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 Christmas

Christmas 2012 audio [Link to Recording of the sermon]


JOHN 1:1-14

‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’

One of the advantages of Christmas here in New Zealand is that we get Christmas first! I guess that that means we don’t have to wait as long?? 🙂 But as I’ve been keeping up with friends around the world this past few days, it’s been fun to see them half a day or more behind where we are in terms of their Christmas festivities – and so yesterday morning I heard from a friend in the UK who had just finished their nativity play – and the alarming news that with two minutes to go, they’d lost ‘the baby Jesus’!! The doll that was Always ‘the baby Jesus’ was kept amongst lots of others in a big cupboard of toys for the little ones and with two minutes to go before the service, someone noticed they hadn’t got the doll had gone to the cupboard . . . to discover that the cleaner had had a clean out and the doll had gone!!!

Well, fortunately a little girl at the service had brought her doll with her, and was more than happy for it to take the starring role!!

Yet for all we sing ‘Away in a manger’ and have our crib services, the gospels really aren’t written to have us cooing over ‘the baby Jesus’ – rather the text of the familiar stories as told by Matthew and Luke are far more concerned with telling us the story so that we might be drawn into it and allow it to address us. All these thoughts about the fragility of a baby, about his humble origins are not the concern of the evangelists – rather the way they tell the story is to get us asking the question ‘Who Is This child?’ – Who is this child that Emperors have restless nights because of – Who is this child whose coming requires God’s Spirit to move over the face of the deep as once of old he had Bringing Life out of nothing, a baby from a virgin? Who is this child who causes the angelic host to be seen once more – who is this child who is born in Bethlehem, the City of Old King David, and yet who finds the door of the inn slammed in his face (there is no kindly innkeeper in the narrative) – Who is this child whom Shepherds worship and herald?

And in a sense there is little point us reading Luke and Matthew’s’ account at Christmas – for they are telling the story of Jesus from its human beginnings – it is if you like the beginning of the biography. And at the beginning we cannot see the end – the whole. It is only Mary and Joseph who are told – Joseph is told that this child ‘will save his people from their sins’ – Mary is told ‘He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end’ It all lies in the future – Faithful Israel will ponder all these things in her heart, but Luke and Matthew tell the story from its beginning and cause us to ask the question which the rest of their gospels are written to answer – Who is this child?

John however, tells us it not only from the end, but from before the beginning and beyond its end. John, as we hear at our annual carol service ‘unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation’

And so that is why as we the people of God gather to Celebrate Christmas – we read John. For John reveals all the breadth, the height and the depth of the reality of this child – when we read John we read the True meaning of Christmas – and It is So big it is like swimming in a vast Ocean of meaning and Truth.

What does John tell us about this child?
This child is the eternal Word of God – He is God’s Very Truth and Life and Light – This child has always been with God – This child is the one through whom everything that has been made was made – This child is the means of Life coming into the World – a Life that gives Light to all people, This Child, this LIght is overcome by nothing, not even death can hold This Child.

John of course knows the Nativity stories – he knows how there is no room for this Child – he came to his own – to the Very city of David – and his own knew him not – the World did not know him – Imperial Rome did not come to pay tribute – only to extract it

But to all who received him, He gave power to become children of God! John is So careful here in setting out what this means – children born not of blood – or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man – children born not by biological process – not by human desire – but born of God. As John knows of the Virgin birth, so he points to the birth This child heralds. This child – ‘the baby Jesus’ whose birth we focus on – as we truly turn our hearts and minds to him – becomes the source of Our Birth

Perhaps this is why we want to sentimentalise the story – as I said a few weeks ago, we don’t want to drag in the evil Herod into our Christmas plays – we want to keep it safe – because in the end this child opens the door to the most dramatic and challenging possibility of all. A possibility that calls our very Life into question – that of our own rebirth as God’s children, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit – as that which was within Mary was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
This child – The one who fulfils the  impossible possibility of the LORD through the prophet Ezekiel – I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. As the Virgin Birth of Jesus heralds an impossible possibility, so too, perhaps even more so it heralds the impossible possibility of the transformation of our hearts – that we might be like Him – the Firstborn.

The birth of Jesus into our flesh, opens the door to our birth into HIs Life – this child

And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we have beheld his Glory, Glory as of the Father’s only begotten, full of Grace and Truth.

All through Advent we have considered how to be ready – how to prepare our hearts – yet aside from turning our hearts and minds to him there is nothing we can do – He is the one who when we contemplate HIm transforms our hearts. The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us – literally tabernacled amongst us.
Of old the children of Israel had camped in the Wilderness – three tribes to the east, three to the South, three to the west and three to the north – all facing the centre – the tabernacle – the dwelling place of God, where the Glory of God dwelt above the ark of the covenant – the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night. Now he dwells once more amongst his people – that we might behold his Glory and so be changed ourselves from one degree of glory to another

I guess we will all go from this place today to celebrate with much food and more – but I pray we will all take the time to Swim – not in the cold Southern ocean – but deeply into these words of John and into the Wonder of This Child – and so rejoice evermore deeply and truly in our celebration of His Birth. That our Christmas might be truly Merry and Happy and Full of Joy and Light and the Life of Christ.