Last week I mentioned how little we know of Jesus life before his public ministry. And even the narrative we have of his life and teaching is woven together from four gospels, written by different people in different times for different audiences. In the discussion in the 9am service last week someone asked if the story set at the wedding in Cana came before or after Jesus baptism by John in the River Jordan. We just dont know. And friends, it doesnt really matter because our standards of chronological accuracy were of little concern to the ancients.
Some say that the story we have today of Jesus on what has been called the Mount of Transfiguration should be later in the gospel story but is placed here by those who created the lectionary so that it fell just before the season of Lent, which begins next Sunday. This season of Epiphany ends on a high note before the darkness of Lent descends upon us. So I hope you are all thinking about what you are going to deny yourself for this Lenten season. Oh, by the way, how are the New Year resolutions going . I have noticed that our culture has taken up "FebFast" which is the challenge to give up alcohol for the 28 days of February; considering the number of commentators who argue that our society is awash in alcohol, that may not be such a bad idea.
But back to what I was saying: this Sunday stands between the emerging, growing life of Jesus and the passion narratives of his life and death. His was a life that burnt bright and short. And this story of transfiguration hints at this man and its life-transforming message.
I said last week that many contemporary commentaries recognize that Jesus didnt draw only from the prophetic tradition but also from what we call the wisdom tradition. Without repeating myself, even by the age of 30 Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. And that I believe is because he was immersed in not only the understanding of the law and the rabbinical teachings but also the mystical tradition in Judaism. I know that the Christianity you and I were brought up in seldom if ever mentioned mysticism. It was in some circles a dangerous idea that could not be easily controlled because it relied on a personal experience of the sacred and the holy. But by the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher William James, author Evelyn Underhill and psychologist Carl Jung were seriously examining the mystical experiences of regular people. The story of the Transfiguration is such a mystical experience. While it may not have happened in history, it happened in the mystical experience of those who were there.
In 2007 I visited the Mount of Transfiguration. Mountains in ancient Israel are important and this mount we drove up was Mt Tabor. I think I may have said in a previous sermon that our guide pointed to a mountain in the distance and said, "That is Mt Hermon. Other guides would have taken you there but then they would have taken you to the wrong mountain!" I think what was more bizarre was that as we drove up the mountain in our mini bus we passed six Israeli solders carrying a solider on a stretcher up the mountain and when we passed them again they were carrying another soldier down the mountain in a training exercise. Does the mystical, the sacred, the holy occur in such mundane and original situations? Personally I think it does.
Moses and Elijah:
The story includes the cloud of unknowing that descends on those gathered. This is a mountain top. Few ever live on the top of a mountain. They must at some time descend into the valley below. I had a conversation with a good friend on Friday. Hes a psychologist and naturally hears many peoples stories. He said, "I often hear people say they have had an epiphany or a mountain-top experience, but most often it fades back into everyday life." But maybe thats okay. Can we really live on a mountain top? But somehow in the valley of despair and disappointment, you should not lose sight of the experience that "transfigured," changed your way of seeing the world.
Why did Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus and his two disciples at this moment in his ministry? Because to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Jr, they were there to hew from this mountain of despair a stone of hope. The gospel writers didnt see continuity with the present-day religion of Judaism. But they did see that there were aspects of their tradition that they wanted as part of this new and exciting adventure. And Moses with his leadership through the wilderness and Elijah the prophet who had even transcended death were significant characters in their pantheon of saints who would enliven and reshape the emerging tradition.
The life of Jesus was short by comparative standards. But it burnt brighter than had been seen for some time. It burnt brighter because he didnt follow the calcified orthodoxies of the day; the purity code that must be followed to the letter of the law. Remember Jesus was put to death, not as a criminal, but because his light burnt too brightly; his ideas, his way of being in the world could not be accepted by the orthodoxy of the day. His continual attack on the religious theologians of the day and his claim that the law of the land did not have the final say on life
. Thats what saw his life burn short and bright! Nicholas Nilsson penned these words recently:
A life that burns so bright and short
Needs not the years to tell
For in its measured hopeful days
It tells the truth to all.
But we long for more, to say it clear
And yet the message short
Is pure to soul, while not to mind
And thats the truth we seek.