This passage about the transfiguration has had a number of interpretations, but common among them is the fact that this passage, taken in context with the passages both before and after it, talk about what following Jesus really means.
Before I go any further, take a look at the following clips:
In case you're wondering, the second clip is not real. The church itself is real, but the clip is designed to take a humorous look into the idea of 'shopping' for the perfect church that will serve us. Following Jesus is not like that. Jesus models for us, and calls us to, a life of sacrifice and service; because it is only in this that we find life.
And that's what the transfiguration reveals. Before and after this event, the question comes up about who the Messiah really is. In the chapter before this one, when Jesus tells the disciples that He must suffer and die, Peter pulls Him aside and tries to set Him right. Jesus then has to correct Peter, telling 'Satan' to get behind Him. What the disciples don't understand is that the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The glory that Jesus was on about was completely opposite to what the disciples had in mind. In the disciples' mind, the Messiah was going to come and reign over Israel and take out the oppressive Roman occupation once and for all. And in Jesus they thought they had found their man. So when Jesus starts talking about suffering and being killed, no wonder Peter pulls Him aside. It's a scandal. It goes completely against his view of the world.
Athol Gill, in his book A Life On The Road, says this about this passage: “The sacrifice of which Jesus speaks…is self-denying discipleship for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel…the church has often lost its glory because it has pointed people to Peter's way rather than to Jesus' way. It has sought to offer Jesus, and the way of power and glory, at the same time. But it is through weakness that strength is to be found. It is through the renunciation of power and glory that power and glory will come to the church. Those who follow Jesus must do so by way of the cross.”
The more I think about Jesus, among all the figures of history, the more He stands out to me as being someone different to any other leader who has ever lived. Here was someone saying He was God, but also saying that this God works differently to what you expect. You look at all the gods of the ancient world, Greek and Roman, and what are they about? They're all about power. They get angry when you disobey; they punish you when you do things wrong. No wonder we still see God as like this today in many ways. And no wonder we have comments like the terrible ones we have seen recently saying the bushfires were the judgment of God. It's what people have always seen 'gods' as being like.
To get an idea of how gods were seen in Jesus' day, have a listen to this piece written about Caesar Augustus: “He is the saviour who brought war to an end, and set all things in peaceful order. And since with his appearance Caesar had exceeded the hopes of all those who had received glad tidings before us, surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, leaving no hope of surpassing him in the future, the beginning of the gospel for the world was the birthday of the god. Since the eternal and deathless nature of the universe has perfected its immense benefits to mankind, in granting us as a supreme benefit for our happiness and welfare, Caesar Augustus, father of his own fatherland, divine Rome's use paternal, saviour of the whole human race.”
Do you hear the Gospel language in that? Saviour, setting all things in peaceful order, glad tidings (word for 'Gospel'). The God of the Bible though is not like that. Compare what we've just heard about Caesar Augustus to the very first line of Mark's Gospel, where today's story comes from: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. This is political dynamite! No wonder Christians got killed by the Romans. They dared to say that they had a king who was divine, and it wasn't Caesar.
"When they come back down the mountain after the transfiguration, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what they have just seen. Why? I think it's because Jesus doesn't want people to think that this is the kind of glory He is on about. It's hard enough for Him to convince the disciples, so imagine how hard it would be to convince everyone else."
The description of Caesar Augustus is what a god looks like in the ancient world, and Jesus comes in a totally different mould. No wonder his own followers don't understand him. As Rikk Watts says, “Here is a god who teaches, a god who wants people to learn about who He is. He is not the moral policeman of the universe. He brings people into understanding and leads them to wholeness.”
Here is someone claiming to be God who shuns power, and who doesn't get sucked in to the type of glory that we are often after. When they come back down the mountain after the transfiguration, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what they have just seen. Why? I think it's because Jesus doesn't want people to think that this is the kind of glory He is on about. It's hard enough for Him to convince the disciples, so imagine how hard it would be to convince everyone else. Jesus' glory would be the glory of the cross and it would be completely and totally opposite to any understanding of glory that people had in that day and that people have in this day, even in the church.
Athol Gill says that the transfiguration is understood in Mark's Gospel as an anticipation of the resurrection. The cross and resurrection go together.
“Only the church which has experienced the cross and resurrection can understand and enter into his glory,” Gill writes. “The disciples do not understand what the resurrection means (in their worldview, all people would be resurrected at the end, so Jesus saying he would be resurrected three days after his death was something they couldn't comprehend), and they still cannot fit the idea of rejection and death into their theological framework. They still have to come to an understanding that the two belong together: crucifixion and resurrection, suffering and glory. You cannot have the one without the other. The way to glory is the way of the cross; the way of the cross is the way to glory.”
After the transfiguration, Jesus starts talking again about suffering. It's interesting to note that the only other time in Mark's Gospel after the transfiguration when someone acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God is when He is on the cross, and it's a Roman centurion who says it, not one of Jesus' followers. He sees something about this man Jesus that is different. That's the sort of power that this God is about. God has made the foolish things of the world wise, and the wise foolish. Who would ever think that the ultimate humiliation of dying on a cross would be glorifying? It's just totally and utterly opposite to the way we think.
It is this message that we are to listen to. The voice in the cloud during the transfiguration was for the disciples, and it said 'listen to him'. It's interesting that this story, and the stories immediately before and after it, are all written in the same sequence in each of the first three Gospels. William Loader writes that "Mark's use of the story connects so strongly to what follows that we can scarcely interpret it without reference to what Jesus' disciples were to 'listen to' (listen to him) in the chapters which follow, namely lowliness and compassion…Mark's story reminds us that disciples, then and now, frequently get it wrong, through fear and ignorance and much else."
In the church it could and does look something like this:
This is a feel-good Christianity, but one that doesn't give life at all. It proclaims a powerless, impotent Jesus who cannot speak into our lives, who cannot challenge and call us to something better. We have a natural tendency to want to make good times last. We don't like pain. We live in an analgesic society where we do whatever we can to numb pain.
The prevailing mood of the day is that we're here for a good time, not a long time. But mountain top experiences don't last. Life is so often about how you deal with loss, as we've seen all too clearly in the last 2 weeks. It's about dealing with life on life's terms. Life will inevitably produce pain and suffering. That is a given. So we have the choice to use the pain destructively or redemptively.
We all have to come back down the mountain. The reality of life is that it is often a desert experience. And no one is exempt. Rowland Croucher says that there are three characteristics of all the great leaders in the Bible:
• They all spent a disproportionate amount of time in the desert or in prison;
• They all failed in some sense; and
• They all had problems.
If it happens to them, the idea that we can have a lifelong Christian mountain-top experience is just delusional.
Jesus is a different kind of God. He is a God who suffers. The one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Word made flesh, the Creator of the Universe, is the same One who suffers. And He is with us as we follow Him on this way. He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him on this way to life. He is a God who says ‘ask not what God can do for you, but how you can serve God and humanity’.
Forty-one years ago, Martin Luther King, another great leader who suffered, also said that life comes through service. In a sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia, he said: “Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
As we remember the horror of the bushfires in early February, we may well ask, where was God? It's a cry that goes back thousands of years. The Psalmists cried it out as well. How long O Lord, how long?!
God is not pouring his wrath out on Victoria. God sits on the side of the road and weeps with those who have lost everything. He suffers with those who suffer.
God is also present working through the many who have been so generous with their time, money and possessions. I also see the love of God in the picture of the fire-fighter bottle-feeding Sam, the heat-stressed koala. This is where God is.
"While it is easy to come out with pat answers at a time of national mourning, what I do know is that the fullest revelation of God we have is Jesus, the suffering, crucified God who wept over Jerusalem and showed grace and love to all."
While it is easy to come out with pat answers at a time of national mourning, what I do know is that the fullest revelation of God we have is Jesus, the suffering, crucified God who wept over Jerusalem and showed grace and love to all. What comforts me in suffering is the knowledge that God has done and is doing something about the suffering that so many are experiencing. For God, glory is not the glory that we so often think of; it is not the glory of Caesar. If it was, how could He comfort those who are right now experiencing suffering that many of us can only imagine?
What He has done is that He has come on a cross, suffering for all. And what He is doing now is working through his people. Through His resurrection He is pointing the way to a new world in which we can participate with him, building a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more tears, no more pain, and no more devastation of the likes of which we have seen this sad month in Victoria.
On the mount of transfiguration, the disciples couldn't understand this. As Tom Wright says in Luke for Everyone, the disciples “were unable to understand how it was that the glory which they had glimpsed on the mountain, the glory of God's chosen son, the Servant who was carrying in himself the promise of redemption, would finally be unveiled on a very different hill, an ugly little hill outside Jerusalem.”
The glory that Jesus is on about is the glory of the cross. This is the paradox, the mystery, of Christian faith. Glory is displayed on an ugly cross in complete humiliation on a hill outside Jerusalem. Very different to the glory of Caesar.
The great paradox of our faith is that we die to live, we surrender to gain victory, we humble ourselves to be exalted, and we suffer to gain glory. This is a God who is unlike any other. For this is a God who can relate to us, who has suffered and does suffer, with us. He goes before us and offers us the privilege of participating with him in building a better world, a world where hearts are cleansed, where pain is long gone, and where our world - our inner world and the world around us - is transformed forever, all because of Him, all because of His love for us.