In this sermon preached at the beginning of Lent, the Revd Howard Bigg looks at what lies beyond the glory of Jesus’ transfiguration.
Preacher: Revd Howard Bigg
Date: March 4th 2018 (Third Sunday of Lent) – originally preached at Eversden on 11th February 2018, the Sunday before Lent
Readings: Mark 9:2-9
Today’s gospel is, perhaps surprisingly the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. We are used to celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration on 6th August, so why do we also place it here as we are about to enter the season of Lent? Perhaps the clue to this lies in noticing where the story comes in Mark’s gospel. Note first of all that as the cloud envelops the three disciples, the voice from heaven recalls what was heard at Jesus’ baptism: THIS IS MY SON THE BELOVED, followed this time by the injunction: LISTEN TO HIM. The voice from heaven now perhaps seems a distant memory, a memory dimmed by controversies and difficult teachings. The reason why Mark’s account of the Transfiguration comes where it does is I suggest, because the second half of his gospel is taken up to a large degree with the run-up to the great events Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection. And so, this moment of glory allows Mark’s audience to recall Jesus’ baptism and anticipate his final triumph oh Easter Day.
Glory aptly describes this scene, in which numerous features work together to dramatise the identification of Jesus with God’s own glory. Location itself gives the clue that some special revelation is about to take place. A ‘high mountain’ recalls Moses and the giving of the Law at Sinai. The dazzling brightness of Jesus’ clothing signals the presence of God. Whiteness here connotes a light not accessible to human beings. And then the appearance of Moses and Elijah not only exceeds the limits of what is usually thought possible, but also connects Jesus with two of Israel’s major prophetic figures. And finally, the overshadowing cloud recalls the divine presence in the cloud of exodus and at Sinai. Anyone with even the faintest knowledge of Israel’s history would recognise the divine glory being ascribed here to Jesus of Nazareth.
There are two features of this remarkable story which I would like to draw out this morning. First, the climax of the story doesn’t come where you might think it does. The climax, and it’s a paradoxical one comes, is when the three disciples turn round and see nobody but Jesus. Gone is the dazzling brightness of Jesus’ clothing. Gone is the heavenly voice. Gone are Moses and Elijah. Instead, all they see is Jesus as they’d always known him, standing alone. The Message puts it vividly: the next minute, the disciples were looking around, rubbing their eyes, seeing nothing but Jesus, only Jesus. Jesus alone. That is a significant phrase. From this point on in the narrative, Jesus is portrayed as being more and more visibly alone. The disciples run away from him, Peter denies knowing him, the High Priestly council condemns him, the Roman governor and the soldiers reject and abuse him, and he ends up on the cross crying out that God has abandoned him. The last recorded words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are, ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’ Mark is making the point more clearly and starkly than the other gospels that at this moment, Jesus is entirely alone. No intervention from heaven now, just the silence of abandonment. It is important that we don’t shy away from this strangely chilling text, because Mark is telling us something which we need to hear. It is perfectly true that the other gospels offer different insights into the crucifixion. Luke for example tells us that Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his tormentors, but we mustn’t allow that to blunt the impact of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus experience of abandonment as he underwent that most cruel form of execution. What this narrative does is to help us to see events from the perspective of the victim. It speaks to the situations of totalitarian violence and tyranny in our own times; situations where the victim knows that everything is stacked against them and that they have no hope of getting out of this nightmare alive. Mark wants us to see here only the isolation and the sense of arbitrary power closing in.
But this, of course is not the whole story, because it is in the middle of all this that Jesus makes his one utterly ambiguous claim. When, at his trial, the High Priest asks, ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’, Jesus replies. ‘I am’. It is only when, in the middle of this meaningless nightmare, stripped of all hope, that Jesus declares who he is, evoking the Divine Name itself, the I Am that God utters to Moses in Exodus. This is surely the ‘gospel’ moment that Mark wants us to hear. This is the moment when against all the odds, a new world is brought into being, a world in which God cannot be dethroned by any degree of pain, disaster or failure. The amazing paradox of the gospel is that God’s presence is most real precisely in situations of apparent hopeless suffering, at the lowest point of human experience.
My second point arises directly out of the first. We seem to have travelled a long way from the Transfiguration. But as we’ve seen, that scene points forward to the teaching Jesus gives of the path of suffering which he must tread and the aloneness which he will experience. This answers directly to the heavenly voice: ‘This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM! In the context we’ve been exploring, I think what Mark is saying here is that we are to listen to Jesus as he speaks about his approaching death; not the gentle death that might come to a good and righteous man, but the violent death usually meted out to criminals. This is why the cross is the symbol which marks Christian faith not as a religion which revels in death, but because it symbolises the ultimate triumph of life over death. Jesus is telling us that his death is the price that is paid to free us once and for all from the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours. As Paul memorably put it: God’s power is made perfect in weakness.