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Sunday Worship 11 September | Jesus is changed on the mountaintop

Updated: Mar 3

Jesus Is Changed On the Mountaintop (taken from the Children of God Storybook Bible)
Jesus said to his closest friends, Peter, James and John, ‘Come with me to the mountaintop to pray.’ They climbed for hours until their legs ached. At last they were at the top. Jesus’ face began shining with a light as bright as the sun, and his clothes seemed to glow. Moses and Elijah, two great leaders who had died long ago, appeared next to Jesus and began to talk with him.
Peter and his friends were stunned. ‘Lord,’ Peter gasped, ‘we are blessed to be here. Let me build houses and we can stay in this wonderful place forever.’ But even as he was speaking, a bright cloud came down and covered them all. A voice spoke from the cloud. ‘This is my Son who fills me with joy. I love him. Listen to what he says.’
Peter, James and John covered their heads and threw themselves onto the ground in fear. Jesus touched them gently on the shoulder. The cloud had gone, and Jesus was alone with them. ‘We cannot stay on the mountaintop,’ Jesus said. We must return to the valley where God’s children need us.’

 


I wonder what it was like to see Jesus transfigured. 

I wonder what the disciples were thinking as they walked back down the mountaintop.

I wonder how it would feel to hear God say of you ‘this is my child who fills me with joy’.

I wonder what you need to listen to Jesus saying today.



The Feast of the Transfiguration has long been celebrated in a number of both Western and Orthodox Christian traditions, and the story of the transfiguration always appears in the lectionary on the Sunday before Lent, so that some churches hear the story twice a year. And yet while I have been vaguely familiar with it since childhood, I'm not sure I ever remember hearing it preached, and I have certainly never preached it. It seems a strange oversight, and I have tried to puzzle out why or how it has happened. I haven't got to an answer, but I draw attention to it because there will be other stories like this that we haven't engaged with closely or at all, and that is why we need to keep returning to scripture and its treasures. If last week's story of the last supper was a familiar diamond on which we hoped to shine new light, perhaps this week's story is a pearl we glimpsed on previous dives but have only just taken hold of and brought to the surface to examine properly. That's how it feels for me at least.


The reading we heard presents us with a single scene, and it may appear relatively self contained, but in exploring any passage from scripture, looking at what comes before and after is hugely important. We can be particularly sure of that in this case because it is exactly the same pattern in Matthew and in Mark and in Luke, collectively known as the synoptic gospels because they appear to share a number of sources. They tell many of the same stories, but there are significant differences in how they're used and where they're placed, and so the fact that we find the same sequence of events in all three gospels suggests these stories were understood to be deeply connected. So let's start by reading either side of the story we heard earlier.


Directly before the transfiguration, in Matthew 16:13-28, we read: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

 

And straight after the transfiguration, in Matthew 17:14-23, we read: When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.


So the transfiguration comes between two occasions on which something of Jesus' power and purpose is revealed - in the first instance through Peter's declaration that he is the Messiah, and in the second through the miracle he performs - and he then predicts his own death. Glory and pain are all mixed up together here, as they will be again at the cross and the tomb. It’s a difficult tension to hold, and Peter clearly struggles with it. He rejects the idea that Jesus must die, and then when he sees the transfigured Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, he proposes building houses for them all. If we read the story of the transfiguration in isolation, it might seem that Peter wants to stay, but when we set it in context, we see that perhaps he doesn’t want to leave, which is almost but not quite the same thing. Jesus has just warned the disciples that he will die and they must take up their own crosses, and so perhaps Peter wants to cling to the safety and splendour of that mountaintop experience because he is afraid of what is to come. That’s a perfectly understandable reaction, but Jesus and his disciples couldn’t stay on the mountaintop because God’s children needed them in the valley. (Those words don’t appear in the gospel accounts, but they seem to me to be a good use of prophetic imagination on the part of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote the version we heard this morning.) We will experience mountaintops and valleys too, because life is not a straight path across level ground. If you’ve been on the mountaintop, I pray that you will have the strength to carry the glory you have seen into the pain that waits. And if you have been too long in the valley, I pray that you will soon feel the ground begin to climb beneath your feet.

 

While I was preparing for this week, I read that there are three occasions in the gospels on which Jesus takes Peter and James and John aside. There is the gentle pastoral moment when he restores Jairus' daughter to life and asks her parents to bring her some food, there is the transfiguration on the mountain which we are reflecting on this morning, and there is the agonising prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the moments before he is arrested. It would be interesting to reflect further on what connects these three scenes, and how it felt for the three disciples to be invited into such intimate moments, but for now I want to focus on an observation that the scene in Gethsemane is itself a kind of transfiguration. Jesus is contorted by grief as he faces his own death, and according to Luke's account feels such intense distress that he sweats blood, so that we might call it not simply a transfiguration but a disfiguration. Again we return to that tension between glory and pain, and are reminded that we need to face both, because both are part of the story. It struck me that perhaps it was because the disciples who had seen the transfiguration of Christ could not bear to look upon the disfiguration of Christ that they slept when he asked them to keep watch in the garden, and were mostly absent from the cross and the tomb. Instead it was the women who refused to turn away from Christ's disfigured body that heard his last words and were the first witnesses to the resurrection, which is another kind of transfiguration. Like those women, we must be prepared to look on the disfiguration of the world, to end suffering where it is in our power to do so, or at least to stay with it and bring comfort until it is redeemed.


That has been something of a digression, so let’s return now to the story that is our focus for this morning, and consider why it is Moses and Elijah who are seen with Jesus. There are many figures from scripture that might have shown up for the occasion - perhaps David as his royal ancestor, or Adam as a connection to all of humanity - and yet it is these two that stand beside him. Together they represent the law and the prophets, which Jesus himself said he came to fulfil, and so it may be that their appearance is a visual reminder and affirmation of that. They also have a number of significant things in common with each other - both escaped death threats (Moses as a baby and Elijah after offending Jezebel), both challenged the powers that be (Moses demanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites and Elijah humiliated the prophets of Baal), and both had divine encounters on mountains (Moses received the Ten Commandments and Elijah spoke with God) - and so perhaps we are to understand that Jesus shares but also transforms these experiences. He too will escape death but this time through resurrection, he will challenge not just one ruler or system but everything we know about the world, and he will not just have but will in fact be the divine encounter on the mountain. Jesus does not fulfil the law and prophets simply by obeying or embodying them, but by expanding and illuminating them.


There’s another detail I want to consider, the voice speaking from the cloud. The words "This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" echo the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, except that this time the voice speaks not to Jesus but to those who are with him. The words spoken at Jesus’ baptism (which we will consider in two weeks’ time) are an encouragement for him, but the words spoken at his transfiguration are an instruction for the disciples. I think that at this point they really need to be told to listen, because they have just heard and are going to hear things they don't want to. We also need to recognise that declaring Jesus to be God’s son was not a purely theological statement but a political declaration, as at the time there was a tradition of referring to kings and emperors as sons of God. As is often said of the earliest Christian confessions, to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. The disciples are being prepared for a tough road ahead, one that will bring them into conflict with powerful people. We too are called to listen to Christ and to declare that his is the kingdom and the power and the glory, and we too may be called to walk difficult paths and raise our heads above dangerous parapets.


I think it’s clear that there is an undercurrent of tension in this story, and a challenge for us to be prepared to be where God’s children need us, even when that comes at a cost, but we shouldn’t forget that for a moment Jesus shone as bright as the sun and Peter knew he was blessed to see it. The sun is a brilliant image because it is always there and it is always shining. Night may turn us away from it and clouds may sometimes obscure it, but still it continues to shine, and the same is true of Christ. I can’t explain the metaphysics of what happened to Jesus on that mountain, but I’m not sure that he was changed so much as revealed. The disciples saw the truth of his glory, and that glory remained true in all the pain that followed, and it remains so even in the pain we know and witness. May that bring us hope and comfort, and may we be blessed with more glimpses of the light of Christ.



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