Sermon: Transfiguration, 11 February 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 11th February 2018 (Transfiguration)

Rev. Paul Weaver


 (2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-12; Mark 9:2-9)

Last time I preached at St.Alban’s, I commented on the complications of celebrating Epiphany on the Sunday before January 6th, when January 6th is not a Sunday. Today we are commemorating the Transfiguration of our Lord, although the traditional date for this commemoration is the 6th August. Of course that means that it only makes it to a Sunday one year in seven. Our Australian Lectionary invites us to focus on the Transfiguration on what it quaintly calls “the Last Sunday after Epiphany”. I think the old Book of Common Prayer did it better by calling this Sunday “the Next Sunday before Lent”, although it did complicate matters by also calling it Quinquagesima, which refers to it being fifty days before Easter – of course counting Easter Day itself as part of the fifty.

Here we are then with our Gospel reading telling us of this very strange event we call the Transfiguration. But it is not the only strange event we heard about in today’s readings. In our first reading from 2 Kings we heard about the taking up of the prophet Elijah into heaven. Both passages tell us who were witnesses to these events, and in both cases these people experienced glimpses of what we might call a greater reality.

Elisha had been called to become the servant and assistant to the great prophet Elijah, whose ministry took place more than 800 years before the birth of Jesus. Much of his ministry involved battling with the kings and rulers of Israel who regarded faithfulness to the Lord as a very minor priority. But now he was coming to the end of his ministry. The question was whether Elisha was ready to succeed him and to continue his prophetic ministry.

In our reading Elijah is shortly to leave Elisha, and he tells Elisha that he is off to Bethel. Elisha insists on coming with him. As we heard in the reading, there is a group of prophets in Bethel who ask Elisha whether he knows that Elijah is about to leave him. Elisha tells them to keep quiet about it, not to remind him about it, and he makes clear to Elijah that he is not going to leave him. The same thing happens again when they go to Jericho. Despite all the warnings Elisha is not going to give up following Elijah.

Elisha has made clear his determination to keep following Elijah, a sign of his commitment to this ministry. The old prophet asks Elisha what he can do for him. Elisha has a final request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

It is not that Elisha wants twice as much spiritual power as Elijah had, although I’m sure he wouldn’t have said no to that! In those days, the oldest son was regarded as the main heir in the family, and received a double share of the inheritance, compared with the other sons. So Elisha was asking for a full inheritance of the spirit that was in Elijah. This of course is not Elijah’s to give: it is a hard thing. It is up to the Lord. But Elijah assures Elisha that if he sees the old prophet as he is taken, then he will indeed receive a full inheritance of Elijah’s prophetic spirit.

Elijah is not recorded in the scriptures as dying: a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate them, and Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. But Elisha sees, and while he can still see Elijah he cries out, “Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

When Elijah is out of his sight, Elisha tears his robes in a symbol of mourning. Elijah may not be dead, but he is gone, his earthly life is over. Elisha must now take up Elijah’s ministry, and so he does, showing in different ways that he has indeed received a full share of the prophetic spirit. The new prophet goes on to have a powerful ministry to Israel.

It’s a strange story, not without its touches of humour. We might wonder what exactly happened, and how literally to take the account. I find it most helpful in cases like this to take the stories as they are presented, but to acknowledge that they are simply the best available way of describing what happened. And I acknowledge that when people describe the extraordinary, there will of course be more that could be said, and there will be questions which we might want answered.

What is clear is that Elisha saw something unique. He did not just have a vision of the departing Elijah, or of horses and chariots. He had a vision of a reality beyond his own earthly experience: a glimpse of the heavenly reality. He had to be watching carefully to experience it, but he was indeed prepared for the vision that he had.

Nearly 900 years later another group of people shared in another unique experience. It was on a mountain, away from the crowds of people, just like when Moses and Elijah had their extraordinary encounters with the Lord. In the scriptures a mountain is often the place where God reveals himself in a special way.

Jesus takes his inner group of disciples, Peter, James and John, to share this time with him. And they see Jesus transfigured before them. His clothes become dazzling white, and his appearance glorious. They know Jesus as the teacher and healer, but now they are seeing something of his true glory; the curtain is unveiled for a few moments in time.

But it is not just Jesus they see. For Elijah and Moses are also there, apparently quite recognizable, and they are in conversation with Jesus.

And then Peter opens his mouth. He’s a bit like quite a few politicians we know: too much to say, and too often saying the wrong thing anyway.

“Master”, he says. “It’s so good that we’re here. You three obviously have a lot of catching up to do with each other. Why don’t the three of us construct some shelters for you, just like there were in the wilderness? Then you can take your time.” Mark excuses his not very bright suggestion by saying that the apostles were all terrified and he didn’t know what to say. One thing is clear: however terrified they were, they didn’t want to let go of this unique experience.

A cloud, so often in the Old Testament a symbol of God’s presence, overshadows them. And then comes a voice of authority: “This is my Son, my Beloved: listen to him!” Jesus is God’s unique Son. It’s almost as if the Lord is saying: “Peter, just take the foot out of your mouth. Stop gabbling on, and simply listen to Jesus!”

And then it is all over! The cloud is gone. Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus looks the way he normally does. And Jesus tells the three apostles to say nothing about this to anyone, not before he has risen from the dead. They have seen something of the divine glory of Jesus: it’s a preview of what one day all Jesus’ followers will experience. But it’s not yet time for everyone to know.

For the others, the first taste they will have of the glory of Jesus will be when he has risen from the dead. And whenever Jesus talks about dying and rising again, none of the disciples is able to take it in. They like the idea of glory, but they don’t see that Jesus’ glory will only come in its fullness through suffering and death, as well as resurrection. But right now Peter, James and John have had an extraordinary experience: they have seen the glory of Jesus in a unique way – almost a preview of heaven.

It would be nice to think that Peter took in the lesson to be learned, not just about Jesus, but about the way he needs to respond to Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God, revealing God to us in his Gospel of love and forgiveness and hope. And, perhaps the best starting point for us also is simply to listen to Jesus. Listen to Jesus in his teaching, his parables, in the challenges he presents to us.

Thinking about the transfiguration is a pretty good thing to do with Lent approaching. We think of Lent as a time of preparation, of discipline, and of reflection. It is a good time for us to hear God’s call to “listen to Jesus”: to make time to read and reflect on his teaching and the message of the scriptures; to be open to his voice as it comes to us. And remember that in the Bible, to obey is really a slightly different version of the word “to hear”. To hear Jesus’ voice aright is to obey.

So as we approach this Lenten season, let us make time to look for God’s special revelations and his less spectacular revelations. Let us make time to listen for the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. And let us be open to his call to stay close to him and to follow in his path of love. Amen.

  Paul Weaver