February 22, 2009
Sermon for Sunday before Lent. Yr B . ( 2 Kings 2, 1-12. 2 Cor 4, 3-6, Mark 9, 2-9.)
Last summer, I spent one afternoon at a local beauty salon. I have to say that this is not something I do often. But a special birthday last year, and I was given a voucher for the salon as a present.
As I sat there having a manicure, I looked around me at the posters on the wall, advertising products and procedures. These promised to remove wrinkles and lines from face and eyes, restore plumpness to hands, tighten chins, taken away fat, in short, to restore youthfulness to bodies that had lost it through the ravages of time. Later, the beautician who was attending to me tried to persuade me to buy several products, at £30 – £50 a bottle, which she assured me would restore the collagen in my skin, moisturise and cleanse me and keep me from suffering from the aging process which all flesh ( up to now !) has been prone to.
What was on offer at that beauty salon was transfiguration, a change of form, or, at least,the visible aspect of form – from one which showed the signs of age back to the more youthful form which had been lost.
This was not what was on offer at the Transfiguration of Jesus that we heard about in the reading from Mark’s Gospel. There, what happened was a metamorphosis – a complete change of not just the outward aspect, but also the inner essence of Christ, from the human form of his earthly life into the form he would possess after being raised to heaven; the form of glory, which in Jewish understanding was a shining ethereal substance of which all heavenly beings, including angels and God, were made. So this transfiguration was not looking back but forward, to the resurrection, ascension and the second coming of Christ, and to the end of the world, when all the faithful would experience the same transformation themselves.
In Mark’s Gospel in its original form, no resurrection appearances of Christ are recorded. So, the transfiguration story is the only picture Mark’s readers are given of the glory that is to be Jesus’ after his passion and death, and which will be theirs if they follow Christ faithfully.
The Transfiguration story comes in chapter 9 , at a turning point in Mark’s story. The first half of the Gospel has told of Jesus’ baptism, temptation and his ministry in Galilee as teacher and healer, proclaiming in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was near. Then, in chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples:, “ Who do people say I am?” and Peter makes his confession, “You are the Messiah.” Then comes the first of three times in chapters 8, 9 and 10 when Jesus teaches the disciples about the sort of Messiah he is to be, and speaks about his rejection by the people and religious authorities, his suffering and death. When this awful prospect is rejected by the disciples, he goes on to teach that those who follow him must be humble like him, must suffer like him, but will also share in his glory. From chapter 10 onwards, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and begins his journey to death on the cross.
So, the transfiguration comes in the centre of this change of focus from Galilee to Jerusalem, from active ministry to passion. It is obviously a story designed to encourage those who are called to follow that journey of their Master. Did it actually happen? Was it an experience given to Jesus to strengthen him with the Father’s approval for the coming Passion? An experience where his aspect was transformed, as stories tell of the saints being transformed by intense spiritual experience ? Was it a vision given to the three members of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples in order to reinforce Jesus’ teaching about the nature of his Messiahship and to fortify them for the trials ahead? Something like a dream, as Luke’s account implies? Does it mark the inauguration of the Kingdom, the fulfilment of the promise given by Jesus in verse 1 of chapter 9, that some of the disciples will not see death until they have witnessed the Kingdom coming in power? Or is it an account of a resurrection appearance, written back by Mark into Jesus’ earthly ministry, in order to provide a suitable turning point for the story, as some biblical scholars think?
We can’t know.
What we can know, if we read the story carefully, is what Mark is telling us through this incident about Jesus the Christ, and about us as his followers. For that to happen, it doesn’t matter whether this is a true story in the sense of an actual historical incident or not. For the Jews tended to express their theology in the form of narrative, not abstract philosophy. Thus, in the Old Testament, theology was revealed through the stories of the creation, the fall, the patriarchs and the history of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus revealed the deepest truths about God in parables – story form – and all the NT writers saw the reality of the nature of God expressed through the story of Jesus’ life. The picture of Jesus given in the Transfiguration remains true, whether you believe it happened at the particular time and place and manner described by Mark, or not.
The details of the story are important. Through them, the transfiguration is linked backwards and forwards to incidents in Jesus’ life, particularly his baptism and his passion and resurrection; but in addition it is linked backwards in the history of Israel, to Moses and the Exodus and the time of Elijah, and forward to the vision of the resurrection of all believers and the coming of the new Jerusalem we read about in Paul and the Revelation of John.
So, what do the details tell us.
The story begins with a time: six days later. Why ‘six days’. Probably because, in Exodus, 24, Moses and the children of Israel waited six days at the foot of Mount Sinai, while the cloud of God’s presence covered it, before Moses was told by God to go up the mountain to speak to him; and possibly, because at the end of the Gospel, Jesus rises after three days, and then tells the disciples to journey to Galilee, which is when they see will see him, three days later.
The transfiguration takes place on a mountain, the traditional place of a theophany, an appearance of God. We don’t know which mountain it was. Perhaps Mark didn’t know; but since Mount Hermon is only 14 miles north of Caesarea Phillipi, that is the traditional site of the Transfiguration.
Jesus is transfigured. The Greek word is ‘metemorphothe’, from which our word metamorphosis comes. So it is more than a temporary, transient change. St Paul uses the same word in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, when he speaks of Christians reflecting the glory of the Lord, and being transformed by that glory into his likeness. So it is a foretaste not only of the transformation of the risen Christ, but also of the resurrection body of the faithful Christian. The transfiguration extends not only to Christ’s face and body, but also to his clothes, which become dazzling white. It was a belief of the Jews that a person who came face to face with God ( as Moses did on Mount Sinai ) would reflect the glory of God in their face. Jewish tradition also believed that the glory of the heavenly body would extend to a person’s clothing. This is expressed in the Apocryphal book of Enoch, and in Revelation, where the saints are dressed in white. The elaboration “such as no-one on earth could bleach them” is intended to reinforce the point that this was heavenly clothing, not simply transformed or enhanced earthly garments.
Next, Elijah and Moses appear. These two figures represented two of the strands of the Old Testament, the Prophets and the Law. They were the only people who were granted the privilege of speaking to God face to face. Their preeminence was reinforced by the manner of their death. Neither had a known resting place on earth. In the account of Elijah’s death, which we heard read, he is taken straight into heaven in a chariot of fire and the whirlwind of God; and although in Deuteronomy we are told that Moses was buried, the location of his grave is not known, and in later Jewish writing, such as the Assumption of Moses, he also is said to have been taken directly into heaven. So, both these people prefigure Jesus, who speaks to God face to face, who is prophet and lawgiver, and who will be taken up to heaven in glory. What is more, in contemporary Jewish eschatology, the expectation was that Moses and Elijah would appear on earth before the ‘Day of the Lord’ the expected day of salvation. Their presence with Jesus at the transfiguration said that day was near.
Then Peter, who so frequently seems to play the role of the fool in Mark’s Gospel, makes his suggestion that the disciples construct three dwellings, or tents, for the heavenly figures. Why tents? The Greek word, skene, means tents or booths or tabernacles. At the lowest level, the desert tradition of hospitality demanded that you erect a splendid tent for an honoured guest. But in Jewish salvation history, the idea of the tent or tabernacle had richer overtones. Throughout the Exodus, and in the early Hebrew kingdoms, until the Temple was built by Solomon, God’s presence with his people was signified by the ark in the tabernacle. Peter’s response shows an awareness that in the presence of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, God is again present with his people, and he wishes to make appropriate dwelling places for them, as his ancestors did. Moreover, there was an expectation that after the Day of the Lord, God would again live among his people. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles had an eschatological dimension, and as well as looking back to the deliverance of the Exodus, also looked forward to the Day of the Lord and the end of the world. This was taken up in Christian expectation of the Second Coming. Paul spoke of Christians being “tented’ in resurrection bodies: and the passage in Revelation 21 about the new Jerusalem says literally: “God will make his tabernacle among humans and he will pitch his tent among them”. So Peter’s question shows that he interprets the transfiguration as the inauguration of the Day of the Lord.
The way that the story continues however indicates that ( in the evangelist’s eyes ) Peter has got the wrong end of the stick again. The voice of God comes from the cloud to tell the disciples to listen to Jesus, who is called the Beloved Son, one of the titles of the Messiah. That is, listen to what he tells you about the Messiah’s path to glory, that it goes through rejection, passion and the cross. The full arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet. It cannot be brought in or preserved that easily.
But Mark also gently offers an excuse for Peter’s foolishness. He is terrified, which is an appropriate response to the presence of God; it is the reaction of mortals to the shattering events of the resurrection; and you will remember that one of the gifts of the Spirit , according to the confirmation prayer, is the fear of the Lord.
The voice of God comes to the disciples out of a cloud. In the Old Testament, the cloud always signifies the presence of God. The technical term for this cloud of glory is the shekinah. A cloud leads the people of Israel through the desert. Mount Sinai is covered by a cloud into which Moses goes to speak to God; and a cloud covers the Tent of the Presence in the Tabernacle when God is there. Mark uses the same Greek word for the overshadowing of the figures at the Transfiguration as was used in the Greek Old Testament for the overshadowing of the Tabernacle. A cloud takes Elijah into the heavens, the Son of Man appears on a cloud in the Book of Daniel, as do heavenly figures in other apocalyptic works, including the Book of Revelation. Luke’s account of the ascension in Acts says a cloud received Jesus from their sight; the equivalent of saying he was received into the presence of God. But the cloud too was a foretaste of the end of time; for Christian expectation was that Jesus would return to earth on the clouds of heaven, and that the saints would be taken into heaven on clouds.
The words which God speaks from the cloud are a repeat of the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. However, in Mark’s account, they are heard at the baptism only by Jesus himself. Now they are heard by his closest followers. He is given the Messianic title, Beloved or Chosen Son. This echoes the psalms, where the Kings of Israel are adopted as God’s sons, and the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah, where the servant is named as God’s chosen one. In Deuteronomy, also, Moses gives the people God’s promise that a greater prophet than himself will be raised up from among the people, and they must listen to him. So the voice from the cloud confirms Jesus’ teaching that he is the Messiah King, the Messiah prophet and the Suffering Servant Messiah – all the expectations of the Jews contained in one person.
As the voice speaks the two great figures of the Old Testament disappear, and Jesus is left alone. Moses and Elijah, like John the Baptist, belong to the old order, which is passing away. Symbolically, the Old Covenant embodied in the Law and the Prophets is superseded, and only Jesus remains, as the one to whose teaching we are to listen. Only Jesus was with them, Mark says; only Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. And immediately Jesus reminds them that his way to the resumption of his transfigured form lies through suffering and death.
So, what are we to make of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration? If we read it with all its echoes of the Old Testament and all its anticipation of the rest of the New Testament, then it speaks to us of the true nature of Jesus, who reflects the glory of God in this world. It speaks to us of that mysterious intersection of our time ‘chronos’ with God’s time, ‘kairos’, where the Christ partakes eternally of the glorious nature of God himself. It speaks to us of our future hope, that, when the trumpet shall sound, we too will be changed and clothed with that imperishable body in which the disciples saw Jesus.
But it tells us, as it told Peter, James and John, that the glory is not yet ours to rest in. The Kingdom of Heaven is nearby, it is being brought in by Jesus’ life on earth and his death and resurrection; in technical theological terms it speaks of inaugurated eschatology, not realised eschatology. It tells us, as it told Peter, James and John, that we have to come down from the mountain top, carrying with us the vision of future glory, and follow Christ faithfully on the road to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and Golgotha, which is the only Christian way to glory.
That is why the story of the Transfiguration is placed for us to read on the Sunday before Lent – as we prepare ourselves to relive the Passion and death of Jesus, so that we may , in God’s good time, experience with him the transfiguration into our resurrection body. Which will be a lot more permanent and glorious than anything a local beauty salon can provide!