2011-03-20 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Chris Adams
20th March 2011
Genesis 12:1-4a, 22:1-18; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
Matthew 17:1-9 (NIV)
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I have titled the theme of my sermon today ‘Transfiguration’ following in line with last week’s sermon on the ‘Temptation’ of Jesus in the desert, since alliterative titles are clearly a vital and necessary sign of a holy and well-conceived sermon series. I leave it to next week’s preacher — Sue, I believe — to fall in line, making whatever wranglings of text or theology are necessary in order to come up with an appropriate T-starting sermon theme title.
So, as the title suggests, I am going to spend the sermon-minutes today reflecting and ruminating on the event of Jesus’ transfiguration. I would like to bring into the reflection the passages we have heard previously, detailing the Abrahamic story of God’s promise, the sacrifice of Isaac, and then Paul’s commentary in Romans on Abraham’s justification. I would also like to weave in elements of my own background and personal journey.
I am strongly drawn to images and stories of transformation. I am attracted by this idea that an object, a person, a life can, in a moment, become radically altered. The Bible is full of such moments and we can read Jesus’ transfiguration in connection with them. Take Saul on the road to Damascus, when Jesus stopped him and said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul was blinded by the vision of Jesus before him, the light of the world piercing his eyes, and for three days, Saul’s sight slept, as in a tomb, until one of God’s messengers touched him and scales, like grave clothes, fell from his eyes and he became Paul. I wonder what metamorphosis overtook him in that darkness, when the scales fell from his eyes — was it like coming out of the womb into the light of day for a second time? These moments of radical transformation are enticing in part because they involve a direct and seemingly sudden interaction between the human and the divine. Saul is at one moment Saul, an event occurs (really only covered in a few short verses) and Saul is now Paul. The whiplash must have been extreme.
And to continue the examples, prior to his own transfiguration, Jesus was already speaking about this Divine movement, a Divine change in being. The alternative Gospel reading for today was from John 3. To be honest, I dismissed it right out of hand, opting for the passage from Matthew, because John 3 more than any other passage of scripture recalls to my mind a childhood of Bible study, scripture memorization, conservative church culture, prayer meetings, accountability groups, mission trips, and Sunday morning services. Not that any of these things is in and of themselves bad—but they have collectively formed a system which I have found painful. So, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’ etc etc is the sign and hallmark of my previous relationship to God. In John 3, Jesus also speaks about being ‘born again’. Thus:
John 3:3-7 (NIV)
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
And therein lies the phrase that dominates evangelical Christian culture—to be ‘born again’. A re-birth; a literal renaissance. Change, transformation, transfiguration are bound up in notions of the kingdom of God; they are, as Jesus says, the entry points of the kingdom. So in the story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ final line is:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
A momentous change has taken place, and Jesus points his disciples to a time in the near future that signals the start of a new order: when “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” — when a second, perhaps more mighty transfiguration has taken place (that of the revitalization of the dead body) — ushering in the Kingdom of God.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I would like to pull the schoolboy essay trick of quoting from the dictionary for some easy content. I, however, feel wholly justified in doing so since I spend several hours a day pleading with the Oxford English Dictionary to tell me the definitions of words that went out of fashion four centuries ago. Anyway, back to the topic at hand: definitions.
I have been using a general vocabulary of change so far in this sermon — transformation, transfiguration, change, metamorphosis — but in the passage about Jesus, the Bible translation chooses to use the word ‘transfiguration’ (and, indeed, the word ‘transfiguration’ is so connected to this particular passage of Scripture, that one of its definitions is ‘the change in appearance of Jesus Christ on the mountaintop’. But its primary definition is: ‘transfiguration n. the action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.’ The noun form of the word is related to its verb ‘to transfigure’ which comes with its own definition: ‘to alter the figure or appearance of; to change in outward appearance; to transform’.
I find the slight differences in definition to be quite interesting, as the two definitions appear to be in tension with one another. The verb ‘transfigure’ refers to outside shape — ‘to change in outward appearance’. The noun—‘transfiguration’ — however is glossed as a ‘metamorphosis’ which can involve more than a change in outward appearance, but is rather conceptualized as a ‘complete change’. In the span of time between verse one and verse eight, Jesus undergoes a radical experience. He is — the verb — transfigured. But perhaps the transfiguration — the noun — is about more than a change in outward appearance and is in fact more representative of a culmination of all that has gone on before rather than a sudden and momentary experience.
The transfiguration then took place not instantaneously on a mountaintop but slowly, starting even at his birth, and continuing through his time of temptation in the desert, through his ministry, and here — on this high mountain — the change, which has been sub-ficial, sub-dermal, manifests itself in an awe-filled and luminescent moment.
I have, to this point, been spouting some rather disorganized thoughts about transformation and transfiguration — though the sermon may pass the T-in-the-title test, it likely fails the ‘three points and a conclusion’ test. But then, I am not sure that there are always clear points to be drawn from instances of change. We may be able to examine the causes leading up to it, or the effects proceeding from it, but the moment itself is often hard to pin down. I would now like to shift to a question: what about after the transfiguring event? Here I would now like us to recall the passages that were heard relating to Abraham.
Genesis 12:1-4a (NIV)
1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.
Genesis 22:1-18 (NIV)
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,
7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altarthere and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time
16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,
17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,
18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (NIV)
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh,discovered in this matter?
2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.
3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”[a]
4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.
14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless,
15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
The first Genesis passage concerns God’s promise to Abraham — to make him a great nation, to bless him and through him, to bless all people. During the second passage we see God’s test of Abraham and the sacrifice — or attempted sacrifice — of Isaac. And finally in the Romans passage we hear Paul’s commentary on Abraham as a man justified by faith.
Kierkegaard in his short but powerful work Fear and Trembling ruminates on the Abrahamic story and the Abrahamic journey of faith. It has been a few years since I have read the book, but one of the more striking ideas I remember from it is Kierkegaard’s assertion that the real test of faith for Abraham comes not from the ‘will he or willn’t he’ of the sacrificing Isaac bit, but rather the return to society — the coming down from the mountain, and the re-accepting of his son ‘with joy’ as Kierkegaard describes it. Or, the reintegration into life as it was before.
While you may have been distracted by all that business going on in verses 1-18 of the Genesis passage, verse 19 is in fact a key phrase ‘Then Abraham returned to his servants’. Because that’s just it — no life can go on ‘just as before’ after such an experience. Something has fundamentally altered — something life altering has happened, has been done to Abraham. The angel stayed his hand, but what must Abraham think of a relationship with a god who would put him into such a situation in the first place? Yes, he has demonstrated a resignation of his will to the Almighty by going up the mountain, even by placing his son on the altar, but he demonstrates faith in the going down the mountain, in continuing onward.
This is Kierkegaard’s admiration for Abraham: that Abraham could resign himself to God’s command and then receive Isaac back with joy. The mountain for Abraham is his own transfigurative experience.
I think the idea of transformation, even in a seeming instant, resonates with me because of my own experience of transformation. Indeed, I would imagine that all of us have experienced these moments which, like Jesus’ sudden change on the mountaintop, seem to clarify all that has gone before and significantly alter all that will come after. Personally, my own coming to terms with my sexual identity was just such a defining moment — in one moment a blithe asexual and in another moment a deeply frightened homosexual. The mental transfiguration that occurred felt like a mountaintop experience — not in the glorious sense as Jesus’ experience on his mountaintop but rather in a harrowing test sense as Abraham’s experience on his mountaintop. As I look back on that period of change in my life, I identify with Abraham’s transformative experience but also with Kierkegaard’s skeptical admiration.
How can we understand change that is both monumental and painful, and can we continue to relate to God in the same way after the moment of transfiguration? In response to the second question, I think ‘no, change in ourselves alters our relationship to God’ — but I do not think it must necessarily change our relationship with God. I am not ‘Christian’ in the same sense or even same terminology as I was two years ago — I do not seek to convert the masses, and, as mentioned, I have problems relating to standard tenets (and even verses) of evangelical Christianity. But at the same time, transformation has placed me in a new position to consider and relate with God.
One more thought before I conclude: I have been listening to many podcasts over the last three months since one of my jobs involves some fairly mindless work. Recently I’ve been listening to the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. through the Black Media Archive. I was listening to his speech to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961 in which he begins talking about an old order, represented by prejudice, racism, and injustice giving way to a new order, a time in which justice and civil rights will extend to the African-American community and the wider global community. But he says something very perceptive about the transitionary period: he says that we must not walk with bitterness into the new age. That the pain caused by the old and reflected in the time of transition itself must be let go of if we are to walk unencumbered into the new. The change Jesus undergoes on the mountaintop is both figuratively and literally a ‘mountaintop experience’ — a highlight, but prefiguring the dark road that lies ahead to the Cross, a time at which he chooses to release bitterness by saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is free to enter into death — but he is also free to enter into a resurrected life.
To conclude: transformation is both individual and social — Jesus, in a single verse, is transfigured. But he is also transfigured ‘before them’, that is, before the disciples. The change takes place or manifests itself in Jesus because the disciples are also experiencers and participants in it. And not just the disciples, but Elijah and Moses, as well. And the force and nature of the change is strong and overwhelming for the witnesses. Peter, no doubt shocked and confused, says the first thing he can think of: “I will build three shelters for you.” Not only is the statement just a bit, well, off — but it also misses the point. Jesus is transfigured, he becomes ‘white as the light’ — the change is a visible one, one to be witnessed, not sheltered. The moment of change is, itself, a glorious moment, but it cannot be sheltered in the sense of hidden, nor can it be sheltered in the sense of contained, or maintained and perpetuated. A shrine to change somewhat misses the point.
So as we consider moments of change in our own lives and as we experience this time of transition in the life of our church — notably in how and where we worship and in how congregational life will appear in the passing of the LMC and the arrival of a new centre— let us recognise that these moments are inspired and touched by the Divine. And that our responsibility is to enter into it with hands that are not clenched but rather open-facedly welcoming the new.