Yr B ~ Transfiguration ~ Mark 9:2-9, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
This isn’t the message I intended to write. I’ve looked at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration so many times that I had decided to speak about the Corinthians passage instead and talk about how God’s light shines in us and through us. I’m still going to do that but I’m moved to talk about the transfiguration first – not his, mine!
But first his. Hopefully the story is very familiar to you. Jesus takes a couple of his closest disciples up to a quiet secluded place to pray. While there, while praying, while communing with God, Jesus has a profound spiritual experience described as being enfolded in the brightest white light which transfigures or changes his appearance, and in the midst of it images of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, appear – confirming and connecting Jesus to the highest and deepest parts of their spiritual tradition. The voice of God is heard blessing Jesus and telling the disciples to listen to his teaching and his Way. And the disciples with him are both terrified and awestruck and want to build a monument to mark the event and remain on the mountain top forever.
The story is called the Transfiguration. The Greek word is metamorpho-o – where we get our word metamorphosis. To be transfigured is to undergo a dramatic change of shape and appearance. It isn’t just that Jesus was bathed in a beautiful holy white heavenly light. It was that his appearance was transfigured, transformed, changed.
Please don’t be too literal here. It wasn’t like a holy plastic surgeon jumped out and gave him a new nose. But it also doesn’t just mean he was happy. It means he was so fully enfolded in that sacred moment in the Presence of God that it dramatically impacted the way he looked.
Ever see someone who’s just fallen in love?
Ever see someone hold their baby for the first time? That’s what a transfigured face looks like!
That was Jesus’ transfiguration, now I’d like to tell you about mine. Last week I spent a few days at a men’s spirituality retreat. As I wrote this part of this message I was at the Five Oaks retreat centre up early in the quiet morning sitting in front of a giant bank of windows overlooking a tree- and river-filled ravine watching the sun come up. As I wrote these words the sun was literally bathing me in a warm glow of morning light. The trees looked like they were on fire. The snow sparkled. I closed my eyes and could only see a red glow. Surely God was in that place! I was definitely noticing! A sacred, holy moment for sure – but was it a transfiguration?
Jesus didn’t just have a holy moment in the warm sunshine.
Jesus wasn’t just having a special morning prayer time.
Jesus was grasped by a love and a light so powerful that it seemed not just to shine on him but to change the shape and appearance of his face. A super bright spiritual light that changed his appearance and changed his life – so much so that his friends could see it and be awed by the change in him.
I’m not sure if that was what happened to me, but maybe I’m being too hard on myself.
Because I wonder if you asked one of the other guys who passed by the room I was in what they saw when they looked at me at that moment as I sat there prayerfully basking in the light and revelling in the moment – I wonder if they would say my face was transfigured, that I was glowing with a holy glow, that I appeared different because I was enfolded in the Presence of God and it was moving my spirit. I wonder if that look of shalom, contentment, joy, relaxation, connectedness, love, appeared to them like I was different, moved, changed…transfigured.
Then down at breakfast I picked the spot at the table where I could still see the sun shining, and I craned my neck and leaned over while I was eating so I could still feel the warmth. I was sad when it rose out of range.
After breakfast I went upstairs to my room to get in some more writing time before the group started up again and I noticed a bright ray of sun shining in the corner. So I set up my chair right in the corner and faced into the sun and felt the warm glow once again, and I cursed the stupid window cross piece for blocking some of it out. And I’m typing away leaning over trying so fervently to stay in the light – to stay in the moment.
So what was going on there?
It wasn’t just vitamin D therapy, it was spirituality.
It wasn’t just warm, it was wondrous.
It wasn’t just pleasant, it was Presence!
And as I sat there I totally felt like Peter, too. I didn’t want it to end! “Surely it is good to be here, Lord! Let us build a tabernacle, a church, a holy monument to this holy Presence and stay here forever!”
But we can’t stay on the mountain top forever. I couldn’t sit there basking in the sun forever. We have to get back into the flow of our regular lives.
Mark 9:9 “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
Ah the great mystery in Mark’s gospel of why Jesus doesn’t want people to speak about him. It seems weird to us, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m always saying we should share our story, tell people about Jesus. But Jesus says not to say anything here. Why? Is it because following his Way was really supposed to be a secret society and we’ve been doing it wrong all these centuries? Absolutely not!
I think it simply means this: really big, really powerful, life-changing, transformational things can’t be explained.
You have to experience it for yourself or it just doesn’t make sense on the same deep level. Think about it.
Think about trying to explain to someone what being in love is like if they’ve never been in love. Could words ever describe what you see in a person, or how you feel about them?
Think about trying to explain the attraction of your favourite kind of music to someone who’s never heard that style or artist. Could words ever describe the aspects of the music so well that they’d get it?
Think about trying to explain the exquisite delight of a warm, gooey, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie! By definition, such a thing is beyond words!
A person might be able to sense your excitement, and your passion, and it might even tempt them to try it out for themselves (which is great), but there’s no way you can put music into words, or love into words, or cookies into words, or an experience of spiritual transformation into words.
Against Jesus’ advice I’ve tried to convey to you how my “transfiguration morning” in the sunshine felt to me, and what it meant to me to have that rich spiritual experience, but there’s no way I can make you feel what I felt, or experience what I experienced with just my words. It’s impossible.
Minimally I may have given you occasion to reminisce about a warm day in the sun that you had.
Maximally, hopefully, I planted a seed of wonder in you, an inkling of a thought that maybe the next time you feel the warm sun on your face you might pause and open yourself and offer yourself to that holy moment that may bring you yourself an experience of basking in the Presence of God, and maybe it’ll transfigure you for a time.
So Jesus says to the disciples who witnessed his astounding spiritual transfiguration to not say anything, because they’d mess it up.
They’d fail. They’d sell it short. And they might do more harm than good.
People can’t be argued or described into a new way of being.
But they can be invited, or attracted, or intrigued, or enticed to maybe take the risk of checking it out for themselves.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t write about this in his journal that someone later found and shared with us. We get a second hand (or third hand, or thirtieth hand) rendition about what someone thought his profound spiritual experience looked and felt like, but Jesus himself only said to not try to explain to people what it was, because words can’t make them see.
I think this is what Paul is referring to when he calls the gospel veiled in 2 Corinthians 4.
“If the gospel we preach is veiled from anyone, it is a sign that they are perishing. The gods of this world have blinded the minds of those who don’t believe, so they are unable to see the glorious light of the gospel that is shining upon them.” [2 Corinthians 4:3-4]
It’s not hidden, it’s right there in plain sight, shining, but some can’t seem to see it. Paul’s argument is that there’s something blinding people and preventing them from noticing. I’ve been in the sunshine hundreds of thousands of times.
Why doesn’t it feel like a transfiguration every time the sun touches my face?
Could it be that the problem isn’t with the source but the receiver?
Could it be that the reason the sun isn’t always transformative is because I’m not looking for it to be,
or I’m not paying attention,
or my mind is too cluttered with all the stuff I think is important?
Verse 6 – “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
God said, “Let light shine!” Where have you heard that before? Genesis chapter 1. God’s light shines because it must. It shines on the good and the bad, on the deserving and the undeserving, on the awake and the asleep, on the aware and the unaware. But if you read carefully it doesn’t just say that God’s light shines on us but for those who are awake and aware it says “God has shone in our hearts.”
Are you awake? Are you aware? Are you noticing?
Let’s say you are. Now what? What do you do now?
God shines light and love and that light and love has shone in you, SO THAT (my two favourite words of discipleship) SO THAT our hearts can give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
We are called to share the light of the knowledge we have about what the face of Christ looks like when it’s all lit up with God’s Presence. (Are you still with me?)
It’s a subtle but important difference. It’s not head knowledge that we’re supposed to share necessarily; it’s experiential knowledge – knowledge about how Jesus looked at transfiguration – about how we feel when we have those transformational moments – not to educate, but to inspire wonder.
“Hey you, there’s light! I’ve seen it! I love it! It’s awesome! It’s shining on you right now. You should really try some!”
At the end of the retreat all the guys said goodbye to one another and cleaned up. Some of us were staying for a last lunch together so I had some free time to put in. Great! Sermon writing time! I looked around for a seat and guess what? There in the corner of the room was a comfy chair bathed in sunshine. I made a beeline for it. Ahh! Warmth! Light! Big deep breath.
Instantly I’m back in that beautiful sacred space – that sacred spaciousness. It isn’t the same as the earlier experience; it’s more like an echo, or a rhyme.
But it helps me remember.
It helps me re-member.
It reminds me that God’s light is always shining on me.
It reminds me that God’s love is always shining in me.
And it makes me want to shine on everyone I encounter –
Not to tell you how to experience what I had, but to proclaim that there is an experience to be had!
Not to tell you what the face of Christ or the image of God looks like, but to proclaim that there is a face to behold, a Presence to be enthralled with, a love to be embraced and then shared.
The point of transfiguration Sunday isn’t to look with awe on the historical mountain top thing that happened to Jesus – the point is to open ourselves to the possibility that it can, and will happen to each and every one of us. You can be transfigured with the light and love of God. It just takes openness, prayerfulness, patience, and wonder.
God’s light shines. It has shone on us and in us. And when it does, when it really does and really gets into you and lights up your deepest places you don’t build a monument to it – you ARE the monument to it. You take it with you! And it shines through you wherever you go.
Lit up and transfigured we share that light that lights us.
Because we’ve been changed.