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There are moments of memory that seem pivotal. Fulcrums of change if you like and one or two of you will have heard me speak of these moments before. The technical term is ‘liminal’, that is to say neither preliminary nor post-liminary. That idea of carrying a new bride over the threshold is exactly that; the critical thing is that just at that instant the moment of being held over the door sill, you can see both backwards and forwards, the past and a glimpse of the future. While thinking about our readings this week I was inexplicably reminded of such a moment. I must have been very, very young, certainly pre-school. It was Christmas and all had passed off beautifully when suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my father said “There is something else for you to see” and a sofa and a chair were moved and behind them laid out so to light up my little face was a bright red clockwork train, with two carriages and a little track. It was made of tin and was brightly printed with gold stripes; a blue coated driver; a mountain of coal and everything. Somehow I date my growing up from this moment. Somehow I stop being a baby. Somehow I stop being a toddler and just then become a boy with vistas opening up towards Hornby Double O, Meccano and cowboy hats without having lost touch with teddy and Piglet.
Such a moment this must have been for Peter, James and John, a moment of growing up. Suddenly they are in the presence of the future, glimpsing the glory of God; Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzlingly white, yet they are in the presence of the past with the prophets Elijah and Moses. Matthew’s account is sensitively written to help us appreciate this. It begins, you notice, with the phrase “Six days later,” Precise notes of time are unusual in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry (time is critical in the stories of the passion but otherwise not so) and this specific reference must surely be to remind us of what we heard in our Old Testament reading about Moses who was also going up a mountain and where there is also a cloud, “The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days.” On both occasions, God speaks from the cloud and we are too reminded of Jesus’ baptism and that scene when Jesus rose from the water. The Spirit descended like a dove and alighted on him and a voice from heaven said “This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.” We see also that the three disciples, in a very clear signpost to the future, are the very ones that we will read of later as accompanying Jesus in the garden. From Matthew, chapter 26,
“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane. Sit here while I go over there to pray. He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee.”
You see, by grounding the vision and his teaching about the future in what the disciples knew about the past to the extent of revealing both at once, Jesus convinces them, James, John and Peter, of the reality of the coming kingdom and confirms to them that he is truly the divine Messiah. They had grown up a lot by the time they came down from that peak.
Now the trouble is that we do not always recognize these “clockwork train” moments at the time. Peter probably didn’t, after all he will deny Jesus three times, despite all we have heard this morning. Navigating God’s purposes for us may not be obvious. It is significant, I think, that the transfiguration takes place on a mountain. There are many mountain top moments in the Gospels and they are a sign or more properly a metaphor telling us that to be close to God we have to take time out from the business of this world. As one commentator put it:
“Those that would maintain intercourse with heaven must frequently withdraw and they will find themselves never less alone than when alone for the Father is with them.”
Let us remember that, as we prepare for Lent, as we look for the spaces that I spoke about last week and during our reflections, let us try to discern those moments in our lives when we crossed a threshold on our journey even if we did not notice it.