15 February 2015

Sermon – “Bathed in Glory” (Mark 9:2-9)

From the slopes of Mount Hermon you can look across and see all of Galilee, fifty miles away. Rising to an altitude of 9,100 feet above sea level, and crowned with snow the year round, locals speak of it as “the gray-haired mountain” or “the mountain of snow”. Throughout the year its temperatures hover in an alpine range. From its snowy peak the land slopes downwards in a rapid descent. Melt waters rush down its rugged slopes and the broken surface of its intervening valleys. They feed into springs at its southwestern foot that form the source of the River Jordan. Along the way they give nourishment to fertile plant life—lush vineyards, and pine, oak and poplar trees.[1]

This is the setting of this morning’s Gospel reading. Once again Jesus has taken his disciples with him to one of those lonely places where he was in the habit of devoting extended periods of time to teach them and to be with his heavenly Father. This time, however, it was to be no ordinary teaching.

So extraordinary were the events that took place on that mountainside, so utterly outside the realm of normal human experience, that many people since—Christians among them—have had difficulty accepting that it really happened. Some have theorized that what we have here is really a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow been transposed into an earlier place in the gospel accounts. Others have suggested that what this passage relates is not an actual event, but a vision that was given to the three disciples. Still others have gone so far as to argue that there was never any such occurrence at all, that this was a story invented by the early church in attempt to visualize the glory and deity of Christ.

It seems to me (and to much better scholars than myself) that in the end none of these theories can really hold water. Morna Hooker, for example, who is the former Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, has written,

Although the story causes problems for the modern reader, it is unlikely that Mark was aware of them. In his God-filled universe, a heavenly confirmation of Jesus’ identity would have seemed no more out of place than the acknowledgement of his identity by the unclean spirits. The true nature of Jesus is a hidden mystery which breaks out from time to time, and for Mark these revelations do not require explanations.[2]

As we think about the transfiguration this morning, then, I believe that we have every reason to accept it as a literal event, and here are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, Mark is careful to place the transfiguration at a specific point in time, six days following Peter’s famous declaration of Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. Added to that, the inclusion of Peter’s almost comical response to what he witnessed gives further evidence of the genuineness of what we are being told. Altogether, it seems likely that, as they stood in Jesus’ presence that day, the three disciples were at one of those points where the barrier between heaven and earth becomes thin and eternal realities are glimpsed, even if only for an instant, for what they are.

The glory on the mountain

So let us take a few moments to look once again at what took place on the mountainside that day. Jesus has gone off with three of his disciples, Peter and the two brothers James and John—the ones often referred to as Jesus’ inner circle. There, high above the Galilean hills, they found themselves entirely alone. Notice how Mark emphasizes the point: he “led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves”. It is Luke who informs us that Jesus was praying. All the while, I can imagine the three disciples either taking in the magnificent view or perhaps foraging for food (a few berries, maybe) after the arduous climb.

When they looked at Jesus again, what they saw must have taken their breath away. Jesus had utterly changed. The verb in Greek is metamorphoo. You can recognize it in our word “metamorphosis”—when a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog. The transformation that the disciples saw in Jesus, on the other hand, was on an incomparably different level. It penetrated even his clothes to the point where they positively dazzled. (Here I love the quaintness of the King James Version: “such as no fuller on earth can white them”.) With Jesus were two other figures, whom the disciples were able to recognize as Moses and Elijah—perhaps representative of the Law and the Prophets.

Mark tells us that that the two were in conversation with Jesus—and I guess Peter was eager to get in on the discussion as well. “Rabbi,” he blurted out, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter’s words seem almost ludicrous, but I believe they expressed the genuine desire to prolong this unique experience. I think of the words of the old nineteenth-century hymn,

Father of Jesus, love’s reward!

what rapture it will be

prostrate before thy throne to lie,

and gaze and gaze on thee!

But that was not to happen. Hardly had the words gone out of Peter’s mouth than they were all overshadowed by a cloud. Here we can only think of the cloud of God’s shekinah glory, the cloud that hung over Mount Sinai as Moses received the Ten Commandments, the cloud that accompanied the people of Israel through the wilderness, the cloud that filled the Temple at its dedication under Solomon. And then from the cloud, more terrifying still, a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It seems to me that there is a lesson in those words, a lesson that at times I find difficult to learn. It is that while I know God delights for us to come into his presence and to offer our prayers, how much more important it is that we learn to listen. I am convinced that some of the most valuable time that we can spend in prayer are those moments of silence, when we allow God’s word to sink deep into our minds and hearts, when, instead of speaking to God we give time for God to speak to us. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t part of the reason why it took forty days after Jesus’ ascension for the Holy Spirit to fall upon the disciples. They needed to run out of things to say and simply be silent before the Lord!

Whatever the case, no sooner had the words been spoken than all was silent and the disciples were alone with Jesus once more.

The glory of the cross

What are we to think about all of this? Tom Wright maintains that we cannot come to terms with what happened on this mountain until we think of what was to happen on another one. It is no coincidence that both before the transfiguration and after it, Jesus warned the disciples about his suffering and death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) And so between the transfiguration and the crucifixion we find some eerie parallels. To quote Bishop Wright,

Here, on a mountain, is Jesus revealed in glory; there on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, while beneath him soldiers gamble for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there he is flanked by two brigands. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here, Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here, a voice from God himself declares that this is his beloved Son; there, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son.[3]

Could it be that this is the reason why, on the way down the mountain, Jesus ordered the disciples not to share with anyone what they had just witnessed until after he had risen from the dead? We all want the glory. But was Jesus saying that there can be no glory without suffering—and specifically without his suffering? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” wrote the apostle Paul,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

“If we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17b)

The glory that awaits us

Before we leave the transfiguration, there is another thing we ought to note. Apart from what we read in the gospels, the word “transfigure” occurs in only two other places in the whole of the New Testament. One them is 2 Corinthians 3:18 and it reads thus:

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another…

What does this teach us? I believe that when Peter and James and John looked on with awe at Jesus that day on the mountain, they were also looking at themselves—not as they were, but as they would one day be. As John himself was later to write, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

This is a truly astounding truth and it carries with it astounding implications. C.S. Lewis spoke about them in his famous sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory”.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…

All of this brings us to the one other place in the Bible where we find the word “transfigured”. It is in Paul’s great exhortation in Romans 12 to “be transfigured (that is what the word is literally) by the renewing of your minds”. And so, if we take Lewis’ words seriously, the transfiguration stands as a challenge to you and to me to see ourselves and those around us in the same way that God sees us in Christ—in other words to love with that same self-giving love with which he loves us.

I’d like us to pray using the words of Charles Wesley.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

[1]     Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible
[2]     The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 214
[3]     See Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, 14, 15 (slightly altered)

No comments: