Glory and humiliation

Transfiguration – 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who can transfigure and transform those who, with Jesus, are willing to accept that the way of faith may just be the way of the cross. Amen.

The very public and tragic meltdowns of someone like Grant Hackett are a stark reminder of how difficult it is for a person whose life has been spent in the limelight and the constant affirmation that success brings, to deal with life afterwards. If their sense of identity and purpose has been tied up in their sport and their success in that sport, it may be extraordinarily difficult to forge a new life, a new identity and a sense of purpose after retirement.

“Everything that goes up must come down,” the saying goes. Most of us know that highs of life are very often followed by lows. When a great party ends and we are left with the cleaning up, or when friends who have stayed for a while leave to go home, we can be left with a sense of emptiness, a lack of direction and no way to fill our days. We would like the good times to go on forever but life is not like that.

Traditionally – from the ninth century onwards – the feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on August 6th. When the Lectionary was updated about 22 years ago the festival was moved to the last Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday immediately prior to Lent. In this new position the feast day does a number of things. It acts as a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, it reminds us that our faith did not emerge in a vacuum, that it has its roots in the ancient stories of Moses and Elijah, it points us forward to Jesus’ resurrection and Ascension and in its context it highlights the tensions between glory and humiliation that are not only part and parcel of Jesus’ life, but which can be expected in the life of everyone who chooses to follow him.

When the Transfiguration is celebrated on the Sunday before Lent it serves as a stark reminder that Jesus’ glorification came at a cost – that of complete submission to God and of the acceptance of God’s will in his life. In some ways it reverses the account of the temptation of Jesus that we will hear next week. Just to remind you, before Jesus’ ministry began he came to John to be baptised. As he came out of the water he heard a voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son the Beloved”. It is heady stuff especially if, as the gospel implies, only Jesus hears the voice. You can just imagine what might be going through Jesus’ head at that moment. He has come to be baptised and in the process learned that he is none other than God’s Son. What could he do with such power? He could perform miracles in the way that magician would perform magic tricks, he could behave recklessly and expect that he would come to no harm or, better still he could rule the whole world! As the Son of God nothing would be beyond his power or his reach!

Amazingly, despite the temptation to do otherwise, Jesus chooses NOT to take advantage of his divinity, choosing instead to allow the power of God to work through him not for him.

The occasion of the Transfiguration is, as I said, almost the reverse. Jesus has by now begun his ministry, chosen disciples and sent them out as his representatives. According to Matthew, just six days prior to the journey up the mountain Peter has made Jesus’ identity known to the disciples: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”. Jesus’ secret is out. Here is his opportunity to shine, to share with the disciples what the Son of God can and will do, but Jesus is clear, his role is not to seek his own glory but to take the path that God has chosen – a path that will lead to suffering and to the cross. If he ever had a desire for power and glory it was defeated long ago, his role now is to convince the disciples that they too must follow the path that he has chosen.

Following Peter’s declaration, that he is the Christ Jesus goes – not to the desert – but to the mountain. Here, instead of facing the temptation to seek power and glory, he has power and glory bestowed upon him. As if it is a pledge of what is to come, Jesus is transfigured, he speaks with the prophets of long ago and once more a voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son the Beloved”. Jesus has made the right choices and has made it clear that he will follow through to the bitter end. There on the mountain and before the disciples God affirms Jesus’ choice and gives both Jesus and the disciples who are with him a glimpse of what is to come. A moment of transcendence and affirmation that will sustain them through the bitterness of betrayal and the humiliation of the cross.

For Jesus the euphoria of his baptism was followed by the trials of the desert, the affirmation of Peter by the announcement of his death and resurrection, the mountain to experience by his mundane human existence and the misunderstanding and foolishness of the disciples. If it was so for Jesus it will be no less true for us. Our lives of faith will not be lived on some exalted plateau of spiritual experience from which we never descend. There will be moments of doubt, times of anxiety and occasions of temptation and humiliation. In our faith journey, we may soar to the clouds but we may also come crashing down to earth. We may feel enveloped by God’s love and we may feel utterly abandoned. But, if we hold to our course, we will be affirmed, encouraged and ultimately transformed.

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