The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, 2015 – 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became shining white, whiter than any fuller on earth could make them.
This is the day of Jesus’ glory: on the high mountain, like Moses on Sinai, covered by the cloud that is the presence of God. Like Moses Jesus shines with God’s glory—only more so. For Moses’ face shone with reflected light, but Jesus is transfigured, in his whole person glorious; himself the light. All of Epiphany comes to a point in this day, and the light of Christ that began in a stable, small and precious like a baby or a candle, blazes now from the man on the mountain-top. There is power here to claim a world; in Jesus, all the power of God.
It is tempting—maybe almost instinctive—to hear this passage as myth or metaphor. But that would be a mistake. Because the whole point of the glory of the Lord that shines today from the face of Jesus Christ is that it is real, down-to-earth, concrete. It has flesh and bone and sinew. The glory of God stands on the mountain and walks in the streets and touches those who are tormented by evil and pain and lifts them up, into healing. This man ablaze with the power of God is flesh and blood like the baby who sleeps in the manger. We get the baby. The transfiguration is harder.
Why? I wonder if it is because it is more dangerous. Everyone loves a baby; you can hold them in your arms, and they do not seem to overthrow your life—though, of course, they do. But Jesus blazing with the glory of God? That is a different story. Because if this is for real, if the glory of the God who spoke in creation shines now from the face of Jesus Christ, your life cannot be the same. God in Christ overthrows our world.
Yesterday at breakfast Robbie read to us Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest people. Bill Gates, of course, is at the top (though apparently he was beat out for a while by a TV magnate in Mexico). Warren Buffet is up there, too. Their net worth: 78.6 BILLION dollars and 73.8 BILLION dollars respectively. Christy Walton, owner of Walmart, comes in at 37.9 BILLION. Mark Zuckerburg is #17, at 32.9, but at 30 years old he is just getting going. The amounts are staggering—so large as to be incomprehensible—and the point is this. We think we know what glory is, in this world. We think it looks like the wealth of a Bill Gates or the power of an American President or the celebrity of your favourite actor. That’s why you can google these people: because they are important in our eyes. And so it continues on down the scale, and you end with the delightful irony of clergy angling for ‘advancement’ and biblical conferences full of scholars of the Bible feverishly networking for the sake of their career. We think we know what glory is, and it looks like the mountain-top.
This is, in fact, what Peter thought. Wow, he said, at the sight of the glory of the Lord shining bodily from Jesus the Christ. It’s good we’re here, Lord. Let us build you a sacred dwelling-place here on this mountain-top, a tabernacle; one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Let us establish you in fame forever; ensconce you in grandeur on top of the world.
Peter said what any one of us might have said; he did what every one of us does on an almost daily basis. He was charmed by power. He saw himself among the greats—Moses and Elijah, the great prophets of Israel, at whose return the kingdom would be established…and his teacher Jesus one of their number! Three shrines to the great on the mountaintop; three shrines announcing a kingdom and himself, perhaps, the gatekeeper; administrative assistant to Israel’s number one man.
But Peter got it all wrong. He did not know, the Gospel tells us, what he was saying. Note well: this instinct that runs so deep, these lists of the world’s wealthiest people; these cults of singers and stars; our own daily ambition, the cultivation of the people who matter—to believe that glory is power—this is to get it all wrong.
Peter should, perhaps, have known better. For right before Jesus took Peter and James and John up on the mountain he said to them this: “It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be killed, and after 3 days to rise again.” Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one who suffers, who is rejected precisely by the people in power. Who are Jesus’ followers? “If anyone wishes to follow after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
We, too, have heard these words. Think about the daily office reading just this past Wednesday. Let the little children come to me. It is the children, without influence, without wealth, without power—without importance for our triumphal procession through life—who are the people of the kingdom of God. This we have heard. And yet we hurry off, away from the children, even our own, to make more money and buy more things and work our way up in the world. But Jesus took the children in his arms.
The glory revealed on the mountaintop—the presence and the power of God—is known fully only in weakness. It has the strange shape of the cross. Before and behind the radiance of the Christ there is the shadow of the cross. Before the transfiguration, Jesus’ passion prediction—and after it his descent, into the streets of Galilee to face the unclean spirit, to cast it out and reach out his hand to the tormented boy and raise him up, as if from the dead. “Jesus raised him,” Mark’s Gospel says, “and he rose”: aneste, the word that is used in the church’s Easter greeting from its earliest days. Christos aneste, Christ is risen, they will say in Greek churches everywhere this Eastertide. Kai aneste, Mark says when Jesus comes down from the mountain and takes the boy’s hand and lifts him up out of the power of evil and death, into life.
It is a clear sign: it points forward, to Jesus lifted up now on a cross, taking us all by the hand, wresting us out of the power of death, raising us into new life. Before and behind the glory of Jesus there stands always the cross. This mountaintop points to another, the hill called the Place of the Skull. This is the shape of glory, and it looks like suffering love.
It is no accident that this moment of the glory of the Lord stands right up against Ash Wednesday. In Jesus we see the radiance of God’s face, and it is hedged about with suffering and with love.
Why suffering? Because we are suffering, caught in the toils of a world, a way of being, that is at war with itself and with God. Why love? Because that is who God is. There is this, too, in the radiance that shines from the face of Jesus on the mountaintop. It is not only that Jesus will give himself for us, for all the suffering people. It is that Jesus gives himself always. He is the Son, and he lives always to and for the Father.
And the cloud overshadowed them and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” My beloved; my son. The self-giving of God starts long before the Passion Prediction and the Mount of Transfiguration. It starts in the being of God; God who is Father and Spirit and Son, one in three, three in one. God is radically for the other, the Son for the Father and the Father for the Son, poured out in love toward each other in a continual song; the Spirit the song of their being, God’s life this unceasing song. “This is my Son, my Beloved.” Christ’s glory is to be the Father’s Son.
It is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, Paul says, that shines in the face of Jesus Christ. The knowledge of God, because the Son knows the Father and the Father knows the Son. That is what love means, the hope at the end of all our living: to know, even as we are fully known. It is love that marks the face of the Christ: this is who God is.
The problem with life as we often live it, with power and wealth and self-seeking, is that it is finally about myself. Me, myself and I, a solipsistic universe, a world of one. And that is simply not who God is. It is not the truth about life. The glory of God is for us. The power of God is that which pours itself out; in Jesus, power poured out in love for a suffering world. Christ’s hand stretched out, to touch the tormented boy, to take him by the hand and lift him into life.
This is what glory looks like. It is the hand stretched out. It is the life that suffers with and for the other. This is the place where life’s light is found. You will not find it on Forbes’ list—as Bill Gates himself seems to know, because he is seeking now to give most of his money away. You will not find this light of Christ in your own best interests. You will find it in Jesus, in listening to him. You will find it in the same suffering love. In a costly and time-consuming care, hand to hand, face to face; to lift up the broken-hearted; to give the weary rest. Here you will find radiance, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
For the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, for the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. AMEN.