Sermon 14 February 2021


Transfiguration

Recently when I have got up in the morning and have drawn the curtains back, I have been greeted by dull skies, bare trees, and little colour. Another mundane day ahead. But just occasionally the sky bursts forth with shades of orange, pink, purple and the hills glimmer in the distance, and hope and joy wells up inside me. I think this is a little like the transfiguration. A revelation of beauty in the midst of the normal and mundane. God showing off a glimpse of his glory. We long to see the glory, majesty and evidence of God’s presence with us but most days we don’t. We believe he is there, we know that our faith is by believing and not by seeing, but sometimes we just long to encounter the presence of God in a tangible way. Nothing in or of this world measures up to the simple pleasure of experiencing the presence of God. Aiden Wilson Tozer

Every time I read the story of Moses asking to see God’s glory in Exodus 33, I know exactly what he means. I too want to see more of God. Moses had had so many examples of God’s presence with him; the burning bush, the signs, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and yet he still asked to see God’s glory! The more we encounter God the greater our desire to see more.

According to John Piper the opposite is also true: If you don't feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.

What Moses saw is sometimes called the shekinah glory. Shekinah glory is the Hebrew name given to the presence of God dwelling on the earth. The word "shekinah" does not actually appear in the Bible, but in Hebrew it can mean "he caused to dwell" and it was the term given to a divine visitation of Yahweh. A notable example of the Shekinah glory is the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that guided the Israelites through the desert.

The reality for most of us is that we don’t have amazing experiences of shekinah glory  although we may catch glimpses of God’s glory and presence. Those glimpses are precious and we often don’t want them to stop. I think that this is what happened for Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration. He came out with this apparently foolish statement “Let us put up three shelters” which Mark goes on to say, ‘he did not know what to say he was so frightened’. He blurted it out, but I think it came from his heart. He wanted to stay in this moment. He didn’t want it to be transient. Having encountered the glory of God so unexpectedly, even though he was afraid he wanted to capture this experience.

In some ways the story of the transfiguration is so strange that we don’t really understand it and why it happened. In fact some people have even suggested that it was made up but there are so many eye witness details that this seems unlikely. It seems to me that the answer to why it happened is actually in the last verse we read. Here Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone what has happened until “the Son of Man has risen from the dead”. We know that at this point they don’t really understand what Jesus is talking about when he talks of rising from death but this vision of him in glory with Moses and Elijah is a glimpse of who he is, a foretaste that will explain his power over death. If they told people before the cross and resurrection it would serve no clear purpose. It was an experience to hold close to their hearts when the going got tough and they were seeking a way through confusion.

There is so much in this event that we call the Transfiguration.

Firstly, Jesus takes just these three disciples up the mountain. Peter and John were to lead the early church and James was the first martyr. They were being prepared for what lay ahead.

Mark does not name the mountain and originally people thought it was Mount Tabor but that is only 1900ft so now it is thought it was probably Mount Hermon which is 9400ft. In many ways the physical location does not matter but we do know that it was a high mountain. In other words it was quite a walk. This speaks to me both of solitude which we so often need when we encounter the presence of God, and the fact that encounter with God does not occur easily. The men walked up the mountain. They did not know what to expect at the top but it took effort to get there. They had walked with Jesus, probably talking to him along the way.

When the transfiguration happened, it was a surprise! You don’t plan an experience of the glory of God!

The first sign of the Glory of God was that Jesus’ appearance changed. His clothes became dazzling white. Whiter than anyone could bleach them. Today we are used to all sorts of lighting effects in films but the disciples only knew simple candle or lamp light. They had never seen anything like this before. Interestingly across the Middle East many people have encountered a man in shining white in their dreams and this has led many to faith in Christ.

The transfiguration is also a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Moses who represents the Law and Elijah who represents the prophets meet and talk with Jesus. Elijah had been taken up to heaven by God himself and Moses was said to have been buried by God in a place unknown to the people. Both men had had amazing mountain top experiences – Moses when the Lord had passed in front of him as he hid in the cleft of a rock and Elijah in the quiet voice after the wind, earthquake, and fire.

However, these mountain top experiences didn’t happen out of the blue, they followed times of real trial and desperation. Both men had been questioning if what they had been doing was worthwhile. Moses had returned to the mountain top after the people of Israel led by his brother Aaron had made the golden calf. Elijah was exhausted after the battle with the prophets of Baal when fire fell on his sacrifice and Jezebel had vowed to kill Elijah. The Lord’s glory is revealed as we live out our faith – not when we watch from the side-lines.

Then a cloud came down, reminiscent of the cloud of the presence of God in the desert. And out of that cloud came a voice. We have heard reports of a voice from heaven before in Mark’s gospel when God spoke to Jesus at his baptism. This time the voice is not for Jesus but for the disciples. He repeats what he said the first time “This is my Son, whom I love” – an affirmation of Jesus’ identity and standing with the Father. Then he says, “Listen to him!”. The people of the Old Testament had been expected to listen to Moses and Elijah, now the disciples were told to listen to Jesus. Not only in the glory moments but in the everyday. What Jesus had to say was important, and the Father wanted to underline this to the disciples.

Moses and Elijah disappear leaving the disciples with Jesus. This amazing encounter has ended and things return to normal as they descend the mountain. From here on Jesus is clear he is approaching the cross. This moment of revelation, of shekinah glory, of clear presence of God is not followed by celebrations or a holiday. It represented a change up of gear. The moment of glory is preparation for challenges ahead.

In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul speaks of people being blinded to the light of the gospel, they are unbelievers. This implies that for those of us who believe we will see the light and glory of Christ. But I think that the story of the Transfiguration makes clear that if we want to see the glory of God we need to walk up the mountain. To walk with Jesus in the normal, to listen to him in prayer and the Word and in the Lord’s good time we may be surprised by moments of shekinah glory but like Peter we can’t capture them and make them permanent, they are reminders for the journey ahead.

 

 

 


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