Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/zWDmTszXhME.
Transfiguration B 15 Mark 9
Well, what do you think about the experience of the Transfiguration, that Peter James and John shared with God the Father, Jesus Moses and Elijah? Have you ever heard about it before? If you have- Do you ever think about the transfiguration between one year and the next, when it comes up in the church callendar? Have you ever thought about the transfiguration that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus? It might not seem like the kind of thing that has much application to our day to day lives but I am here to tell you that Christ’s transfiguration makes a daily difference to you as a Christian.
This is a very odd kind of a story and I don’t think, in a sense that there is much point in trying to understand what happened- the people who were there didn’t really understand it- all they could do was experience it, and then relate it to us, which makes me think that it must be important.
I was so glad that we sang that hymn a minute ago, because that is what I have been thinking about this week. Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Then the narrator, in a rare editorial insertion, kindly explains to us that Peter, “did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Is the narrator excusing Peter’s lack of judgement, or his prosaic reaction, or does the narrator just think he was stupid?
Well, I think Peter was right- it was good for them to be there. For Peter, James and John this mountaintop experience means a number of things. It comes just after Peter has spoken, on behalf of everyone I think, and said that they recognise Jesus as the Messiah. Now precisely what that meant to Peter is hard for us to know- but certainly they had realized that Jesus was the special one, anointed by God, sent for the salvation of the world- whatever that might mean. The term Messiah, does not imply divinity- we think of “Jesus the Messiah” as equivalent to “Jesus the Son of God”, but that was not what Jews meant by the title. It is much more likely that they saw it in political terms- the Messiah was going to “save” them from the Roman oppressors by some kind of action- like Judas Maccabeus had 400 years earlier. When the transfiguration, the blinding revelation of God, occurred, and was witnessed by these three of the disciples it must have been a revelation to them that told them that they were both right and wrong about Jesus. He was the most important thing that had ever happened to the Jews, but he was far more than a political saviour. I am not surprised that they were terrified by this transfiguration. Jesus- still himself -but at the same time transformed into a being of light, blazing fiercely, accompanied by the two greatest figures of the OT, Moses and Elijah, and spoken to, audibly, by God.
This must have changed how they saw Jesus, even if they did have to keep it to themselves until after the resurrection. It would have explained a lot, even if it also raised many questions. And right to the end, they must have clutched the knowledge of that experience to themselves to help them through the darkest times.
“It is good for us to be here”- does Peter include Jesus in this statement? Well, it certainly must have been a very significant moment for Jesus of Nazareth. It is impossible for us to know what Jesus thought about himself. Did he always know that he was God incarnate- or did he function as a normal human being, with certain revelations from God? By this point in this narratorial sequence of Mark, Jesus certainly knows that he is going to suffer and die. This experience, however, must have been incredibly important for Jesus the man. Jesus goes up a mountain and his glory is revealed, whether as much to himself as to the disciples we cannot know. Jesus meets with the two great OT figures whose presence, according to Malachi, signals the arrival of the end times. Jesus hears the voice of God affirming him as the Son and the beloved, and the one who should be listened to. What a moment that must have been for Jesus of Nazareth. These days we tell our children all the time that they are loved, but, in my experience, for most of us who are a bit older, we might have known that we were loved, felt that we were loved, but it was seldom said out loud, and when it was it was a moment of great significance. Jesus, regardless of how he related to his father God, hears, verbally and publically, that God loves him, so I believe it would have mattered to Jesus the man, particularly given the rejection and misunderstanding that he was undergoing. This experience must have confirmed what his role was to be. This experience, with the proximity of Moses and Elijah, told Jesus that the last days had come- he had reached a point of no return, but also that God’s great power was with him and in him.
What did this experience mean for God the Father? Well, it was a chance to publically affirm his beloved son, God’s precious one that he delighted in. It was also one of those rare times when God revealed God’s self to the human race in a moment of blinding reality.
The real question, of course, is what it means for us. What does it mean, for our day to day lives, that 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth went up a mountain and was revealed as God Almighty? Well, perhaps we need to look to Paul of Tarsus for an example of what it might mean in our lives. Paul was an ordinary man- as he often tells us, who had an epiphany, or revelation. Paul, while on the road to Damascus, saw the transfigured Jesus and it changed him for the rest of his life. It didn’t make him perfect and it didn’t stop him from suffering, but for the rest of his life the glimpse that he had of glory affected him every day.
In the passage that we read from 2 Corinthians chapter 4 Paul talks about the veil that prevents humans from seeing the glory of God. This, of course, is a reference to the veil that Moses had to put over his face after his mountaintop encounter with God, the precursor of the Transfiguration experience that Jesus has in Mark 9. This veiling and unveiling speaks of the human condition of choosing to live either in the light or in the dark. “God,” Paul says, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). God has revealed God’s self, through Jesus. But that is not the end of the story. Paul tells us that even though we have had this transformative experience, just as he has, our “treasure” is in vessels of clay- fragile, and made of dirt. We are not gold- not yet, but clay and the reason is so that we don’t think that the power and the glory belong to us. “We are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (v. 8-11)
This is what the transfiguration means for us. We are part of the glory, while continuing in our earthly lives, just like Peter and James and John, who came back down the mountain. And for them this was a mountaintop experience of light that was followed by the greatest darkness imaginable, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is where we are headed as well, as we embark on the journey through Lent and towards the cross. We have had the experience of Epiphany- God has been revealed, we have seen the light, but we are still surrounded by darkness. Like the disciples and like Paul we all have our mountaintop moments of experiencing the power and glory of God, and like Jesus we hear the words of love spoken to us by God. But then we return to everyday life, where there is a tension between the dark and the light.
Another extraordinary experience that we read about today was the ending of Elijah’s earthly life and the passing of his mantle to Elisha. As part of the wonderful imagery of this scene there is the strange request of Elisha to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Now the double portion is easy to understand- the eldest son always got a double portion of the inheritance. But Elisha is not asking for a share in Elijah’s property but for a double portion of his spirit- that is we presume his spiritual gift of prophecy and all that that meant. And when we consider how much Elijah had suffered in his role as God’s prophet we should really wonder why Elisha would ask for that- and yet he did. Elisha wants to carry out God’s work in his world, and Elijah passes on his mantle to him.
And you know that is what Jesus does to Peter and the other Apostles. Jesus gives them the mantle of his power and glory, but at the same time the mantle of his suffering and death. Peter and his companions are to take the good news to the corners of the earth, and Jesus mantle covers them as they do it. And what about us? Well, we are part of that apostolic succession. We to are to reveal Jesus’ light to the world. With Paul, we are bearers of the light of the Glory of God. Our experiences of God’s revelation to us are to be for us the defining moments that we grow into for the rest of our lives. And we might bring this light in quite humble ways. To give just a few examples from the many things you are doing: Stephen brings light to the kids of Caroline Chisholm school, by being there to listen to them and comfort them. He doesn’t feel like he blazes with God’s glory, but he does. The Mary’s Market volunteers, bring God’s light as they serve the community and greet people with kindness, showing love to them whatever the circumstances. The Seniors’ group bring God’s glory to people who might otherwise feel isolated, by sharing hospitality, which is a marker of God’s grace. We are all called to live “so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” and so we may be a light for all around. Thank you all for shining in your community.