LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY B – 19th February, 2012
St Matthew’s, Guildford
Today is “Bombing of Darwin Day”. Seventy years ago, 19th February, 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields, in an attempt to impede the Allies from contesting the invasions of Java and Timor. The events of that day have been called “Australia’s Pearl Harbor”. It was a huge psychological blow to Australians, being the first-ever enemy attack on our soil. Those who were there and survived – and most Australians who were alive on that day – have never forgotten the shock to our nation’s pride. I imagine a few of you (well, one or two anyway) can remember that day and its impact.
Yesterday, our Governor-General, Quentin Bryce opened a new museum in Darwin dedicated to the memory of that day, remembering the suffering and sacrifice of those who witnessed the event.
A few days ago, another 70th anniversary was commemorated – that of the Fall of Singapore. And some of you will naturally remember that too.
And on Thursday, a somewhat less dramatic event, only thirty-eight years in the past, was celebrated with considerably less fanfare – KT’s and my Wedding anniversary.
The war events of seventy years ago are something I can only know by listening to those who were there, and by reading historical accounts of what took place.
Our wedding, on 16th February, 1974, is something I well remember. I was present and experienced it. Even then, there are aspects of that day which I don’t remember, partly because, in the middle of such an emotionally involving day, the fine detail can easily be forgotten. But I know it happened and I know I was there.
It seems to me that Mark’s Gospel account of the “transfiguration” of Jesus bears the hallmarks of an eye-witness account, along with some blurring at the edges. Tradition has it that much of Mark’s Gospel is recorded from Peter’s telling of the story to Mark. And I think we can see that in some of the details in this story. The “six days later”, the “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”, and Peter’s suggestion that they “make dwellings” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, all bear the ring of eye-witness accounts.
I do like the fact that this Gospel doesn’t attempt to set Peter up as much of a hero. He appears occasionally as insightful, but more often as brash, impetuous and unreliable. He is one of us!
As St Paul says in today’s Epistle, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” In other words, we will only ever be a poor reflection of Jesus in this world, but we can show Jesus to those around us.
Let’s get back to the transfiguration story.
But first, a little context. Today’s reading begins, “Six days later”, so I think we should ask, “Six days later than what?”
The gospel for last Thursday, as we read in the Eucharist at the Sutcliffes’ home with the Bible Study group, was the “six days earlier”. It told of the time when Jesus took the disciples aside and asked them, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples’ responses were varied – “John the Baptist”, “Elijah” and “one of the prophets” were among the answers they gave. Then, Jesus put them on the spot by asking, “But who do you say that I am?’”
Crunch-time comes for the disciples, as it must from time to time come for us. Peter, inspired, says, “You are the Messiah.” And that is all that is said on that matter.
And before Peter can get carried away with the excitement and anticipation of Messiah’s coming to overthrow the Romans and rebuild God’s rule in Israel, Jesus puts to rest that mistaken idea and explains to the disciples what his being “messiah” is going to mean. He says, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And Peter is not happy! So he tries to talk Jesus out of such a silly notion, and cops a serious backlash – “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Talk about “rooster to feather-duster” in one easy step!
And so, “six days later”, here we are on “a high mountain”. Jesus has brought his “inner circle” of disciples – Peter, James and John – with him. And, suddenly, Jesus is “transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Mark is describing the indescribable. No doubt, words fail him. The word which is translates “transfigured” is the Greek word from which we get “metamorphosis”. If you remember your school biology lessons, you probably remember that metamorphosis is what occurs when an insect – notably a butterfly – changes from larva to adult via the cocoon or “chrysalis”.
So, when Jesus is “metamorphosed”, the disciples see fleetingly his true nature and glory as the Son of God. And Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.
And it is no surprise that words fail them – except, of course for Peter. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”, he says, impetuous as ever.
And this is where we can make a connection with “Bombing of Darwin Day” and the building of a museum to remember the events of 19th February, 1942, and with all the other memorial buildings and plaques by which we can say “Lest we forget”. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with constructing such memorials. What is wrong – or at least unhelpful – is the determination to live in the past and feed only on past glory.
I have met many ex-service-people for whom it seems life stopped when they retired or were demobbed from the forces. I have met ex-footballers whose life seems to have faded to nothing when they hung up their boots. And I have often met Christians whose faith seems centred only on some experience they had of or with God or Jesus somewhere in the past. It may be a powerful conversion experience; it may have been making their Cursillo; it may be a time when they “were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke with tongues”.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus warns us against being lost in the past; surviving only on memories and long-distant experiences, however memorable and powerful and life-changing they may have been.
Moses and Elijah represent two of the greatest figures in the history of Israel and of God’s dealings with God’s people. Moses is the great hero who stood up to the Pharaoh and demanded that he “let my people go”. Moses is the one who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the wilderness for forty years. Moses is the one who brought Israel the commandments and the laws by which they lived for over a thousand years up to the time of Jesus.
Elijah is a great prophet, who stood up to another powerful and evil ruler, King Ahab and his equally evil and manipulative queen, Jezebel. Elijah is the one who stood up to the prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice when the prophets of Baal were powerless to do the same.
And both Moses and Elijah has mysterious endings – Moses went out into the desert and his body was never found. So, legend had it that he had not died, but simply gone straight to heaven, body and all. And in our Old Testament reading this morning, we heard of the whirlwind and the chariot of fire and horses of fire which took Elijah bodily also into heaven. No wonder Peter was excited to encounter these great “heroes of the faith”!
But the covering of the three great ones with a cloud and the voice coming from that cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him”, focuses all the attention where it now belongs – on Jesus the beloved Son, God’s ultimate revelation.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*[who] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. It is something of this that is seen and heard by Peter, James and John – an experience overwhelming and pretty much indescribable as well as totally unforgettable.
In all the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration, we are told that following this event, Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain and immediately encounter a challenging situation of a boy who needs healing, and of the failure of the rest of the disciples to deal with it. Jesus, Peter, James and John, fresh from a wonderful experience, still have to face “the real world’ of sin and suffering. And so do we!
Coming to church most Sundays is probably pretty ordinary and routine. Occasionally though, as bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, as we hear the words of Absolution as God forgives our failings and wrongdoings, as we encounter Christ in one another, there will be moments of transfiguration, moments when we can see and rejoice in the bigger picture.
Today’s Gospel story encourages us to rejoice in those moments past and present, but never to lose sight of Jesus and the ongoing mission we have as his disciples of today.
None of us can afford to rest on our laurels – the glory days of our church – the Sunday Schools and Youth Groups that flourished, the days when the church was full two or three times on Sunday, and the wonderful times we had with this or that priest in our “heyday”.
Jesus calls us to remember, to celebrate and to move on. Down at the bottom of the mountain, there is always work to do. And we will do it best because we have seen “the extraordinary power” which “belongs to God and does not come from us”. And we will tell it best because, like Peter and James and John, we have seen and believed.