Reverend Jeanette McHugh
Transfiguration Sunday — 15 February 2015
Mark: 9. 2-9
Today our gospel tells us a mysterious story about something that happened when Jesus went up a mountain with three of his disciples – Peter and John and James. It is a significant story because it appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well.
Now no one really knows what happened, but before we dis miss the story as too simple for our sophisticated ears, simply a story for people of long ago who needed magic and miracles to believe in Jesus as saviour, let us go back about a month and a half, and try to remember what we were doing on a Wednesday evening in December. Many, if not most of us, would be still wrapping presents. We have placed a tree in our family rooms, and many of us, myself included in the past, will have written a letter to a man who is going to land on our roof while we are asleep. And we have left out a drink for him, and carrots and celery for his reindeer. And you know what? Most of the carrots and celery have gone by the morning! So let us not be too certain that the first hearers of Mark's gospel were naïve believers in fantastical stories!
Rather, let us look a bit deeper to try to understand why this event has been in our faith story since the very earliest times.
By tradition, the high mountain is Mt Tabor, but this is almost certainly not so as Tabor is in the south of Galilee, and Caesarea Philippi where Jesus and the disciples were, is away to the north. Tabor is no more than 305 metres high, and at the time of Jesus there was a fortress on the top. It is much more likely that this happened on Mount Hermon, which is 2,800 metres high, where the solitude would be much more complete. It is interesting to note that the gospel writers do not say that this event happened on the top of a mountain, rather we read in Mark and Matthew that Jesus led them up a high mountain to be apart, and Luke writes that they went up a mountain to pray.
We are told that the garments of Jesus became radiant. T he word which is used is the word used to describe the glistening gleam of burnished brass or gold, or of polished steel, or the golden glare of the sunlight. What is the significance of Moses and Elijah being on either side of Jesus? Moses was the supreme lawgiver of the nation of Israel. To him the nation owed the laws, which were regarded as the laws of God. Elijah was the first and the greatest of the prophets. So when the story is told of Moses and Elijah being on either side of Jesus, and talking to him, it shows that he was very special, indeed he was their equal. Their presence affirmed Jesus' decision to keep walking towards Jerusalem where he has only just told his disciples that he would 'undergo great suffering', ' he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.'
Mark adds, 'He said all this quite openly.' Then a cloud appears.
In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with 'the cloud.'
It was in the cloud that Moses met God. It was in the cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. It wasn't the cloud that filled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. And it was the dream of the Jew's that when the Messiah came the cloud of God's presence would return to the temple. The descent of the cloud is a way of saying that the Messiah had come, and any Jew would understand it like that.
Add to this the voice of God in the cloud saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!" This is further confirmation that Jesus has chosen the right way to go.
This mountain experience and words of assurance to Jesus, and most importantly to the disciples, confirms that Jesus is really the Messiah, and what he has said is going to happen, must happen.
However, Jesus has just told them that he is going to Jerusalem to die. This seems to be the complete opposite of what they had thought was going to happen. They had left their families, their work, everything, to follow some one who was now choosing to suffer and die. Quite understand ably they were confused, afraid and upset!
But what happened on the mountain would give them something to hold on to, even when they could not understand why Jesus was insisting that it was necessary to continue on to Jerusalem.
This story would give them courage in the days ahead.
And you know what? The main traditions of the Western church do the same for us today as well.
Our lectionary, which the main traditions follow, gives us the choice of observing the festival of the Transfiguration of our Lord either on its 'proper day' of August 6th or on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Why are we given the choice? So that we will have the courage to walk with Jesus and the disciples as they walk together to his awful death. We will remember that God called him his beloved son, as he stood between the greatest lawgiver and the greatest prophet of Israel.
God said we should 'Listen to him.' So let us listen carefully to his words in the coming weeks of Lent.
We will not become discouraged or afraid, because we will remember Jesus' moment of affirmation and glory on the mountain, and we will remember that Good Friday is followed by Easter Day.