Last Sunday before Lent – The Transfiguration

15 February 2015

10.00 Holy Communion Hadlow

Readings 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9


May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

After last Sunday’s preaching extravaganza this week is going to be a little gentler, which is a good thing for all of us.

At the beginning of last week I took part in a small group that was studying the Book of Revelation and whilst this week’s readings are not from Revelation there are a couple of interesting lessons to be drawn which may help us a little in our thinking this morning.

Firstly one of the conclusions we drew at the end of our study of Revelation is that most of the books of the bible tell us the story of God’s relationship with the world from the human perspective, however the book of Revelation tells the story from the perspective of heaven, and in both of our readings today we see something of the heavenly realm breaking into the earthly.

In our first reading this morning we heard the quite touching story of the Prophet Elijah bidding farewell to his protégé Elisha before being called back to heaven. Elijah knew that the day had come for him to return to the Lord, but Elisha refused to leave his master’s side:

“As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

And as the two of them continued walking the company of prophets spoke to Elisha and said, ‘don’t you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ and Elijah responded, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent”

I am sure that most of us can identify with what it is like to know something to be true, and yet be unable to speak of it, or hear others speak of it, because it somehow makes it more true.

And so Elijah and Elisha keep walking on, Elisha refusing to leave Elijah’s side and refusing to speak of what is to come. Until eventually the subject could be avoided no longer and Elijah asks can he do for Elisha before being taken from him, and Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Those of you familiar with the stories of Elijah and how he defeated the priests of Baal by calling down fire from heaven will know what a formidable spirit he possessed, so for Elisha to ask for a double portion of that spirit was, indeed, a big request. Elijah responded by saying that if you see me being taken from you that request will be granted. And then the heavenly realm broke into the earthly as a chariot of fire and horses of fire descended and took Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind.

And so the great prophet Elijah was believed never to have died but to have ascended directly to heaven and Old Testament prophecy asserted that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord – in Malachi 4:5 it says:

“I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

And in today’s Gospel reading we not only encounter Elijah again and we also see the heavenly realm breaking into the earthly in numerous and numinous ways:

So, Jesus went up on a high mountain to pray.  As we know Jesus often took himself away to remote places to spend time in prayer and although Jesus often went off to pray alone on this occasion he took with him three of his closest disciples: Peter, John and James.

While Jesus was praying his appearance changed and his clothes became dazzling white.   And here I am again reminded of our study of the Book of Revelation. When the writer of Revelation, has a vision of Christ we are told that his face was like the sun, shining with full force. Interestingly the writer of Revelation is traditionally believed to be the same John who witnessed the transfiguration, and so the transfigured Jesus we see on the mountain is a visual forerunner of the eternal Christ of Revelation.

And as you may remember when Moses encountered God on a mountain to receive the 10 commandments his face shone so much that he had to wear a veil so as not to scare his people and in the accounts of the angels following the resurrection of Jesus we are told that they shone, so just in these few words our minds are cast both back to Moses and forward to the resurrection and even onwards into eternity.

And then Moses and Elijah themselves appeared, also shining in glory and they spoke to him.  Other Gospel accounts tell us that they discussed with Jesus what he was soon to do in Jerusalem.

And so Jesus conversed with Moses who is the embodiment of Jewish law and Elijah who is the towering figure in Jewish prophecy.  In many ways this image is the ultimate visual aid both for the way in which Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets,  but also for the special way in which Jesus supersedes that older authority as he voice of God pronounces upon Jesus alone: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” These words are also an echo of those spoken to Jesus at his baptism.

So the transfiguration shows us both an important continuity from the patriarchs and prophets, this is the same God at work fulfilling that which has gone before, but also clearly shows a vital discontinuity – in Jesus God is doing something new – Jesus is not a patriarch or a prophet but is God’s own Son and it is to him we should be listening.

So the transfiguration points us back to Israel’s roots and forward to Jesus’ resurrection and gives us a flavour of his eternal divine nature, it reminds us of his baptism and it tells us that Jesus is both connected with the Jewish tradition and yet is something entirely new.

But, what I also love about the accounts of the transfiguration is that in the midst of all this wonderfully powerful symbolism and in the midst, quite literally, of all the glowing radiance of God’s presence we still have the very human disciples.  We don’t know what James and John thought but good old Peter when faced not only with a transformed Jesus but also with two of the biggest figures from Israel’s history starts babbling away about putting up shelters for them.  As if we can hang onto the divine by putting it into a shelter. It is those kind of details which keep the gospels very real for me which gives this story the ring of reportage rather than clever construction.  And Peter’s inappropriate babbling should also make us wonder what we might do or say in similar circumstances – would we offer the transfigured Jesus a cup of tea or perhaps ask Moses if he is going anywhere nice for his holidays?

Are we prepared to drop our defences and really meet God at the level we need to be met?

On Ash Wednesday we will be starting the Lenten pilgrimage to Easter.  The point of all pilgrimages is not just to arrive at the destination, but also to change us.  This lent don’t just give up an indulgence that you quite enjoy why not make a conscious effort to draw closer to God day by day.  Why not seek transfiguration, a change that both reminds us of our own baptism and that points us forward to our own resurrection.  We each of us were made in the image and likeness of God and the point of this pilgrimage, not just through Lent but through life, is to recapture the image and likeness in which we were made and to be transformed or transfigured into that image from one degree of glory into another.  We are not called to remain in a static relationship with God but we are called, each of us individually and as a church, to seek the transfiguration that comes from proximity with God.


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