The Transfiguration of Our Lord Mark 9:2-10
I have been thinking in recent weeks about the loss of hope which seems to be a regular part of our conversations. Friends and colleagues are pulling back from reading difficult or challenging books and articles; they refrain from watching particular films or documentaries, saying they have little or no resilience to deal with what is being said and shown. They struggle to hold onto hope when there appears to be nothing to look forward to or believe in that is bigger than the day to day concerns. Politics, finance, jobs, retirement, the loss of religious practice as a central tenet in our lives are all cited as reasons – and it’s a long list that can be drawn on, to find reasons for having no hope, if one is so inclined.
The Transfiguration story is very timely in the light of these conversations. On the face of it, it is a story about something extraordinary that happens to three disciples who go up a mountain with Jesus. They see something they are unable to make sense of and in asking questions, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone, until after he’s dead.
Jesus seems to leave them and us with more questions than answers.
In my reflections I want to look at three aspects of this story as it relates to having hope in God:
The capacity of seeing and not understanding
The capacity to speak and not listen
The life of faith and the practice of prayer
Six days earlier, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had demanded of his disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). Peter’s response was to say to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah’. However, such an answer has Jesus promptly explaining he is not the sort of Messiah they are imagining and hoping for, expecting even, and instead he will suffer, die and rise from the dead.
Jesus’ subsequent rebuke to Peter who tries to stop him talking like this shows Peter has the title right, but not the understanding.
Peter hasn’t seen or accepted the meaning of what is going on in front of him. He hasn’t recognised the implications of the way Jesus is ‘living’ as the Messiah, and how he will die as the Messiah. He does not yet understand that following Jesus, offering a commitment of discipleship frequently leads to suffering and death.
Peter, James and John watch the vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus together on the mountainside. The need to speak, to say something, to break the silence is overwhelming. They want to remind Jesus they’re present too. Peter is overcome with what he has seen in this vision. Peter blurts out what comes to mind first because he doesn’t know what to say. He sees and speaks without understanding that he is seeing the Messiah.
And then they hear God saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him” (Mark 9:8).
These words make it obvious they are seeing something they do not understand. It is the same behavior and lack of understanding being repeated from six days earlier. The disciples are speaking without thinking or listening, seeing and not understanding; and at no time, are they showing any capacity to watch, wait, simply being and praying.
Our reflection at this point, should be that we look and listen before we speak, and perhaps, more fundamentally, we should listen to God, before we speak to others.
It is a sad reflection about how many people apparently think they speak the mind of God and know what God wants, on all matters and on all occasions.
The vision Peter, James and John are given is quickly taken away. “Then a cloud overshadowed them” (Mark 9:7). This is an image we can all call to our minds and one we can all identify with as people of faith.
Such an image made me think about how a cloud covers over, hides and obscures. In our daily lives we long for stimulation, for constant visual impact, for the quick and immediate answers now to our current questions in our lives; and the short term focus we are most comfortable with, removes our capacity to think longer term, about the bigger picture, the bigger story God has for God’s creation.
In fact, living in faith is a very different reality. For myself, and I suspect for many of us who grapple with faith as we sit in the pews each week, it reminds us there is more that is unknown and unclear, than is known. The desire to have things sorted, black and white, right from wrong, can be overwhelming when we’re frightened and uncertain. And out of fear, our behavior changes and the nature of our discipleship is affected. And yet the gift of uncertainty is extraordinary as it invites us into a different direction.
A couple of weeks ago in one of my sermons I commented that among the most terrifying and frightening people in the world, are those who are absolutely certain they are right; those who think they have the answer and their certainty is hard and sharp, unforgiving and unrelenting. It is because of such certainty we end up in conflict, in wars and in violence.
It is because of such certainty that we reject, exclude and judge people to death. It is because of such certainty Jesus died and we continue to kill him today.
John of the Cross, and in a book with which some of you might be familiar, The Cloud of the Unknowing, both authors talk in detail about how we should in fact, expect our lives to be full of the experience of uncertainty and to be overshadowed by this cloud is normal for our faith lives.
The life of faith is to live a life where we become increasingly at home and comfortable with God’s hiddenness; where we are at home with the mystery of faith. These words of God, remind us our longing to be reassured and to have answers and certainty, to do away with ambiguity, and our need to speak rather than to listen, all reinforce the need for us to re-orientate our lives, towards prayer both personally and in our Christian community life in the parish, to listen and pray together, offering up our lives and desires.
Discipleship means we share the suffering of the Son of Man, or as Jesus says, ’take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). This is difficult for all of us. However, suffering does not indicate the absence of God, for the most faithful servants face suffering. The Son of Man suffers with us and he is the Son of God who reigns in glory. We have been given a vision of the glory of resurrection with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. The knowledge of the resurrection and the promise it gives, sustains us through difficult times.
If I go back to where I started, where I have been listening to my friends and think about how we seek to manipulate, control and manage our lives to meet our own needs, I find in response to this fear, and with God’s help, I can go back to God, seeking not to understand or see but to give myself over to the mystery of faith.
I have to keep learning to live without the immediate answers and instead, learn to trust God always, even in the most profound experiences of doubt and fear, and this is a life time’s journey.
Hope is always present; the capacity not to rely on the next election to give answers, the next leader to win the war, the next budget to provide me with more money, the next interview to get me the right job, allows us rather the opportunity to trust God and have hope for God’s kingdom.
Faith and hope shine a light in God’s kingdom that can never be put out.
Sisters and brothers, this is a story of hope in the face of not understanding and not seeing. I know the life of faith is not easy. It does mean taking the more difficult paths, those less clear and less certain. It means trusting God rather than the world and always, always listening to God’s Word and in that place, hope will always be present.