Six days later.
Six days after that moment in Caesarea Philippi when Peter perceives who Jesus is, that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one.
Six days after Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer and die and rise again.
Six days after peter tells him off for even thinking such a thing.
Six days after Jesus berates Peter for not recognising the truth and the necessity of accepting that crucifixion is coming.
Six days later.
Six days later, Jesus climbs a mountain with Peter, James and John.
The two incidents belong together.
The Holy Land pilgrim tourist industry take you up Mount Tabor, so for many people, that is the mount of the transfiguration. It is more likely to be Mount Hermon, which is close to Caesarea Philippi, where Peter had recognised Jesus for who he is.
Now there is a mountain, a real mountain, a serious mountain, over 9,000 feet at its height, higher by far than Tabor which is no more than a hillock in comparison,. On the border of Syria and Lebanon, Mount Hebron towers over the Golan Heights. It’s difficult to visit because it is politically sensitive, a United Nations buffer zone.
And why a mountain? Because mountains were places where things happen. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah experienced the still small voice of God on Mount Hebron. Mountains are holy places, where earth meets heaven and men and women can touch the sky. In China, all mountains are holy places, where the gods dwell and where humans visit to encounter the divine. So in the Chinese language, all holy places, however high, however flat, are known as mountains. Mountains are places where you go when you are ready to meet your god.
Did they get that, Peter, James and John, as they scrambled up the slopes with Jesus? I don’t think Jesus explained it or warned them about what would happen. They were just out for a jaunt. So they got to the top, which was an achievement in itself.
And then, and then, the atmosphere changed. Jesus was different. He shone! His clothes dazzled. He was lit up with the glory of God. It was like the Exodus when God dwelt with the Israelites, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, as they walked through the wilderness.
Peter, James and John are witnesses, mouths gawping, watching Jesus, all lit up. And suddenly, he is not alone, but there are two other people with him. They have never seen these newcomers before, but they know who they are. They recognise them from all the stories and from reading the scriptures. These are the spiritual heroes, Moses and Elijah, and they are chatting to Jesus. They were the giants of the Jewish faith, who encountered God close up and shaped the nation and its relationship with God.
Peter wants to hold on to the moment; he wants to make it permanent, to institutionalise it. But you can’t control a revelation. Peter got Jesus wrong. And we get Jesus wrong when we try to tame him, when we make out he is just like us, when we shape him to suit our own ends.
Then a cloud comes over. And the voice of God booms from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him”, which is very much what God said when Jesus was baptised – but we will come to that next week. God’s voice is confirming what Jesus has been telling the disciples about what is to come. This is what they must listen to.
And then it’s all over, no light, no cloud, no Moses or Elijah, just Jesus. And he won’t talk about it, he doesn’t explain anything, and he tells them not to report it to anyone until after the resurrection. Peter, James and John are left perplexed, wondering what it is all about. And so are we.
We call it the Transfiguration, when Jesus was changed and shown in a new way. It is about who Jesus is, God’s chosen one, the Messiah and it is about the journey to the cross and resurrection. It confirms all that happened in Caesarea Philippi, and it points forward to what is going to happen. Jesus came from the glory of heaven and he will return to the glory of heaven, and for one brief moment, we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. Transfiguration is the moment when we see things as they really are, the past, the future, and it is gathered up in glory.
The story comes right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. From this point, Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, rejected, arrested, put on trial, condemned, tortured and crucified, all the things that Peter said couldn’t possibly happen. It is all going to happen, and Jesus knows it, and he walks towards it, because he has come to save the world, and that means putting his own life on the line.
In Jesus’ day, people prayed for the coming of the Messiah, who would throw out the Roman invaders, end the oppression of the people, and bring back God’s rule. They wanted a super-hero who would get rid of all the bad politics make things right and good and safe. But God’s Messiah, God’s anointed one, wasn’t going to be like that. And Jesus is more than a super-hero – he is God’s Son.
Today is the Sunday immediately before Lent. Lent begins on Wednesday. During these next few weeks, we walk with Jesus to the cross. I do encourage you to take that seriously, to make some change that will make a spiritual difference in your life. It could be going without something you enjoy – fasting is an important spiritual discipline. It doesn’t have to be food or drink – one year, I turned the car radio off during Lent. This was when I worked in Darlington and had a 40 minute car journey to work. It could be taking on reading a spiritual book, or praying more, or coming to the Lent Course.
We do these things to get a little closer to our Lord, to understand Him better, to understand ourselves better, to understand our neighbours better. And we start on the mountain with a glimpse of glory.