Sermon - 3rd March 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
From today’s gospel reading: “Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves, and in their presence he was transfigured.”
Now there’s a wonderful piece of church jargon - “in their presence he was transfigured”. It’s hardly the kind of language we use every day - when did you last say to someone that something had been transfigured?
We talk of things and people being changed, altered, even transformed (perhaps) but not transfigured. It’s a churchy word - one of those we tend only to use in a church setting and especially about this particular incident in the gospels. And so perhaps it acts as a barrier to our understanding of what is actually going on in this story.
Transfiguration, or the act of being transfigured, has a very precise meaning of moving across from one physical form to another. For Jesus on the mountain with the three disciples, the outward signs of this process were that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became a brilliant white”.
Then other things start to happen, and a context begins to emerge for this strange event: Jesus is seen to be talking to Moses and Elijah.
There could be no clearer sign to the disciples who were witnessing this that Jesus was indeed the Messiah who was expected to come into the world. There he was in front of them, transfigured, bathed in God’s glory, conversing with the great representative of the Jewish Law - Moses, and the great representative of the Prophets - Elijah.
There in front of them was the Messiah who would fulfil the Law and the Prophecies which underpinned the Covenant with God.
There was no longer any doubt in their minds about Jesus’s authority - they had witnessed a glimpse of God’s unique relationship with humanity.
Peter is so deeply moved by the experience that he gives voice to the wonder of it all and, perhaps in the hope of prolonging the experience, he suggests to Jesus that they should build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
Then comes the final affirmation - a voice from above them saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight; listen to him”. This is much more than the disciples can handle and they fall to their faces in terror. And when they look up, the vision is over, Jesus is alone and he tries to calm their fears.
Much of the significance of this event, for the disciples and for all who would read about it within the Jewish tradition out of which the early church came, comes from the echoes in the story which hark back to many previous events in the Hebrew scriptures.
We’ve seen how the personalities of Moses and Elijah were instantly recognisable symbols of the Law and Prophets.
There was also a prediction by the prophet Malachi that a reappearance of Elijah would announce the day of God’s coming.
Peter’s urge to make shelters may recall the tent or tabernacle where God was present in the old days before the Jewish temple was built.
The voice from heaven recalls a similar incident when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist - on that occasion bystanders heard a voice saying “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
And there was another “shining” event which must have sprung instantly into the disciples’ minds: from the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, chapter 34, verse 29:
At length Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets of the Commandments in his hands, and when he came down, he did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and the Israelites saw how the skin of Moses’ face shone, they were afraid to approach him. He called out to them, and Aaron and all the chiefs in the community turned towards him. Moses spoke to them, and after that all the Israelites drew near.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Peter, who was one of the principal sources for Mark’s gospel, would ensure that this tremendous affirmation of the authenticity of Jesus would get a full report in that gospel. Then it found its way into Matthew and Luke, who both drew on Mark as a principal source for their own gospels. There’s even an argument that the gospel of John makes a sideways reference to the incident in Chapter 1 verse 14 where the evangelist says:
“So the word became flesh; he made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Creator’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
So our piece of church jargon refers to a mystical, perhaps magical, other-worldly event, which three of the gospels set great store by. And it left the three disciples who were there in no doubt that their friend and teacher was indeed the Son of God and unquestionably the Messiah predicted in the law and prophecies of Jewish scripture.
But the imagery of someone being transfigured, and taking on a shining appearance, has remained in our culture and language. We may not use the actual word ‘transfigured’, but we do still say that goodness shines out of someone, or that somebody glows with pride, or that someone shines with ability at something, or that someone displays a sparkling intellect. We speak of eyes twinkling and of intelligent people being bright.
We still make much use of the image that a person’s positive and creative characteristics can be viewed - perhaps poetically - as some form of light coming out of them. And on the flip side, we will sometimes criticise those who don’t shine or sparkle at something as being dull.
We can probably recall occasions when a friend or acquaintance has undergone a major change in their lives - a change for the better. It may be finding a partner, it may be achieving a rewarding job, it may be moving into safe and pleasant surroundings, it may be discovering a religious faith. I’m willing to bet that we used some kind of “light after gloom” language when we spoke about the event to others.
Christians can become transfigured through our discipleship of Jesus. We too can have intense experiences of light, peace, community, joy, satisfaction, meaning - and of the presence of God.
These experiences may be triggered not only by prayer, but also by poetry, music, nature, romance, friendship - as well as by suffering and painful struggle. At baptism, some denominations - including this one - give the candidate a candle with the words “Shine in the world like bright stars”.
Many of us fail that challenge. We let guilt cloud the vision, or we lose the force of those special moments of insight when we have drawn close to God and known God’s love in our deepest being. And so sometimes our faith becomes dull and weighed down by the mundane and the trivial.
But it is by experiencing both the high points when we shine, and the low points when we are dull, that we become slowly and steadily changed by our faith in Jesus, and strengthened by the path of discipleship which we follow. And because our discipleship is something that we share and declare by how we live our lives, sometimes others catch their spark of faith from us.
The transfiguration experience of Jesus confirmed the rightness of the way Jesus had chosen, even though it was leading to his violent death in Jerusalem. In the same way, those parts of our Christian journey which bring light and warmth into our lives, and the lives of others, confirm the rightness of the way we have chosen, even though we do have to pass through times of ordinary, dull and routine existence in this time and place.
Perhaps the lesson for us, coming from all the strange symbolism and ancient cultural references of that shining incident witnessed by the first disciples, is that our faith can shine out of us, by what we say and what we don’t; by what we do and what we don’t; and by how we live our lives among those around us.
We shall probably never witness exactly what the three disciples on the mountain experienced, but we can take to heart what the gospel writers were trying to say about it at the deepest level: we can do what those disciples were told to do; we can do what the voice from heaven said: listen to Jesus.