14th February 2021

Sunday next before Lent

2 Corinthians 4.3-6
Mark 9.2-9
Rev Canon Cheryl Collins

May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I heard a curious story the other day about a tadpole. A teacher had given tadpoles to their class to take home so that the children could watch them grow into frogs. But one tadpole didn’t. That’s right, for over a year a little girl faithfully fed and cared for her tadpole and it grew and flourished and... stayed a tadpole. All the other tadpoles had changed into frogs and hopped off, but this tadpole didn’t. The next year the teacher gave this girl a newly transformed frog to look after, and she placed it in a tank next to the immortal tadpole. A few days later she noticed something extraordinary. The tadpole had finally begun to grow legs, and over the next little while she saw it finally complete its transformation into frog. It was as if it just needed to see what it was supposed to be before it could change.

The story of the transfiguration is both a reminder of Jesus’s unique identity and an invitation for us tadpoles to see the glory of the frog we’re trying to become. Selfhelp books will often ask people to visualise the person they want to be as an  essential part of transformation. People don’t change until they see themselves differently. Today we see God made visible in human form, shining with the full glory of the only Son but also reminding us that our vocation is to let God’s Spirit transform us, change us from glory into glory. Our lectionary has placed the story of the transfiguration at the beginning of Lent, and it has done so for a reason. This story comes here to give us a transfiguring glimpse of the glory of Christ in order that we might be ready, through the grace of God and our own Lenten discipline to be transfigured ourselves. The orthodox church knows this Sunday as Forgiveness Sunday. They recall the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise and join in a rite of forgiveness when each one of them asks forgiveness of the others. It is an honest reckoning of how we have tarnished the image of God in us, and an invitation for God to ‘strengthen and enlighten my heart’ as they pray in their liturgy for today.

The title given to Jesus in this story, Son of God, is not common in Mark. It used on only three occasions: baptism, transfiguration, and at the crucifixion when the centurion recognises the true identity of the crucified one. It is in the moment of death as well as this experience of glory that Jesus’ full identity is revealed, suffering and glory are intertwined. The evangelists don’t want us to be in any doubt that Jesus is the chosen one, the Messiah, the Son of God; but even so the full meaning of this mountain top experience can remain tantalisingly unclear. Unclear that is, to the disciples and to us, unless they obey the voice, listen to Jesus, and in listening follow him. Mark is the gospel of discipleship, he believes that we can only truly understand who Jesus is and the claim he has on our lives when we are prepared to be his disciples. We cannot have the glory we can see, without the message we must hear. Only as we follow will we find out.

Peter is still confused. He rejects the suffering but is all too eager to welcome the glory. He wants to stay on the mountain, to build some cozy booths, to escape from the challenges that await Jesus and his disciples ahead in Jerusalem. The light has dazzled him, the air is too thin, his brain and maybe his heart are temporarily fried. Because, as Paul tells us in our passage from Corinthians, the glory of Jesus is that he
is the image of God in human form. In him we see what God would have us be when we let the light of Christ into our hearts. But just as Peter is distracted by his booth idea, what Paul calls the gods of this
world are all too ready with clever ways to divert the minds of potential disciples. These distractions suggest that our self- fulfilment, our material needs, our status, power and wealth, even the good of our country and our family are what we should focus on.

The gospel tells us another story. Its message is that Jesus is Lord. And this subversive declaration challenges all other commitments and questions all other loyalties. It invites us to consider the way we budget our time and money, how our family life is ordered, our social and political orientations, it makes everything else provisional and touches every area of our lives. For Paul that means trying to serve even the conflicted and misguided Corinthians who frequently opposed him. For us that often means facing up to the conflicted and misguided parts of our own lives and psyches. A standing outside ourselves to see Jesus and ourselves as we really are. For if we see him as he is- the glory, the love, and the compassion, then we can begin to listen as well as look; and in that listening comes the beginning of our own transfiguration. The best way to grow as a Christian is to stop listening to your own deceived heart and start listening deeply to what God has to say about who we are.

For the transfiguration celebrates that presence of Christ which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves- the failures, the doubts, the pettiness. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous and even disquieting regions within us about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit, and acts upon those regions and gives them God’s own face. That is the work for us, not just of a moment, but of a lifetime. Like a spiral, in our lives as Christians we may have to re-visit the same hurts and failures time and again, each time at a deeper level, each time allowing God to heal and make whole a little more of us. Lent comes every year, because every year we need to make again this journey of transfiguration.

This poem by Madeleine L’Engle captures this challenge perfectly :

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible.
This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was-is- from the beginning, and we cannot bear it.
So he manned himself, came manifest to us;
and there on the mountain they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn’t that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps we will see each other, too.

As we prepare to travel through this Lenten season, may God’s grace strengthen and enlighten our hearts, enable us to see ourselves clearly, and to fix our eyes upon  Jesus, that glorious image of the Word made flesh, so that we might be transfigured in our turn, and become what he is even as, for our sakes, he became what we are.