Alpha: Essence

Nicky Gumbel offers in Questions of Life that the essence of sin is to live as if God does not exist, or at least to act as if the god who does exist is not God. Sin is characterised as disobedience and selfishness.

But I wonder what that says when we consider the Kingdom of God as our starting point. Are sinners saved by grace (we tend to call such persons “Christians”) sinning when they live outside the requirements of the Reign of God? What of those who obey the Ten Commandments, practice the rituals of the congregation, seek to display all of the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit, and operate out of the charismata but don’t actively protest systematic injustice or poor stewardship of the natural environment?

Is it enough to be Evangelical and focused on soul winning and Scriptural discipleship or do we need to think about the out working of what the world would operate like if God were king and no other sort of monarch or president were?

Included to be Transformed: Strength for the Hard Thing (Transfiguration)

This is the message I preached to Dudley Uniting Church (American River) on Sunday 9th August 2015.

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

There are four readings today and one key message: however I warn you now that it might not be the message you were expecting. It might seem rather straightforward to pull a valuable word from God out of the story of the Transfiguration, but I always believe that there is much more to be gleaned from the scriptures than what is immediately obvious.

In 2 Kings 2:1-12 we read of how Elisha refuses to be left behind. God is about to do something magnificent and the young prophet wants to be there to see this thing, regardless of the personal distress it might cause him at seeing his friend and mentor taken away. The other prophets are negative but Elisha refuses to be swayed so when the time comes Elisha is present and Elijah gives him his blessing. The companies of prophets are at a distance but Elisha is right on the spot and he is deemed worthy of seeing the fullest manifestation of God. No doubt this was inspiration to his courage and it enabled him to dwell in this positive memory when things got tough. Elijah tells Elisha that he has asked for a hard thing, but the hard thing is granted to by God because of Elisha’s determination to see God at work. I believe it’s not the double portion which is the hard thing but the fact that Elisha had to watch while Elijah was taken away. God acts but only one brave man is permitted to witness it.

In Mark 9:2-10 we read the familiar story of the transfiguration of Jesus. We have all heard this story before since it occurs in three places in the New Testament, once in each of Matthew (17:1-9), Mark, and Luke (9:28-36)’s gospels. Like the story of Elisha this event also involves the giving of strength in preparation for a hard thing, and like that story the display of God’s glory is restricted to a chosen few. I’ll deal with the second part of that statement first. At Mount Hermon, as reported by Mark, three men see the glory of God manifested but they are strongly commanded not to tell anyone else until God has displayed even greater glory at a later time. This is particularly interesting to me for two reasons, both connected to my studies last semester when I studied the Synoptic Gospels and also the Gospel and Letters of John as two of my four subjects for college.

Interesting thing number one: in what most scholars believe to be the original form of Mark’s gospel there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus. In Mark 16:8 the women flee in terror from the empty tomb and the story ends there. So a particularly glorious appearance of Jesus is found only in this story in the middle of Mark’s account and not at the end. The fullest extent of the glory of Jesus in Mark is found while Jesus is still alive in fully human form: I think that’s interesting. It’s kind of inspiring too; we don’t have to wait until the great and terrible End of Days or even the end of our own days to glorify God in our lives.

Interesting thing number two: there is no story of the transfiguration in John at all. Remember I said that there’s three stories, in each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Yep, three, not four, there’s no equivalent story in John. Why not? Well the theory, and without boasting I emphasise that this theory earned me a High Distinction in my oral exam on John, is that John didn’t need to have a specific story about the gloriousness of Jesus because Jesus is glorious the whole way through John. The first verses of John’s gospel describe “the Word” and the majestic and universal fullness of the glory of God: how could one event in the life of Jesus ever hope to surpass that? A transfiguration is not necessary for someone so glorious and continuously gloried as Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 we read of how the truth is hidden from some, and that this hidden truth consists in a personal encounter with Jesus who is the glory of God. According to verse 4 the story and the message of Jesus is hidden from unbelievers by someone referred to as the god of this world, which to follow the way Paul uses language means something akin to “the god of now”. I am sure that since all of us have unbelieving friends and relatives we can each attest to that from personal experience. But the god of this world is not satan, rather it is the stuff which is worshipped by the world: this god is stuff. It’s not the devil that is masking the truth from unbelievers or veiling their sight, it’s all the crap they have put their hope in instead of putting it in Jesus. No-one places their hope in satan, but most people, (and since Christians are outnumbered in the world it is “most people”), most people place their hope in something or someone other than Jesus. So what is our response to this? Well look at verse 5, the answer is to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. We don’t want to replace world’s love of stuff with a love of Christian stuff, or their incantations with Christian incantations, or their idols with Christian idols. We want to replace their false sources of hope with the true Christian source of hope, and we have only one source of hope don’t we. Don’t we? We speak of Jesus Christ who is the glory of God and who was at the time of his death and resurrection was the light shining in the darkness.

In Psalm 50:1-6 we read of another spectacular activity of God, but this time an action to which the whole world is invited to witness. God comes and does not keep silence we read in verse 3; nothing is secret or kept only for the inner circle any more. Everyone must come and everyone is allowed to come to worship the one God who is righteous. Now the glory of God is displayed to all and even those who don’t wish to see it will see it nonetheless. The glory shown first to one man, and then to three, and then to all who believed in the darkness, shines now as a brighter light shining though a background of light and no-one is exempt from seeing.

Well that’s all good, the coming of light to ever more people as the generations roll on, but what is the point of that light? Well, there are three points:

  1. The light displays God: God is glorious and no one can deny it. I’m just going to let that statement stand because that’s the message you will have heard from previous sermons on the Transfiguration.
  2. The light displays us: by the light of God’s glory and by our interaction with God within the light we are transformed. Again I’m just going to let that statement stand because that’s also a message you’ve heard before.
  3. The light displays God’s grace in the times of the Hard Thing.

So here is the obvious yet somewhat unexpected message from today’s reading about the Transfiguration: God’s displayed glory reveals God’s grace in the time of the Hard Thing. One of my commentaries titles its paragraph on Matthew 17 “Peter, James and John Have an Assuring Vision”, and here is where we get back to what I mentioned but did not expand when talking about Mark 9. I said that the transfiguration of Jesus was similar to the miraculous assumption of Elijah because it was strength for the witnesses for the hard thing.

Let me ask you, have you ever wondered why only three of the twelve were invited to accompany Jesus to the mountain top? Have you ever wondered why anyone at all was invited? After all Jesus often went off alone to pray so why did he take spectators this time? I wouldn’t be surprised if transfiguration wasn’t a regular event for Jesus and that this gloriousness shone from him every time he went off alone to pray; but on this occasion Jesus invites these three men knowing that what they will see will blow their minds. So why these three and why now?

Like me you’ve probably been told that Peter, James and John were Jesus’ favourites who composed a sort of “inner three” within the twelve. As the closest and most trusted friends of Jesus they were his strongest allies and most devoted disciples. Have you heard that before? Well that might be true, I’m not here to say that it isn’t, but I want to suggest an alternative. Some of the best known stories about these men actually involve them failing. Peter denies Jesus three times in the pre-dawn darkness of Good Friday, and he is actually called “satan” by Jesus and told to get out of the way of the purposes of God in another story. James and John take Jesus aside at one point and ask for the cushy places next to him when he comes in glory as ruler in Heaven, sort of his right-hand and left-hand guys. These are the same three, and only these three, who Jesus takes further into Gethsemane on the Thursday night to be near him while he pours his desperate guts out before God. And what happens? Zzzzzz.

We don’t hear of these sorts of colossal failures with regard to the other nine, except perhaps for Judas but according to John Judas was a lost cause all along and doomed by prophecy to be so…but that’s another story. So I wonder whether Peter, James and John were actually the weakest of the twelve and rather than being a sort of elite they were more like the Special Needs kids who require extra tuition to keep up with their classmates. As had been the case when Elisha saw the glory of God manifested right before his eyes and ears, which encouraged him to utilise the double portion of blessing and outdo his mentor by a score of two to one, so these three “slow kids” were given special booster classes in practicing the presence of God so as to get them up to speed for when the crucifixion and the persecution come. And look, even in the midst of such a special class Peter still puts his foot in it and offers to build shelters.

So the take home message from today’s reflection on the Transfiguration of Jesus is found in the developing narrative of all of our stories. The glory of God is patient and longsuffering, the glory of God is kind, the glory of God does not hold a grudge but instead works to bring healing and strength to those brave enough to pursue God. What started with one man, then three, then the many who believed in the testimony of the saints, is experienced ultimately as the source of comfort and elevation of everyone alive. No one is left behind by the glory of God because no one is ever left behind by the God of glory.

In the transfigured Jesus we see God in the fullest expression available to humankind. Beyond the transfigured Jesus is the glory of God which is see-able only by those who no longer belong to the Earth, those like Moses and Elijah who appear on the mountain with Jesus. But what we also see is a man transfigured by God in the fullest way that God can while than man lives. Jesus was never again seen as so glorious until he was resurrected: the promise for us is the same. In the words of a great leader of the early centuries Church, Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a man most fully alive”. In the story of the transfigured Jesus we see God at God’s most God-ness and we see ourselves at our most godlikeness this side of Heaven. In the stories of those who have seen God’s glory we see the mercy of God as the revelation of that seeing.

Glory be to God.