The two readings we've just heard are obviously very similar in many ways. In both cases, we have men going up a mountain and meeting God in a very dramatic way. In both cases there are witnesses - Joshua is with Moses as his assistant in the Old Testament, and Peter, James and John are with Jesus in the New Testament. In both cases we have direct orders from God, but in very different ways. The Old Testament's tablets of stone are replaced with a simple act of delegation in the New Testament as God gives his authority to Jesus: "This is my Son. Listen to him!" In both cases there is a sense of affirmation - in Exodus, the Israelites are being affirmed by God as His chosen people, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is being affirmed by God as His beloved Son. I'm sure the apostles themselves were put in mind of the Old Testament passage, if they were capable of thinking straight at the time - especially after seeing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. So much for the similarities and slight differences - but what can we actually learn from these events?
The passages are both very grand. In a film of the Bible these would both have huge special effects sequences. Somehow, we've grown used to it though. We've heard about God's voice calling from the cloud so many times that it almost seems commonplace now. God shows his power so often and so boldly in the Old Testament that we can almost imagine it going by unnoticed. That doesn't ring true to me - I would imagine that the appearance of the glory of the Lord "like a devouring fire" would amaze anyone, no matter when they lived. The face of Jesus shining like the sun and long-dead prophets appearing to talk with him must have been a bit of a shock to the apostles there at the time. When we hear the readings it's easy to stay disconnected and to forget that these were real people with emotions just like ours. It's only when we imagine what the effect must have been on them that we can learn from the passages ourselves. I'm going to read from Peter's second letter now, to show how the transfiguration affected him.
Peter is emphatic in the epistle: he saw Jesus being transfigured. He heard the voice of God with his own ears. He is an eyewitness. The effect is quite clear - the transfiguration is evidence for him - it's something he can cling to if he has doubts. In turn, he hopes that the people he's writing to can latch onto it to help them, too. He is a witness in two senses: he witnessed the event itself, in that he saw it with his own eyes. He also speaks about the event afterwards, witnessing to others, telling them what happened so that by believing in the event, they can strengthen the rest of their faith.
I think that when we hear about "witnessing" in the Christian sense, we think too often that it's only about converting people to Christianity. We talk about "preaching to the converted" as if there is something inherently useless about it. I think this is nonsense. I think that witnessing to each other and preaching to the converted is just as important as evangelising to others about Christ. This is the kind of thing Peter was talking about in his letter: "So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." Peter has given his readers something to hold onto, and suggested they should pay attention to it.
The image of a lamp in the darkness changed slightly in my mind as I read it - imagine you're in a huge, flat desert, with nothing around for miles and miles. It's a cold night and the wind is whipping at your back. You have a small fire - but the wind keeps trying to put it out. It is your only source of light and heat. How do you feel? What do you do?
I'd get close to the fire and tend it as well as I could, waiting for morning to come. The fact that I'd know morning would come would give me a reason to keep the fire burning - if the night was going to last forever, would there be any point? Without any prospect of dawn, would it matter whether the fire went out now or in a few hours? I'd need that certainty that it was possible to keep the fire going for long enough. Even so, I'd be very afraid - without anyone else around, if the fire ever did go out, there'd be no way of relighting it, and nowhere else to turn. Without anyone else around, I'd have no guidance for how to keep the fire going, so I'd have to just blunder along doing what I could. If I didn't tend the fire properly, it could well go out, leaving me with nothing.
I'm talking about faith, of course. I know my own faith wouldn't survive if I were on my own. I'm not strong enough and sure enough of myself to hold onto a belief in a vacuum, with no-one to affirm it or even discuss it with. Also, I wouldn't see as much point in my faith if I didn't believe in the Second Coming. I have to believe I can hold onto my faith and tend it for the relatively short time we have on earth - my guess is that it's pretty easy to remain faithful to God when you're in heaven!
Fortunately, we're not alone, we do have guidance, and we do have God's promise of Heaven. We have the Bible and the constant presence of each part of the trinity to help us and comfort us. We have directions to pray, to read the Bible, and to think about God. Even those wouldn't seem much use to us without the faith to acknowledge them though. We need earthly help as well, and that's where we're all important, each one of us. The Methodist tradition calls this the "priesthood of all believers," and that's why I'm allowed to stand here and preach without being an "official" minister. But it goes far deeper than local preaching. We all need to encourage each other, being witnesses for Christ not only to those who don't believe, but to those who do, affirming what we already know and teaching each other the way Christ reveals himself to each one of us.
I see this as a bit like the discussions I tend to have with friends after going to the cinema. After seeing a film, I'm prone to turn into Barry Norman - as are most of the people I see films with. We'll come up with various theories about what worked and what didn't, what themes were trying to be portrayed and so on. Usually when I've put across my ideas, one of three things happen - either people agree with them, saying they were thinking the same things, or they think for a while and then agree, or they just disagree. When we share our experiences as Christians, some of our ideas may appear new to others - and they may choose to agree with them or disagree with them. Either way, in the proper spirit of discussion and reflection, everyone can benefit. Likewise, other ideas and experiences may be familiar - if you share your experience of God acting in your life, that may well strike a chord in others, who may share their experiences in turn.
But suppose you don't share that experience of God. There won't be that spark of recognition. Over time, it's very easy to start doubting the experience you've had. If you don't tend that fire, it will go out - not only will you not be able to help to kindle the fires in the hearts of others, but you'll have lost some warmth for yourself too. It's often not easy to talk about your faith with others, even within a church. There's the constant worry about looking foolish, or not praying "the right way" in open prayer, and so on.
I'm sure that almost all of the time, this worry is needless. I've sometimes disagreed with sermons that have been preached when I've been in the congregation. That doesn't mean that either I'm necessarily wrong or that the preacher is - sometimes one way of looking at things is right for one person, and another is right for someone else, just as I'm sure we all have our own ways of praying. Does that matter? Not at all! What if in fact it is a "right/wrong" issue? Whether I'm right or the preacher's right, I've ended up thinking about the matter in question more than I probably would have done otherwise, which is a good thing in itself. This needn't apply just to sermons though - the more discussion there is about our faith, the more we can explore it and let it grow. Just as a fire needs a good poking every so often, so we must prod our faith too - a faith that doesn't admit questions or challenges is stagnant. None of us has a monopoly on receiving God's wisdom - if I'm not willing to even think about someone's point of view unless it matches mine, isn't that presuming to know the mind of God already?
So talk, talk, talk! If you're in a housegroup and have a thought, say it - don't worry about whether or not you might appear foolish. Better yet, mull it over for a minute or two, and think about why you hold that thought. Maybe you'll end up fine-tuning it a little, or covering some other bases. But don't just keep it to yourself - if the Holy Spirit is blessing you with a piece of wisdom, however small it might seem to you, share it. Someone else might gain even more from that thought than you do.
When we share our thoughts about God, and even more importantly our experiences of God, we become examples for others. At first this sounds as though it means you suddenly need to be perfect, but it doesn't at all - it just means that you have something to offer. Your personal lamp might be something that others can hold onto, regardless of whether you have other failings - and let's face it, we all do. I'm sure we all think of other people we know as setting us examples. Well guess what - they're human too. They're not perfect, even if they shine in their own particular way. Don't forget - you may even be an example for people who you hold up as examples themselves. That's a daunting but uplifting prospect: I firmly believe that every single person here can contribute to the faith of this church and this community. Maybe it's a message from God that only you can hear - or maybe it's one that only you can express in a particular way.
Take heart from the fact that the Bible was written by real people. Peter was a real eyewitness. Regardless of whether or not we view the Bible as being literally true in every word, or whether it's divinely inspired, we all believe it's about real people, or we wouldn't be here. The world of the apostles wasn't a make-believe world - it was our world. They breathed the same air as we do, sweated like we sweat, and slept under the same stars that we sleep under. Jesus wasn't transfigured before people who were perfect - he was transfigured before people just like you and me. That is what Peter is saying we should hold onto - the fact that all this really happened. We mustn't let go of that, and we mustn't lose our own experiences of God working in our lives just through being afraid to talk about them.
The Holy Spirit is desperate to talk to us and through us, if only we'd let it. To go back to the image of the fire in the lonely desert, now imagine that instead of being alone, there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other people, each with a small fire. Here are two of them. [Light two matches and hold them separately.]
On their own, each person still only has a weak source of light and heat. If two people come together, their fire is stronger and hardier, giving more warmth and protection. [Bring matches together to show a bigger flame.]
If we all come together, we can build a great blaze, nourishing us until the dawn comes and the morningstar rises in our hearts, calling us home. We may not be able to be eyewitnesses for Christ in the way that Peter was, but we can be heartwitnesses for him. We can become like the prophets Peter talks about: "Men and women moved by the Holy Spirit, speaking from God." So when God next speaks to you - don't keep it to yourself.