Sunday, October 18, 2009

neat service: transfiguration of Jesus

Sunday morning’s service included a baptism. We’re seeing a steady stream of local, more working-class adults, who have not previously been in church, saying yes to Jesus. We put a lot of effort into our local community mission and baptisms are wonderful encouragements.

In addition, we had four people share short testimonies in the service. As the service was being shaped around the transfiguration in Mark 9:2-14, during the week I had emailed the church, asking if anyone had an experience of “awe” – whether silence or song, preaching, communion, or art, public or private, while loving a neighbour, or simply driving down the road – that had changed their walk with God and they might be willing to share. Four people said yes. Each was profoundly different, a reminder of God’s living and vital presence.

It seems to me that the stories of God’s activity, whether in baptism or in testimony, are just SO important in terms of change processes.

And for those interested, aware that I’ve been wrestling with the Transfiguration Bible text all week, here is the sermon. With a nod to David Letterman, U2, Transfiguration art, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Chalcedonian Creed Introductions are important.

John Key, our Prime Minister, was recently introduced on US TV, on the David Letterman Show (video clip). And the audience laugh and cheer. Because the introduction is designed for comedy, to poke a bit of fun at us Kiwis.

I sat in a conference a few weeks ago. I watched another introduction. The world’s biggest rock star, Bono, on video, introducing an African woman from Uganda. An Aid’s worker. And so Bono, the world’s biggest rock star asks us to stand, for Agnes, one of the greatest campaigners in the history of Aids relief in Africa. An introduction that inspired respect.

Introductions. They’re important. And today we examine a Bible passage in which God introduces Jesus.

God introduces Jesus: transfiguration. It’s an introduction that is found in four places in the Bible. It’s an introduction thats grounded in history. Based on information provided by the Bible, the introduction is most likely to have occurred on this Mountain; Mount Meiron, the 2nd highest mountain in Israel.

It’s an introduction that’s surrounded by criticism and misunderstanding. Jesus been preaching and healing. As he’s talked, as he’s acted, as he’s ministered, he’s polarised people. Some love, some follow him. Others have begun to hate him.

Which has caused Jesus to ask the question: in light of all this criticism: Who do you say that I am?

And the disciples give him some feedback. Some say you’re a nutter, too much time in the Jewish sun. Others say possessed by a demon. Other’s say you’re a re-incarnated spiritual giant, like John the Baptist, come back to life. Other’s say you’re Messiah. And Jesus, by Messiah, we mean that you’re here to lead a military coup, to take up arms against our Roman oppressor. That’s in chapter 8.

And now in chapter 9, it’s like God decides to answer the question. Who do you say that I am? And so in Mark 9:2-13 God introduces Jesus.

The first introduction is visual. Uses eyes only. Reading from Mark 9:2-4. That’s a visual introduction. Eyes only. Jesus, who’s clothes becoming dazzling white. And the appearance of two dead men, Elijah and Moses. And if you’re like me, your Bible has no pictures and you’re going. I wonder what it looked like. If you’re anything like me, you have a very stunted imagination. So we can turn to artists.

Here is the picture from the St Johns Bible. In this visual introduction, we see two figures. Perhaps this is Moses with the book of the Law. Make this Elijah. And Jesus, dazzling white. Much of the whiteness is in the shape of the cross.

Here’s another visual introduction. It’s from the Transfiguration by Andrea Previtali in the 14th century. Again Jesus is closed in white. We see the Father, present in the cloud and speaking via the scroll hanging down from the cloud. The Spirit is present in the symbol of the dove.

Both pictures, both visual introductions, want to remind us that this is Jesus is; as it says in the Chalcedon Creed, written in 451 AD, that this Jesus is
truly God and truly man;
in all things like unto us, without sin;
one and the same; not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;

So when we think Jesus, we always need to think fully human. Get’s tired like you and me. Is limited by time and space. Like you and me.

I have a friend. He’s a teacher at a Bible College and he likes to get people thinking about Jesus fully human, fully divine, by asking his students if Jesus could fly a 747 jumbo jet. If the pilot had a heart attack, and the plane was about to crash, could Jesus fly it. Well, a fully human Jesus couldn’t. He’s limited, like you. And me.

As it says in Phil 2:7, Jesus emptied himself, of his divine power.

As it says in Hebrews 5:8, he learned obedience from what he suffered.

Fully human.

But when we say that, it becomes too easy for us to take Jesus for granted. Just a teacher. Just a mate. Just a guy hanging out.

So here in Mark 9, in the midst of the criticism, in answer to the question: Who do you say that I am? God is introducing Jesus as both fully human. And fully divine.

It’s like God pulls back the curtain. We catch a glimpse of who this Jesus really is. Still a human. Still with a face and a body and clothes. Yet clothes that’re bleached whiter than white. And able to talk with people long dead. Like the Jesus is not bound by our human understandings of time and space.

If we’re honest, at this point, we’re all are scratching our heads. How on earth can this be? How on earth can one person be both fully human and fully divine. How on earth can a human body have clothes and yet dazzling white?

On option is to laugh. I imagine David Letterman would. To dismiss this as the invention of some backward Jewish peasants (not that we’re racist), who’ve spent too much time in the Jewish sun.

Another option is to realise that there are actually lots of things you and I believe, even if we don’t understand. I don’t understand how space can be so big space. To quote Hitchhikers Guide to the Galazy “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is.” But that doesn’t space doesn’t exist.

I personally struggle to understand love. Doesn’t mean I didn’t believe it when I saw my wife.

Why can’t Jesus be something you and I don’t understand? In fact, surely by definition, God should be hard to understand. Surely, if God is God, then God should be able to do things that are outside our human logic, our understanding of what is rational and logical.

So that’s the first introduction. It’s visual. Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

The second introduction is verbal. Uses the ears only. It’s in verse 7: Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.

Which is quite an introduction, isn’t it?

I mean, imagine if, before I spoke today, my father had got up. This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him. It would make you think, wouldn’t it?

And so this visual introduction, this shining white thing that we’re struggle to understand, is defined by words of love.

I suspect many people carry quite different words when it comes to God. More like: This is Jesus. Fear him, because he’s gonna get ya if you do bad things. Like this art picture by William Blake. In which God is old man. With a beard. Up in the sky. Ready with thunderbolts. Fear him. Because he’s gonna to get ya if you do bad things.

What a contrast to God’s introduction: This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.

The human response. We find one response in verse 5: Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Lets respond by staying here. Let’s respond. By building a house in memory of our past. What we used to know. Our existing understanding, our Jewish reverence for Elijah and Moses. We respond by staying here.

We read this passage at our church meeting on Wednesday nite. Later we discussed the possibility of a building name change. As we discussed, I did begin to wonder if I was hearing a similar type of response to that of Peter. Let’s stay here. Let’s stick with what we know.

What challenges me in this passage, is what Jesus does. verse 8: Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain. Jumping down to verse 14: When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.

And so God is introducing Jesus. Peter wants to stay there. Stick with what he knows. But Jesus is walking on. Going back to the noise of the crowd. Back to the criticism. As we see in verse 17, back to the pain of a person who’s head is filled with demons.

That’s the challenge of meeting Jesus. Easy to respond by creating a sanctuary, in memory of our past. The choice of Jesus is to walk on. To leave the mountain and find people who live in pain.

Which would be a pretty challenging place to stop. We have a choice about how we respond to God’s introduction of Jesus. Laugh. Dismiss him as a nutter. Or we could be honest. Admit that there’s lots about life we don’t understand. But that there’s something about this Jesus, about the mystery of fully human. Fully divine. that’s worth following.

Which is a good place to stop.

But. But. I’m a bit of a teacher.
So please. I’ll be brief. I promise. Can I make some brief points.
Firstly, that God’s introduction has stacks of echoes from the Old Testament. That the phrase This is my Son has echoes of Psalm 2:7; You are my son. And the phrase “listen to him” has echoes of what God says about Moses in Deuteronomy 18:5 . That many of the events surrounding Jesus are similar to Exodus 24, when God confirms the covenant with Moses. So that’s my first brief point, that this Jesus is meant to the Old Testament. Only greater.

Secondly because I’m a theologian, can I make the brief point. That in this Bible passage, rather than Jesus leave his human body behind, we see the opposite. We see that Jesus keeps his clothes, keeps his face, keeps his skin. So rather than his flesh life melt away, his human body, his skin, his senses, is actually becoming more fully glorified.

Third, this introduction has echoes in the New Testament as well as the Old. That the word in Mark 9:2, the word “transfigured”, is the Greek work metamopheo. Which also appears in Romans 12:2: be metamopheo by the renewing of your mind. Be transformed, like Jesus, be transfigured, by the renewing of our mind. So rather than our flesh life melting away, rather than needing to get rid of our bodies and our senses and our minds, let God metamopheo, be more fully glorify in our bodies. “God is not opposed to things human, [rather God] first puts them back together by assuming flesh [in Jesus, fully human, fully divine .”

Fourthly, because I’m not just a theologian. But I’m also a human being. As such I get tired and worn out, I love the fact that when God introduces Jesus, and the clothes becoming all dazzling white, it’s like the curtains being pulled back and we see just how beautiful and how full of light and life God really is. Which means that when I get tired, worn out, I am offered the chance, through Jesus of connecting with all of God’s eternal life and light, all of God’s everlasting creativity and passionate strength.

4 points which I’ve tried to make as brief as possible.

Let me finish with a story: Of a church. That was facing at an uncertain future. Going through the difficult process of change. Which, if we take today’s Bible passage seriously, means that this church has a choice.

Just like the disciple Peter. To stay there. Build huts. Look back to what they used to know.

Or to follow Jesus. To leave behind what they know, in order to walk out and be among the lives of people in their community and workplaces. A choice that you would make, not because your church has history, even if it is nearly 100 years. Nor because the church has good leaders. Or even a building project.

But simply because we put their faith in God’s energy. God’s power, God’s creativity. Seen most fully in God’s Son. This is my beloved. Listen to him. And so let’s take some time to listen.

Posted by steve at 10:26 PM


  1. Bono, the world’s biggest Rock star?? Not as long as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are alive.

    Comment by Ingrid — October 19, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

  2. that claim is based not on personal preferences, but on album sales, times on front cover of Time magazine, and the fact that their current tour will be the biggest attended rock tour in history,


    Comment by steve — October 19, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  3. It is not quantity, but quality that counts.

    Comment by Ingrid — October 19, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

  4. ingrid,

    your comment is a long way off the topic of this post – a neat church service, testimonies of life change and a sermon on mark 9.


    Comment by steve — October 20, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  5. You’re right, Bono is off topic.

    Comment by Ingrid — October 20, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

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