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Sunday 11 February 2018

Light for dark times

Texts:  2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

Have you ever noticed how the gospel of Mark has no resurrection appearances?  Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, Mark doesn't deliver his readers a post-resurrection Jesus who appears to his disciples and gives them final instructions.  Instead, what you find there in chapter 16 is a group of the women turning up at the empty tomb where they discover, not a risen Jesus, but a nameless young bloke in an alb who tells them Jesus is risen.  So he's the one who gives them the instructions in this gospel, he, an intermediary or witness.  He tells the women to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.  And how do the women respond to the news?  Well, let me quote verse 8 of chapter 16, the last verse in Mark:

They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Now this is not exactly victorious, happy-ending stuff.  This is not a glorious ascension into heaven and a blessing of the faithful, like in Luke.  It's not a beachside scene where Peter is given the job of forming the church, like in John.  There's not even a dignified farewell and instructions for the ongoing mission, as in Matthew.  No, Mark has a distinctly unhappy and unresolved ending.  An ending where the risen Christ seems strangely absent, and the first witnesses of the resurrection are left fearful and bewildered.

Now, while the dreamer in me is forever drawn to the clear and incisive vision of John’s gospel, it is Mark's gospel that resonates most powerfully with my lived experience of being a disciple of Christ.  Why?  Because it doesn't deliver Jesus to me on a platter, all dolled up and unambiguously victorious in the face of life's complexity and difficulty.  No, in Mark's gospel, the glory of Jesus is a hidden glory, hidden beneath the stifling weight of the oh-so-human politics, religion and psychological trauma of Mark’s time.  Mark’s community was composed, you see, of a smallish bunch of Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 AD.  They were a refugee community who felt like the whole world was falling down around them, and that the plans of God for Israel were pretty much over.  In the midst of their despair and poverty, the glorious presence of the risen Christ was really not particularly obvious.  Which is not to say that the risen Christ was not present for Mark and his community.  It’s just to say that Mark and his community had to work towards a theology of Christ’s presence that made sense in their unique and particular circumstances.

That's where this incredible story of the transfiguration comes in.  When Jesus is still alive, and still preaching and teaching in Galilee, Mark tells us that he took his best mates Peter, James and John—the inner circle of the disciples—up onto a mountain to be by themselves.  You can understand, I'm sure, the motivation here.  As Mark tells the story, Jesus has been tearing around Galilee for months, preaching and healing.  The crowds follow him everywhere.  Crucially, Jesus had already negotiated a number of run-ins with the ruling figures in Jerusalem, the scribes and the Sadducees.  He had offended their sense of religious propriety, and they had made it clear that if he continued upon the course he had set himself, he would end up in serious trouble.  Indeed, Mark tells us that immediately prior to this mountain trip, Jesus had told his disciples that they were all headed for Jerusalem, where he would be arrested and crucified.   After all that, I think you can see why Jesus would be wanting to get away from it all!  Also, if I were Jesus, I reckon I'd be having some doubts about my resolve.  I'd be wondering if I had the wherewithal to follow through on what I believed I had to do.  And I'd be wanting some space, and the companionship of some good friends, to help me come to terms with all of that.

So there they are, camped up in the mountains like so many before them.  Like Moses on Mount Horeb, who had run away from his enemies in Egypt.  Like Elijah on the run from political assassins.   And like these two great figures before him, Jesus has an encounter with God there that strengthened his resolve to fulfil the mission which God had given him.  Mark tells us that the long-gone Moses and Elijah came to talk with him.  Not metaphysically, you understand, but mystically. Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah in a moment of concentrated prayer, in the manner that we, also, may converse with the great scholars and mentors of the faith:  we may meet them, that is, in the God who binds us all together across space and time; we may hear their voice; we may attend to the way in which they have become icons of God’s way and will; we may watch for their faithful decisions, and learn a thing or two about the call of God within our own place and time. 

What Jesus learned, in prayer, for his own pilgrimage is communicated by what Mark then tells us through the device of a cloud and voice, a device well-known and understood by his Jewish community.  Just as Yahweh, a voice in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, had confirmed the identity and destiny of the people of Israel as they crossed the red sea and then journeyed toward the land of promise, now the cloud of God and the voice of God confirm and encourage Jesus in his messianic identity as the suffering son of God.  Indeed, in doing so, they repeat the message Jesus had already received at his baptism, a story already told by Mark at the very beginning of his gospel.  We conclude, therefore, that Jesus here receives a reminder and an encouragement from his Father.  To finish what he has begun.  To walk the way of the wilderness to his own land of promise, even as his ancestors have done.

Yet it is not only Jesus who receives encouragement and guidance.  Those who are listening to this story as preaching, the members of Mark’s community, are present in the story as the figures of the disciples, Peter, James and John.  Think, for a moment, about how the story unfolds from their point of view.  In following Jesus up the mountain, it has been made clear that they, too, are apprehensive about what the future may hold.  On the one hand, they are excited about the ministry of Jesus, his preaching and his healing.  They are filled with hope for what God may do with them and for their suffering people.  Yet they have also become quite disoriented by Jesus’ more recent talk about how the messiah must suffering and die.  What does it all mean?  Is God with them or not?  How could the death of Jesus accomplish anything useful at all?  Will God also abandon Jesus, in whose face they have discerned the very image of God on earth?  So, these are the questions that swim around their heads and hearts as Peter, James and John camp with Jesus on the mountaintop.  At that very moment, Mark tells us, Jesus was transfigured before them.  His clothes became shining white, whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them, white as the glorious presence that had appeared to Israel, to Moses and to Elijah.  Only this time the glory emanated from Jesus himself.  The divine shekinah shines out through the suddenly translucent body of Jesus their friend.

What did Mark want his community to hear in this story?  And what would the Spirit want us to hear?  To return to where I began, this morning, I want you to note that the transfiguration is the closest Mark comes to telling a resurrection appearance story.  Only, unlike the resurrection stories that appear in the other gospels, this one (which precedes them all diachronically) is placed right in the middle of Jesus' ministry in Galilee, well before the crucifixion ever occurs.  It is a very, very brief revelation of divine glory, and of the resurrection life promised by God.  It is a foretaste, if you like, of the end of the drama in which we are all, as Christians, enrolled.  It assures us, as it assured Mark’s community, that God may indeed be found with Jesus, and that Jesus will see us through, even in the middle or midst of our pilgrimage, even when we are most knee-deep in the mire of our difficulties. 

Yet, and this is important, the story of the transfiguration does not deliver, for all that, the kind of certainties that many contemporary forms of faith would seek to deliver.  Certainties about being saved from poverty, illness or addiction, or from the real-politics that makes for war, genocide and the flight of refugees.  Note, in the story, that the revelation received does not transform the disciples into warriors of faith who can suddenly say, finally and definitively, who God is or what God is up to in the world.  They see and hear God, certainly.  They see God flash out at them in brilliant glory; yet it is the very brilliance of the revelation that guarantees that they will grasp very little of God’s detail, as it were.  They hear God’s voice from the cloud, certainly, but every Jew knows that clouds hide as least as much as they reveal.  The whole thing is over in a moment, leaving very important impressions, memories, hopes indeed. Yet, in the end, the disciples are given nothing other than these, nothing more substantial by which they might command or control the forces arraigned against them.  It is salutary to note that when Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain once more, the work of healing and preaching continues, and it is just as hard and thankless as before.

What is Mark telling us?  He is telling us this.  That the life of discipleship is not usually about the experience of triumph and victory and power; it is about God’s revaluation of these values, such that experiences of defeat, weakness and tribulation are nevertheless charged, in faith, with a persevering dynamism of divine care and love.  Neither is discipleship about having a clear and unambiguous relationship with God that arms us with power to finally transcend the forces arraigned against us, whether from within or without; it is about the hope that Christ will accomplish what we could never, in a million years, accomplish for ourselves.  What Mark tells his community through this story, therefore, is what he would also tell us this morning: that the life of discipleship is about getting on with life not triumphantly, but faithfully, through the often very hard yakka of caring and preaching in a world which the gods of our age have rendered blind and deaf and dumb.  And being sustained in that by the impressions, traces and hopes given us in the transfiguration, that is, by a capacity to see the divine Spirit quietly and constantly at work where others see only toil and trouble.

The story of the transfiguration is, in Nicholas Lash's memorable phrase, an 'Easter in ordinary'.  It tells us that even the most difficult and dark places of the earth are nevertheless alive with the presence and activity of God.  With the eyes of faith, which are given the Church precisely in the revelatory story of Christ’s transfiguration, it is possible to see that God does not abandon us in our ignorance, in our mediocrity, or even in our poverty.  God is present here.  God is working there.  God is making the resurrection happen by even the smallest increments of loving invitation and of hope.  Even the smallest. 

Now I don't know about you, but for me this message of Mark's is very good news.  Because I don't find the Christian life to be particularly victorious.  And I've never met a God who wants to rescue me, magically, from every difficulty.  But Mark tells me that an authentic discipleship is about being prepared to follow Jesus to the cross, and find there that even the very worst that human beings can do to each other is not strong enough to overpower the love of God for this crazy old world.  Mark tells me that the liberating power of the risen Christ is available at any time, and in any place.  Not as apparently miraculous fireworks or the arrival of the marines.  But as the power to persevere in faith, hope and love because these, and only these, have the power not only to outlast evil, but to so absorb its power that it is no longer evil.  That is a sermon for another day.  But for now, know that this I hold in faith: when evil and death have withered away, faith, hope and love will still be there.

So here's a practical suggestion right at the end.  A suggestion for how you might find that that presence of Christ if it seems to not be there.  Get on with being a disciple.  Read the gospel of Mark.  Notice what Jesus does in his ministry in Galilee.  And do the same.  Repeat it otherwise in your own place and time.  Remember what the young bloke said at the tomb?  'He is not here, he is risen . . .  go and find him in Galilee'.  Which mean 'go and find him in the midst of being his disciple and sharing in his ministry, and the ordinary will be transfigured before you'. 

I’d like to close with a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in a reflection on exactly these themes, says this:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:        
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.  

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

As Hopkins says:  Christ shines out in everyone and everything that is Christ-like in the world.  He worships his father through everything that the just do to worship him, which is to say, in everything that that seeks to repeat his words and his works for our own times and places.  In this is our hope and our glory.  Not in creating a justice and a peace from our own imaginations, but in the imaginative reception of what Christ would render unto his Father through a heart of faith—perhaps even your heart, perhaps even mine.

Garry J Deverell
Feast of the Transfiguration