Sermon - Sunday, 23 February 2020

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 23 February 2020

Scripture:  Exodus 24: 12-18 / Matthew 17: 1-9, 14-18

Text: Peter said to Jesus, Lord it is good for us to be here. If you want I will put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah        (Matthew 17: 4)


During our time at Edinburgh University, Margaret and I were part of a group of students who ran a Saturday afternoon youth club at the Old Kirk in West Pilton.

Games, activities, crafts and a simple act of worship, the club was attended by children referred through the Social Work department.

Thomas was one of the children – Toto as he liked to call himself – and although Toto attended a school for children with special learning needs, Toto could beat any of us university students at the card game – pelmanism.

Whatever his learning needs, Toto’s visual memory was extraordinary.

Every year having scraped together money, we organised a week’s holiday for the children and one summer we took them to a Congregational Church centre at Long Yester in East Lothian.

Having put their things into the dormitories the children spent the afternoon exploring the site and playing games – all except Ronnie, at 15 years of age the eldest in the group, who sat himself on the boundary wall looking south towards the hills.

The afternoon came and the afternoon went, tea time came and tea time went, bed time came – and Ronnie sat on the wall.

Well into the evening I went over to see him and although he sensed my presence he didn’t turn, but continued to stare straight ahead across the fields towards the hills.

Eventually he said;

It’s like sitting on top of the world

Can you remember such a heart stopping, breath catching moment in your life?

Can you recall an occasion, whether at a concert or listening to music, or walking along a beach at sunset, or somewhere in the hills, or in the company of a partner or friend, or with a grandchild asleep on your lap, or even in church, an almost impossible to put into words sitting on top of the world moment when you felt at one with yourself, at peace with the world around you, and at one and at peace with God.

It is a moment beautifully captured by the 2nd World War aircraft pilot come poet, John Gillespie Magee, in his poem High Flight when he wrote about slipping the surly bonds of earth, dancing the skies on laughter-silvered wings, treading the high untrespassed sanctity of space, and putting out his hand to touch the face of God.

As you listened to this morning’s Bible texts, did you notice both were set on mountains, both involved Moses, both featured clouds, both had something to do with encounters with God, both involved some kind of divine revelation, both had particular importance for the people involved, and both had lasting significance for the whole people of God?

Did you also notice one of the things they share in common is their attempt to describe such a moment, a moment of transfiguration when we are, as it were, lifted out of ourselves and, aware of a greater presence surrounding us, experience wholeness, stillness and a deep inner calm?

From the Hebrew scripture, a section in the book of Exodus known as the Holiness Code [1], one of three chapters which the Biblical scholars think contain some of the oldest material in the Bible, we hear of Moses being called up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of stone on which God has inscribed His laws and commandments.

This passage describes one of the defining moments in the history of ancient Israel – Moses being given the law would become the focal point of Jewish religious tradition - and taking his companion, Joshua, we learn that as Moses ascended Mount Sinai it was shrouded in cloud and for six days enveloped by the glory of God.

Meanwhile, with his ministry having been centred in the towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee, St Matthew reports Jesus took his disciples to the northern region of Caesarea Philippi where for the first time Peter named Jesus as the Christ.

This too is a defining moment in the gospel narrative when Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God is finally confirmed.

However, the brief moment of blinding insight soon gives way to fearful dread when, having warned the disciples not to reveal his true identity, Jesus reveals he is headed for Jerusalem where he would face death before being raised to life on the third day.

Instead of blinding insight, the scene is one of blind confusion and Peter’s loud protests declaring he would never allow such a thing to happen probably spoke for the whole group as they struggled to come to terms with the news.

Six days – notice the timescale - after leaving Caesarea Philippi, we learn Jesus took three of his companions, Peter, James and John, and led them up a mountain.

And as they watched, he was transfigured before them, his face radiant, his clothes a dazzling white, as he is joined by Moses and Elijah, celebrated in ancient tradition as the law giver and the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.

The way of suffering that leads to glory.

The way of the cross that leads to the joy of Easter dawn and an empty tomb.

This text is a pivotal moment in the gospel account of Jesus’ ministry.

Faithful to his calling as the Son of God, Jesus will not be tempted by the devil’s blandishments to gain all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour if only he would change his allegiance.

Rather he will remain true to his Father in Heaven even if his mission leads him to Jerusalem and costs him his life.

And as I am sure you recognised, the voice from the cloud declaring, This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased echoes precisely God’s words at Jesus’ baptism.

Doubtless unable to believe their eyes, the three disciples, Peter, James and John watch as Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah.

Jesus, Elijah and Moses: the distant past with the mystical present, the hopes and promises of their faith evident in the three figures standing before them, confirmation Jesus had not come to destroy the teaching and traditions of the law and the prophets but to fulfil them – just as he promised.

So it is perhaps little wonder given Peter sought to capture the moment and hold onto this dramatic spiritual experience by building three shelters.

Shrines and shelters mark holy places and holy experiences the world over.

Wherever we travelled during our recent visit to Sri Lanka there would be a Buddha, Buddha resting, Buddha preaching, Buddha having passed away – thousands of Buddhas in temples, on hill tops or at the road side – and whether it is a pilgrimage route, a simple roadside shrine or a great city cathedral, the desire to build something permanent is such a natural human response to try and capture what feels like our all too fleeting encounters with God.

And Jesus said no, that is not what he wanted Peter to do, and it is not what he wants us to do either.

And it is not what Jesus wants because the glory and suffering of Christ reveal both the nature of divine love and power and the nature of discipleship.

At its best the worship of the church draws us into the majesty and mystery of God, lifts us out of our own lives with all their cares and concerns, their joys and hopes and worries and fears, and brings us to the place of wholeness and healing and peace, the presence of the One whose dying and undying love was revealed to us in our Saviour Christ.

And at its best the worship of the church does not leave us on that mountainside but sends us back into the world to bear witness to that same love in the things we do and say, the priorities and values to which we aspire and the lives we lead.

Forgiveness, hospitality, compassion, walking the second mile and turning the other cheek, the longing for justice and the practice of peace-making: all true Christian ethics and all right Christian living spring from the insight that the glorified Christ is also the suffering Christ.

And this commentator put it well when he said

The Christian life is not lived solely in quest of the mountaintop, but in the movement from vision to witness, from glory to suffering, suffering to vision, and back again.[2]

Special moments, special places, holy moments, holy places: when Margaret and I were married in Aberlady Church in July 1978 six of the Pilton youth club children were guests at our wedding.

As a wedding gift they gave us a green blanket – all these years later we still have it – all these years later we still use it.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Exodus chapters 21 - 24

[2] Stanley P Saunders Preaching the gospel of Matthew : Proclaiming God’s Presence  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2010,  p170