Summary: There is much about God and about Jesus Himself that I do not understand, but perhaps that’s because there’s a lot I’m not expected to understand and don’t need to understan...
Welcome once again to Transfiguration Sunday. We remember the transfiguration every year at about this time, though frankly it snuck up on me this year, otherwise I probably would have flicked this week’s sermon over to one of my esteemed colleagues.
Indeed, up till yesterday I thought we were doing the Epiphany 4 readings, which are the alternative readings for today, which featured the Beatitudes as the Gospel reading - ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit!’ And so I had been spending some time contemplating what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’ in preparation for today’s sermon. I still have no idea, mind you, so it’s probably a good thing that we got hit with the transfiguration instead!
Having said that, from a preacher’s point of view (and I suspect I speak for the other preachers here too), being jumped by the transfiguration is always a bit of an unpleasant surprise, as it’s very hard to know what to do with it!
Normally the Gospels are quite straightforward to preach on. If the passage is one of Jesus’ parables, there’s always abundant ways in which the imagery of the parable interacts with our lives, or if the story if one about Jesus healing sick people, well … we too have sick people who need to be healed, and it’s not hard to see a direct correlation between the Gospel story and life as we experience it. But where do we fit the transfiguration in?
‘Jesus was transfigured before them’, just as we ... what?
There’s no way of finishing this sentence satisfactorily. Seeing Jesus transfigured is not part of our experience. I’m not wanting to deny that we have mystical experiences (at least, I know that some of us have) but they are not really on the same scale as this one, and in truth, the closest you get around here to seeing someone in robes of dazzling white is me in my ecclesiastical frock, and it’s hardly an encouraging comparison!
I don’t understand what happens at the transfiguration. This is not something that has any place in my experience. I don’t know what to do with this…
Of course, the disciples in the story didn’t know what to do with it either.
It’s interesting, as you read through the story as it‘s told in Matthew 17, you’ll find that the predominant moods throughout are either of confusion or fear.
Jesus climbed up a mountain with a handful of his friends, and we don’t know exactly what they had been doing up there when this happened (perhaps eating lunch) but all of a sudden there were bright lights, strange voices, and shadowy figures from the past up there on the mountain with them!
Peter, we’re told, panicked, and started coming out with some gibberish about setting up a few tents to make these mystical spirits from the past somehow more comfortable, but he shuts up completely when he and his friends hear voices coming out of the cloud, and then we’re told that the small group fell down on their faces, as their panic and confusion was replaced with terror!
Jesus takes the initiative in addressing their fear. He tells them, “rise and have no fear.” Indeed, not only does He tell them this but the Gospel writer tells us quite explicitly that he touched them! He came over to them and touched them and said, “Rise and have no fear”. And they rose, and the fear passed, but the confusion, so far as I can see, remained.
One thing that has always been very clear to me about this story is that whatever happened that day on the mountaintop between Jesus and His disciples was something that happened for the sake of the disciples.
I don’t think this is a contentious point. I don’t think I’ve ever come across any Biblical scholar arguing that the transfiguration happened because Jesus, for some reason, had to touch base somehow with Moses and Elijah in order to complete His mission, such that the transfiguration was some matter of divine necessity.
No. Whatever took place on that mountaintop that day took place for the sake of the disciples. It was for their benefit, which is what makes the story all the more perplexing, as it’s not immediately obvious, I don’t think, how this experience was supposed to benefit the disciples.
It is a confusing experience that the disciples do not talk about afterwards. Indeed, they are commanded by Jesus not to talk about it afterwards, and there was no debriefing session coming from Jesus on this occasion either. What were this small group of friends supposed to make of this experience. Was it just supposed to be something of a hit - ie. an adrenaline rush, designed to pick them up a bit?