Preached via Zoom for All Saints King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday After the Epiphany), 14 February, 2021
Readings for Today: Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Kings 2.1-12, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, Mark 9.2-9
The Transfiguration is one of those moments that we refer to in the gospels as a Theophany – God showing God’s self to others. Before now there are several moments in Mark’s gospel where Jesus reveals something of himself to others – his stilling the storm leaves the disciples “filled with great awe” (Mk 4.40) and his walking on the water leaves them “utterly astounded” (Mk 6.51), but this is something greater. Seeing Jesus turned blindingly white, and in the presence of Moses and Elijah, leaves the disciples speechless and terrified (Mk 9.6).
One can easily imagine why it would have been a shock. If you’ve ever been on a long camping or canoe trip with friends, seeing them dirty and tired, cooking and eating together, hearing them snore at night, well it’s the sort of thing that makes or breaks friendships. I imagine that’s the sort of life the disciples had lived with Jesus since he called them, tramping around Galilee, homeless, never quite knowing where they would end up for the night. Jesus must have become thoroughly familiar to them, as human as human could be, and that trip up the mountain might have first seemed like a hike with a friend, until their friend was revealed as the Son of God.
What are we supposed to make of the fact that this revelation of Jesus was so terrifying? As I’ve been pondering this gospel reading, I was thinking of how our parish bible study recently finished the Book of Proverbs, and how we noticed that the theme of Proverbs could be summarized by the phrase, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro 1.7). What does that mean? What is the place of fear in our faith? How could we even be fearful of the God of Love? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? And how could we possibly begin to share our faith with others if we said that you have to be afraid of God?
I would start to address these questions by saying that fear has a range of meanings, and in this sense, it has more to do with respect. When I am installing a new ceiling fan in my house, I should be afraid of electricity. When I’m approaching a crosswalk, I should be afraid of the power and mass of my car and what it could do to a pedestrian. If I’m put on trial, I should be afraid of the judge and what she could do to me. Fear in these cases means a healthy respect of power and authority. It has nothing to do with abject, disabling terror. Fear in scripture is about the overwhelming otherness of God, what the gospels call the glory of God. It’s better expressed in words like awe and majesty, an awareness of the power of God, the same feeling we might have standing at the railing at Niagara Falls.
C.S. Lewis captures this idea nicely in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in the figure of Aslan, the king of Lions, who clearly represents Christ in Lewis’ allegory. There’s a famous passage where the child-heroes of the book are being told about Aslan.
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”
The brilliant thing about our faith is that even though Jesus is revealed in these moments as sharing in the full majesty of God, we still long to see him. While Jesus is revealed on the mountain as being the apex of the Jewish faith, encompassing both the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) as the sole voice we should listen to, Jesus comes down off the mountain to be with us. It’s often said that the transfigured Christ does not remain up there in his dazzling glory, but comes down to live with, teach, and love his friends. Jesus trades his blindingly white robes for the traveller’s clothes that are more suitable for the dusty roads of Galilee.
It’s sometimes said that because the Transfiguration marks the end of Epiphany and the start of Lent, today is the beginning of a journey that takes us from mountain to mountain. Those dusty roads will take Jesus by stages to Jerusalem and to Golgotha, and to the darkness and death of the cross. But the road doesn’t end there … it takes a secret path to the garden and Easter Sunday, when Jesus will again be transfigured. Jesus predicted as much to his friends as they came off the mountain, when he “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk 9.9).
So it is that we follow Jesus because we see in him both the power of God and the love of God. We follow him because we need both so badly. Ash Wednesday, that most honest day of the church year, will remind us of our full dependence on Jesus to save us from sin and death. We will follow Jesus through Lent to Good Friday, when we will see that love in full view, in Jesus giving himself to the cross and death. On Easter Sunday we will see that power in full view in the resurrected Jesus.
So it is that we follow Jesus, knowing that in his transfiguration we see a glimpse of our own potential, for we know that God wishes to transfigure us as well. St. Paul says that our transfiguration begins in discipleship, when we put on Christ like a garment, and it is complete when we join those who have gone before us, so that, in the words of the hymn, we who will be “bright shining as the sun”, will have “no less days, to sing his praise, then when we’ve first begun”.
Gracious God, we thank you that your son shows us your glory in such a way that we can bear to look at it, so that in Jesus we see all your love and power. We thank you that in Jesus you set aside that glory so that he may walk with us, teach us, and die for us. May this vision of the transfigured Christ remind us of the glory of the resurrection and the restoration of all things through your Holy Spirit.