Matthew | Becoming holy guides

With faith-filled eyes, we see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and help others see it, too.

The ancient Jewish people, and the first followers of Jesus, lived life very much in this world. They were very aware of the earth beneath their feet as they travelled from place to place in their sandals. They were very aware of the sky above their heads: by day the sun or the clouds that bring rain to water their crops; by night the moon in its monthly cycles and the stars that moved across the sky and help to show the times and the seasons.

They were aware of the significance of places. Of the village and the wilderness. Of the field and the mountain. The river and the sea. They were aware of the significance of places.

And they were very much aware of the human world. They lived within patriarchal families, in villages dominated by cities, or in cities dominated by empires.

This was ordinary life. Life in the village, life on the land. Life in the city, life under the sky.

But sometimes, someone would have an experience beyond the ordinary, something that changed how they saw the world.

Sometimes. Not every day. In rare moments. Sometimes, someone would have an experience that took them beyond the ordinary to see something extraordinary. Something glorious, life-changing, and often scary.

You could say they experienced an apocalypse.

An apocalypse is not what we usually think it is. We usually think that “apocalypse” means the destruction of everything – the sky falls down, all the world’s nuclear bombs go off at once, human civilisation destroyed… everything is gone.

But that’s not what apocalypse actually means. Apocalypse actually means something very different. Apocalypse means a significant moment of uncovering at great truth. A revelation. A discovery. A surprising moment when a truth is unveiled.

That is what apocalypse means.

So there were times when our ancestors in the faith experienced an apocalypse.

Sometimes these experiences were so extraordinary, and so glorious, that they struggled to explain them. Sometimes they said they had even been carried up into heaven to see extraordinary things. Sometimes they said that they were carried away into the wilderness, or carried away to a great mountain. And they saw amazing things that they didn’t understand.

But always there was someone with them to guide them, and help them understand their experience… some kind of angelic being, some kind of divine guide leading them to the places where they experienced amazing things, a divine guide leading them through their experience and helping them make sense of it. And when they are so frightened by the experience that they cannot take it in, the angelic guide reassures them saying, “Don’t be afraid”.

And their experience changed how they saw ordinary life. They were changed by their experience, and most especially, their way of seeing was changed. Their way of seeing the ordinary was changed by their experience of the extraordinary.

These experiences were apocalypses. And we read about some of them in the Bible. The Apostle Paul had an experience like this. In one of his letters he tells the story of his apocalypse, when he was caught up into heaven. He couldn’t explain if this was a real trip he had done in his body or it if was something that somehow happened in the spirit while his body stayed on earth. He didn’t know and he couldn’t explain… He just knew that he’d had an extraordinary experience.

The most famous apocalypse is the story that John tells. John tells the story of how he was lifted up through the sky into the glorious place beyond, then carried to the holy city Jerusalem, then an angel carried him into the wilderness to see an amazing sight. Then the angel carried him up a high mountain to show him something even more amazing.

But now we come back to the ordinary again. There’s a man called Jesus. He’s a kind of teacher. People follow him, walking from village to village, wanting to learn more. They walk in the dirt in their sandals as they follow this man. He leads them to the next village. To the edge of the lake.  Along the roads. Through the fields. He’s a kind of teacher. A dear friend. They feel something when they are with him.

And then he leads them up a high mountain.

I wonder how far it was from the nearest village – how far they had to walk to get to the mountain. I wonder how long it took to climb the mountain.

And at the top of the mountain they experience an apocalypse.

They experience something beyond the ordinary. In that place they experience the divine. The divine glory is bright and shining. Perhaps it is almost blinding. It is wonderful. But scary. Perhaps they are even afraid that they might die from it. But it is glorious. It is an extraordinary experience that would change how they see ordinary life.

They walked up the mountain in their sandals and stood in that place, and in that place the divine shone through.

It was a human being who led them up the mountain. And in that human being the divine shone through.

In that moment they see Jesus himself as their divine guide.

It is Jesus who takes them up the mountain. It is Jesus who guides them in their experience. It is Jesus who says, “Do not be afraid.” It is Jesus who helps them embrace their experience, and experience God in this place. It is Jesus who helps them interpret their experience. It is Jesus who leads them back down the mountain into ordinary life.

So from that time they live their lives in light of this experience, when, for them, an ordinary place became an extraordinary place, and a human being became their divine guide.

I think that that is a big part of what Christian faith is about – experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary bread and wine. They become for us an experience of something glorious, if we open our eyes to see it.

And perhaps we are becoming holy guides to each other now.

As I read through our Lent book, I feel that we are becoming holy guides to each other. Ordinary humans beings though we are, we are becoming holy guides, leading each other to special places, to mountains, to rivers, to wilderness places, to the sea, guiding each other in the experience, guiding each other to experience the divine in those places. At Budj Bim, at Woodford, at Cudgee creek, at Mt Noorat and Mt Leura… In all the places where we have experienced the mystery of God.

I think that these can be our own little apocalypses, our moments to see the glory shining… With our eyes or with our hearts, to see the shining glory that changes how we see the places in which we walk. Ω

A reflection by Joel Rothman on Matthew 17:1-9 (Transfiguration) given to Sanctuary on 5 March 2023 © Sanctuary 2023. This sermon was inspired in part by:

  • the significance of geological features, especially mountains, in the Hebrew scriptures;
  • reflections on some of the Greek phrasing in Matt 17, especially “καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς” and its resonances with revelatory literature, e.g. Rev 12:1-3;
  • Origen’s thoughts in his Commentary on Matthew, where he writes, “It is not simply said that he was transfigured, but with a certain necessary addition. Both Matthew and Mark have recorded this: he was transfigured ‘before them’. Is it therefore possible for Jesus to be transfigured before some but not before others? Do you wish to see the transfiguration of Jesus? Behold with me the Jesus of the Gospels. Let him be simply apprehended. There he is beheld both ‘according to the flesh’ and at the same time in his true divinity. He is beheld in the form of God according to our capacity for knowledge”; and
  • Daniel 12:3 “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” [NRSV]

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week has seen a heat wave, black crickets, and another wave of dragonflies, which lurch through the evening air like heavy military helicopters. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.


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