Sermon preached by Revd Duncan Strathie

Sunday 11 February 2018, Sunday next before Lent, Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-9
The Transfiguration
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The Coming of Elijah
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

What is the most remarkable thing you have ever seen? Something unbelievable, seemingly unnatural, something you know that if you told other people they wouldn’t believe you.

Perhaps you have walked at night under a clear sky and seen the Milky Way and maybe, just maybe it opened your heart to the presence of God. Perhaps you’ve been on a ship at sea with nothing but the vastness of the ocean filling the horizon and maybe, just maybe it opened your heart to the presence of God. Perhaps on a deserted beach with the tide lapping the shore and, maybe, just maybe it opened your heart to the presence of God. Or your own mountain top encounter with the land spread out before you as far as you can see and maybe, just maybe it opened your heart to the presence of God.

It must have come as a relief to Peter, James and John that Jesus instructed them to say nothing of what they had witnessed and shared in. It saved them from having to convince their friends what they had seen.

Just three of the disciples – perhaps the inner circle. I wonder what it felt like for them to be singled out in this way knowing their friends were down below? How would you have felt? Having just listened to the account of the Transfiguration, how did it make you feel?

As we stand together on this, the last Sunday before another Lent, we are invited to join with Peter, James and John and to enter the mystery of the Transfiguration. Like Christmas and Easter, here is another holy mystery. Something that we know is important but equally something we don’t fully understand. We struggle to see how this piece of the jigsaw fits in to the whole.

Why is it that the vivid imagery and obscure theology of the Transfiguration are the things that we are given to prepare us for our Lenten journey? Let’s explore a little together.

The Gospels as we have them may well be edited documents and the sequence of individual elements might well be rearranged in the different gospels, but when we are faced with questions of meaning and understanding in one passage, it is usually a good idea to explore what comes before and after to see if that helps to give us greater understanding.

In Mark, just before the Transfiguration, Jesus is discussing his perceived identity with the disciples – “who do people say that I am?”. He then gives a speech to the assembled crowd – including the disciples, where he tells them that to follow “The Son of Man” will be costly. Six days later we have the Transfiguration account.

Whenever we hear the phrase “Son of Man” it should trigger an alarm within our theological understanding. It is one of the key phrases that Jesus uses to embed himself within the whole of salvation history and demonstrate that he is doing the Father’s will. It is an important phrase and we should sit up and take note!

The pivotal moment on which Mark’s Gospel hinges is Peter’s confession of Jesus as The Messiah in Caesarea Philippi in the previous chapter. Mark then places this Transfiguration next which delivers the seal of divine approval. The Transfiguration is a unique event but as we shall see shortly, it is an event that is filled with meaningful imagery – for those who have eyes to see.

In the verses that follow today’s passage we read of a stubborn spirit that only Jesus could cast out – a sign of his authority. He challenges the crowd to have faith in God and in him and calls them a faithless generation. He then gives the disciples some teaching on “The Son of Man” and why he must suffer and die and be raised again. The group then breaks down into a squabble about status, so Jesus gives them a lesson in humility.

And so the Gospel of Mark continues with parables and teaching about “The Son of Man”. But the Transfiguration sets Jesus apart, authenticates his status as the “Son of Man” and sets him up for the journey into Jerusalem and the Passion that will unfold. As we are about to embark on our Lenten journey this year, we are given the Transfiguration to help anchor our faith in “The Son of Man” as we make our own journey towards Jerusalem and the greatest celebration of our year – Easter!

As Jesus faced a number of trials and temptations on his journey, the difficult balance we must retain is to be able to reflect and pray our way through Lent whilst still being Easter people! So what can we learn from the Transfiguration?

Transfiguration is a word we are familiar with from reading our Bible but when was the last time you used it in everyday conversation? We have an inkling of what it means in Biblical terms because each year we encounter the Transfiguration usually on this Sunday but also on August 6th when the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated. If we look up Transfiguration in the dictionary we are told it is noun which means “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”. Not an everyday occurrence – even for Jesus!

Mark is very precise in his use of language and the details he records. He gives us a precise location and time for this event. Rather than name the mountain we are told it is “high mountain”. The other things Mark records are recorded with precision – and then we have words from God which echo so closely the words spoken to Jesus at his baptism – coincidence or intention?

The images recorded in Mark’s account resonate with important ideas from the redemption stories of God’s people Israel, as written in the Old Testament. To appreciate the fullness of this text we must interrogate some of the details.

Mark’s account is rich in sensory images. Imagine first of all climbing the mountain, noticing the sounds of the world below fade away as you get higher, perhaps hearing only the wind and the odd bird.

Then there is radiance, the disciples experience a strong visual image – Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. How many times in the Old Testament does the unnatural occurrence of a bright light signify the presence of God? Mark uses the word for the glistening gleam of burnished brass or gold or of polished steel or of the golden glare of the sunlight. A powerful image and metaphor. Next they see Moses and Elijah appearing – more visuals – a Patriarch and the giver of The Law, and the greatest of all the Prophets joining “The Son of Man” which anchors Jesus ministry and mission within the continuing salvation history of God’s dealing with his people and his creation. Patriarch, Prophet, Messiah – the imagery doesn’t get stronger than that!

But even with Moses and Elijah for company, Jesus still sought his Father’s will and direction and through his obedience to follow his Father and not his own desires, he received the spoken endorsement necessary for him to continue on to Jerusalem and to face the Cross and so we have Mark’s record of an auditory experience.

Having had light, they are next enveloped in a cloud. In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with a cloud. It was in the cloud that Moses met God. It was in the cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. It was the cloud which filled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. And it was the dream of the Jews that when the Messiah came the cloud of God's presence would return to the Temple. (Exodus 16:10Exodus 19:9Exodus 33:91 Kings 8:102 Maccabees 2:8.) The descent of the cloud is a way of saying that the Messiah had come, and any Jew would understand it like that.

But the Transfiguration was not only an encouragement for Jesus, it was also an encouragement for Peter, James and John and through engaging with the retelling of it, it can also be an encouragement for us – something to carry in our hearts over the journey of the next six weeks. Our own journey to Cross of Christ and the empty tomb that lies beyond.

The disciples had been shattered by Jesus’ statement that he was going to Jerusalem to die which seemed to them the opposite of all that they understood of the coming of the Messiah. They were still bewildered and did not understand. Things were happening which were not only baffling their minds but were also breaking their hearts. What they saw on the mountain of the transfiguration would give them something to hold on to, even when they could not understand. Cross or no Cross, they had heard the voice of God acknowledge Jesus as his Son.

Seeing what they saw also made the disciples in a special sense witnesses of the glory of Christ. A witness has been defined as a someone who first sees and then shows. Just seeing is useless – a witness has to tell of what they Have seen. This time on the mountain had shown them the glory of Christ, and now they had the story of this glory to hide in their hearts and to tell to everyone – when the time came.

At some points in the walk of discipleship, we will have to be content with mere glimpses or a simple foretaste of what is to come. To be invited as hearers and observers to see this transfigured Jesus, is to be invited into the story, to be sure, but also to be invited into a story in which discipleship means to live with ambiguity; living by faith while trusting the one who promises.

For disciples, the promise of the kingdom is not a matter of control or security, but of the persuasive power of the promise of God, that in Jesus we meet and follow the one who goes to suffering and death and resurrection, and then calls all of us who wait for his return, to live in watchful confidence that the kingdom has already come among us in power (Mark 9:1; see Mark 13:32-37).

So, as we journey together this Lent, let us travel with a sense of faith, a sense of hope and a confidence that if we do as God the Father instructed the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration to ‘listen to Jesus’, our Lenten journey will be one well travelled.