Seeing with new eyes....
I had the privilege of preaching on 14th February - the last Sunday in Epiphany - and wanted to remind people of what the Transfiguration of Christ meant to the disciples, as they began to see Jesus in a new light.
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
As today is Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate that I should start by talking a little about romantic movies, those ones where boy meets girl, and girl can’t stand boy to begin with, or boy thinks girl is haughty and stuck up , or that they are just too different to really get on. Then there is something, a crisis, a tragedy, a moment of danger when they understand that there is more to the other than they ever realised. Their eyes are opened to the wonder that is the other person, and they realise that, instead of being sworn enemies, they were in fact made for each other. They are in love.
Boy hasn’t changed, he hasn’t become a different person; what has changed is the way that girl sees him; or girl hasn’t become less stuck up, but boy realises that there is something about this that makes her irresistible. She hasn’t changed; his vision of her has.
And in a way, this is what this strange story of the Transfiguration is about: it is not that Jesus was changed in any way, up there on that mountain top. It is about the change in the disciple’s view of him, and what this meant for them.
I think it is all too easy to forget that we are reading the Gospels in hindsight. We know the end of the story – just like we so often know the end of the film, that boy will finally realise how perfect girl is, so we know that at the end, Jesus will be revealed to be both human and divine. He is the fulfilment of God’s redeeming love for the world.
But the disciples didn’t know this. Although Jesus had talked about the Son of Man, although he had already begun to identify himself as the Messiah, the disciples did not yet understand what this meant. In Mark’s gospel, we can see the story arc of their slow realisation laid out: in the first three chapters, Jesus is gathering his disciples, and just starting to show his extraordinary healing powers; in the next few chapters he begins to hint that he is something more: he calms the raging sea, he faces up to the Pharisees, he mentions his death And by chapter 8 of the gospel, Peter is, if you like, starting to see Jesus with new eyes, and to realise that there is more to this man than he had initially appreciated. Up until this point the disciples had seen Jesus as a man with extraordinary powers: in this episode Jesus was transfigured into the divine. And they began to appreciate what the next part of the story arc was going to involve.
On that mountain, Jesus wasn’t transformed – I think this is really important to understand. This is not like Clarke Kent going into a phone booth and coming out as Superman. Jesus didn’t change from being a man into being divine. He already was both, but at the start, the disciples weren’t ready to grasp this truth. If we’re honest, judging by their reactions on the mountain top, I’m not totally convinced that even they were ready to grasp it: Peter started to babble about building huts, and all three were, as the reading says, terrified. They had started to realise that what Peter had begun to admit just a few days before, that Jesus was the Christ, was in fact true.
The telling of the story of the Transfiguration is full of symbolism. Firstly, the fact that it took place on a mountain top is important. If we think of the stories of the Old Testament, mountains feature heavily: it was on a mountain that Moses first encountered God in the burning bush, and later where he spoke to God and received the Law; it was on a mountain that Elijah met God in that still small voice; mountains are perhaps seen as “thin places” – those places where the veil between the human and the divine is thin, where God can be somehow more easily encountered. Someone has described “thin places” as those places that disorient us, that confuse us. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. We are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world and see things in a different light. I suppose in a way, the hill of Golgotha can be seen as a thin place – that place where truly the human and divine met in an incredible, transformative way. Mountains are God’s place, and it is on this mountain that Peter, James and John were jolted out of their old way of seeing Jesus; they found a new way of understanding.
Secondly, the two figures who were there with Jesus weren’t just any random Old Testament characters. They were the very personification of the Law and the Prophets: the foundation of the Jewish faith. Moses was the bringer of the Law of God, and Elijah was seen as the greatest of all the prophets – not least because he did not die, but rather was carried to heaven by angels. But there, on that mountain top, Jesus is revealed as eclipsing both of these: he is more than the Law. He is more than the Prophets. He is the Son of God.
And thirdly, there are those words, spoken from the cloud: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him. It is not the first time we have heard these words in Mark’s gospel. They echo those words from Jesus’ baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. They have been uttered by evil spirits recognising Jesus’ divinity, even before the disciples do, when he heals the sick, and later we hear them spoken again as a confirmation of Jesus’ work of redemption by the Centurion at the foot of the cross. Over and over, the disciples are called to see this man for who he really is, and we too are called to see Jesus with fresh eyes.
I can’t help feeling it all ends rather abruptly. The voice speaks, the cloud disappears, they look around and there is Jesus, same as ever. No Moses, no Elijah, no shining, blindingly white robes, just the ordinary man, wearing the same dusty clothes as before, who leads the disciples down to real life again, cautioning them to say nothing. But of course, now everything has changed: they have seen the Divine in the human, and the human in the Divine, and their lives will never be the same again.
Of course, this is the point where our movie ends: eyes have been opened, realisations have been made, and our protagonists fall into each other’s arms, as the sun sets on the horizon, or the first snow flakes fall, or whatever movie cliché the director has chosen. We do not find out what happens next, after their revelation of the other; we do not discover if, after a while, after the shininess of a new love has worn away, the haughtiness of girl begins to annoy boy again, or if girl finds that the cute way boy wrinkles his nose is actually just really irritating…Or if, in fact, even though the ordinariness of life has taken away the initial excitement, the two of them can still remember the thrill of seeing the other with new eyes, the way that their lives were turned upside down.
But with the story of Jesus and the disciples, we know what happens: as they have learned to see Jesus with new eyes, as they realise that he is indeed the Son of God, so they understand what following him will require. His teaching begins to speak of harsh realities, of how they must turn the other cheek, be prepared to be the very last, be ready to die. He foretells his own death, he foretells the deaths of some of his followers. He does not promise that life will be sunshine and roses…but he does promise that he will always be there; that the moment when he was transfigured, and their understanding of who he was changed in an instant, that is a truth they will not forget.
And this promise is for us also. We may have had one moment when our eyes were opened in a dramatic fashion to the divinity and glory of Jesus, or we may have come to a slower understanding of who Jesus is, but in one way or another when we accepted God into our lives, we saw Jesus for who he is. We may not understand it – in fact, I am sure that we cannot fully understand it – but we do have a vision of Jesus as divine and human: incarnated as God with Us.
I think too, that not only are we called to see Jesus with new eyes, we are called to see ourselves with new eyes. To realise that God-in-Jesus loves us. We are loveable, we are forgiven, we are transformed. God loves us: no exceptions. And that spark of love within us for ourselves will grow and become God’s love within the world. In the reading from Corinthians Paul speaks to his readers, but also to us, when he says “Let light shine out of darkness” – we are called to take that mountain top experience of realisation, and to translate it into action. Not only to see Jesus with new eyes, but to see others with those same transfiguring eyes – we see others as God sees them. As his children. A little after this story in Mark, we have Jesus reminding us to Love God and love our neighbour: All of the story arc is coming together as we also are led down the mountain to set off on our journey
As one commentator writes: To believe in the Transfiguration is not merely to talk about history. To believe in the Transfiguration is to dare our journey with Christ, and to embrace the hope that his light will never fail us. We know we can trust him for we have been shown him as he really is. We have experienced the living loving Christ, the human in the divine, the divine in the human, and this experience will sustain us as we pick up our cross to do God’s work in the world
I want to finish with a beautiful poem, written by Malcolm Guite. It was part of the power point at the beginning of the service, but you may have missed it. Malcolm writes: I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness that would lead to Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’, On that one mountain where all moments meet, The daily veil that covers the sublime In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet. There were no angels full of eyes and wings Just living glory full of truth and grace. The Love that dances at the heart of things Shone out upon us from a human face And to that light the light in us leaped up, We felt it quicken somewhere deep within, A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope Trembled and tingled through the tender skin. Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
Paul reminds us that we know well this Love that dances at the heart of things, for it is God who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Let that truth sustain you through the darkness and the light, as you strive to do his work.
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.