Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – Transfiguration
‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us . . . and we have seen his Glory. Glory as of the Father’s only begotten, Full of Grace and Truth’
και ο λογοσ σαρξ εγενετο και εσκηνωσεν εν ημιν, και εθεασαμεθα την δοξαν αυτου, δοξαν ωσ μονογενουσ παρα πατροσ, πληρησ χαριτοσ και αληθειασ.
Just the other evening we had a most wonderful experience in our Baptism preparation class, when one of the youngsters excitedly made a very deep connection between what we had been talking about and the story of our faith.
She suddenly exclaimed ‘Jesus was buried and raised in a Garden!!’ and as she did so, her face lit up and glowed in the way it only can when we have come to see something of Christ and his truth deep within us. Of course, it may be that for many of us, the Deep Significance of this is veiled for us. I know it was for me for many years. It was for example only six years ago, after I had been ordained ten years and was supposed to be at least moderately advanced in my understanding of our faith – I remember the excitement of the discovery – that I first saw the significance of Mary’s mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener . . . For after all the Creation is a story which focusses on a Garden, and here is the New Creation, and as in the First Garden, The LORD placed a man ‘to till and to keep’ . . . well I’ll allow you to fill in the blanks 🙂
As we explored Why so many of us are so lacking in these insights, we were reminded that for all we have ‘Moses and the prophets’ we do not know the story anywhere near as well as those first Christians did. From time to time, people will speak about unearthing deep truths like this, as if they were hidden away, but for those first Christians, that was not really the case. They would have made the connection instantaneously – they would read about Jesus being buried and raised in the garden and would have known of what John spoke. Why?? Because they carried the story with them wherever they went.
A young Jewish child would attend what we might call Torah School, indeed this is true of many Jews to this day. From the age of about 4-8 they would learn Torah, that is all the first five books of the Scriptures, by heart. Then they would go to another school, so that by the age of about 12 – they would know the whole Tanakh, The Law and the Prophets – by heart . . . 1
So for example in that chilling tale of The Rich Man and Lazarus, when the Rich Man is burning in Hell, because he ignored his brother, and asked ‘Father Abraham’ to send a messenger to his brothers warning them, Abraham replies ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They should listen to them’ They have Moses and the Prophets – they have committed the Tanakh, all of that which we call Old Testament to heart. They KNOW this stuff, they KNOW they must love their neighbour as themself, they KNOW that the LORD will require an account for how they have been obedient. He as good as shrugs his shoulders – ‘they Know this stuff already – they’ll either obey or not’ Insofar as their is any fatalism in our faith, it is not with respect to the Will of God – it is with respect to our response.
So it is with the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the Mount. It’s meaning is plain if we know the Story. But if we are not familiar then of course it will seem very strange. If our imaginations are soaked in Tanakh – then some things as it were hit us in the text. For example Peter’s babbling . . . we tend I think to suppose that what he says has little or no significance, after all ‘He did not know what to say, for they were terrified’, but the more we immerse ourselves in the story, the more it gets into us, the more we see that nothing is as it were insignificant in the gospels. Like the garden in which Jesus was buried, nothing is incidental. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Why dwellings?? Here we must admit that we are very poorly served by those who translate the Scriptures for us. If those who translate the Scriptures are not attentive to nuances in the text, if they are merely trying to ‘get the language more up to date’, then we have a problem. Literally Peter says ‘Let us make three tabernacles (σκηνασ,) . . .’ We assume that Peter, babbling away is talking about let’s stay here permanently – but out of his mouth, unbeknownst to him comes the words, ‘let us make three tabernacles . . ‘ And immediately the early Christians who were let us always remember, Jewish, will Get it! Tabernacles!!
Every year they celebrated the feast of tabernacles. This is recorded explicitly in John’s gospel, and implicitly here in Mark and also in Luke and Matthew in the story of the transfiguration. This was the feast where all the people came to Jerusalem and made for themselves ‘tabernacles’, booths or huts made from branches and lived in them, in large part to remember when they had lived in tents in the Wilderness . . . and God had dwelt in their midst. Except of course at this point, in the presence of the Glory, the Shekinah of God they are terrified. They have not known the Presence of God like this since his Glpry filled the Temple under Solomon, or when like a pillar of cloud by night, or fire by day The LORD had dwelt in the midst of his people.
And then, Moses and Elijah. Again Jewish listeners don’t need any translation. The Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures – the books of Moses – and next The Prophets, which for Jewish readers included and includes all what we would call ‘the historical books’, in the midst of them was the Great prophet Eli-Jah – literally, The LORD is God, whom they were waiting for the appearance of before the coming of the Messiah. The Law and the Prophets – embodied, taking on flesh in Moses and Elijah, and in the midst of them??
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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
We note that Peter is there – we hear his inspired babbling, but there also is John . . . The one who will write these words . . . The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us and we have seen his Glory . . . This is no metaphysical speculation. John was there upon the mountain – he saw the Law and the prophets embodied in Moses and Elijah, and ‘Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
The Word made flesh . . . and we have seen his Glory . . . down through the years, the children of Israel had had the Law and the Prophets, and constantly the word came ‘listen to them’ To Listen to Hear is to Obey. They Knew the Law and the Prophets, but had not been faithful and obedient. Now comes Obedient Israel in the person of the Son of God, made flesh – fulfilling in himself The Law and the Prophets . . . and in the church’s year we hear this story now to prepare ourselves for Lent, to see and to follow the obedient one into the wilderness once more, to as it were Enflesh that story of the people of God in the wilderness, but this time in Obedience as he makes his way to the Cross and the burial in the grave in the Garden from which he will be raised . . .
One final point as we gather here at the Lord’s table. We might still be wondering how those Jewish children stick at their memorising – well the teachers knew a thing or two about human nature 🙂 Before they are old enough for Torah school, children have little wooden blocks with the Hebrew letters on them, and their parents or teachers put honey on the blocks . . . reminding them quietly as they do what any child would do, ‘Your Word is like honey on my lips’ . . . or perhaps as we might put it as we come to the Sacrament, ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good’
May the LORD in his love and mercy give us such a hunger for the Life of His Son, a deep desire to hear and obey, to truly listen to The Word made flesh, to take it deep into ourselves – and may he open our eyes as he did for one of our younger brethren just the other night, to behold his Glory. And may we as we feast on the Obedient one, be drawn deeper into lives of Love and faithfulness, ever more reflecting That Glory