Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
What does God look like? In contrast to pagan society, where images of gods proliferated, decorating temples and adorning houses, the making of graven images is forbidden in Judaism. The temple in Jerusalem called on the work of skilled masons and deployed the best materials to be used in the decorative arts, but there was no image of God within it. The faith was passed on verbally, through written Law and oral tradition, through prayer and liturgy. Images proliferate in the written text: God is rock and burning bush and eagle and mother hen and mighty warrior and shepherd and cloud and pillar of fire – defying any temptation to fix God’s image, to contain him within language. To the ban on graven images, add the Old Testament tradition that no one can see God and live: Moses gets close, but is allowed only to see God’s back; when he comes down the mountain after having received the Law, his face shines as a result of his encounter with God, but the people are afraid, and he has to veil his face. Even this mediated closeness of God is too much.
Which perhaps helps us understand why the disciples react as they do when they see Jesus transfigured before them. This happens just after Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the point at which we think the disciples might finally be getting it, and understand who Jesus is. But no sooner has Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah than Jesus tells him that he will suffer and die and on the third day be raised. Peter’s protestation that this cannot be so, that this can’t possibly happen to the Lord’s anointed one, is met with a swift and sharp rebuke from Jesus. The disciples’ understanding is still only partial. Their expectations of who the Messiah is rule out suffering and death. If Jesus is the Messiah he cannot suffer and die. If he suffers and dies, he cannot be the Messiah. So goes the logic of their discipleship at this point in Jesus’ ministry.
So, Mark tells us, after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John, the first among those he called to follow him, up a high mountain to pray. Mountains are significant places of encounter with God in Jewish tradition: Moses experienced a theophany, or revelation of God’s presence, after six days on Mount Sinai. Elijah, similarly, is up a mountain when he discerns God’s presence in the sound of sheer silence. And both these figures appear alongside Jesus, representing the Law and the Prophets. But they also point to the future: we heard in our Old Testament reading the story of Elijah ascending into heaven in a whirlwind, and later prophecies foretold that he would return before the day of the Lord – the time when it was believed God would act decisively to save his people and judge the world. Similarly, the fact that Moses’ burial place was unknown generated various traditions about his assumption into heaven, and his expected return at the end times.
So, as if the sight of Jesus in robes so dazzling it hurts their eyes to look at him weren’t enough, in the figures of Moses and Elijah either side of him the disciples essentially see the past and the future brought together into the present. The voice that had declared Jesus the beloved Son of God at his baptism, before the beginning of his Galilean ministry, is heard again, this time before he sets out on the road to Jerusalem. The next time Jesus’ divine Sonship is acclaimed it will be from the lips of the Roman centurion, as Jesus hangs dead on the cross.
None of this is accidental in Mark. The transfiguration is a moment when eternity is revealed in time. On the mountain, the disciples are left in no doubt about Jesus’ divinity. He doesn’t change from one thing to another, but is revealed in the fullness of who he is: fully God and fully human. The transfiguration adds nothing to Jesus: he is always true God and true man, and in him eternity has come to dwell in time. But it is a revelation for the disciples, a glimpse into who Jesus really is, beyond their limited, partial understanding, their too-narrow expectations of who and what the Messiah will be.
For when they come down the mountain, the road to Jerusalem and the passion lies ahead of them. Peter’s protestations that the Messiah cannot suffer and die will again sound like truth and sense. A God who subjects himself to human rejection and injustice and violence is not what they expect salvation to look like. Do they remember, later, as they watch the guards seize Jesus, manhandle him, spit, the way he shone with heaven’s own light? Or does that only come later still, as from the perspective of Easter they look back and are able to trace divinity not just from baptism to transfiguration but through the teaching, the miracles, the opposition, the scourging, the death?
What does God look like? I asked at the start of this sermon. For Christians, God looks like Jesus: he is the image of the invisible God. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says St John in his Gospel: ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ And if this is true, it is true all the way through Jesus’ life and death. He is not human in his teaching and divine in his miracles, or human in his suffering and divine in his resurrection. He is fully human and fully divine all the time.
Suffering and death do not negate the glory the disciples see revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration. On the cross as on the mount, Jesus is revealed in glory. Like the disciples, we might find this hard to grasp, for when we say glory we tend to think of splendour and majesty and power and light, and that seems a very long way from a condemned criminal on a cross. But God’s glory is the revelation of God’s being. And on the cross, as in the life of Jesus, we see that what is revealed is God’s love: a love that will go to the utmost for his creation, to restore what has been lost through sin, and to bring us back to him.
The transfiguration happens where it does in the gospels to strengthen the disciples for the path ahead of them, as they go with Jesus to Jerusalem. It has a similar function for us, too, as the lectionary sets it for the Sunday before Lent. The voice from the cloud says ‘this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him’. The disciples have to listen as Jesus tells them who he is, and that the cross isn’t some awful end to a plan gone wrong, but the way God acts to save us. The transfiguration is meant to cast its light over the season: even while we inscribe the cross in ashes on our foreheads this Wednesday, we remember that in Jesus we are made for glory.
It’s easy to plan heroic acts of fasting or get drawn into grand spiritual schemes for Lent. But what if we obeyed that voice from the cloud? Listen to him. Don’t let your bibles stay shut this Lent. Listen to him speaking to you, calling you, in the words of the scriptures. Listen to him in the sacraments as he speaks words of love and freedom and reconciliation; listen to him in other people, and especially in the voices you perhaps don’t often hear. Listen to him, spend time in his presence. Allow the revelation of who he is to deepen your understanding, and enlarge your heart, so that when Good Friday comes, with the centurion you are able to behold the Saviour of the world hanging on the wood of the cross, and with faith and understanding declare ‘truly, this is God’s Son.’