This sermon was preached at All Saints 10:30am Eucharist and St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong on 15th February 2015. The readings were 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.
Over the past couple of weeks a certain book, which has also been made into a movie, has made headlines across the country. This has been great for me, as the book in question is one of my all-time favourites, and the media talk has put me in mind of some of my favourite moments, inspiring me to watch the movie last night.
I am of course talking about “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and the shock announcement that the ‘lost’ manuscript for the sequel has been found and will be published in July.
I’m sure many of you here are familiar with the tale, if only from the film version starring the amazing Gregory Peck, but in case you are not it’s the story of a small town lawyer called Atticus Finch, his young son Jem and daughter Scout. Set in the rural south of the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Atticus is raising his children aided only by his black housekeeper. To begin with, the children just see Atticus as a normal father, enjoying a close relationship despite referring to him by his first name, and vaguely aware of how some of his eccentricities affect their lives (not playing in the local Methodist baseball team and his respect for the black community, for example). But one day, their understanding of Atticus is changed, altered, by the arrival of a mad dog, which is spotted foaming at the mouth in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are amazed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county.
Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. Only after dispatching the dog, and later through the main crux of the book which deals with deeply-ingrained Southern state racism, do Scout and Jem come to see him for who he really is. He is, in effect, transfigured in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.
Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus is the hinge point of the Gospel, marking the transition from Jesus life & ministry to His death and resurrection. Just after Peter has hit the nail on the head by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, then been hugely chastised for suggesting the passion could be avoided, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, away from the others.
We as readers know a key incident is about to take place – the “high mountain” is the place nearest to heaven, and throughout scripture Godly incidents happen on mountains. So it is here when, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured and his clothes shine so bright, become so dazzling, that it can only be the glory of God shining out from Him – there’s no shades of grey here! Think of the light that blinded Paul on the Damascus Road, or of Moses receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved, also on a mountain, & the way his face shone with the reflected glory of God when he descended. And speaking of Moses, there he is with Elijah chatting to Jesus.
Of course, Elijah himself as no stranger to meeting with God on a mountain – his experience of the “still small voice” on Mount Sinai was arguably less dramatic, but no less profound.
So with all this going on is it any wonder the three disciples don’t know what to do! Then Peter, dear Peter, tries his best to grasp the situation & offers to make shelters for the three Holy men – maybe to keep their glory safely in one place, maybe because the only way he could deal with such an amazing, intense experience of God was to safely box it up separately from the rest of his life, to try to do something practical with it.
Then the voice from the cloud – the revelation to those there of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah who has come in Glory and Power; not in battle dress to crush the Romans but, as Jesus will allude to shortly after they come down from the mountain, as the suffering servant who will give His life as a ransom for many.
This is what I mean by the hinge – this is the second of three instances where Jesus is declared “Son of God” in Mark.
The first is by the Father to Jesus Himself when He is baptized, as He begins His earthly ministry and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The third is at His crucifixion – itself almost a reverse transfiguration as Jesus hangs abandoned, beaten, bloodied and dying right at the end of the Gospel, leading a Roman soldier to cry out “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
So here God almost parallels and affirms Peter’s confession from the previous chapter, while also showing the reality of that which Peter tried to deny – Jesus upcoming passion. When read as a whole with verses 9-13, this middle section of Mark shows glory and suffering, lowliness and majesty.
Obviously things can never be the same again for these three disciples. They have witnessed something that will only make true sense after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but even before that such an encounter changes a person – just like our encounters with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit should change, have changed, us.
Some of us will be able to put our fingers on moments when we have had such encounters with God – some of us may find that more difficult.
So I guess the question is… where on the mountain do you feel you are today? It’s possible some of us are still summoning up the courage to take a few steps higher, knowing that folk say there are great things to be seen and experienced but hesitant of what it might mean, how it might change things. Some of us carry the experience of seeing the blinding light of the transfigured Lord at some point, or at least have the conviction to keep seeking it. It’s possible though, that this in itself complicates things – because like Peter we’re not sure what to do with what we’ve found, and are not convinced anyone would even believe us if we told them! So in our confusion we find ourselves looking to build shelters, trying to find a way to package up, to keep inside this revelation as our special thing, in our special place.
Because it can be a difficult thing, sustaining the reality of God’s love for us in our lives.
Despite all we’ve seen over the years, all we have experienced, we still forget, or lose focus, especially in a world so damaged by fear, greed and oppression. But take heart. As I said earlier, just before the transfiguration Peter had made his profession of Jesus as Christ – rapidly followed by the “get behind me Satan” incident. Not long after today’s Gospel passage the disciples, including James and John, argue over who the greatest. Mark is not afraid to show those closest to Jesus were constantly messing up – yet He corrects them, helps them move on – and moves on with them. As he does with us. We can’t earn our salvation any more than we can put Jesus in a booth, shelter or box, however church-shaped and beautiful it may be.
So I hope I can encourage all of us here to make the full journey up the mountain with me this morning. Let us step out truly believing that, as we celebrate the Eucharist in a few minutes time Christ will come and meet with us again.
That we can glimpse the light of His glory if only fleetingly, then go out into the world with our faces shining as a light to all we meet. That the experience we have this Sunday, and every day we take the time to consciously come into God’s presence, will reawaken our knowledge of who Jesus is and the amazing gift He has given us – the gift of eternal life, of forgiveness from sins and a relationship with He who created us. That through the gift of His Spirit we are renewed and refreshed to further His kingdom on earth, made fully alive by His presence with us.
This all sounds very grand – well, the view from the top of a mountain usually is. But just as Scout & Jem could never look at Atticus the same way again, once we allow Jesus to reveal Himself to us our lives take on a new meaning. So today I want to encourage all of us to keep climbing up the mountain, keep coming close to Jesus & marvelling at his glory, looking for transformation, healing, refreshment & renewal – but then to remember the world around us is crying out for the same light. Let’s have the courage to take all we’ve found out with us, because as Paul so excellently put it,
“the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”