An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The View from the Mountaintop

A sermon on Mark 9: 2-9 by Nathan Nettleton, 2 March 2003

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is not one of those stories that will benefit much from some kind of detective endeavour to try to reconstruct what actually happened and how. You don’t have to look at this story for too long before you begin to realise that it was one of those experiences that cannot be described using the language of the objective reporter. This was one of those experiences where the only language that comes close is the language of poetry, a language that is full of symbols and allusions and passion and even hyperbole. There is no point going down to the technical laboratory at Bristol paints and asking them to explain what “whiter than anyone on earth could produce” might look like!

The significance of the story of the transfiguration is not in the details as reported; in fact you might say that it is not in the story at all. The significance is in the things it points to and the things it ties together. It is appropriate that this story is set on a mountain top, because it is one of those points from which you can see the whole landscape in all directions. Indeed this story points back to the opening scene of Jesus’s ministry, his baptism, and forward to his resurrection; and in Mark’s gospel, those are the alpha and omega, the opening and closing scenes of the whole account of Jesus’ story.

The link back to the baptism story is clear. Most obviously, the baptism and the transfiguration are the two stories in the gospel where we are told that a voice came from above, saying, “This is my son, who I love.” But with all these stories, the way they are linked to the stories either side of them are usually significant too, and both the baptism story and the transfiguration story lead immediately to Jesus coming into face to face confrontation with demonic powers. Immediately (and “immediately” is a word that Mark uses a lot), immediately after the baptism, the Spirit pushes Jesus out into a remote wilderness area where he is tempted by the Satan for forty days. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not detail any of the content of these temptations, but the link to the baptism makes it clear that the Satan is going to be trying to derail the life and ministry to which Jesus has been baptised. The transfiguration story concludes with Jesus and the three disciples coming back down the hill and walking into a kerfuffle over an unsuccessful attempt by the other disciples to expel the demons that had colonised a young boy. Both stories then, have a moment of spectacular epiphany — that is revelation of the deep truths of Jesus’ unique relationship to God — followed by a clear indication that such moments of revelation and conversion put us a track that leads inevitably and directly to hard struggles, opposition, costly ministry, and the need for disciplined, tenacious and prayerful discipleship.

Tonight we are standing alongside Lucy, looking back to our baptisms as she reaffirms her baptismal vows and is welcomed into membership among us. And as we do that we are standing together on top of a similar peak, because from the vantage point of this week it especially obvious where the road from baptism and transfiguration is pointing us. The tough forty days of Lent begin on Wednesday, and many of you have registered your intentions to take on a number of additional shared spiritual disciplines for this season and to open yourselves to hearing what God is calling you to do in the living out of your baptismal life in the coming year.

If all we could see from this mountain peak was the reminders, behind and immediately in front of us, of how tough and demanding the road ahead was, we’d probably be with Peter, wanting to knock up some shelters and stay put. But that is not all the transfiguration story points to. From up here we also get a glimpse all the way forward to the resurrection. There are several pointers. The most explicit is the closing line of what we heard: “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the New Human had risen from the dead.” The reference not only makes it clear that the story is being interpreted from the perspective of those who have already encountered the resurrected Jesus, but it points out that these stories are intimately connected. In fact this story of the transfiguration is so like some of the resurrection stories, that some scholars think that it must have originally been a resurrection story which has later been displaced from its original position in the chronology. I think such speculation is a bit pointless, but the fact that it goes on is testimony to the clear links between the two stories.

Even the fact that it was Moses and Elijah who Jesus was seen talking to on the mountain is suggestive of this link, for both were heroes of the faith whose departure from this life was shrouded in sacred mystery. Moses may have wandered off into the bush and died without ever being discovered, but there were also legends that suggested that God took him alive into heaven. Elijah’s is reported in the Bible to have not died, but as we heard in the first reading tonight, to have been snatched up by a horse drawn chariot of fire and flown off to heaven in a whirlwind. And, of course, those two also link us back to the baptism images, because both were involved in parting the waters to pass through, Moses at the Exodus and Elijah at the Jordan, and such passages through the water feature strongly in our images of baptism as we pass from death to resurrection life.

So from the top of this mountain of Transfiguration, we have a long range view in both directions, and we are high enough to see how the various features are related to one another. We can see these three spiritual high points, the moments where it is all glory and wonder and exaltation, the baptism, the transfiguration, and the resurrection. And 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 always fail to deliver what they promise. Because from up here, we can also see what lies in between the high points. From up here we can see that there is no way of getting from the transfiguration to the resurrection without confronting the demons 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 the call to be people of disciplined prayer and self-sacrificial dedication to the ministry of binding up the broken-hearted and preaching liberation 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, when war and fear will be no more, and suffering and dying will be gone forever, and every tear will be wiped away, and all will be reconciled in the unimaginable riches of love and grace made known to us in the one we follow: Jesus the Christ.


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