A sermon preached by David Barton on Sunday 14th February 2021: The Sunday next before Lent.
2 Cor 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9.
Today is February 14th and, as we all know, its Valentines Day! Valentine was an Italian bishop in the second century. His loving care of his fellow Christians during a time of persecution, and his own martyrdom, marked him out as a saint. During the early Middle Ages, he was made the saint of courtly love, (not quite the same thing!). Hence the flowers and cards some of us give each other today. But the original, the “true” Valentine, who chose a costly path, actually gives us a clue to understanding today’s Gospel: the Transfiguration.
Mark says “Six days later”, which ties this scene to what happened before. Peter and the disciples have begun to understand that Jesus was the Messiah. For them a Messiah would come with power and a heavenly triumph – and no doubt, as Jesus’ close disciples, there would be a certain amount of glory for them too! So Jesus has to explain: the opposite is true. God does not compromise with earthly power.
God’s power is expressed in weakness, by going the second mile, turning the other cheek and forgiving until seventy times seven. The Messiah will seek out the lost and the broken and the outcast, right through to the darkest place – to death on the cross if necessary. Those are the terms of God’s way of working we must all get our heads around, and they’re not easy. But then, at the end of what must have been a tough discussion, Jesus makes an unexpected promise: Truly I tell you, there are some standing here, who will not taste of death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power.
That is said immediately before the account of the Transfiguration, in all three gospels. We put a break between the two, but the original texts are continuous. Put them together and it is as if this narrative answers that cryptic saying.
So what do they see, Peter and James and John, there on the mountain? After those six days of intense talk they must have known something of Jesus’ inner struggle with what he knew was inevitable. And there is a later, parallel account to this, when these same three disciples are again with Jesus as he struggles with his calling, in Gethsemane. Both are deeply human, understandable events: a lone man wrestling with his destiny. There the cross looms.. But here it is as if the past, with Elijah and Moses, is wrapped with that future in a dazzling present moment, as if a veil is pulled back and we have a glimpse of heaven.
It’s not that the disciples understand, but they become aware of something that, however difficult, they know is the truth. In the human person of Jesus, God’s long purpose is revealed. So the coming of God’s kingdom is not about power descending from heaven, but always about earthly events. In those events, human, everyday, even traumatic, God is revealed, and we must respond.
In the past people have thought that this was a resurrection appearance accidentally put in the wrong place. But its not. I don’t think this moment is any different from those moments we hear of, and perhaps experience for ourselves, when the presence of the ever present God is felt and somehow seen. Things shine, beyond our understanding. Peter, like all of us, wants to hang onto the vision. “Let us build three tabernacles.” He couldn’t of course, and neither can we. But the way forward is clear: an acceptance of the harder path, if that’s what appears before us, rather than the easy one; open eyes, reaching beyond our self concern; and ears that hear. “Listen, listen, listen to him,” says the voice of God.
The transfiguration is a reminder to cherish what we are given in our faith. There are plenty of people in our world who wander round in a fog – with “veiled faces” Paul says in the epistle. But we should remember that even after the smallest glimpse of glory we know something, and we can never be the same again. The light of the knowledge of the Glory of God has shone in our hearts. It never goes away.