A down and then up perspective doesn’t fit into our Western philosophy of progress, nor into our desire for upward mobility, nor into our religious notions of perfection or holiness.
Reflection of the Week - 16 February 2021
By Rev Vicky Balabanski
Posted in Faith
The Transfiguration Mark 9:2-10
Every so often, when you’re out in nature, you look up and notice something. Something that may have been there before, but your eyes have been focussed elsewhere and your mind is distracted -- jumping ahead to something else. All of a sudden you look up and see something remarkable.
A picture taken near our place on the Yorke Peninsula, down near Port Moorowie, south of Yorketown. I walk along that beach often, but at this particular moment the light broke through the clouds, and I noticed again the big picture – how creation reveals God’s magnificence. For me at that moment, ‘the heavens [were] telling the glory of God and the firmament [was] proclaiming God’s handiwork’ (Ps. 19:1). My perception was changed – it was transfigured.
When you look at other photographs you may see how the photographer has captured a moment when creation reveals God’s glory. A moment of epiphany.
It’s often connected with light, isn’t it? It’s often connected with nature, with the sky and with clouds. With a horizon. It’s often connected with solitude, with stepping aside from the run of the mill tasks and having time to clear the mind. The transfiguration that I am talking about is not just out there, but is in fact a transfiguration of our perception of our self in relation to the whole. At such a moment we are struck with a sense of our own smallness in relation to the universe. We are a tiny speck in the universe, yet we are infinitely privileged to be present. It’s the sort of moment when you find yourself lost in wonder, love and praise.
The story we’ve heard from Mark Chapter 9 is – I think – such a moment. It’s a time set apart from the journey that Jesus and the disciples are on. Only a few people are involved. There’s an ascent up a high mountain, dazzling light and a cloud. Up there is what we might call a thin place – a place where heaven and earth meet. That meeting is in the person of Jesus, but the context is not incidental. Those who are there gain a moment of insight into the big picture of God’s purposes. And then of course there’s the descent back to ‘normality’. The questions that arise for Peter, James and John are not swept away, but their mountain-top experience gives them a different context in which to think about them.
So I want to spend some time thinking about the Transfiguration with you.
Actually there are four accounts of the Transfiguration in the New Testament: one each in the Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke and one also in 2 Peter 1:16-18. There is no account of transfiguration in John – but that’s something for another time.
Despite the fact that there are four accounts, I think it’s fair to say that the Transfiguration is a neglected story in the Church, or perhaps more accurately in the Western Church. Unlike Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ death or his resurrection, we don’t give the Transfiguration much attention. Actually we are not quite sure what to make of it. We know that there’s lots of symbolism involved, but we’re not quite sure what to make of this collective vision.
So let’s think a little more about the story as Mark tells it.
‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. (Mk. 9:2)
Six days later than what? Well, Jesus has just stated ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ Some, though not all of the disciples are going to see something that shows the reign of God coming with power. The six days may remind us of the account in Exodus when Moses ascends the mountain to receive the two tablets of stone Ex. 24. But Mark clearly connects what is about to happen with glimpsing the reign of God having in some sense having come with power.
The account of the Transfiguration is that glimpse, and it is something that only Peter, James and John witness. This is a tricky thing, because these are the three disciples that fail particularly badly when it comes to discipleship in Mark’s Gospel. Peter has just been rebuked, and not long after the Transfiguration, James and John are going to vie for the best seats when the reign of God comes in power. Perhaps the privilege of accompanying Jesus up the mountain is an extra tutorial for slow learners.
Jesus led them up … the verb in Greek is ἀναφέρω. This is a religious technical term for offering up sacrifices, bringing something or someone (to an altar). I think Mark uses this word to hint to his community that what is going on here will be a significant religious moment. They are to expect something big.
Then we read: ‘And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no-one on earth could bleach them.’
In Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Transfiguration, they say explicitly that Jesus’ face shines like the sun. That’s what happened to Moses on the mountain – the skin of his face was shining, so that he had to put a veil on (Ex. 34:29-35). Mark’s account can also be read that way – Jesus was transfigured and his clothing as well. Mark’s focus though is on Jesus’ clothing. Earlier on in the Gospel, a woman had crept up behind Jesus and claimed her own healing by touching Jesus’ clothing (Mk 5:27-32). That was the woman with the flow of blood. Elsewhere Mark tells us that the sick in villages, cities, farms, and marketplaces had also touched the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mk. 6:56). Now this is the clothing that has become dazzling, radiant, glistening, the colour of light. It’s almost as though the power that went out from Jesus to heal the sick is now visible to the naked eye. Like the pictures that we saw earlier, the light breaks through and changes the perception of those who are looking on. The ‘reign of God coming in power’ and the person of Jesus are one.
‘4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.’ (Mk. 9:4 NRS)
It’s intriguing that Mark names Elijah first.
Just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus asked the disciples ‘who do people say that I am? The disciples reply that some people are saying that Jesus is Elijah – Elijah, the great prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and did not die. Elijah had been famous for healing, and for calling out injustice and idolatry. The Book of Malachi (3:1; 4:5) makes Elijah a forerunner of the Messiah, by prophesying that Elijah will return ‘before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.’ The fact that Elijah comes up again – this time on the mountain-top, in the story of the Transfiguration shows clearly that Jesus is connected with Elijah, but is not identical with him.
In some sense the great and terrible day of the Lord is upon them. But Jesus is not going to be taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire and in a whirlwind without tasting death. Jesus’ path to Jerusalem will be the path of his death.
The interest in Elijah continues after the Transfiguration as well. Straight after they all come down from the mountain in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples want to know more about Elijah and the traditions that say he must come first to restore all things. This means that the story of the Transfiguration is framed with questions about Elijah, and places Elijah alongside Jesus. Who is Elijah? Who is Jesus? How does Jesus fit into the big picture of God’s purposes? The Transfiguration shows that Jesus is in continuity with the prophets – symbolised in Elijah. Jesus is also in continuity with the Law, symbolised by Moses. The tradition had also promised that a prophet like Moses would one day be raised up by God; according to Deut. 18:15-18 this will be a prophet to whom Israel will listen. The theme of listening will reappear in a moment.
So Jesus is speaking with Elijah and Moses. Mark doesn’t tell us how the disciples know who these figures are, nor how the three disciples share this vision. This is a mysterious, transcendent experience of the glory of God in the person of Jesus. At this moment one might expect the disciples to fall silent – the sound of absolute silence on this mountaintop might have been in order.
But, instead we read:
‘5 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.’ (Mk. 9:5-6 NRS)
It strikes me that Peter is actually interrupting Jesus’ conversation with Elijah and Moses. Mark doesn’t tell us what the conversation is about. But Luke does. In Luke 9:31 we read: ‘They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ (Lk. 9:31 NRS). In Luke, Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah offers Jesus something – words of encouragement, solidarity, even companionship as Jesus takes the road towards Jerusalem and the cross.
Whatever Mark may have thought that the conversation held, we see that it’s cut short by Peter stating the obvious: ‘Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here!’ Calling Jesus Rabbi at this moment is not quite right, is it? It’s not quite adequate. And three dwellings are not quite right either. Is Peter thinking of the Feast of Tabernacles? The tent of meeting in the wilderness? Only one tent would be necessary then. Or is he simply wanting to hold onto the experience and prolong the glory? I can imagine all three figures turning and looking at him in some perplexity.
As a child, maybe I was eight or nine, I can remember butting into an important conversation my father was having with some people I didn’t know and taking over. I remember the incident because my father -- the kindest and most patient of men -- rebuked me. I was old enough to know better. I feel as though that’s more or less what Peter is doing here too. His own agenda is to get the right religious response in place. Start building booths, get cracking with the logistics. More buildings – that’s what we need! Peter hadn’t understood the passion prediction that Jesus had given the disciples, in fact Peter had rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing. It’s almost as though Peter’s making up for lost time, and is eager to show that he’s applying himself. Dear Peter. We can get so busy with our buildings, our tasks, that we miss the main point. To paraphrase some words of Jesus from another time and context:
‘Peter, Peter, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’ (Lk. 10:41-42 NRS)
In this case the voice calling him to his senses comes not from Jesus from the divine voice. We read:
‘7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"’
The cloud overshadows all of them. The Greek word for overshadow ἐπισκιάζω is deeply pastoral. It’s the word we also read in Psalm 91:4 he will cover you – overshadow you – with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (Ps. 91:4 NRS)
God’s gentle nurturing presence overshadows them, and they hear the restorative words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!’
Peter has already failed Jesus and will do so again. James and John will fall short as well. Nevertheless, God’s gentle restorative presence addresses them directly, not because they deserve it, but because God is gracious. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!’
The final three verses of our passage end the mountaintop experience abruptly:
‘8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.’
We’ve had the ascent, the mountain top experience and then the descent, yet the disciples seem none the wiser. They have been sternly ordered to keep silent until Jesus should rise from the dead, but they have no idea what to make of it all.
My dear colleague Laurie Mickan used to say: ‘You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.’
The disciples would learn from reflecting on this experience. Not only in the days and weeks to come as they accompanied Jesus on his road to Jerusalem. But later too, in the months and years ahead as they thought back on that time and explored their memory of it. At this point they haven’t yet learned from experience. At this point they still have a long path to walk.
The Transfiguration takes place in the central part of their Gospel story, where Jesus is transitioning from his Galilean ministry to his journey to Jerusalem. This mysterious story connects Jesus’ road to Jerusalem, his suffering and death with the story of the glory, victory and life. The story of the Transfiguration is told only after Jesus has spoken about his suffering, death and rising again. This context makes it clear that Jesus’ emptying himself on the cross can only be understood together with the insight that Jesus is God’s beloved child, the One who was and will be again highly exalted. The two truths are connected. By telling the story of the Transfiguration on the road to Jerusalem, Mark is saying: Jesus is on his way to the ugliness and squalor of the cross, but the Transfiguration shows that the squalor and ugliness of Jesus’ torture will not have the final word.
The beauty the disciples glimpse in the Transfiguration is the ultimate goal of Jesus’ life. The cross and the Transfiguration have to be held together.
I began with images of creation. The beach, the bush, a mountaintop – those are the sort of places which can surprise us with the presence of God, the presence of Christ today.
I said just now that the disciples had a lot to reflect on as they remembered the Transfiguration. This is true of the early church as well. As they reflected on the nature of Christ as revealed in the Transfiguration, they came to see Christ as:
‘ … the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.
17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Col. 1:15-20 NRS)
In reflecting on Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers recognised in him God’s Wisdom incarnate. The Transfiguration laid the groundwork for the insights that the early church reached into the scope of Christ’s significance. In the words of the Colossians’ hymn, Jesus Christ is none other than:
‘… the One in, through and for whom all things were created
(Col. 1.16) and who currently, continually and bodily manifests the whole fullness
of God (Col. 2.9). As such, Christ is the divine presence in Earth who animates and
directs all things towards life and wholeness, and sustains all things (Col. 1.17).
At the same time, Christ is also the One whose particular bodily human life, and
his actual death on the cross, reconciles all things to God.’ (Col. 1.20, 22).
I see in the story of the Transfiguration the elements of the cosmic presence of the Christ through whom all things are created and sustained. Christ and the natural world are closer than we may realise. The mountain top, the light, the cloud – what we might call nature – are not simply a backdrop, but an expression of Christ’s creative and sustaining presence. The velvety depths of the night sky legitimately tells of the glory of God and the presence of Jesus Christ.
As I conclude, I want to read you a couple of lines from Auntie Denise’s new book Anaditj that will be launched later today. They connect in my mind with the story of the cloud on the mountaintop during the Transfiguration. Auntie Denise writes:
Creation speaks to us. From where we are in Port Augusta as you look out at the hills there will often be this thick cloud that lays on them. It doesn’t always come. Vityi wandaka – it’s a message that someone is going to pass away. It’s a preparation time for us. When we see those clouds … it doesn’t come as a big shock. (The shock alone can take people out.) With us, seeing these signs and understanding how creation talks to us, we understand we are ready. We’ll see it in the morning and then say to our sisters that we’ve seen the death cloud on the hills. We’ll say naingka. We’ll prepare ourselves.
The cloud on the mountain top in the Transfiguration of Jesus is in some sense a death cloud – Jesus will be taking the road to Jerusalem and death. But it’s also a life cloud; the overshadowing of the Father, who brings life out of death. In the Preamble to the UCA Constitution, we recognise that through the First People’s Law, Custom and Ceremony, God has given them particular insights into God’s ways. This I think is an instance of that; God communicates through the cloud on the mountaintop and calls the Adnyamathanha to listen, to prepare. We are to listen to Christ, who comes to us in Scripture, through the wisdom of the First Peoples and through creation itself that reveals the glory of Christ, through whom all things were made.
I would like to invite you now to take a few minutes of silence to recall a time that you may have been somewhere or seen something that reshaped your perception of things. You may remember being out in nature and seeing light break through a cloud. You may remember some words that someone spoke that reshaped your perception of them or of yourself. You may remember when you hear a voice that encouraged you to listen again for God speaking to you.
Take a few minutes. And feel free to turn to your neighbour and share your story.
 Vicky Balabanski, Colossians: An Earth Bible Commentary. An Eco-Stoic Reading (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2020), 170.
 Denise Champion, Anaditj, (Published by Denise Champion, c/- Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, Elizabeth Terrace, Port Augusta SA 5700) 60.
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