Monday, 16 February 2015


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Transfiguration Sunday, 15 February 2015, 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here

Mark 9:2-10
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; 10.4-7
9As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.  10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
4 On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river (that is, the Tigris),  5 I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist.  6 His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.  7 I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the people who were with me did not see the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves.

Exodus 24.15-18; 34.29-30
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.  17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

1 Kings 19.11-12

[The word of the Lord] said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Today is transfiguration Sunday,
and the tradition behind Mark’s gospel’s story
          of the transfiguration of Jesus,
          goes back a very long way...

Back before Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of the Ancient One,
                   coming with the clouds of heaven
                   to the oppressed Jews of the second century BC;[1]
          Back before Elijah’s mountain-top experience
                   of the presence of the Lord in the still small voice
                   heard through earthquake, wind and fire;[2]
          Back before even Moses’ face shining with the reflected glory
                   of the one he met on mount Sinai.[3]

In fact, the belief that one can encounter the divine spirit
                   in the ‘high and holy’ places
          has probably been part of the human experience of numinous awe
                    since the dawn of human consciousness.

The cosmology of the ancient world pictured typically pictured the spiritual realm
          as being high up in the air, somewhere above the clouds.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the night-goddess Nut,
          stretching her star-spangled body across the darkness of the sky.
In fact, we still speak of the starry sky as ‘the heavens’
          even though I’m not aware of any religious person
          who actually believes we could jump in a space ship
          and travel to the realm where God lives.

But the ancients did have such a perspective,
          and they believed that going up to the high places
          brought a person closer to the divine presence…
The almost universal construction of worship sites on hilltops and mountains
          gives testimony to the power which was believed to reside there.

But the encounters with God experienced by Moses, Elijah and Daniel,
                   and by Peter, James and John
          are something very different:
These are not simply mystical experiences
          evoking a sense of awe and wonder
Rather, they are powerful statements of the holiness and majesty
          of the one enthroned on high.

Moses received the tablets of the covenant
          and came down from the mountain
                   with a commission to challenge idolatry
          and so transform the way in which
                   the people of Israel related to their God.
Elijah received a prophetic commission
          and came down from the mountain to challenge idolatry
                   and transform the way in which
                             the people of Israel worshipped their God.

While Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One on the heavenly throne
          presents a direct challenge
                   to all idolatrous claims to earthly power.

And so, when Peter, James and John
          follow Jesus up onto the mountain
and see him transfigured before them
          in the presence of Moses and Elijah
There is something far more significant going on
          than simply a supernatural experience
                   of the presence of the divine.

Ched Myers has described the transfiguration as
          ‘a salvation history summit conference’
And what he means by this is that in the transfiguration
          we have the coming together
                   of the law, the prophets and the cross
          as Moses, Elijah and Jesus talk together

In the transfiguration, we see God’s plan for the salvation of the world
          moving towards its ultimate and definitive concluding act
          as the old covenant, based upon the Law and the prophets,
                   gives way to the new covenant,
          one which is to be inaugurated
          by the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This is why we celebrate transfiguration Sunday at this point in the year, of course,
          because we are about to enter the period of Lent,
          the season of preparation for the journey to the cross.
It’s not just pancakes on Tuesday and giving up chocolate for a few weeks,
          rather, it’s about setting our faces to the cross,
          it’s about counting the cost of our discipleship,
          and it’s about learning to see the world through the lens of the crucifixion.

In Mark’s gospel, the glory of the transfiguration vision of Jesus
          marks the turning point in the story,
as it becomes clear that the glory of Jesus can only be understood
          through the lens of the cross.

And so the Law the Prophets give way to the cross,
          as the old covenant gives way to the new.

However, at this point, we’re reminded of the presence
          of the three disciples who had accompanied Jesus
                   up onto the mountain:

True-to-form, Peter completely fails to understand what’s happening
          and makes his stunningly stupid offer
                   of building three little huts:
                   one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah…

I mean, really! Has he no idea at all???

He seems to think that the mountain-top experience
                   can be made to last forever;
          as if the transfigured one might be persuaded
                   to take up residence on the mountain
          and make himself available for regular visiting
                   like some Greek oracle or hermit.

And as for James and John, well, they’re really no better
          stuck dumb with fear and incapable of response!

But I wonder, would we actually fare any better…

Would we, like Peter, succumb to the temptation
                   of trying to perpetuate the glorious moment?
          Would we want to put Jesus in a little hut,
                   always available at our convenience?
Or perhaps, like James and John
          we would simply lose any capacity for appropriate response
                   through fear of the unknown?

I suggest that we meet both these responses amongst Christians…
          maybe we even meet them in ourselves…

Some of us seem to continually crave the mountaintop experience,
          the moment of emotional high, of entering the presence of God,
          of meeting Jesus in the high and holy place…
And having met Jesus there once,
          our desire becomes to perpetuate that meeting,
and so we try to create little huts of our own devising,
          as we seek to keep Jesus always available for us -
                   always in the same place
                   always encountered in the same way…

Whether it’s the exuberant joy of communal worship,
          or the quiet mysticism of the contemplative moment,
we need to guard against trying to put Jesus
                   into a little hut of our own making,
          as if we can pop up the mountain whenever we desire
                    and repeat the ecstatic moment at our convenience.

But then, some of us go to the other extreme,
                   and mirror James and John,
          so when the unexpected happens,
                   and the Lord himself invites us
                   into the supernatural moment,
          when he chooses to reveal himself to us
                   in his awesomeness and majesty,
we fall inactive through fear, finding ourselves incapable of response.

Both these responses – control and fear –
          sap the significance of the moment of transfiguration;
because they misunderstand the nature
          of Jesus’ revelation to his followers on the mountaintop.

The transfiguration is not about
          making the spiritual high available on-demand,
                   like some prescription narcotic,
                   to be dispensed by a sanctioned and sanctified practitioner.

And neither is it about creating a crippling fear of an almighty God
          who keeps us cowed in terror
          by tactics of divine shock and awe.

Rather, the transfiguration, the experience of Jesus on the mountaintop,
          is about commissioning for ministry…

We have already seen how Moses and Elijah
          came down from their own mountaintop experiences
                   of the divine
          charged with commissions to change the world

Well, the same is true of Peter, James and John.

This becomes clear when the divine voice from heaven
          speaks to them, saying
                   ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;
                   listen to him!’

In a direct echo of the divine words
          spoken at the commissioning of Jesus’ own ministry
          at his Baptism in the wilderness (Mk 1:11),
the divine voice now speaks on the mountaintop
          and commissions the three disciples
          for a life lived in obedience to the words of Jesus.

In Daniel’s vision, the Ancient One is seen
          to be giving dominion and glory and kingship
                    to the one like a son of man
          who appeared in the clouds of heaven, clothed in white linen.

In Peter, James and John’s experience on the mountaintop
          the Son of Man is once again confirmed
                   as the beloved son of God
and they, as his followers, are charged with listening to his voice.

This mountaintop experience may turn out
          to have been a once-in-a-lifetime moment for them,
but the task of hearing the voice of the Lord
          becomes their everyday commission.

Elijah and Moses duly disappear at this point,
          and the disciples are once again left alone with Jesus.

The experience of transfiguration is over,
          and so they walk back down the mountain
          in the company of their friend.

But this is no return back to the world as it was
          before they went up the mountain…
Now they have a new commission
          – received direct from the voice of God
                   in the presence of Moses and Elijah

No longer are they to follow the words of the Law
          or the words of the prophets.
Rather, they have been charged
          with following the words of Jesus,
          with becoming his disciples.

Their view of the world has been radically transformed
          by their vision of the transfigured one,
and it has been revealed to them
          that Jesus Christ stands at the pinnacle of salvation,
          supreme over the Law, the prophets,
                   and all other claims to human allegiance.

And what is the first thing Jesus says to them
          once the experience is over?
He tells them to tell no-one about what they have seen
          until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

Now, I don’t know about you,
          but if I’d just been through what they’d been through
I’d probably be bursting to tell people!

I’d be wanting to shout it from the rooftops
          that God had spoken,
                   and that Jesus has been revealed as the glorified one,
                   as heir of the Law and the prophets!

But that is not the commission.

The words of Jesus, to which they have been instructed to listen,
          are mysterious and confusing.

They are not a call to proclaim victory;
          they are not a call to eschatological triumphalism.

Rather, they are a call to try and understand the message of the cross;
          and the problem is that the message of the cross
          is not a message that the disciples want to hear.

After such a powerful revelation of the divine power of their Lord,
          it would only be natural for the disciples
          to want to proclaim the victory of Christ;
but they are asked to ponder defeat,
          they are asked to turn their faces to the cross,
          they are asked to go straight from Transfiguration to Lent.

They want to proclaim their Lord transfigured,
          but they are asked to keep silent.
And what they need to recognise,
          what we all need to recognise,
is that true victory is only found through the defeat of the cross.

The message which the disciples will eventually proclaim
          is not a message of triumphant victory,
          it’s not even a message of spiritual ecstasy on the mountaintop.
Rather, it’s the message of the cross,
          the message of the Son of Man meeting his death
          on a small hill outside Jerusalem.

Because it is only through the defeat of the cross
          that the true victory of resurrection from the dead can be achieved.

And there is a profound lesson for us to learn here
          as we ponder the significance of the transfiguration.

The mountaintop experience of spiritual ecstasy
          certainly may form part of our calling,
          but it is not the message we are called to proclaim.

Too often the Christian church has reduced the Christian gospel
          to the proclamation of triumphant victory or spiritual ecstasy.

But we do not call people to follow Christ
          so that they too can ascend the mountain
          and experience the vision of the transfigured Christ.
That invitation is the preserve of the mystery religions
          who promise ecstatic experiences on demand
          in exchange for certain ritual practices.

And we do not call people to follow Christ
          so that they can claim for themselves some triumphant conquest
          of the principalities, powers and territories of this world.

No, the message we are called to proclaim
          is the message of apparent defeat – it is the message of the cross.

We are commissioned to be those who follow the words of Jesus,
          and these are words that lead us to the cross, to death,
          and through death, to resurrection.

We are commissioned to follow the words of the one
          who encourages us to take up our own cross,
                    to live lives of sacrifice,
          to tread the path of suffering and defeat.

And yet, all too often, we resist this path;
          desiring to return to the mountaintop again and again,
          because what we really want is another fix
                   of the victorious vision of the transfigured Christ.

Turn with me if you will, to the book of Revelation,

Revelation 7.9-17   
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."  13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"  14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Those who are clothed in shining white clothes
          are those who have come out of the great ordeal
they are those whose robes have been washed bright white
          by the blood of the slain-yet-living Lamb.

If we want our own experience of transfiguration,
          if we desire to be washed clean
                   of all that mars the image of God in us,
          if we long to be those who stand blameless
                   before the throne of God,
then the path we must tread is the path of the cross,
          it is the path of sacrifice.

The commissioning of the transfiguration
          is to a life of subversive Christian living,
focused not on victory but on the defeat of the cross
          because ultimately, it is only through the cross and resurrection
          that eternal victory is to be found.

[1] Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; 10.4-7
[2] 1 Kings 19.9-12
[3] Exodus 24.15-18; 34.29-30

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