Lectionary readings for Sunday 14th February 2021:
2 Kings 2:1-12 Psalm 50: 1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6 Mark 9:2-9
Gracious God, as we rejoice in the gift of this new day, may the light of your presence set our hearts on fire with love for you, now and forever. Amen Blessed are you Lord our God: in your love you create all things out of nothing through your eternal Word. We glorify and adore you. Blessed are you, Lord our God: in your love you redeemed the world through our Lord Jesus Christ. We glorify and adore you. Blessed are you, Lord our God: in your love you empower your people through the gift of the Holy Spirit. We glorify and adore you. Amen
I am hoping that some of you will have seen Shrek, which can only be described as a fairy-tale with a difference. The central character is a green unlovable ogre. And all the fairy-tale elements are present: the knight in shining armour, and a princess waiting to be rescued from the dragon’s lair.
There is a wonderful moment in the film where the curse on the princess is about to be lifted, and her true self revealed. In order to do this – even though it is animation – the film-makers show Princess Fiona lifted up and hidden with incandescent light, while the transformation takes place. And of course, by the end of the film everyone lives happily ever after.
Because we are so used to special effects and CGI in film-making, we take all such things in our stride; but for those first disciples when they see Jesus hidden from view with such intense light, it would have had huge impact. Many years later, Peter was still pondering this important moment when he wrote:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 2 Peter 1:16
He had seen it for himself, and although with the other disciples probably did not fully understand it, when Jesus was transfigured on that mountain, it is certain that Peter would never view Jesus in the same light again.
It is possible that the disciples would have known a little about the family background of this rabbi from Nazareth, how he had left the family carpentry and building business, and began an itinerant ministry around the Galilee. Like all who heard him, the disciples are learning that Jesus is an exceptional teacher. But now they glimpse him conversing with the two greatest figures of history – Moses and Elijah.
The ‘weirdness’ of that scene, however, would be somewhat overcome, if we had the luxury of time to listen to, (or read) the whole of Luke chapter nine. Had we done so, we would have in our minds the familiar tale of the feeding of the 5000 (9:10-17), the question about Jesus’ identity (9:18-22), the warnings about discipleship (9:23-27), before turning to consider what the story of the transfiguration might have to tell us (9:28-36).
Between the Crib and the Cross
So why is such a story included in the account of the life of Jesus Christ? And why read it in church today? Well, at the most basic level, this Sunday stands midway between Christmas and Easter. It is therefore the link the two big Christian festivals of the Christian year, between Christmas and Easter; between the crib and the cross, between a baby in the manger and the risen Lord.
We are extraordinarily good at doing Christmas, we perceive it as a good time to get together with family, we plan for it for months, and we will shop till we drop in order to make everyone happy. But Easter? Well maybe an hour spent with other Christians in the town on Good Friday, a few chocolate eggs for the children, but a quiet day, I suppose. Unusually, we may be hoping that lock-down restrictions will ease for Easter so that many of those celebrations we missed out on, can be put right this spring! However, at present that is just conjecture.
Steve Turner gets it just about right when he writes:
Christmas is really for the children. Especially for the children who like animals, stables, stars and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then there are wise men, kings in fine robes, humble shepherds and a hint of rich perfume. Easter is not really for the children unless accompanied by a cream-filled egg. It has whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body-snatching. It involves politics, God and the sins of the world. It is not good for people of a nervous disposition. They would do better to think of rabbits, chickens and the first snowdrop of spring. Or they’d better to wait for a re-run of Christmas without asking too many questions about what Jesus did when he grew up or whether there’s any connection.
What you think about Christmas and Easter, or what they may signify, there most certainly is a connection, which invites us to ask some very deep questions.
Between humanity and deity
The first question raised on this Sunday that sits between Christmas and Easter, is the same question that the first disciples – Peter, James and John – must have faced all those years ago on the mountain where the transfiguration took place Is this Jesus, just a carpenter from Nazareth, or is he the promised Messiah? It begins with the theophany received at Christ’s baptism, when visually the spirit is seen as a dove and the voice of God is heard speaking. And there will be a further reminder at Christ’s death, as the temple veil is torn in two, and we are reminded that heaven is closer than anyone could have imagined. So when those disciples began to reflect post-resurrection on all that they had witnessed, the issue around divinity was a difficult one.
And it continues to be a difficult question for many people today. It is possible to hear the story of Jesus and to decide that he was just a good man who lived a very long time ago, with a good philosophy which can give meaning to life. And for some, this is just one good person amongst many such individuals down through the course of history: and one philosophy among many philosophies which can help to give some sort of meaning to life.
But that is precisely what those early disciples and gospel writers came to understand that Jesus most definitely was not. Here was an individual so radically different that the only possible explanation was, as John’s Gospel puts it, God made flesh. What then? It could no longer be life as normal, for the radical, transforming grace of God was now available to all. And everyone who met those early disciples would be in no doubt that they had indeed witnessed something life-changing indeed.
This moment of transfiguration also hints at the hope of transformation for ordinary men and women. No longer would human beings need to strive hard to follow a good philosophy and study to achieve perfection, but could be transformed so that their lives would radiate God’s goodness.
Human beings have a terrible capacity to get things badly wrong; but renewed humanity demonstrates a remarkable aptitude for kindness and serving one another.
Between abject pain and glorious hope
The scene on the mountain-top is of light and beauty, with saintly figures and garments of white.
The scene a few short weeks later is set on the corporation rubbish tip, with darkness, soldiers gambling for Christ’s garments.
These two scenes perhaps reflect the extremes of human experience. One tells of spit and mockery, nails and nakedness, blood and loneliness, torture and death. The other makes visible the presence of God which can sanctify and transform human nature. The Christian story does not end in pain and suffering, loss and grief. The transfigured Jesus, crucified saviour is also the risen Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ does not belong merely to a world of truth and beauty, but also stands at the point of loneliness, torture and death. He stands there still, not offering easy, pious platitudes to the problems of the world, but offering hope of our transfiguration beyond our human weakness. But because our Lord has walked where we walked and experienced the depths of human misery and pain, we can confidently come to him in worship as well as at the darkest moments of our own lives.
Prayer of confession
Holy God, we confess that we have rebelled against you and broken your law of love; we have not loved our neighbours nor heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray, and free us for joyful obedience; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. In Christ we are set free, through Christ we are forgiven. Amen. Thanks be to God.
In peace, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for the peace that is from above and for our salvation let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for the peace of the whole world, and for the life and unity of the Church, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. that we may worship God in Spirit and in truth, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for all the ministers of the Church and the whole company of God's people, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for the governments of the nations that they may seek justice and peace for all people, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for our own country and local community, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for the sick, the afflicted and for prisoners, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. for ourselves that we may truly serve him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. that, we all who have served God and are now at rest, we may enter into the fullness of unending joy, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy. Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask, help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. The Lords Prayer. blessing We go into the world to walk in God's light, to rejoice in God's love and to reflect God's glory. Amen
All prayers from the Methodist Worship Book (London: Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, 1999)
 Traditionally, Mt. Tabor; but Mt. Hermon is actually closer to Caesarea Philippi – where the previous conversation took place (Matt. 16:13)