Transfiguration – The Word became flesh and we have seen his Glory

Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-9

‘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

Sermon for Lent 2 – Orientation

Lent 2 Sermon  [AUDIO]

Sermon for Lent 2
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3:14-21
Luke 9:28-36


‘If any would be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’

When folk ask me how I’m settling in here in New Zealand, I have to say, pretty well. ‘So far so good!’ as the man said passing the 23rd floor of the skyscraper out of which he has just fallen’ 🙂 But there is one aspect of life here that it has taken some considerable time to adjust, and that is to do with Direction. I noticed this especially sharply when out in 2010 to come on interview,  that is my sense of direction – which way is North, and which South. It wasn’t until I came out here that I realised how sharp my sense of direction was and how it was determined by the position of the sun in the sky. So when I came over I was constantly getting my North and South muddled up. You don’t realise you have a sense of direction, until you lose it. But this even extended to being inside, or more correctly being in a church building.
You may have noticed last week, how for a moment I struggled to tell you which side of the church you were all sitting on – because back in England a church was like a compass – it pointed East. So the altar was beneath the East window, and as I looked back down the church, North was to my Right and South to my Left. Indeed you didn’t have to be in a church to be so directed, for in the Church yard, all headstones also faced East – all towards Jerusalem – that at the second coming of Christ – all the dead would be raised facing the right way, and the Saints at worship would also be properly directed – Oriented towards Jerusalem, where tradition holds the Lord will appear.
But now I come into church – and my compass doesn’t work! So our ‘East Window’ is actually the South Window – I am disoriented – actually very literally, for the verb ‘to orient’ – which we take to mean to properly direct, comes from that English practise of lining churches up facing East, or towards the Orient – you Oriented the church – set it in the right direction.

Well, that is why metaphorically at least I should be grateful for Lent – for it is a time for Re-orientation – of retaking our bearings – of realigning our lives, not geographically, but personally – towards Christ. Christ who himself is Oriented – ‘towards his departure which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. As I said at our Wednesday Eucharist – we face up to Reality. We clear away the overgrowth and the undergrowth – by taking ash on our foreheads we confront the deep truths of our lives – Dust you are and to dust you shall return – we are going to die – Repent and turn from your sins – we are sinners called to turn around – Re Orient our lives – face Christ – Believe the good News.

And we engage in this act of Repentance, this reorientation by denying ourselves – we don’t treat our lives as the supremely important thing. We fast – ‘my physical needs are not primary’ – we pray – more correctly we pray more, we make more time for prayer – ‘my schedule, my busy life is Not the main thing’ – and we give alms – ‘the real meaning of my life is not my security. If I am fortunate to have money beyond my most basic needs, then it isn’t for me – it is for others’. It is a Reality check on our lives, it is an opportunity given to us by the church in her wisdom to Orient our Lives once more upon Christ. To take our bearings from him – that with St Paul we might know which Direction it is that we must follow to ‘press on towards the goal’ – the heavenly call.

Now of course we may well hear those words of Paul, about the heavenly call, and then in the context of the gospel reading this morning, assume that this orientation involves us in some ethereal contemplation of Jesus upon the mount of Transfiguration – we might with Peter say ‘this is wonderful! – This is what it is all about! Lets stay here. Notice that he makes this request, Moses and Elijah are just leaving Jesus – once more Peter opens his mouth without knowing what he is saying. Just as he says to Jesus, This must never happen to you – so also he gets in the way. They are all going – Jesus is on his way – Peter wants to stop. Jesus tells Peter what is to happen, and Peter gets in his way – ‘Get thee behind me Satan, for you do not have the things of God in mind but the things of man’, Get out of my way!! you are facing the wrong way – So also the Cloud and the voice are given  to Redirect – to Re Orient Peter. While [Peter] was saying this . . .’ a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.

As you know, I am just recently back from retreat – a whole week alone in the presence of God. Over and over folk say – I hope it was a lovely time, I hope it was a refreshing time, oh you are so fortunate – this sounds like bliss . . . judgement begins with the people of God – it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Whilst I do look forward to retreat, I know that in the end I am walking in with my own sentimentalised understanding of what a week in the presence of God is like. My own domesticated version of God, an idol, and not at all like Jesus.

They were terrified as they entered the cloud, and a voice came from the cloud, that said “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him” Orienting our lives on Jesus, requires listening to him. We go into whatever our desert place is – that extra hour in the day we have carved out to prayer, to Listen to him. Our chief problem in the church always has been and always will be our deafness to what Jesus says. And so at every Eucharist we are exhorted “Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” and we respond “Praise and glory to God” and having heard “this is the gospel of Christ” “Praise to Christ the Word!”
Again, as I said last Wednesday, when we again heard the story of Jesus in the Wilderness being Tempted by the Devil, it’s worth asking ourselves “What was the Good News we heard in THAT!!!??” Put another way, are we hearing the Good News, Are we hearing Christ, do we begin to understand what it is he is saying? Peter what he must think of as “Oh the most wonderful of experiences” But he hasn’t heard . . . What has Jesus been talking about? Well he’s been talking with Moses and Elijah – ‘speaking [with them] of his departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem’

Luke seems to suggest that the disciples are not privy to Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah – it was not for their ears. We might perhaps think this strange? Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah and the disciples are half asleep. Listen to him?? Yes Listen to him – for Jesus had already spoken of these things with his disciples . . . our gospel begins with the words – about eight days after saying these things . . . what things? Jesus has just confirmed Peter’s suspisicion that he is the Messiah – Wonderful!! Good News!! and then he says “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

As Jesus later spoke with Moses and Elijah about his departure . . . so he has already spoken to the disciples . . . in terms that they have not heard, they have not Listened – this is my Son, the Chosen, Listen to Him – why should the voice say this except that they have not listened. There they are up the mountain – the dream like has become their reality – half asleep – AH! THis is it! But no – this is the dream – the reality was those words thay had not listened to “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus has spoken of his departure – literally his Exodus – ‘Which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem . . .’ which He was about to accomplish. Which HE was about to accomplish . . . the hard word of the gospel is this – it is not about You – it is not about me – do you want ot save your life? you will lose it. But if you lose your life – then you will save it. The gospel is not about the fulfilment of our lives – it is about the end of them – so that His life might become everything. this Christian Life is All about Christ – it is not our life, it is His Life.

When God enters the covenant with Abraham this is made so very clear – I don’t know when you last made and agreement with someone who was asleep – but God puts Abraham out of the picture. A deep sleep fell over Abraham and God’s agreement is made with himself – it is between God – between the Father and the Son. He will accomplish it – All the glory will be His – my glory I share with no other. He does not entrust himself to a man, for he knew what was in a man . . . Peter has not listened – he has not got it. and as soon as they come down from the mountain, all hell breaks loose. Before the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples what the score is, but they do not listen – they think it is all about them. When Jesus comes down from the mountain, what does he find but whilst he has been away the other disciples have been trying to take things into their own hands. A boy is demon possessed, his father is at his wits end – the disciples have seen Jesus in action, and taken matters into their own hands – to absolutely no avail . . . its not about them, or what they do – they didn’t hear the words about having to lose their life – we can do this – and all hell has broken loose – the boy is dashed to the ground in convulsions – the fatherof the boy is at his wits end “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not” and Jesus responds “you faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you”. Like the children of Israel long ago when Moses went up the mountain they cannot wait for God – their eyes cast around for ways in which They can take things into their own hands and Aaron casts them a golden calf – something to entice the eye, something to make them feel important, at the centre of things, with a respectable God like all the other nations – one that doesn’t speak.

So the disciples take matters into their own hands – they think it is all about them. Their lives need reorienting – redirecting, to Christ – to look to him – to listen to him, like him to live only in response to the word of the father. But this is such a hard hard lesson – it seems we are hard wired to make ourselves the centre of the story.

Yes – there is a time when we are called to act in the name of Jesus. But it comes hedged around with a terrible warning – a little later on Jesus sends out 70 disciples, and he tells them what to do – and so they go – and we know the story – they come back rejoicing – full of themselves’Lord in your name, even the demons submit to us” and Jesus calls them round and says, look, let me tell you something, Long time past I watched Satan fall like lightening from heaven’ His Sin – why did he fall? He wanted to be the centre of things – do Not rejoice in what you have done in my name “I am an unworthy servant – I have only done that which was asked of me” No Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. This is not about what you do, it is about what I have done

We NEED the disciplines of lent – we need to be radically decentered, dethroned – this Good News, this Gospel is NOT about us. Thank God!!