This is the last Sunday in what we call the season of Epiphany. Epiphany itself is the 6th of January, the day we remember the Magi visiting Jesus in a house in Bethlehem after looking for him in the royal palace in Jerusalem. A discovery that Jesus wasn’t that kind of king. We keep going with that theme of discovery, revelations, these little glimpses into who Jesus is and what that means for us until we get to Lent and Lent begins on Wednesday.

On this last day of Epiphany we remember a strange event with a name that before Harry Potter we might not have been that familiar with… transfiguration. That just means when the outward appearance of something changes. So in Happy Potter that means turning into a cat or a frog. That’s not quite what happens in this story about Jesus though.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a hill, and there on the mountainside Jesus is changed. Transfigured. But instead of being changed into something else, what happens here is that Jesus’ true nature is revealed. He is, I think, in this moment the same Jesus that the other Gospel writers will describe Mary meeting at the tomb on Easter Morning, and the same Jesus the disciples will meet in a locked room. He is, in this moment, the eternal Christ revealed.

One of the things that always amazes me about this whole happening is that these three disciples are invited to be a part of it. We have often seen Jesus wander off into the wilderness alone to pray, to rest and to spend time with God. But this is different.

Over the last weeks we have been invited to catch these glimpses, these little epiphanies, helping us to piece together just who Jesus is. That’s how the disciples had to do it too. Jesus didn’t sit them down and lay it all out for them. He invited them to follow him and see for themselves. And they did.

They saw healings and miracles. Jesus fed 5,000 people and then later another 4,000. He has walked on water and calmed a storm. He has healed people in public and in private, he has exorcised demons and he has told these strange stories called parables.

They heard Jesus teach and transform the way they thought about God, and the world, and their place in it. They heard Jesus’ radical reimagining of how the world should be and he has openly challenge the religious authorities and the empire.

And they were the good guys. They had a ringside seat to all that had happened and was about to happen.

Peter thought he had worked it all out. By the time we get to chapter 9 Peter had made his declaration about who he thought Jesus was. You are the Messiah.

But it’s one thing to know something and something very different when you actually experience it.

We all know that. Having to endure your friend’s holiday snaps and hear all their stories about wherever they have just can get pretty boring if you’ve never been there. It’s nice for a while, and you’re happy (and maybe a little bit jealous) that they have had a great time, but the photos and the stories are never going to sum up what it’s like to stand on a glass shelf 153 stories up in the Sears Tower in Chicago
or to cross the Golden Gate Bridge
or look across the Grand Canyon
or come face to face with the space shuttle.

Mark’s story of Jesus is what’s called apocalyptic writing. We have come to use the word apocalypse to mean the end of the world, usually is some kind of disastrous fashion with an action hero trying to save the day, but apocalypse actually means something quite different. Apocalypse means an uncovering or discovery of great knowledge. Apocalypse is actually very close in meaning to epiphany, just bigger!

So, as Mark’s story unfolds there are these apocalyptic moments, events that reveal something much bigger. Something huge and important.

The first one is Jesus’ baptism when God speaks. “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Bits of information don’t really come much bigger than that, but at Jesus’ baptism we are never quite sure who hears these words from God. Mark suggests that the experience is Jesus’ experience alone. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven…. An apocalyptic moment for Jesus… Confirmation of who he is. And now an apocalyptic moment for us through the retelling of the story.

But I want to suggest something about this story we call the transfiguration. I think it’s in the wrong place. And once you realise that, and why it’s in the wrong place the whole thing makes much more sense.

Have you ever watched a film or read a book that starts with the final scene and then explains how we got there? I think this might be what Mark is doing here. If you have a Bible handy, if you flip to the end of Mark’s Gospel you’ll find that there are two endings. A short ending and a longer one. The short ending stops before anyone meets the risen Jesus. And that’s just odd… Why would you do that? That’s obviously what everyone else thought and so there is a longer ending that is an account of the risen Christ meeting the disciples. But what if there is already an encounter with the risen Christ in the story? What if that encounter is somewhere else? Like in chapter 9… right in the middle.

But why?

One of the strange things about following the lectionary, the readings for the week, is that when the church year changes we bounce about the story. We have spent the last few weeks working through chapter 1. All that stuff has happened in just one chapter so just imagine how much has gone on by the time we get to chapter 9.

Jesus has been healing and teaching and has started to talk about the end… It’s all getting pretty dark. He speaks about how he has to suffer and die and how his followers have to take up their own cross to follow him. It’s the only way. But the disciples aren’t listening.

Or rather, they don’t want to listen.
This isn’t what they signed up for.
Why can’t we just keep doing the healings and miracles and having everybody love us? Love you… we mean love you!

Is that how we feel? The journey to the cross is one nobody would choose to make.

It makes sense then for Mark to present us with the risen Christ here at the transfiguration in the middle of the story before taking us on that road to the cross.

We’ve spoken before about how the joy of Palm Sunday and Easter Day are hollow without the darkness of Holy Week. Mark, I think, agrees.

Mark is writing to a group of people who are most likely in Rome, right at the heart of the Empire, and who are and will continue to be hated and persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith, so for Mark it is hugely important to show his readers that this suffering is part of what Jesus calls us into. Jesus tells his followers to take up your cross… leave behind all that you know… sell all that you have and give the money to the poor.

Mark’s gospel is a hard and painful journey that leaves us much closer to the foot of the cross where Jesus dies, screaming in agony, wondering aloud why God has forsaken him. Peter himself will travel to Rome and will be crucified upside down there by the empire.

So, when you look at this strange transfiguration story as an encounter with the risen Christ, the universal christ, the Christ who was and is and is to come, it all starts to make much more sense.

Mark tells us this story to show Jesus’ place in things, in the Kairos of God’s time rather than the chronos of our time, by placing him there on the mountain with the other major figures of the faith story, Moses and Elijah.

Moses, the one, who despite all his misgivings and lack of confidence, led his people out of Egypt to the threshold of a new land and along the way met God on the mountain where God passes him by, just like he did with Adam and Eve in that story of the paradise of Eden. And Elijah, the prophet who spent his days holding the king and queen to account for all that he had done wrong, who after lying down under a bush and wishing to die because it was all just too hard, was cared for and restored to health by God and then met God on a mountain, not in the noise and fury of fire or wind or even an earthquake, but in the overwhelming silence, taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. These are the greatest of all the prophets, who the stories say will return when the Messiah arrives…

The disciples are terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

Peter blurts out something about making shelters because, perhaps, there in the wilderness Moses had built a tent, the tabernacle, where God would come and meet them. But he calls Jesus Rabbi. There, presented with the Christ, the Messiah revealed in all his cosmic glory, Peter tries to put Jesus back into his ordinary box… rabbi. Teacher. One of many rabbis. Just a man. I can cope with just a man, even if he’s a man who does all kinds of stuff I don’t understand… but this… I can’t cope with this.

And in the middle of this apocalyptic moment where the disciples are full of doubt and wonder in equal measure, God speaks. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’

This is who Jesus is, the son of God. The disciples heard it straight from God. The disciples can’t un-see of un-know it. This moment will travel with them way beyond the things that are recorded in Mark’s story.

But what of us? Are we left with the snapshots and second hand tales of an experience we might never have? Only three disciples went up that mountain. The other nine, just like us, didn’t share in that moment. But they, like us, still encounter this Jesus. This universal Christ who doesn’t only live on the pages of a book.

We meet him every day,
in the wonder of creation,
in the eyes of a friend or stranger,
in moments of compassion,
in a word of consolation.

Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy. Jesus himself said it would be difficult, costly even. But when the whole point is to completely transform the world then what would we expect?

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