Sermon preached at St James’s Cherhill 11 February 2018
Sunday next before Lent: Mark 9.2-9 & 2 Kings 1.2-12
On the last Sunday before Lent, traditionally we hear the story of the Transfiguration, this year in the version from Mark’s Gospel. The Transfiguration is recorded by Luke, Mark and Matthew as well as alluded to in the Second Letter of Peter. Some even argue that the famous words in John’s Gospel The Word became flesh and dwelt among us refer to this very event.
When we look a little bit closer at the story, we see that it is building up to a climax. First of all, there are only three disciples – Peter, James and John – who go up to the mountain with Jesus. This select company already points to the fact that something special is about to happen, and so does their journey up the mountain.
Then, the disciples witness that Jesus is transfigured, his clothes become dazzling white, where the word dazzling used in this particular instance is usually only used for shining metals. If we look at this passage as a whole as leading up to a climax, as I suggested, this transfiguration itself is not it, as there is more to come. Because also Moses and Elijah appear. Two of the most important prophets of the people Israel.
In the reading from the Book of Kings we have a record of Elijah’s last day on earth from our Old Testament reading, so it is worth spending a little time on this. It is an odd story. The prophet Elijah is about to be taken away from the people, as he is travelling from Gilgal to the other side of the river Jordan. Elijah and Elisha are not the only prophets who know what is about to happen, as we hear of other prophets approaching Elisha to tell him to leave Elijah, as he will be taken away.
Up to three times, Elijah encourages Elisha to stop following him, but consistently Elisha replies As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you. That is an example of true faithfulness, a faithfulness that will prove to be transformative. Maybe in the context of today’s readings, the disciples up the mountain with Jesus, Moses and Elijah can be compared to the prophet Elisha. They are faithful followers, willing to go where ever their master is going. Also Elisha is given the spirit as he sees Elijah ascending to heaven. And would I push it by saying that the promise of a ‘double share of his spirit’ have resonances with Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will do greater things than him?
In any case, the appearance of Elijah and Moses on the mountain, puts Jesus’ transfiguration strongly in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, confirming Jesus’ identity in that sense. And so back to the story of the Transfiguration itself, because it is only now that we come to the real climax. A cloud overshadows the three prophets and the three disciples and from the cloud comes a voice ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’. That is the real climax of the story, all the events have led up to this moment when God speaks about his Son.
The words are very similar to spoken at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel at Jesus’ baptism ‘You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’. However, there is a clear distinction: where the words at Jesus’ baptism were address to Jesus ‘You are my beloved’, now they are addressed to the others ‘This is my Son, the beloved’.
When I was thinking about these words spoken to the others, I was wondering if they are not only spoken to the disciples, but also to Moses and Elijah? Is there some merit in the thought that salvation through Jesus is not only available to his followers, but also to the generations of faithful people who lived before? Is faithfulness as much at the heart of this story as is a further revelation of Jesus’ identity?
After the voice has spoken, suddenly everything is back to normal, or at least that is what is seems like. But of course, for the disciples, nothing is back to normal. Having had this overwhelming experience, how can it be? And it is that question that is pertinent for us too, and which I would like to explore a little further, as we see how this rather exotic episode is still relevant for us today.
I think the key lies in the words ‘transformation’ and ‘faithfulness’. I am sure that many of us have had experiences, both good and bad, which we feel have changed us forever. For me personally, moving abroad and being ordained come to mind. What these experiences have in common is that somehow particular moments represent a time of transformation. These moments of change: the day I moved to Berlin or the day I was ordained are part of a transformation that has been ongoing.
Another commonality between these experiences is that we often first notice that something has changed, when we find ourselves back in a familiar place. I remember very well the feeling of returning to Cambridge, where I had trained for ministry for a couple of years, a week after my ordination. I walked the familiar walk from the train station into Town, and I felt as if everything was different. I recognised the streets and the buildings, but they had lost the familiarity which I had felt when the same walk meant returning home. Of course, it was an indication of how much I had changed, not the buildings or the streets.
Every day we change, we are transformed a little bit. We learn, make mistakes, grow and, indeed at some point we start to realise the limitations of our bodies. We may not have too much influence on the events that change us, but I do think that we have a choice in how they change us, and that is where faithfulness comes in.
As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Christ. And, especially during Lent, many of us try to make a renewed commitment to dedicating our lives to precisely that. Through prayer, studying, reading, worship, our day-to-day business and our relationships with others, we try to strengthen our relationship with God. We try to become more aware of His presence, be more thankful for all the good we enjoy, and use our disappointments and mistakes to learn what it means to be human.
This is what we may call a faithful transformation. It is also transformative faithfulness, because it is only through regular prayer, worship and acts of kindness that we will be transformed to become closer to God.
God is faithful to us, his promise is ever sure. We hear it once more in our readings today. The words that he spoke to Jesus ‘You are my son, the beloved’ are also spoken to us ‘You are my child, you are loved, with you I am well-pleased’.
Our faithfulness to God is to keep on trusting this promise and to live in the light of its truth. That faithfulness is and will be transformative. And it is with that trust and hope that we start the season of Lent on Wednesday, once more looking forward to those events that changed the world forever: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of God’s beloved Son.