spoken could not be unsaid.
Jesus took the initiative. They needed to have a glimpse of glory. They needed to know where to see glory in the future, not just on the mountain top but in the valley, and so do we. For in our uncertain world, in the challenges the Church faces, we need above all “a glimpse of glory”.
The transfiguration is the hinge story in the gospel. It is a combination of the baptism, which happens at the beginning of the gospel, and also involves a voice from the cloud, and the resurrection, which happens at the end of the gospel, and also involves clothes that gleamed like lightning and Peter making a big discovery. It’s the crossroads moment in the gospel, where Jesus turns from ministry in Galilee to death in Jerusalem, from being a prophet who teaches and heals to being a priest who suffers and dies. It is also when we see, in a special way, the glory of Christ. The veil is drawn away and for a moment we see him as he is. Jesus is transfigured as a sign to his followers that there was more to the story and to him than they could ever imagine.
How much today we need to catch a bigger view of God and of Jesus, not just out there in the world but in here in the Church. For the danger is that we have domesticated God. We have reduced him to our personal genie who, in time of need, comes to our aid but otherwise is kept safely within the lamp we hold in our control. As David Wells wrote 20 years ago “God rests too inconsequentially upon the church, his truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgement is too benign, his gospel is too easy and his Christ is too common”.
Too many he is less interesting than TV or social media, his commands play second fiddle to our wants, and we listen to the flattery of the advertisers before his truth. As a result God has become weightless and so as a consequence have we. We have become TS Eliot’s “hollow men,” without weight, for whom appearance and image must suffice. Image and appearance assume the functions that character and morality once had. It is now considered better to look good than to be good. The facade is now more important than the substance – and, that being the case, the substance has largely disappeared. For all of us there is always a danger that we will underestimate Jesus.
The word “glory” means “weight.” Glory is when you’re so overwhelmed by the sight and sound and presence of God that you can feel yourself being changed from the inside out. That’s what’s going on when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. For suddenly everything changed when he was transfigured before them as he was praying the light shining from him not on him. His face became dazzlingly bright, his clothes as bright as a flash of lightning. Peter would later write, “We were eye witnesses of his majesty.” John would write, “We beheld his glory.”
It was not a superficial change but a substantial one. Don’t confuse the unimaginable with the unbelievable. This story is record in three gospels and there were three witnesses. The event was dated and it fits. It was intended to move them from saying the right words about Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” to trusting whatever lay ahead, moving them from creed to commitment. This is the Jesus Saul would meet on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 and that John saw in his prison cell in Patmos in Revelation 1. It was Jesus “in his glorious body.” Jesus would pray in John 17, “I want these you have given me to see my glory” Here he is with no peers, no rivals and no successors.
Suddenly they were not alone. The Old Testament came to life as Moses and Elijah walk out of its pages, good as new, and talk to Jesus, the living embodiment of the law and the living fulfilment of the prophets. As God gave Moses a covenant that “He would be their God and they would be his people” so Elijah sought to bring the people back to that relationship. Jesus is the covenant between God and his people turned into flesh and blood.
Luke tells us what they were talking about, for in the middle of this precious conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah, we have the important little word “exodus,” translated as “departure.” But exodus of course means the pivotal moment in Israel’s history, when God liberated Israel from slavery. As Moses led the people out from slavery to Egypt, so Jesus came to lead the people out from slavery to sin. Moses’ law and Elijah’s prophecy were both fundamentally about how Israel could keep the freedom it had been given by God.
Glory is found when you understand the story and your place within it. Glory is also found when as Luther said “you take God seriously.” For the disciples the setting was one of prayer, at the heart of which a cloud came and overshadowed Jesus and God said “This is my chosen Son: listen to him!” “Listen to him!” Is anything more needed by the Church today? Listen as he explains his mission, as he calls us to discipleship. “Listen to him”
Glory is found is working out your mission. Moses and Elijah are talking about the fact that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. They were willing to talk about what the disciples had blanked at Caesarea Philippi, for they knew his death was not failure but fulfilment and would lead to resurrection. We now look for the glory of Jesus not to mountain where he was transfigured but to the hill where he was crucified. We see his glory not in dazzling power and dignity but in weakness and shame; not flanked by Moses and Elijah but by two common criminals; not in blazing light but when darkness covered the earth at noon.
Glory isn’t about some kind of mystical escape, some kind of magic carpet experience
that takes us floating above the rainbows and dancing with the stars. Glory is found in suffering, especially suffering willingly taken on for the sake of truth and justice and faith, and allowing the cloud to come around you and others to see God in you. Glory is the word we use when you feel only pain but others through you yet see hope. Glory is the word we use when you feel isolation and loneliness but others through you yet see a great cloud of witnesses. Glory is the word we use when you feel failure and humiliation but others through you yet see beauty and goodness. Glory is the word we use when you feel foolishness but others through you yet see Jesus.
And in the midst of this extraordinary scene of the cloud, our transfigured Lord, Moses and Elijah is also found the Church. It is both tempted to fall asleep and make foolish suggestions, but there nonetheless at the invitation of Jesus Peter makes a mindless suggestion to build three little huts, as if to say, “Let’s preserve the moment, bottle it, and stay up the mountain”. Keep away from Jerusalem and any talk of suffering and a cross! Sometimes you really wonder how Jesus ever had the patience to put up with his followers! Sometimes you wonder how he still has the patience to put up with his followers! And yet here, at his moment of glory, he wants Peter, James and John there. God wants us to be part of his glory.
And what else do we learn in this story? For the disciples, they learned glory is something outside themselves. Glory isn’t something they can do. It can’t be manufactured or part of a development plan. Glory is something that belongs to God and is shown in Jesus.
So where do we find glory today? God reveals his glory in setting people free. That is what both the Exodus and the Cross are about. Have you seen God setting people free? Have you seen forgiveness free a person, maybe you, from guilt? Have you seen a friendship, maybe yours, free a person from despair? Have you seen a careful, kind hand free a person, maybe you, from sickness? Have you seen a word of faith, maybe from you, free a person from fear? Have you seen a teacher of wisdom and understanding free a person, maybe you, from the loud of not knowing? Have you seen an act of courage or gestures of faithful endurance, free a person, maybe you, from a prison of their own or others’ making? That’s where to look for glory.
I pray that you may see God’s glory. When authors write mystery stories, they end each chapter on a cliffhanger, as if to say, “More to come!” On the mountain Jesus is transfigured, and God says, “This is my Son. Do not take him for granted. There is more to come!” We pray “Give us a glimpse of glory.”
What then of this University- is there glory here? Can you grasp the passion of those first Scottish students and academics, excluded from Oxford and Cambridge by the Wars of Independence (an earlier form of Brexit!) look elsewhere to pursue excellence? Can you imagine how once driven to Paris they now return to Scotland to set up a place where they could study and learn, teach and research? Here would be a place where they could pursue the truth and share it not just among themselves but in the town and country and across the world. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
And at the heart of this University is this beautiful chapel reminding us to keep Christ at the heart of our learning. For he, the one full of grace and truth, both the image of God and the word of God, calls us to value truth, beauty and joy and in so doing we honour the Founders and Benefactors of this University and follow the Lord of glory. May God help us so to do. Amen