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