The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, 2018 – Mark 9:1-9, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, 2 Kings 2:1-12
I have seen two remarkable things this week: South Korea sparkling in the night, circles of light rising to meet a golden ring in the sky in an ode (the commentator said) to peace. I have seen South Korea sparkling. And I have seen a car launched into space. A car in space, taking pictures, no less! Elon Musk not only makes electric cars, of course, he makes rockets, and this week he tested the Falcon Launch, the heavy-payload rocket he has designed, its first load the Tesla, complete with camera, launched into orbit around the sun.
It is remarkable what a human being can do, this work of our hands, drones and holographs and a Tesla in space with the round world rising behind it, ingenious and beautiful. Indeed we are, as the psalmist says, marvellously made. And so the backdrop is all the more striking. It is space we are talking about, after all. Space. Light years of darkness, an infinite silence. The camera battery on that Tesla lasts only 12 hours; disappointing because it would be fascinating to see what the asteroid belt looks like when (if) it gets there. But it would not be possible to find a battery that would last long enough to get there. And in between—only darkness. Days and weeks and months of darkness, and an immense silence. This is space. The universe is vast beyond our imagining. The nearest star outside our solar system is 4.24 light years beyond the sun. And the sun is a mere 93 million miles away.
Did you know that if our Solar System were the size of a nickel, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would be 3 football fields away? Three football fields laid end-to-end. And in between a great darkness and a silence so complete we cannot even imagine it.
We can launch a car toward the sun and that is dazzling to our eyes. But in the infinite reaches of the universe it is a movement so small as to be imperceptible.
It is something like this, something on this scale, that we meet today on this Feast of the Transfiguration, in the face of Jesus Christ.
Peter and James and John think they know this man. And he is indeed remarkable. He has called them from their boats and they’ve left them behind, left their jobs and their lives, without a second thought. He astounds the crowds with his preaching. He heals sick people by the dozens and casts out demons with a word. He has taken Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and made her well again. He is remarkable, the disciples think.
But they have no idea.
There is something here, knocking on the door of their lives, that is vast beyond their imagining.
“After six days Jesus took Peter and James and John and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves alone. And he was transfigured before them. And his garments became dazzling white, white like no fuller on earth could bleach them.”
He is transformed before them, high and lifted up on that mountain, and the Ancient of Days looks out of his eyes. There is one who comes in garments dazzling white. Daniel tells of him:
As I watched, the prophet says,
Thrones were set in place,
And an Ancient of Days took his throne.
His clothing was white as snow
And the hair of his head like pure wool.
His throne is flames and its wheels burning fire and 10,000 times 10,000 stand around him.
This is the Lord God of Israel, and he comes in judgement and in power.
The court sat in judgement
And the books were opened.
At the coming of the one in garments dazzling white the beasts that haunt and oppress the earth are destroyed and their bodies cast to the fire.
There is a power here vast as the endless reaches of the universe, ancient beyond all days, rendering the time of our lives and the time of this earth and all its teeming multitudes infinitesimal, tiny, the blink of an eye, a nickel in a football stadium, in 3 football stadiums laid end to end.
There is one here who is vast beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp in power and in radiance and in truth.
On this day the disciples look at Jesus, and the Ancient of Days looks out of his eyes.
This is the Last Sunday after Epiphany. It is the season of the light of Christ. It begins with the child at Christmas, a child in his mother’s arms and three kings kneeling at his feet. Jesus comes to us in the beauty of the child, gentle in his mother’s arms. We mark his coming with a gentle joy, the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the warmth of gifts and home. Jesus comes thus gently, as one of us.
And this is true. This is who he is.
But on this day, with the disciples on this mountain, we see more.
We see fire and a throne and the Ancient Holy One coming in judgement; righteousness itself, truth, truth unexpurgated, in his eyes.
It is no wonder the disciples were terrified. It is God with whom we have to do in this man Jesus the Christ. There is something greater here and more impenetrable even than the infinite reaches of the universe. The throne of righteousness. The judgement that is true.
What is truth? Pilate said, when Jesus stood before him. And Pilate is right. We have no idea. Pilate speaks for all of us in the face of Jesus. We think we know him, but we have no idea. We send up our rockets and our circles of light into the night sky—but about righteousness, about truth, about the judgement of God we have no idea.
We speak of peace—we long for peace—and again and again we find ourselves by our own efforts on the edge of obliteration. South Korea, bravely throwing up light into the sky while North Korea looms on its doorstep: it seems to me an apt metaphor for our time.
Who are we, to speak of peace?
Who are we, to speak of peace, to speak of justice and truth? We speak of truth, we call for justice, and in the church our battles over what is true and just tear apart the people of God. Who are we, to speak of justice and of truth?
Look into the eyes of Jesus, his dazzling and thorn-crowned eyes, and ask yourself who we think we are. It is useful to be taken up the mountain on this day with Peter and James and John, because it reminds us who this Jesus is in whose presence we stand and who, by contrast, we are.
We are heading into Lent this week, into the way that begins with ashes—with our inability even to see the truth, that day in the garden of Eden, let alone to speak it—we are heading to Ash Wednesday and the way that begins with ashes and leads to a cross. The first step on this way is to look on the face of Jesus, radiant with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, and ask ourselves who we think we are.
For if we remember who we are, we may remember who God is, too. He is the Ancient of Days. Righteousness and truth, dominion and judgement, are his. And he is the one who looks at us from the face of Jesus Christ. Impossibly he looks at us, this Ancient of Days, from the face of Jesus Christ, and he takes our hand. At Bethel and at Jericho and at the Jordan river he takes his people’s hand. To Jacob fleeing for his life he holds out his hand in a ladder of angels (Lo, I am with you, God says); to the Israelites before the mighty walls of Jericho and at the Jordan river, in Moses and Joshua and the great prophet Elijah God is with his people to judge and to redeem. Every step of the way God is the one who walks with his people and holds out to them his hand. This Ancient of Days. It is impossible, and it is true. See the radiance in the face of Christ on this day, his dazzling and thorn-crowned face. He is the one who alone speaks true, and he holds out to us his hand.