“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.”
Those of you who have been listening to me preach for some time will have heard me mention Will Willimon – a man who has very much been my preaching mentor. I have only met him in person once, but I have spent a relatively enormous amount of time reading his preaching guides and listening to his lectures on how to preach. And Will Willimon’s key strategy in preaching, which has become the basis for so much of my own pulpiteering (if that’s a word) can be summed up in four words that he is fond of quoting, namely: ‘stick with the weird’.
And if you haven’t heard me mention this before many of you will no doubt nonetheless discern how this principle operates in my treatment of Biblical passages – that my approach to the Biblical narrative is generally not to avoid the difficult bits, but rather to focus in on those aspects of a passage that do not seem to fit easily, that are uncomfortable, or that are just downright weird.
And then you come across a passage like today’s reading – the story of the transfiguration – where the whole thing is just completely weird, and it is hard to know what to do with it!
“And as [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.”
Jesus shone! What are we supposed to make of that? How did He do it? Why would Jesus want to do it? Was it all just a part of some strange dream of the disciples, and if it wasn’t a dream what point was Jesus trying to make, if any?
Of course these sorts of questions aren’t unique to this particular passage. There are lots passages and lots of stories about Jesus that are, at first, difficult to penetrate. And yet we who are experienced in dealing with the Scriptures know that there are methods for unlocking seemingly difficult texts, and the starting point is generally looking at other pieces of Scripture which pick up on similar themes.
And so with this particular story of the transfiguration, our starting point might be to look at other persons who are transfigured in the Bible and compare the nature of their transfigurations to Jesus’ transfiguration, such that we might begin to see what transfiguration in general is all about, and hence what Jesus’ transfiguration in particular has to teach us.
The problem we have though when we start to look at the other transfiguration accounts that occur in the Bible is that there aren’t any. There are no other transfiguration stories. There are no other people who were transfigured at all!
Yes, there was Moses, who we are told had a ‘radiant face’ after his encounter with God (Exodus 24:39) but it is hardly a strong comparison. There’s no suggestion there that he was ‘shining like the sun’ or that his clothes were transformed such that they were ‘whiter than any fuller could bleach them’, let alone that he shared in any of the other strange elements of this story.
In other words, when it comes to transfiguration stories in general in the Bible, there just aren’t any! This account pretty much stands alone, and for that reason it is hard to have much of a clue as to what to make of it.
One comfort in this of course is that the disciples didn’t seem to have a clue what to make of it either! On the contrary, the three characters who shared the experience with Jesus behaved like rabbits caught in the headlights, not knowing what to say.
I’m not sure what it was that was going through Peter’s mind when he made the suggestion about setting up the three tents, but then again it’s not clear that Peter understood what he was talking about either. It seems to have been one of those moments that you look back on later, kicking yourself, and thinking of all the much more intelligent things you could have said if only you’d had the presence of mind at the time to say them.
It was difficult for the disciples to work out what was going on with Jesus that day, and it remains difficult for us two thousand years later to work out exactly what was going on with Jesus that day. He seems weird, impenetrable, and not like us at all, suggesting that perhaps there is a dimension to Jesus that is far more mysterious, more powerful, and more glorious than we might have otherwise imagined! Let us hope so, for if we are going to deal with the struggles of this life and with the evils of this world we will need a Jesus who is more than just an inspiring brother and a spiritual buddy.
As some of you know, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy this last week trying to help coordinate a campaign to prevent my friend, Sheikh Mansour (our local Iranian Muslim cleric), from being deported by the Australian government.
Now I know that there will be some people who question why I should be pouring my time into supporting someone who should be considered both ethnically and religiously my enemy, but that’s OK. Plenty of people questioned Jesus over His support for Samaritans and Romans and Syrophoenicians, who supposed to be His ethnic and religious enemies, so I’m not too worried about that. What does worry my though is that the further I get in to this case, the more I sense the presence of evil deeply embedded in our legal and governmental systems.
Q: Mansour is to be ingloriously deported from our country as a security risk? Why?
A: I’m sorry, we can’t tell you!
Q: But isn’t it only fair that a man be told what he is accused of?
A: Yes, it is fair, but as the High Court has ruled, Mansour is not entitled to procedural fairness or natural justice because he is not an Australian citizen!
Q: But I thought the purpose of the law was to deliver justice, regardless of whether you were black or white, rich or poor, Australian or Iranian?
A: Yes it is, but not if you’re a terrorist!
Q: But what makes you think that this quiet and gentle man is a terrorist?
A: I’m sorry. We can’t tell you!
When I was a younger man I used to think that we lived in a wonderful country where everybody was given a fair go, but it’s just not true. You can get justice, but you have to be an Australian citizen, and frankly, you have to be a white Australian citizen, and quite frankly, you have to be a white Australian citizen with money!
And in case you think I’m just being cynical on this last point let me tell you of one good friend who went to get some advice from a lawyer recently as to how he might defend himself through the legal system. The lawyer gave him 20 minutes of his time and charged him $1,600 for those twenty minutes, and the advice this lawyer gave my friend as to how he should try to defend himself through the courts was that he shouldn’t bother.
And I’m convinced that it’s not just a case of there being a lot of particularly nasty lawyers (the 90-something percent of the fraternity giving the rest of the guys a bad name). And I’m convinced that it’s not just a case of bad judges or poorly defined laws or corrupt police or political interference or bureaucratic bungling. It is all of those things and it is more! It is the system, and it is the evil embedded deeply within the system that corrupts and infects and perverts and deforms, and takes even the best of intentions and moulds them into actions that destroy human life.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”, says St Paul (Ephesians 6:12), and it is true!
I see those ‘principalities and powers’ doing their corrosive work in the case of my friend Sheikh Mansour just as I see them tearing away at the flesh of my dear brother Mordechai Vanunu in Israel, just as I saw them at work in the case of four entirely separate men that I have been trying to support over this last week, each of whom are struggling to get access to their children!
Why? Because they have difficult partners and are enduring painful relationship breakdowns? Sure! But it’s more than that too. It is the system, and it is the evil embedded within the system, and it is the principalities and powers at work through that deeply embedded evil, tearing up and bringing down, sowing discord and whiteanting reputations, “turning justice into wormwood” as the prophet Amos once put it (Amos 5:7) “and casting down righteousness to the earth”.
And it is insidious, and it is painful, and it is enough to drive us to despair and make us want to throw it all in, but then we look up and we see Jesus, transfigured – mysterious, glowing, breath-taking, glorious!
And His glory shines above it all, and around it, and through it all, and we sense that somehow in the midst of all this pain and ignominy and corruption and death, that yet there is hope!
The transfiguration of Jesus. I don’t understand it and I don’t have many clues as to how or why He did it, and yet I cling to it! For I need a Jesus that is bigger than my own imagination, and I need a Jesus who can rise above the principalities and powers and all the forces of evil that tear away at our world. I need Him in His glory.
As John, one of the other disciples who shared that experience with Jesus, wrote many, many years later: “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
We beheld His glory! And that vision of His glory makes us strong – straightens the feeble knees and lifts the falling hands, and so we battle on, bathing in His glorious light!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 2010.