Sermon: Transfiguration by Taxi!
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Transfiguration by Taxi: 8 March 2009: am: The Revd Jenny Wilkens
- Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
- Romans 4:13-25
- Mark 9:2-9
For me, the transfiguration story is irrevocably linked with Mt Tabor and taxis! For when our group came to ascend Mt Tabor in Galilee, one of the traditional sites of the Transfiguration, we found even our minibus was too large, and we had to bundle ourselves into taxis, snazzily emblazoned on the side with the legend, King of the Road! We then proceeded to ascend the zigzag road up Mt Tabor at death-defying speed, taking the corners with it seemed complete disregard for any taxis coming the other way! I’m not sure if it was our trip up that left us all stunned into silence when we got out at the top, or the magnificent view from the top of Mt Tabor down over the plain of Jezreel below.
Today’s gospel is halfway through Mark’s gospel account, and it’s like we literally reach the pinnacle of his revelation of who Jesus is. This story actually begins back in Mark 8 when Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” They report that people reckon he must be the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another prophet. He pushes them a bit - who do they think he is? And Simon Peter comes up with the big answer: “You are the Messiah, God’s anointed one.”
Jesus accepts his answer but immediately begins a conversation in which it quickly becomes apparent that Peter and Jesus have very different ideas of what being God’s anointed one actually entails. Jesus starts talking about the inevitability of his suffering and death in Jerusalem and when Peter argues against this, Jesus says his thinking is satanic! It is then that Jesus goes on to talk about how anyone who would follow him will need to take up their cross and be prepared to die.
It is straight after relating that strange conversation that we hear of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up the mountain where they witness the Transfiguration. They have this awesome vision of Jesus dressed in dazzling white, revealed in all the glory of divinity. The veil of heaven is pulled right back and Jesus is revealed as the one in whom humanity and divinity, earth and heaven are held together. He is talking with Moses and Elijah, symbolizing that Jesus is in the tradition of both the Old Testament law and the prophets, and is in continuity with them. He has their blessing.
But having just discussed Jesus’ inevitable suffering and death, the disciples now see in Jesus the full glory of God revealed. Glory and suffering, light and death. They just can’t fit it together – and so they’d rather stay with the light, stay with the glory, pitch tents, capture the moment, freeze frame it…but Jesus will not allow them to do so.
Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain and immediately they will find the other disciples trying unsuccessfully to heal a sick boy. The three disciples who had wanted to build huts on the mountain to cling onto their moment of glory are taken back down the mountain, and a broken and tormented world is immediately ‘in their face’.
You can find theologies around these days that are all about victorious living and endless experiences of glory and one magic moment after another, but you won’t find any such theology in the story of the Transfiguration. For there is no way to the glory of transfiguration without accepting the way of the cross – either side of the Transfiguration story, Jesus tells his disciples he must soon suffer and die, but they do not get it, they do not want to get it. In the same way, we can’t hang onto the ecstasy of intimate moments of revelation in the presence of God, perhaps in worship or prayer or through music, without then being sent back into a broken and tormented world to be healers and to be the servant of all.
When we catch glimpses like that of the glory of God, with Peter we feel the unavoidable desire to hold onto those moments and make them last forever. Religions that promise endless and uninterrupted victory and emotional highs are always attractive but they always tell only half the story. Because from up on this high hinge point of the gospel, we have the perspective to see what lies in between this high point and the final high point of the resurrection. From up here we can see that there is no way of getting from the transfiguration to the resurrection without confronting the tough stuff in our world, stuff within us and around us. From up here we can see that there is no way of getting from the transfiguration to the resurrection without answering Jesus’ call to be people of prayer and self-sacrificial dedication to the ministry of binding up the broken-hearted, healing the sick and preaching freedom for the oppressed. From up here we can see that there is no way of getting from the transfiguration to the resurrection without walking the way of the cross, the way of suffering and humiliation and apparent failure. It is the road we walk with Jesus, the road we committed ourselves to in baptism, the road we see pointed out for us again on this mount of transfiguration, and the only road that will lead us to the glories of resurrection.
We enact this story in our worship every week. When we greet each other, and welcome each other, and pass the Peace to each other, we honour each other and it’s like we are saying right up front that if the veil of heaven were pulled back we would see the image of God as clear as day in every person here. We are saying that not only do we see something of Christ revealed in each person, but that if there was a moment of transfiguration and we saw each person as they were created to be in God, we would see them in dazzling white shining with the glory of God. Perhaps as we walk with God through death to resurrection, one day we will see each other that way.
That is our future hope, but meanwhile we come, and each week we ascend the hill of the Lord together to enter the cloud of God’s presence and hear the Word of the Lord spoken to us – this is my Son, listen to him! If our eyes are open to see, we witness the veil of heaven pulled back and ordinary stuff, bread and wine, is revealed to us as being alive with the living presence of God. Jesus is present with us in Word and Sacrament, and in each other.
But we can’t hang on to that moment. We can’t pitch tents here and refuse to leave that glorious transfiguring vision. No sooner have we received that revelation of Jesus in Word, bread and wine than we are sent out again. Thankfully Jesus promises to go with us back down the mountain, but he still sends us back down, strengthened afresh to minister to the brokenness of a hurting world. The way of the cross lies before us. That’s why I’ve put that small picture on the front of the Today sheet: the journey to God and glory goes on through the doorway of the Cross - there is no other way. We who are granted the vision of heaven on the mountain top are sent back to the tough and often thankless task of bridging the gap between what we have seen, the vision of what could be, and what lies in front of us, the reality of our present.
That is part of the task we face now, as we’ve completed the mountain-top experience of last weekend’s Re-view, we’ve stood on the mountain top, admired the view, dreamed dreams – and now comes the hard work of walking those dreams into reality, and that too will involve walking the way of the Cross. But a bit like Abraham and Sarah, we will go out in faith, not knowing the details of the route ahead yet, but trusting we walk with a God who has called us and who is faithful.
Meanwhile we’re in the middle of walking together the way of the Cross, the hard road of Lent. Forty days in the wilderness. Forty days to examine and discipline ourselves, to hear the words of Jesus again: “If anyone wants to come with me, they must take up their cross and follow me.” Forty days to ask ourselves again whether we are willing to pay the price of following Jesus, or whether we are really just looking for a cruisy mountain top type of religion. Forty days to be reminded that to follow Jesus means to go straight back down the mountain into mission in a broken world. Forty days to pray that we might be strong enough to come down the mountain and live as a transfiguration people – working with God to bring that vision we have seen from the mountain to bear on what we walk into in our city during the week. Forty days to walk the only road that has ever led to resurrection life, when suffering and dying will be gone forever, and all will be reconciled to God through the love and grace made known to us in Jesus Christ. Let’s walk down the mountain and along that road together. Amen.