Have you been to see the film Les Miserables? I went on Thursday and I loved it. I would happily go again. The plot-line comes from a Victor Hugo novel and tells the story of Jean Valjean, who is released from penal servitude after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Nobody will give him house room, not so much as a place in the stable, because his papers state that he is dangerous. In the pouring rain, he comes to the doorway of the church. The door opens and the bishop takes him in and talks kindly to him and gives him a meal and a bed. But in the early hours, Jean Valjean leaves the bishop’s house taking the church silver with him. The police apprehend him and bring him back to the Cathedral, telling the bishop they have caught him red-handed. The bishop lies, telling the police that he has given the silver to Jean Valjean and also gives him the candlesticks which he didn’t take. So Valjean is saved from going back to the chain gang.
You then see him in the chapel reflecting on the incredible mercy that has been shown to him. There is a broken crucifix lying on a tomb, pointing to the grace that Christ brings us by dying on the cross. Valjean decides to change his life. The camera draws back and you see that the chapel is part of a great convent perched on top of a high hill. And the sun is just beginning to shine through the dark clouds.
This is Jean Valjean’s moment of transfiguration, the moment when he sees things in a totally new way, the moment when Christ bursts in to his consciousness, when the light shines through. And he makes a choice about his commitment to Christ and the way he is going to live the rest of his life.
Very often, we see what we expect to see. But sometimes, something happens that makes us look in a different way. That act of incredible kindness and generosity shown by the bishop opens Jean Valjean’s eyes to the real meaning of love and grace, forgiveness and redemption.
The Gospel reading we heard today is one we hear twice a year – it’s that important. We have it here just before Lent begins, because it marks the point when Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem and begins the journey that will take him to the cross. And it’s a story of light bursting through on top of a mountain. It’s a story of seeing things in a new way.
Eight days before the events of today’s story, Luke tells us that Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Peter comes out with it: The Messiah, the anointed one sent by God. And then Jesus tells them that he is going to suffer and die, and his friends just can’t take that on board.
The following week, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. Mountains are special places, without a doubt, places where you see things differently. And there, the friends see Jesus in a new light, glowing white, positively shining, unearthly, unreal. And he’s not alone, but two figures with him that they recognise as figures from history: Moses and Elijah. It is a cosmic conversation about suffering and the cross. And the way Luke tells the story, God’s voice calls from the cloud: This is my Son, my Chosen one, listen to him.
Peter, James and John see something completely out of their experience. They do not understand it. They do not know what to make of it. It makes no sense at all. They are being challenged to look at Jesus differently. If Jesus really is the Messiah, as Peter declared, what does this mean in practice? It is one thing to have the insight, and another to work through to what it all means. They see the light of Christ, and their lives will change because of it. They must make choices about following Jesus to a terrible death on the cross and then taking the way of the cross for themselves. The light is a promise of hope and a vision of glory, but it is also a most terrible responsibility.
I know some of you have had those moments when the light shines and you see things in a new way. You have told me about them, and it is a great privilege for me to hear them, and very humbling. They are moments when you know God is with you, and you make a choice about the future and how you are going to live. It generally means a shift in attitude. You have been going in a particularly direction, usually a negative or destructive or unhelpful way, and you turn to Christ, and something changes very subtly, and makes new life possible. Or you are in a bad, sad place, and the light brings you peace and joy. Those moments are very precious. Treasure them. And let them guide you.
Here is an account of someone who experienced a special kind of light:
Then I saw a light that seemed to grow brighter and brighter until its brilliance had completely encircled me, as if my very soul had been transformed and enveloped in love.
It was then that I had the sensation of being gathered up and held like a newborn-child. Nestling in the warmth of this loving embrace, I knew that nothing could ever harm me again. Whether I was to live or die, I knew that I should be given the strength to continue on. At the time I didn’t know who I was o what kind of life lay ahead, but now I had the certainty that God would be leading the way. It was then that the Lord took me by the hand. (Peter & Elizabeth Fenwick, quoted in Mark Fox, Spiritual encounters with unusual light phenomena: lightforms, p.47)
There are moments when the light bursts in to our lives and things begin to change. And if it’s never happened to you, then have a word with God about it. Tell him about your life just now. Tell him how much you would like to get to know him better. Open the door and let him in. And the light will shine.