Seeing things as they really are…sermon on the Sunday next before Lent 2021, for Adel Parish Church.
Mark 9: 2 – 9
I’m not quite old enough to remember the first space flights and moon landings, although I’m told my Dad, very uncharacteristically, stayed up all night listening to the radio coverage. It was, after all, an amazing moment in human history. For the first time we were venturing away from our planet, out to new worlds.
We sent astronauts to the moon wondering what they would find…life? little green men? cheese? But strangely, what blew their minds was looking back at earth from space. It seems that travelling out of their ordinary places enabled them to see the earth as it really is.
From Yuri Gagarin onwards, astronauts who see this view have experienced a sudden awareness of the fragility and unity of life on our planet.
Today’s gospel tells of a similar experience for Peter, James and John. They too step outside normal life. Mark is not a great one for descriptive details, but he makes sure we know Jesus led the three up a high mountain…apart, by themselves. Maybe the first century equivalent of going into space.
And they too have an experience which changes their perspective. They’d been with Jesus daily, they’d listened and watched…but, away from the ordinary, for a moment at least, they encountered God. Dazzling whiteness…old testament prophets…the voice of God…combined in the revelation that Jesus is God.
Most of us will only ever see the earth from space in photos and films. But what of transfiguration, an encounter with God? Is that just something to read about?
Not necessarily…but I think we have to be willing to go to the mountain top. I know…’chance would be a fine thing’, but although mountains help, I think it’s more about finding a way to step out of the everyday. And about openness…entertaining the possibility of something more…the possibility of encountering God.
It could happen anywhere, but for me there’s something important about being apart, away from distractions. I’m looking forward to the going on retreat again…but in the meantime I find the space by going to church for morning and evening prayer.
I know, it’s easy for me – I can put it in my diary as work. If you’re juggling home-working and home schooling it may sound like an impossible luxury. But if you do anything this Lent – perhaps try to find a moment each day or even each week, to be somewhere slightly different, even just a different chair, with nothing to do but focus on Jesus.
There’s no promise anything will happen…I’ve not been dazzled, or heard God’s voice…but just occasionally there’s an almost physical sense of encountering God through the person of Jesus. Our modern world doesn’t have much time for things we can’t explain rationally. But perhaps as people who confess, however tentatively, that Jesus is truly God, we should be ready for the mountaintop experience.
Because those experiences are life-giving and life-changing. I don’t think Peter, James and John were taken up that mountain just for their own well-being. I think it shaped them as disciples.
Many astronauts who view our beautiful planet hanging in the vast darkness of space are profoundly changed. Apparently, they experience three things: first, a realisation of the insignificance and fragility of life; then a sense of how we are all connected to, and responsible for, one another and our planet; finally, they’re struck by a desire to fight for the future, to protect our shared home and all its inhabitants.
It’s as though, from space, they see the earth as it really is…a precious home shared by one common humanity…and it makes them want to act.
I think something similar happened to Peter, James and John. Their first desire is to stay in that amazing moment…‘let’s build 3 tents for you’…but Jesus leads them back down. It’s not what they find on the mountaintop that matters, but how it changes their view of what they left.
This glimpse of Jesus’ divinity stays with them as they follow Jesus to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and the cross. It helps them grasp the impossible idea that God chooses, by all human measures, to be a failure.
They didn’t go up the mountain to discover a superhuman Jesus, but to see more clearly the Jesus back in everyday life. Jesus loving the outcast; Jesus praying in sweat and terror in the garden; Jesus mocked and humiliated; Jesus dying as a common criminal, abandoned by his followers.
That mountaintop experience gave them the confidence, in the end, to stop looking for a saviour coming in glory…and recognise that this is where we find God. It gave them confidence to proclaim this new way of living and form the early church.
I think, sometimes, we need to rediscover that perspective. Time and a different culture can make crucifixion look heroic, exotic. It wasn’t – it was commonplace… mundane, a cruel way of getting rid of the troublesome. In a memorable phrase from Herbert McCabe…’Jesus died of being human.’
And in the end, this is perhaps what the dazzling vision prepares us for…God choosing to be utterly, but perfectly human. Someone who got tired and weary as we do, someone tempted as we are, but who refused to exploit power, to hide behind illusions, to meet hatred with hatred. Someone who, whatever happened, trusted in God, forgave and loved.
Jesus who teaches us what being truly human looks like…
In some ways, living through this pandemic has been a kind of transfiguration experience. We’ve been forced out of normal life…and begun to see it as it really is. Like those astronauts, we’ve seen how we are all one, how we all depend on one another. We’ve seen very clearly how unequal society is.
So this Lent, let’s open ourselves to an encounter with God’s mystery. Let’s use it to give us courage to follow Jesus’ example. And as we become more truly human perhaps we will give others the chance to live more fully too.