Thursday, 8 February 2018

Hope and the transfiguration






We’re well into February, had long periods without sun, the snow is frozen and there is still a long way to go before the spring. 

And life for many is hard. Some of you work long hours without much pay, doing jobs that you don't enjoy. And some are stressed at work or home. Relationships are going pear shaped. Or we face sickness: our own or somebody else’s. This week I spoke with three people who need urgent medical treatment and are not able to afford it.

And for some, it is not just hard but brutal. Again this week I visited the MPC centre and have also spoken with other people working with refugees and people who have been trafficked. I’ve heard of a woman thrown out of an upstairs window because she didn’t please the person who had paid for her. I’ve heard of a grown man breaking down in floods of tears because he finds himself here, having been promised that it was a route into Europe, without any papers, any accommodation and any money. And some of you are working with such people, trying to help and support them, and sometimes it gets a bit too much.

And to make life even worse, we are about to enter Lent! Those who are strict Orthodox will go on a rigorous fast. Those of us who are Anglican will probably give up chocolate! In times gone by, the fast was not really an option. It was a necessity. The food that had been preserved for winter had run out.
And in Lent we remember both the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan, and we follow the journey that he took – denying himself in obedience to God – as he walked to the cross. We see humanity at its worst: driven by hatred, greed, jealousy, fear, cowardice, vengeance. And we see the betrayal, denial, the lies, the mockery and the cruelty 

So it is intriguing that, just before Lent begins, we have this reading from Mark 9:2-9: the story of the transfiguration, when the glory of God is seen on and in Jesus.

The transfiguration is a significant event.
It is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
John doesn’t mention it, which is intriguing, but he doesn’t need to. All the way through the gospel he shows us the glory of Jesus.
But Peter mentions it in one of the letters that he writes. He says, “we [were] eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1.16-18)
It is the only event in Jesus life, apart from his death and resurrection, that is mentioned by the New Testament letter writers – so it must be significant

And the transfiguration is very important in Orthodox theology.

The icon of the transfiguration is important. In many of the festival rows it comes not before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but after.
It is a vision of the future, when we will be in heaven transfigured as Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.

It speaks of the transcendence of death: what unites Moses and Elijah is that neither of them is recorded as dying, and they have no tomb. Their bodies disappeared. And yet, here they are, speaking with Jesus about 1000 or so years after they had lived. And they are speaking with the one who will rise from the dead, and whose body blasted out of the tomb.

It speaks of intimacy with Jesus: they are speaking with Jesus. We know what they are talking about because Luke tells us in his account of the transfiguration – Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, and how through his death people will be set free from the captivity of sin and death.

And it hints of future glory, the glory that we will share as we look on the one who is glorious. Transfiguration is what Orthodox theology means when it speaks of theosis, of deification. We will see the eternal Son of God as he is, and we will become like him.

So what we have here, it seems, is a glorious burst of sunlight before the long hard winter. Peter, James and John see Jesus glorified, before they see Jesus led – abused, beaten and battered - to the place of crucifixion.  

Perhaps some of us have had our own transfiguration moments – a time when we have encountered his presence, when we have seen the glory of God.

Now I have no authority for what I am about to say – it is not clearly taught in the bible – but it does seem in my experience that the people who have the most overwhelming and authentic experiences of God, encounters with God are often those people who have to go through some pretty hard stuff in the future.

Think of Paul. He had an overwhelming conversion experience. He sees the risen Jesus – in fact Jesus is so radiant that he is blinded - and he hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him. But when Ananias goes to see him three days later and pray for Paul’s sight to be restored, Jesus speaks to Ananias and tells him that Paul will speak of him to Kings, to Gentiles and to the Jews; and he then adds, ‘And I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’.

I think of Barbara in my previous church. She was kneeling at the communion rail, and suddenly Jesus was standing in front of her. She said, ‘He was there. I could reach out and touch his robe’. She was overwhelmed by his presence.
A couple of months later her daughter committed suicide.

I just wonder whether Jesus, in his mercy, was giving her a transfiguration moment to get her through what she was going to have to go through

Now please, do not worry! That does not mean that if you have had a transfiguration moment you are about to go through hell. But I do know this: that if we do have to go there, then whatever lies before you, he will be there.

Responding to the transfiguration
Mark tells us quite a bit about how Peter, John and James react to the transfiguration: they are terrified.

Most of us become jelly when we stand in the presence of those we consider awesome.
It might be a celebrity, a VIP, or even just a stunningly attractive man or woman, whatever takes you!
Well, when Peter, James and John see a transfigured Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah they become jelly.

The icon of the transfiguration shows them prostrate.
Here James is covering his eyes, John is being very thoughtful and Peter: He opens his mouth and he speaks, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’.

I love it! Mark adds, “He did not know what to say”. And since most theologians think that Mark’s gospel originated with Peter - Peter was effectively telling Mark what to write - you can almost imagine Peter cringing as he thinks back to the incident, ‘Did I really say that?’

I mean, let’s be honest.
Does Jesus, shining in glory, really need a bracken shelter?
Do Moses and Elijah, who have technically been dead for the last 1000 or so years, need to sit in a bivouac?
Of course not.

And it makes no difference that what Peter is suggesting is something religious. The word he uses for ‘shelter’ is the word that is used to describe the sort of simple huts that the people of Israel had to make every year to remember the time when they were wandering in the desert and living in shelters.

So poor Peter. He is terrified. I suspect he feels he has to say something. And he opens his mouth. And perhaps deep down, Peter is thinking: how can I capture this moment?

You see I suspect that a lot of what we do when we are religious is attempt to capture those moments when we have met with God. We want God on tap.
We think that if we do the right thing in the right way then God will turn up tomorrow in the same way that he turned up yesterday.

Please don’t ever think that you can bottle God.
He’s not a genii in a lantern, and the only thing you need to do is rub the lantern, and out he pops.

God will come to you in a special way, but he will come to you in that way when he chooses to come.

Listening to Jesus
But there is one other thing that I think is very important in this passage.

The voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’.
We’ve already heard that at the baptism.
The bit that is completely new are the words, ‘Listen to him!’

That is what this is all about.
We are being told to listen to Jesus, the one who is more important than Moses and Elijah, the one who is the beloved Son of God.

Some of us may have had transfiguration moments, and some of us may have not. It was only James, John and Peter who saw the transfigured Jesus, and Jesus warns them not to tell the other 9 disciples until after the resurrection – because they just won’t get it.

But what is important with Peter, James and John is not that they hear the voice from the cloud, but that they do what the voice from heaven told them to do.
And for that matter, what is important is that we do what the voice from heaven tells us to do. We need to listen to Jesus.

And as we face the difficulties of life, the winter that just seems to get colder and darker and harder, the sheer hard slog of being a disciple of Jesus, the constant battle against temptation, the ongoing struggles we have with our lack of love and spiritual laziness and jealousy and self-centredness and lack of forgiveness and selfishness; as we battle the fear that paralyses, and as some of us face some pretty overwhelming situations .. it is good to remember that all we need to do is to listen to the voice of Jesus.
  
So can I urge you please this Lent – far more important than giving up chocolate or alcohol – to spend time listening to Jesus, listening to his word. Put aside time, if you can each day, to read some of the bible and to ask him to speak to you. Use the back of our notice sheet, or use one of the sets of readings on youversion – I’ll put a link up on our website and facebook page – or read through one of the gospels. And listen to Jesus.

Because it is the voice of Jesus, the eternally beloved Son of God, which will hold us and protect us and guide us and transform us; it is the promise of Jesus that he will always be with us – whether we have had a transfiguration experience or not – and that he will never allow us to go through something that is too much for us to bear, that he will give us his Holy Spirit, that we are forgiven and that he is changing us, that his kingdom will come, that justice will be done, that there will be resurrection, and that we will one day, like Moses and Elijah, see him in glory and be ourselves transfigured into glory. It is the voice of Jesus which gives us hope.

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