Mark 9 : 2 - 13
This is a very special, very spiritual, very mysterious event in the life of Jesus and of Peter, James and John. It is celebrated in the Christian Calendar on 6th August each year - not that we Proddies bother with such niceties. The Transfiguration came after Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus’ stern rebuke to him for thinking he knew what that meant. Peter and the others were trying to understand why Jesus said that he would soon die in Jerusalem. They didn’t like that. They didn’t want it. It made them doubt the authenticity of Jesus. He was taking a path that the Messiah could and should not take in their minds at least. Peter, James and John frequently formed his inner circle. How did the others feel? Maybe a bit left out, a bit second class. Sometimes we Christians feel the same kind of thing. We see others with greater blessings than we have received. God, it seems to us, does not bestow his favours equally and we may even be tempted to think, not fairly either.
But think of the words from the hymn Come down O love divine:
'Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing'.
Only really self conscious Christians think like that. It is not the language of popular culture today which all about self affirmation. It is not even the language of the Church. We have the capacity for inner spiritual jealousy and resentment, bitterness, anger and frustration. As Christians, we have the opportunity to rise above these aspects of our human nature, and embrace humility and grace and accept the portion of the Lord’s goodness that we have been given. Maybe the other disciples had to learn this lesson. From what we know of them they would not have learned easily or quickly.
The actual place of this special event is not given. It may however have been Mount Hermon which is 9,200 feet high - more than twice the height of our Ben Nevis. It straddles the Lebanon - Syria border. It is actually a cluster of mountains with three distinct summits, each about the same height. The mountain forms one of the greatest geographic resources of the area. Because of its height it captures a great deal of rain in a very dry area of the world. Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered mountain's western and southern bases seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River. Additionally, the run off facilitates fertile plant life below the snow line, where vineyards and pine, oak, and poplar trees are abundant. The springs and the mountain itself, are much contested by the nations of the area for the use of the water. Mount Hermon is also called the 'snowy mountain', the 'gray-haired mountain', and the 'mountain of snow'. It is also called "the eyes of the nation" in Israel because its elevation makes it today Israel's primary strategic early warning system.
The text says that Jesus was ‘transfigured’. The word means ‘transformed into something more beautiful and elevated’. It means more than our local Scots description, ‘scrubs up well’. But let us start with that idea. Take a bride on her wedding day. You don’t need to bother with the groom because he doesn’t look that much different anyway - even though he doesn’t wear the kilt that often. If you see the bride-to-be at the wedding rehearsal, she may be dressed in jeans and a top, her hair may be a bit untidy and she may not have any make-up on. But when she comes down the aisle, she is transformed indeed - for that one day at least.
Let’s become more spiritual. When you leave church each Sunday, though you may not know it, you carry a radiance in your facial expression. I see it. You might have been scunnered when you arrived, fair furfochen, absolutely puggled, mortally thingummied. But - you have been with the Lord and your face shows it. You have been transformed. Not many have ever come to our Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Bible study. But - without fail - at the end of these meetings, we feel transformed by the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. Holy and saintly Christian people have an expression of grace and purity on their faces especially during prayer and worship. You may or may not like The Pope, but, close up, you can recognise the signs of a prayerful life. And some of you will have known godly Christian ministers in your time. So - in these ways, as part of the Christian dispensation, we share a little of Jesus’ own transfiguration. It is something that we can understand.
The Transfiguration of Jesus was a deeply spiritual experience but it was not a spiritualistic experience. Let us be clear about that. This was not a séance. There were no ouija boards or moving tumblers. Jesus did not conjure up Moses and Elijah. But what actually happened? It is something we can only partially understand. You could put it this way for context. The Transfiguration was half time between the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It was a pivotal moment which indicated that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus’ inner divine life came to the fore and the normal hiddenness of God in his human body was exposed as the divine life expanded around the physical features of Jesus. Everyone who has known the close presence of God knows it as light and warmth and blessing. So Jesus was surrounded by light and blessing. There was a merging of earth and heaven. The dimensions of the material and the spiritual came together. Just as at Jesus’ birth, divine and human came together in incarnation, so here, divine and human were displayed for what they truly were in Jesus.
What was its purpose? Firstly, this was a wonderful reassurance for Jesus who had decided to accept His father’s will and go to Jerusalem, knowing that there he would lose his life. Thus the appearance of Moses and Elijah encouraged and strengthened him. It took away something he always felt. Loneliness. Jesus had company, of course, and Peter, James and John were close friends. John, in particular, was on Jesus’ wave length more than the others. The disciple Jesus’ loved. It is John who shared with us aspects of Jesus self-understanding in his Gospel. But no-one was the same as Jesus and we know that he often prayed alone and got wearied with the misunderstandings of his disciples. Jesus had no peers - no equals - on earth. But here he was given affirmation and acknowledgement in the presence of the two greatest figures of Judaism, Moses and Elijah. Moses, the great law-giver and founder of Israel as a coherent nation. Elijah - the man who lived closest to God and who showed it in God’s power in his life and ministry most significantly.
They are alive. They are not dead nor are they figures of Jewish history. And that is very important. It confirms the personal resurrection of those called by God. Jesus therefore, in going to Jerusalem, is not going to his final death but onward into eternal life. And that helps us to understand why it was possible for him to suffer and die as he did.
It was given to Peter, James and John to witness this happening and it is their record that we have to read today. The text says all three were very frightened. There is a stamp of authenticity about this record because Peter comes over as confused and embarrassed and completely out of his depth. He blabbers about making three shrines, one for each of them. This was his way of deflecting the real importance of what was happening. That’s something people in the Church of Scotland do a lot of. Deflecting the importance of an encounter with God by talking about something completely different. That’s why people talk in church, and sook sweeties during the sermon. Anything - to help them cope with the fact that they are in God’s presence. Peter, James and John were thunderstruck and you and I would have been the same. We are human. The poet TS Eliot said:
'Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable….Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present'.
The appearance of the cloud was important also. That was the sign of God’s presence. A cloud went ahead of the Israelites as they left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. Jews expected that their Messiah would appear in and through a cloud. If you lived under the pitiless middle eastern sun, a cloud was also welcome, a relief and a shelter and a mercy. Jesus himself ascended from this earth in a cloud and he promised he
would return in a cloud.
This was also for the help and understanding of Peter, James and John. It was given to them to see and to realise that Jesus was indeed God’s Son and that what he said had to happen to him, had to happen even if they did not like it or want it. 'This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him'. These words echo God’s affirmation to Jesus himself at his baptism. 'You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased'.
This extraordinary experience ended very suddenly, leaving the disciples feeling bereft, confused and a bit empty as well as being overawed. As they made their way down the mountainside Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about what they had seen until after his death and resurrection. That meant the other disciples as well. But, once again, the text delivers authenticity. As Peter, James and John wound their way down the mountain they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ meant. They also asked Jesus about Elijah’s role as the prophet and forerunner of the Messiah and Jesus told them that John the Baptist had fulfilled that role.
What do we make of this and take out of this today? Needless to say, atheists and agnostics simply mock this as nonsense. And they deride us for giving it credibility. For sure, it does not fit easily into our contemporary world-view. Things like this don’t happen very often today. But that is only because we do not live close to God. And many of us do not want to live close to God. But - as the Bible says throughout its many pages, if you do want to seek God, you will find God. If you want to live close to God, he will be there for you. The closer you walk with God, the more things like the transfiguration will make sense. It is not God who is out of step with the world. It is the world that is out of step with God.
But take to heart the central message of the transfiguration which is that Jesus was and is the Son of God; he was and is divine; he was and is alive; he brought salvation and eternal life to you.