The Sunday next before Lent
2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2
For our Gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Lent, we read St Luke’s account of the Calming of the Storm. After relating this event, St Luke describes both Jesus’ healing of the man with demons in the country of the Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39) and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56).
In a significant development, St Luke also describes how Jesus sends out the 12 men he has chosen as apostles to proclaim the Kingdom of God, giving them power and authority over demons and diseases (Luke 9:1-6). News of all this reaches King Herod who, having had John the Baptist killed, doesn’t know what to make of what he hears (Luke 9:7-9).
When the apostles return from their mission, Jesus takes them away privately to Bethsaida. The crowds, however, find out and follow them. Jesus welcomes them and then, as the day draws to a close, performs one of his most famous miracles, feeding 5,000 ‘men’ with five loaves and two fish (Luke 9:10-17).
In an important passage (Luke 9:18-27), St Luke then relates how Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say that he is. There are various ideas circulating about his identity. When Jesus asks who the disciples themselves say that he is, Peter replies that he is the ‘Messiah of God’ (Luke 9:20). Jesus commands them not to tell anyone and warns them of the suffering that lies ahead for him. He uses the prospect of his own suffering and death to teach them what it means to be his disciple. Anyone wanting to be his disciple must also both be willing to deny themselves and also be prepared to suffer. A disciple’s focus is not to be on themselves and this life, but on Jesus and the life to come. One day Jesus will come in glory and, Jesus says, anyone who is ashamed of him now, he will be ashamed of when comes.
Jesus closes this passage by telling them that some who are there with him will not die ‘before they see the Kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:27). This is a saying that has caused much discussion and argument. What did Jesus mean and when would they see the Kingdom of God? Did Jesus, for example, expect the Kingdom of God to come in his lifetime and did he simply get it wrong?
This brings us to this week’s Gospel reading about what is known as the Transfiguration and what happens immediately after it. The fact that the Transfiguration immediately follows this saying of Jesus about some not dying before seeing the Kingdom of God suggests that for St Luke (and indeed for the other Gospel writers as well) this saying is, in some way, fulfilled in the Transfiguration itself. The Kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself. The transfiguration anticipates the future coming of Jesus in glory. The coming of the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus are ultimately one and the same event.
St Luke links all these sayings of Jesus and the Transfiguration by writing that it was ‘about eight days’ later that Jesus took with him three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and went up a mountain to pray. We have no idea which mountain it was, but that hasn’t stopped people speculating! Mount Tabor is the traditional site, but we simply do not know.
While Jesus is praying, his appearance changes. Moses and Elijah appear ‘in glory’ to talk with him about his ‘departure’, which Jesus is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The events that lie ahead of Jesus are known to him. The disciples are near sleep, as they will be in the Garden of Gethsemane when the time of Jesus’ departure has arrived. The impression St Luke gives us is that the disciples are overwhelmed by what is happening. But, despite this, they see Jesus’ glory and the two men who are with him.
Peter who doesn’t know what to make of all this but, sensing that something very special is taking place, suggests making three ‘dwellings’, one for each figure, Jesus included. As Peter is still speaking, a cloud overshadows them. As they enter the cloud, they are terrified, and from the cloud there comes a voice that says the well-known words:
‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Luke 9:35)
When the Voice has finished speaking, they see that Jesus is now alone.
We are not told how Peter knew the two figures were Moses and Elijah. However, that Peter thinks that Jesus is their equal and wants to build Jesus a dwelling alongside Moses and Elijah shows the esteem in which he holds Jesus. Moses and Elijah are the two towering figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, and both are recorded as having met with God on a mountain. Some commentators say we should see Moses as representing the Law and Elijah, the prophets. It isn’t clear, however, that this is St Luke’s own understanding of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. There is, though, no doubting the importance of their meeting with Jesus.
But Jesus isn’t simply a continuation of the great figures through whom God has spoken in the past; this is something entirely new. The Voice tells them they are to listen only to Jesus and to see only him. One of the best commentaries on this, albeit not written for that purpose, is the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Hebrews 1:1-3)
After this mountain top experience, the disciples have to come back down to earth. The day after, when they have descended the mountain, Jesus is confronted by a crowd and a problem. A man has a son who is demon possessed. The father tells Jesus that he has begged Jesus’ disciples to cast it out, but they have been unable to do so. Jesus then responds quite severely. Jesus says:
‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ (Luke 9:41)
It is not immediately clear who Jesus is speaking to, but it certainly includes the disciples, who lack the faith needed to deliver and heal the boy.
Jesus may have been transfigured on the mountain. The three disciples who were with him may have seen the glory which will one day be revealed for all to see, but for now they must live by faith as they confront the forces of evil in the world.
I want to think about what this can teach us under three headings: transcendence, transfiguration, and transformation.
The phrase ‘mountain top experience’ is often used to describe an intense spiritual experience. Mountains in the ancient world were considered places where the spiritual world was the closest. The idea that mountains are spiritual places still lingers in our collective consciousness, but we generally recognize that genuine spiritual experiences can occur anywhere.
In the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who appear in our Gospel reading, are both famously associated with mountain top experiences. Such experiences in the Bible are accompanied by an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and of his holiness and greatness.
This awareness of the presence of God is not something that can be manufactured. Our worship, nevertheless, should be open to it and encourage us to be receptive to the possibility. There is, I think, a small but growing dissatisfaction with the shallowness and emptiness of many of our services. This is reflected in the number of people being drawn to the Latin Tridentine Mass and the liturgies of the Orthodox Church that have at their heart the recognition of the otherness of God.
There is certainly a challenge here. In the past (and certainly in Anglicanism in the past), reverence was often confused with formality. When liturgical reform got under way in the 20th century one of the criticisms from those who wanted to keep with the old was that the new liturgies were shallow and irreverent. But what was often meant by this was no more than they didn’t follow the traditional way of doing things. It needs to be said that often the traditional way of doing things was stuffy, rigid, formal, and unwelcoming. They were, I am afraid, more expressive of a certain middle-class ethos than they were of an openness to the Spirit of God.
This has largely changed. Some services are now so informal that it is hard to tell they are services at all. Others have become so focused on the experience of the worshipper that it is hard to see exactly where God fits in except as the supposed provider of emotional highs. In Hong Kong, not so long ago, one church advertised tickets for sale to a ‘worship experience’. Services have become concerts, so why not sell tickets to them?
Some, myself included, find ourselves in a difficult position. I cringe when I hear talk of ‘worship sets’. I find it disturbing that ‘worship leader’ has become another term for someone who leads the singing and whose job it is to make sure everyone has a good time. But the last thing I want is a return to the sort of services that were once all too common in Anglican churches particularly: cold, formal, and yes, boring. I still to this day have unpleasant flashbacks whenever I hear Anglican chant. I freely accept that the role of the contemporary worship leader is no different to the traditional Choir Master, who also is often more concerned about the musical experience of the Choir and congregation than they are of the worship of God. Bands or organs, choruses or anthems, ultimately there is no difference. They are often all about us and not about God.
But worship is not, or at least it should not be, about us having a good time or enjoying the service. What matters in worship is not what I want, feel, or like, but God.
Worship should always have at its focus the person and presence of God, and that means it will not always be enjoyable or comfortable. Indeed, it will often be deeply disturbing and demanding as we, weak and miserable sinners, find ourselves exposed and confronted by the holiness and majesty of God. Worship will also build us up, strengthen us for service, and, at times, even be enjoyable, but it will, at the same time, always be painful and challenging, and it should always be about God.
At the transfiguration, God’s transcendent presence was experienced during prayer and for the three disciples who were present, it was both overwhelming and disorienting. At the end, the only response there could be was silence, something that many modern day worshippers have yet to experience in all the noise that passes as worship.
The disciples had committed to following Jesus because they were convinced that he was, as St Peter puts it, the ‘Christ of God’ (Luke 9:20). What exactly they themselves understood by this, we don’t know, and they probably didn’t either – not fully. It certainly, however, involved the nation of Israel, the defeat of her enemies, and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. There would also be many blessings and benefits for those who were on the Messiah’s side. The Messiah was a Davidic type figure who would lead Israel as God’s people against those who opposed her and oppressed her. It involved more than this, but not less.
The Messiah himself would, by definition, be an amazing person. He would be a God-anointed person, someone whom God was with in a special way, but human, nevertheless. As I said in the sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus, when he was growing up, seemed all too human and not particularly special. That was the problem for the people of his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus was asking them to believe that he, an ordinary local lad, was the One spoken about in the prophets. You can understand why they might have had difficulties with believing this, even if trying to kill him might seem a bit of an over-reaction!
Jesus, by healing people and casting demons out of them, not to mention his miracles such as the Calming of the Storm and the Feeding of the 5,000, seemed to fit the job description for the Messiah. The problem was that Jesus seemed reluctant to apply for the job and unwilling to capitalize on people’s enthusiasm for him. Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone who he was and people, such as Jairus whose daughter he healed, were told to keep quiet about what he had done for them (Luke 8:56). That didn’t seem the way the Messiah should behave. Surely Jesus, if he really was the Messiah, would want everyone to know this was who he was?
Now, to make matters worse, Jesus has started talking about defeat and death. Is this to be put down to an understandable and all too human fear of failure on his part?
The Gospel writers all make clear that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. In fact, so central was this conviction in the early Church to the faith of believers that the title ‘Christ’, which means Messiah in Greek, became part of Jesus’ name. But Jesus was a very different sort of Messiah to what they had been expecting, and it was only after his death and resurrection that his followers were able to work it out and understand it. What is more, the title ‘Christ’ was not sufficient by itself to describe who he was.
Who then was he? This was the question that the disciples had asked themselves after Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:25). Now on the mountain three of his closest disciples are given a brief insight into his true identity as he is transfigured before them and his glory revealed. This is God’s Son, not just in the sense that the Kings of Israel were God’s Son, but in a unique and exclusive way.
The disciples when they see Moses and Elijah assume that Jesus must be a figure like them. Special, but human; another great prophet certainly, and one to be honoured alongside the great prophets in Israel’s history, but not fundamentally different to them. St Peter suggests the equivalent of a ‘chapel’ in honour of each figure, but he doesn’t know what he is saying. This is God’s Son. Moses and Elijah have fulfilled their role and played their part. Honour is indeed due to them and they appear in glory to speak with Jesus about what he has been sent to do. Now, however, it is to God’s Son alone that the disciples must listen.
The challenge to us should be clear. We too want a human Jesus. We are happy for him to be a teacher, a prophet, someone exceptional even, but still human and just one among many. We want to be able to get our truth where we find it whether from Moses or whatever other prophet we find congenial to us. But Jesus isn’t another prophet or teacher, he is God’s chosen Son, and it is to him we must now listen and no-one else. As we see Jesus transfigured and his glory revealed, we need to regain our confidence in him and listen only to him.
All this can seem somewhat theoretical and even irrelevant to us, and, of course, we think everything has to be relevant and relevant to us here and now. In fact, it is intensely relevant to us. St John writes:
‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)
One day we will be like Jesus himself. St Paul goes further and writes in our second reading that even now we are being transformed into the image of Christ. St Paul writes:
‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another …’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)
This section of what is known as St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is really quite remarkable, and draws on imagery taken from the experience of Moses and the people of Israel. When Moses came down from the mountain having been in the presence of God his face glowed. In order to spare the Israelites any anxiety that might come from having to look at him, Moses covered his face with a veil to hide it.
Using this image of a veil, St Paul writes that when people now read the Law, it is as if there is a veil to prevent them from understanding it. It is only when people turn to the Lord that the veil is removed and they are able see, albeit imperfectly, the glory of the Lord in it.
Having applied this image of a veil preventing people from seeing God’s truth in the Law, St Paul extends the image to all unbelievers and not just those such as the Jews who read the books of Moses. St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that he openly states the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2). Why then don’t more people respond? Why do so many seem not to be able understand it? St Paul explains:
‘And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
God himself must shine his light into lives. We need God to reveal the glory of Christ to us. It is as God does so that we not only see Christ’s glory but are transformed by it.
Sometimes when we preach the Gospel, although it is preached faithfully and clearly, it seems as if there is something that is holding people back and preventing them from understanding what is being preached and from coming to faith in Christ. That something is a someone. And the someone is the ‘god of this world’ who has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they are unable to understand what we are saying no matter how hard we try or how clear our proclamation.
No amount of debate, preaching, or argument, no matter how good and well-presented, can of itself get through to people with the truth of the Gospel. God needs to work an act of creation each time. The knowledge of the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ, but we need God to shine his light into the darkness of our hearts for us to be able to see it.
How we hate being told this! We want more than anything to believe we are free to choose, that any decision about whether or not we have faith in Christ is ours alone to make. The truth is that if we are left to ourselves to make the decision, we will never make it, because we are not free to make it. We don’t have free will, God must free our will by his Spirit for ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). Otherwise, however, we are bound and blinded by the ‘god of this world’: unable to see, unable to believe, and unable to understand the truth of the Gospel. The boy possessed by a demon in our Gospel reading is a dramatic example of the demonic hold the god of this world has on people.
The Spirit, however, enables us to see the glory of God in Christ, and he works in us the transformation we need to share in the image of Christ and to become like him. This transformation begins when the Spirit frees our will, so we can come to faith in Christ and see his glory. We are, even now in the darkness of this world and in the frailty of our humanity, experiencing the glory of Christ transforming us and changing us from one degree of glory to another, but it won’t be until Christ returns that our transformation will finally be complete. Until then, as St Paul writes:
‘… we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)
We are not, St Paul tells us, to expect life in this world to be easy. St Paul knew what he was talking about. He writes of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Despite all his suffering for Christ, he can describe it as a slight momentary affliction which is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Corinthians 4:17).
What St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians reinforces what I was saying in the sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent. What happens to us here and now is to prepare us for our life hereafter. Our hope lies not in this world, controlled as it is by the god of this world. No, as St Paul writes, we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain was a unique historical event that revealed his glory to his three disciples, but we too have been given to see his glory and to be transformed by it. We face many challenges in this life and often much suffering and pain, but as St Paul says in our reading ‘we don’t lose heart’.
May God grant us to experience his transcendent presence in Christ as Christ is transfigured before us, and experiencing it, may we be transformed by it from one degree of glory to another.