Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on 7th February 2016 at the Benefice service.
Readings: Exodus 34: 29-35, Luke 9:28-36.
I wonder, have you ever had a vision? It’s not something we readily own up to these days. In our sceptical and suspicious culture, visions from God are invariably seen as suspect, either induced by drugs, physical deprivation or symptoms of a mental disorder. However, this has not always been the case and the Christian tradition is enriched by many who have described direct revelatory experiences they have received from God, be they Marian appearances, to bodily showings. God has revealed himself in intimate acts of disclosure that for a moment have drawn aside the veil of heaven to reveal the glory of God’s immanence.
I wonder, have you ever had a vision? Perhaps the word ‘vision’ at this point is rather unhelpful as it is such a heavily loaded term that implies a visual phenomenon. Whereas ‘visions’ may not be something which we personally relate to, perhaps the notion of an intuitive knowing or uncanny coincidence is a more helpful way into this world of spiritual gifts. Saying that, I did know a lady once who one day took me aside and said she had something very important she wanted to tell me but thought no one would believe her. She wanted to tell that she had had what she thought was a vision. One day, she said, she was sitting in her church and suddenly, where the central altar usually stood, she saw a table, just like at the Last Supper, she thought. Seated at the table was Jesus. He was eating and drinking but most of all, he was laughing. The most wonderful laugh, she described it, such a laugh that filled one with rapturous joy. Then it was gone. This lady took enormous comfort from what she saw. Her husband had recently died and to her, Jesus had given her a direct and intimate reassurance that he was all right. Into the midst of her sorrow, he had directly revealed the joy of heaven. In the face of her faith, who was I to diminish or question the authenticity of what she saw.
Whatever our views are of visions our Old Testament and Gospel readings today present us with two visionary accounts. The first is that of Moses. If you have ever been puzzled by the strange medieval image of Moses with what looks like two horns sprouting out of his head, then in today’s passage from Exodus you will find an explanation. To the medieval world Moses was not some kind of Satanic figure rather he was often depicted as described here with rays emanating from his head following exposure to the glory of God on Mount Sinai. Moses is described as experiencing God in a personal and intimate way. He has not just received a visionary message but has taken part in a dialogue with God within the tent of meeting. Moses has drawn aside a physical veil and entered into a physical place in which to converse with God. This is not a spiritual phenomenon of disclosure which comes upon Moses at any given moment but a purposeful act by Moses himself as he moves from outside the tent of presence to within in order to be with God.
In our gospel reading is an account of a visionary experience we are much more familiar with. Like Moses we are once again taken to a mountain, the archetypal realm of spiritual disclosure. But unlike Moses, the disciples are unaware of what is about to take place. Jesus had often taken aside these his closest disciples to pray and I guess, initially, this was just another such time. But suddenly something happens and Jesus’ appearance changes. His clothes become dazzling white and he is joined by two seminal figures in the Hebrew Bible; Elijah the prophet and Moses himself. This takes place when the disciples are described as being in the in between state of waking and sleeping. In this strange twilight zone they are witnesses of a spiritual phenomenon and visionary disclosure which cannot be contained, however much Peter might want to prolong the moment. Unlike Moses, there is no easy dialogue with the Lord, rather an awkward exchange at cross purposes to each other which culminates in a terrifying experience of being engulfed in cloud and darkness. At this point the disciples’ reaction is more comparable to that of the uninitiated people of Israel, who cannot bear the beams of Moses’ radiance as Jesus’ glory is once more veiled within his human flesh.
One thing which both visionary accounts do have in common with each other is that those who have experienced them are fundamentally changed. For Moses this change is a physical one as his face takes on the properties of the glory of God. The disciples may well have been left in a quivering and disturbed condition following their revelatory experience but it is an insight and understanding which remains with them throughout the coming months, even if it’s true significance is not fully comprehended until the Easter appearances.
However we encounter God in our own personal and intimate way, there is one thing for sure and that is we will be changed by the encounter. Change can be at times a terrifying and challenging prospect just as it was for the people of Israel. We so often like things the way they are and change brings us into a new unknown realm of possibilities. But this is also the liminal state where growth is able to occur. In our collect we are invited to embrace our calling to be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.
Let us embrace these moments, be they both numbing change as well as revelatory disclosure, confident in our trust that God wants for us what he had with Moses, an easy and intimate familiarity which in turn will make our faces glow with his radiance. Amen.