Nicky Barber spoke today on the Transfiguration – please listen to her here or read the text of her talk below
Mark 9 v.2-9: The Transfiguration
Many years ago my husband John was working in Australia and went to a drinks party where he knew absolutely nobody apart from the host. He went and introduced himself to a nice looking, older man and as they talked he discovered that the man had recently retired but knew several of John’s colleagues because he had worked on a project with them. Obviously he was another person in the financial world like John. After some more conversation John asked the man what he had actually done for a living. The man replied, “I was the Prime Minister!” Then, looking a bit disgruntled, he moved on to talk to someone else. If only John had realised whom he was talking to he could have found out so much from him about what it was like to run a country.
Sometimes we don’t have a clue who someone really is until they give us a bit of background information about themselves.
I expect we have all read this passage about Jesus’s transfiguration before, as it was a key part of Jesus’s life on earth.
Mark has spent 8 chapters showing Jesus doing and saying all sorts of quite strange and unusual things – miracles, healings, demonstrating power over nature by stilling the storm at sea, delivering people from evil spirits, even his teaching had unusual authority.
Who is this man?
I wonder if, when Jude read to us just now, you noticed what the first few words in v. 2 were,? – “Six days later”. So to make sense of who Jesus, is we probably need to find out what happened six days before and what relevance it has to this passage.
In chapter 8 v. 29 Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was and in one of those light bulb moments Peter exclaimed, “You are the Messiah!” It all made sense, Jesus had the authority and power to do these things because he was God’s long awaited “anointed one” who the Jews thought would free them from Roman oppression before re-establishing the nation of Israel.
But Jesus went on to explain that he was a different sort of Messiah. He was the fulfilment of many Old Testament prophecies, which spoke of God’s anointed one being both a powerful King who would have authority over the nations and also a suffering servant. He spoke to them openly about the fact that he had to suffer, to be killed and then to rise again.
This was the bit the disciples didn’t want to hear and found difficult to understand. They wanted the victory and the glory now, they didn’t want to follow the Messiah to his cross and see all their hopes dashed. They were ordinary men not superheroes and like us they needed God’s help to grasp Jesus’s true identity.
And so, at the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus takes his three special friends up a mountain for a most extraordinary and dramatic experience. A time when God’s glory, which is normally hidden from our sight, became visibly manifest. Each of the gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke record the shock of what happened with slightly different details. Together they tell us that while he was praying his clothes became dazzling white, the appearance of his face changed and shone like the sun, Elijah and Moses appeared talking to him and then from the bright cloud which overshadowed them God’s voice spoke. The disciples were terrified – Matthew’s version mentions that they fell to the ground overcome by fear.
What does this tell us about the true identity of Jesus?
In the middle of chapter 8, Jesus has done a miraculous healing and then taught the disciples that he must suffer and die before rising again.
And then, after the Transfiguration, when they come back down the mountain into the valley, he does another miraculous healing and then teaches them again about his death and resurrection.
Two demonstrations of the awesome power of the Messiah then two reminders that the Messiah is also the suffering servant who must die and be raised to life.
And sandwiched in the middle of those pairs, the Transfiguration.
Peter has said that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus has given a fuller picture of what that means, Moses, the great Lawgiver, and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, have appeared to show that Jesus was the one who would fulfil both the Law and the Prophets and that he surpassed both of them in authority and power.
But if we are left in any doubt about Jesus’s identity, the voice of God, which is the climax of this passage, clears it up once and for all.
What does he say? There are three parts:
- “This is my son.” This is usually thought to be a reference to Psalm 2, which is a psalm about a powerful king who has authority over all the nations.
- “The Beloved” (or “whom I love”). This is generally seen to be a reference to Isaac, the son whom Abraham loved, and his near sacrifice in Genesis 22.
- Finally, “Listen to him”, but we will come back to that later.
So here, in the climax of this passage, God confirms what Mark has been showing us throughout this section.
Jesus, as Messiah, is both the powerful king and the suffering servant who will die a sacrificial death, unlike Isaac who was spared.
Mark wants there to be no doubt about Jesus’s true identity when we are allowed to glimpse his glory on the mountain. He builds up the picture before the event, emphasises it through the words spoken and then reconfirms it in the following passages.
Do you ever say or think, “If only I could actually see God it would be so much easier to believe”?
The interesting thing is that the disciples really struggled to comprehend Jesus’s true identity, even after this extraordinary revelation of his glory and status. Once they were back down the mountain, Mark says that they did not understand what Jesus was saying about him having to die and be raised from the dead and were afraid to ask him.
During lockdown our family has become obsessed with doing Sudoku puzzles. I am the worst and frequently I will get half way through, and then hit a roadblock and have to ask my children to help. Usually, within a short time, one of them spots a number I can fill in and then the whole pattern of the rest of the grid falls quickly into place. They seem to be able to see the picture of how the numbers fit together in a way that I just can’t, even if I try so hard my brain starts hurting.
Do we “get the picture” here? Do we understand? How do we each answer that crucial question – “Who do you say I am?”
I wonder which part of his identity we each feel most drawn to. Is it the powerful king who will rule for eternity or the suffering servant who died for our sins?
Whom do we imagine when we are praying? During this pandemic do we cry out to the all-powerful king who has authority over the whole world and ask him to intervene on behalf of his frightened people? Or does the fact that Jesus died in our place to save us from our sins give us hope that whatever happens during this pandemic he will be with us and will look after us?
Mark leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is both king and saviour. He wants the disciples and all who follow after them to realise this and hold onto both pictures of Jesus at once.
I said we would come back to the final thing that the voice of God said:
“This is my son, whom I love; listen to him!”
The words that Jesus speaks have the authority of God behind them; they are not to just be heard but to be obeyed.
What does this mean and how do we do it in practice?
The main place where we will discover Jesus’s words is in the Bible, but we can also learn to listen to him in prayer, in church, in ways he speaks to us through creation and through other people. The disciples heard him best when they spent time with him on their own or as a small group.
Where can we each find space to listen to Jesus?
It may mean finding a quiet room, shutting the door and leaving our phones outside. For some it might be going for a walk outside.
For those of us who don’t still have young children to look after, one of the few advantages of this year of lockdowns is that we may have more free time available. Time we could choose to spend listening to Jesus, instead of watching Netflix, stilling our hearts to hear his voice, instead of keeping our eyes fixed on our phones or doing yet another Sudoko puzzle.
For others it will be a case of doing whatever we can to grab a few precious moments amid the chaos of home schooling or work.
Perhaps we need to imitate Susannah, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, who told her ten children that when she sat down and pulled her apron over her head she was praying and must not be disturbed. She did this for two hours a day – ten minutes might be a more realistic time for us to start with! As I am sure you know, two of her children, John and Charles, grew up to shape the course of Christian history.
What might we achieve if we spent more time listening to Jesus?
There is one more thing we need to look at in this passage.
Did you notice Peter asking Jesus if he could make three dwellings, one for each of them? He was having the most extraordinary experience on the mountain and he seemed to want to hold onto the moment, to stay in it, to set up camp there. But Jesus had other plans, which didn’t include lingering on the mountain.
He took them back down the mountain into the valley where they would immediately be confronted by the evil and suffering of this world. This side of eternity, we aren’t meant to just stay hanging out on the mountain, however appealing it may be to do so.
Struggles will await us in the valley, there will be problems and obstacles to negotiate, difficult relationships to deal with, pain and suffering to endure or to help others endure. These are precisely the sort of situations where Jesus wants to bring his healing and transforming presence. There is work to do and he usually does it through his people, through us.
If we have met the Messiah, the risen Jesus, then he calls us to join in his kingdom work and to share our experience of him with others.
Where is our Valley?
Is it right here in the Itchen Valley, being Jesus to the people who live around us? Or is he calling us out, to those who are in need of him and his salvation further afield?
The answer to that question will be different for each of us but the key to finding the answer is to listen to him and to obey whatever he says. To come apart with him as the disciples did and ask him to show us what he has on his agenda and how we can each be part of it.
Who is Jesus? He is both powerful king and suffering servant. He is both divine and human. He is familiar with suffering and able to truly identify with those who are in pain and also to help them.
Are we ready to explain who he is to someone else who needs to know him? Are we willing to follow him into the valley and to do whatever he asks even if it involves suffering?
As we celebrate Holy Communion together now and as we enter the season of Lent this week, it is the perfect time to contemplate what it cost Jesus to give us eternal life and to make up our minds about whether we are willing to follow him wherever he leads.
Mark 9:2-9 The Transfiguration
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 9:2–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.