St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Sunday 6th August 2023 — The Transfiguration of Our Lord

It is good for us to be here (Revised)

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Sixth of August, 2023. Tenth Sunday after Pente­cost. The Trans­fig­ur­a­tion of Our Lord.

Read­ings: Daniel 7.9–10, 13–14. Ps. 97, 2 Peter 1. 16–19, Mark 9. 2–9


On the 6th August 1945, the Feast of the Trans­fig­ur­a­tion, the first atom­ic bomb was dropped on the Japan­ese city of Hiroshi­ma, killing over 100,000 people and inflict­ing griev­ous wounds on thou­sands of oth­ers. At the first test­ing of that bomb, J. Robert Oppen­heimer, see­ing the explo­sion, quoted from the words of Krishna in an ancient Hindu Scrip­ture, “I am become Death, des­troy­er of worlds.” Oppen­heimer saw in the new bomb a kind of trans­fig­ur­a­tion of sci­entif­ic know­ledge into hor­ror and destruc­tion. That trans­fig­ur­a­tion stands in sharp con­trast to the one we cel­eb­rate today where the dis­ciples wit­nessed the trans­fig­ur­a­tion of a human teach­er and heal­er into the radi­ance of divine glory. Undoubtedly it is a strange event which defies ration­al explan­a­tions, and we might be inclined to fol­low the path of those who have dis­missed it as a pious myth or per­haps a theo­lo­gic­al meta­phor but then we remem­ber that this incid­ent is described in all three syn­op­tic Gos­pels and all three accounts are remark­able con­sist­ent in their essen­tial details.


There is some debate about the exact site of the trans­fig­ur­a­tion. Some have argued for Mount Tabor, a large round hill in cent­ral Galilee but a more likely site is Mount Her­mon, which is more remote but close to Caesarea Phil­ippi and it is here that Jesus had the con­ver­sa­tion with his dis­ciples that Mark makes oblique ref­er­ence to in his account of the trans­fig­ur­a­tion. Mark begins his nar­rat­ive with the words: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high moun­tain apart, by them­selves.” The obvi­ous ques­tion is, ‘Six days after what?’ The event referred to here is the con­ver­sa­tion Jesus has with his dis­ciples where he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, ‘well some say you are John the Baptist; some say you are Eli­jah or one of the oth­er proph­ets.’ Then Jesus asks the per­son­al ques­tion: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter breaks the awk­ward silence with the con­fes­sion: “You are the Messiah.”


Peter is the first one to make this state­ment and we should nev­er for­get what a rad­ic­al and remark­able con­fes­sion that was. For cen­tur­ies Jew­ish believ­ers had looked for­ward to the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah, the anoin­ted King who would lead Israel to vic­tory over her oppress­ors and bring peace and justice to the world. This Mes­si­ah would be God’s spe­cial rep­res­ent­at­ive and would have an author­ity bey­ond any pre­vi­ous proph­et or teach­er. Peter declares that in Jesus, the itin­er­ant preach­er and heal­er, they have found this per­son. In response to Peter’s declar­a­tion, Jesus goes on to warn the dis­ciples that he is about to go to Jer­u­s­alem where he will suf­fer per­se­cu­tion and even­tu­ally death but that he will also be raised from the dead. Peter’s acknow­ledge­ment that Jesus is the prom­ised Mes­si­ah is a turn­ing point in Mark’s Gos­pel and it is sig­ni­fic­ant that the trans­fig­ur­a­tion of Jesus fol­lows so soon after this episode.


Three sig­ni­fic­ant events take place on the moun­tain. First, there is the trans­form­a­tion in Jesus’ appear­ance- his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzlingly white. Secondly, there is the appear­ance of Moses and Eli­jah, talk­ing with Jesus and thirdly there is the voice from heaven.


What does ‘trans­figured’ really mean? We are strug­gling with a mys­tery here, but the pas­sage sug­gests that the dis­ciples saw some­thing of Jesus’ divin­ity. Or as Chryso­stom put it, Jesus “opened out a little of the god­head and showed them the indwell­ing deity.” The pas­sage from the Hebrew Scrip­tures that the story most evokes is Exodus chapter 24 where Moses takes three lead­ers (Aaron, Nadab, and Abi­hu) and sev­enty eld­ers, up onto Mt. Sinai where he has received the law. On the moun­tain we are told, ‘they saw the God of Israel and under his feet there was some­thing like a pave­ment of sap­phire stone, like the very heav­en for clear­ness.’ This is one of very few places in the Old Test­a­ment where people are gran­ted a vis­ion of God’s splend­our. Like those ancient fig­ures, Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the divine for Jesus is God’s self-rev­el­a­tion; when we see him, we see God.


On the moun­tain, Jesus is seen with two of Israel’s great her­oes, Moses and Eli­jah rep­res­ent­ing the law and the proph­ets. Jesus is revealed as the one who stands in con­tinu­ity with all that has happened before-he brings both law and proph­ecy to ful­fil­ment. But he also brings some­thing new for he will be the light for all people and will dis­mantle all the old bar­ri­ers and divi­sions, of race, class and gender. Not sur­pris­ingly the dis­ciples find the exper­i­ence both ter­ri­fy­ing and overwhelming.


Peter blurts out the sug­ges­tion that they make three shel­ters one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Eli­jah. Mark, per­haps unkindly, sug­gests that Peter didn’t know what to say because they were all ter­ri­fied. But I think Peter was want­ing to pre­serve the exper­i­ence and lack­ing an iPhone, he sug­ges­ted the next best thing: ‘Let’s cap­ture the moment, let’s pre­serve the exper­i­ence as long as pos­sible.’ That was his think­ing. Like Peter, we often want to tie down, to con­trol ‘the wild spir­it of God’s king­dom.’ (S. Hauer­was, Com­ment­ary on Mat­thew) From time-to-time God gives us spe­cial moments of aware­ness when we are con­scious of his pres­ence in a spe­cial way. It may come on a moun­tain or in some oth­er place of beauty; it may come when receiv­ing com­mu­nion or it may come in the midst of wash­ing the dishes or hanging out the clothes because God’s spir­it can­not be con­trolled or cap­tured. But we thank God for those moments.


It is while Peter is speak­ing that the cloud sud­denly envel­ops them and a voice is heard announ­cing: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” At the trans­fig­ur­a­tion God declares his love for his Son. At least one com­ment­at­or trans­lates this sen­tence as, “This is my beloved Son in whom I take delight.” And if we are God’s chil­dren, may we not reflect on the rad­ic­al idea that God delights in us as well?  Sud­denly the amaz­ing exper­i­ence is over, and the dis­ciples dis­cov­er that they are alone with Jesus. On the way down the moun­tain Jesus tells them to keep the vis­ion to them­selves and not to share it with any­one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. They find this state­ment almost as puzz­ling as the scene they have just wit­nessed. The trans­fig­ur­a­tion only makes sense in the light of the death and resur­rec­tion of Jesus. To under­stand the real glory of Jesus and who he is we must look not just at the shin­ing light on the moun­tain but at the man hanging on a cross on a hill out­side Jer­u­s­alem. As N.T. Wright puts it ‘we must learn to see the glory in the cross and learn to see the cross in the glory.’ On the moun­tain there is light, and Jesus is seen with two her­oes of the faith, on the hill he is covered in dark­ness and is cru­ci­fied between two criminals.


So, what is the point of this story?  Years later, Peter, the apostle referred to this event as ‘hav­ing been eye­wit­nesses of Christ’s majesty’ and as a res­ult he said, we have’ the proph­et­ic mes­sage more fully con­firmed’. In oth­er words, the vis­ion on the moun­tain was a con­firm­a­tion of the con­fes­sion that he had made that Jesus was none oth­er than the prom­ised Mes­si­ah from God. More than that the mes­sage they car­ried down from the moun­tain was that they should listen to the voice of Jesus.


We live in a world where more than ever there are count­less voices call­ing for our atten­tion. Who do we listen to as we shape our life and plan for the future? Who do we listen to as a par­ish com­munity, as we determ­ine our pri­or­it­ies and make decisions about the future. As indi­vidu­als and as a com­munity we listen to the words of Jesus. Through God’s word in the Scrip­tures, through his dir­ec­tion in the events of our life we focus on him. Fre­d­er­ick Buech­ner, the Amer­ic­an theo­lo­gian and author has writ­ten, “Listen to what hap­pens to you, because it is through what hap­pens to you that God speaks. It’s in a lan­guage not always easy to decipher, but it is there power­fully, mem­or­ably and unfor­get­tably – in, with, and under the events of our lives we are being addressed by God.” Let us pray that God will help us to be people who listen to his voice above all others.


Fr Philip Bradford