(A sermon at 11am by Dr Tanya Wittwer, 11th February 2018)
Mark 9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
There is mastery in the way Year B of the lectionary introduces us to Mark’s story, capturing the structure of his narrative. We meet Jesus on the banks of Jordan. The preaching and actions of the charismatic Baptiser, John, become merely background when the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit appears, accompanied by the voice of God: this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. After a sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus calls disciples, controls and expels the demonic, heals, teaches. Then, in today’s Gospel, we reach the turning point and hear about the Transfiguration – an account of mystery, where three of the disciples hear the voice of God, extending the baptismal message. This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.
As we leave the mountain we turn our faces to Jerusalem. On Wednesday some of us will walk through a portal of ashes to start the journey. The Lenten journey will end when we hear that darkness covered the land from noon until 3, when Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last, and the centurion took on the role of carrying the message: Truly, this man was God’s son.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t want us to miss that point, but actually, it’s not the key point.
You may recall the first verse of the book of Mark reads, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
That little phrase, good news, is theologically loaded: the people have been expecting this, in the light of God’s actions in the past. Israel has been yearning for good news. Isaiah had put words to their hope: “How beautiful … are the feet of the one who brings good news, who declares to Israel: your God reigns.” (Is 52:7) Or again “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Is 61:6) They have hung onto their deep longings through exile, decimation and occupation. In verse 14 and 15 of Mark 1, we hear, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
So it’s not the claim that Jesus is Son of God that is important, but that this hoped for good news is somehow to be linked to Jesus’ life, because of his identity as the Christ, the Son of God.
So when we return to the mountain and to the words “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him”, what is it that we should listen to that is answering the human yearning and human hope? How is God acting in that time and space? And what on earth can this strange transfiguration event, and these words mean for us, today?
“Listen to him!” Moses had said that Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Dt 18:15). So to what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything that Mark records that Jesus says and does.
Jesus has arrived to bring about God’s reign. Somehow God will be acting through Jesus’ activity. And just as John had called for repentance, so does Jesus. People are being asked to change. They are being invited to believe in the immanence of the reign and to trust in God’s action in Jesus. It’s not a one person fringe event, but Jesus gathers people around him to share his joy and task, people that believe Jesus’ message and live as if they can see God’s reign already accomplished.
Jesus is setting people free. He has the power to exorcise and to heal, to call away from loneliness and addictions and to call to love and community. But, there is more.
“Listen to him” the voice calls. In the section before the story of the transfiguration, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the promised one, and instead of a grand military parade, ticker tape procession or celebratory party, Jesus tells his disciples of his future suffering and vindication, and of the need for cross-bearing discipleship. It seems these hard things are to be listened to.
Is this why we have this strange story? In some mysterious way, three disciples, the core of Jesus’ leadership team, are being prepared for the unthinkable. God’s generous and overflowing love gave the community, through the three, a glimpse of something that would sustain through the hardest of times. The story is loaded with symbolism: six days, the mountain, the cloud, the two ancients who have not seen death, Jesus radiant as the righteous one, the light of God that has come into the world. Those for whom it was first recorded would have known all the hope and expectation loaded into that symbolism, and already knowing the end of the story, the connections to death and resurrection.
Instead of untangling those layers of meaning, instead of picking it apart, and making a declaration about what it means, I invite you to use the imagination the Holy Spirit has give you. Let’s not reduce it to a verbal explanation. Enter into the mystery, so that we are strengthened to live in this reign of God that we cannot yet see, strengthened to bring sight to the blind, to unlock the chains of the detainees and to set the oppressed free?
In Luke, when the angel visited Mary, she was told The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. On the mountain, the group were overshadowed … This is my son, the beloved. A cloud was the presence of the Most High. Through Jesus, the disciples shared this too awesome, too strong nearness of God. Some among us have been blessed with our own epiphany, our own moment when we have truly known God’s presence. But the promise of God’s presence is for all of us. The Holy Spirit has come upon us. Through our baptism we are joined with Jesus, and the Most High has overshadowed us. Maybe, with Mary, we have emerged from that overshadowing, pregnant with the possibility of the reign. Pregnant with all that is light and life-giving.
Dr Deidre Palmer has announced the 15th UCA Assembly theme: Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope, and I’d like to share it with you:
In a time where our world is overshadowed by violence, hatred and suspicion of the other, the Church is called to live an alternative narrative of hope, reconciliation and love.
As the Church, God’s grace at work in us liberates hope – communally, personally, in our society and in our world. We see God’s grace most fully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ life and ministry, we see God’s hope for us and all creation expressed in the proclamation of the Reign of God. As the Body of Christ, the Spirit opens our eyes to God’s deep desire for our world, and we are led toward horizons of hope that expand our imagination into Spirit led ways of being and living that we had not thought possible!
“Liberating Hope” is an action of God in us, and it is a call for us to participate in God’s mission in the world. Liberation movements around the world have been inspired by the Gospel of Christ, to be communities of resistance and protest in the face of injustice and inequality.
The Uniting Church has been shaped by Christ’s call to be bearers of God’s justice, compassion, healing and hope in our world.
In the next Triennium, this theme highlights for us Christ’s call to be a church that embodies God’s abundant grace, compassion and love – a Church that is a bearer of Christ’s hope and light in the midst of despair and darkness. The overflowing of God’s abundant grace through us will be seen as we create communities and contribute to a world, where people experience God’s good news of reconciling love, healing and hope.
You are God’s child, the beloved. Listen to him!