Many years ago when I lived in Brisbane, a mate and I decided we were going to climb all the local mountains worth climbing. South-east Queensland is certainly blessed with a spectacular selection of them – to the north, the Glasshouse Mountains, formidable-looking volcanic plugs rising straight up out of the cane-fields, to the south, the Green Mountains in the Lamington National Park, huge densely forested peaks overlooking the Tweed Valley and New South Wales. We didn’t overestimate our ability – we weren’t into ropes and special boots with suction caps or whatever it is that mountaineers use to climb upside down – but we worked our way up the scale of difficulty until we came unstuck and lost our taste for adventure on Flinders Peak. This was a big one, the guide-book told us we needed to search carefully for the right way up because there was only one – and it was a tough climb, with a few tricky bits. After three or four hours we made it to the top, ate our sandwiches and took a couple of photos – then we made two unsettling discoveries – one, that the clouds were coming in fast and we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us – two, that we’d forgotten which way we came up. All of a sudden it seemed we were experiencing the flip side of Mt Flinders, from exhilarating to terrifying within the space of a few minutes. After a brief argument about the wisdom of staying put until the rain stopped – an argument I’m glad I lost because it rained like cats and dogs for four days – we decided on a likely-looking direction and more or less skidded and rolled down with the torrents of mud on what turned out to be the unclimbable face of the mountain.
We learned a few things that day – one invaluable lesson of course was the wisdom of checking weather forecasts – another was that strange and wonderful things can happen on mountains, that in some ways you get to see the truth of things more clearly.
So today we have this strange and wonderful story of Jesus and his disciples going mountain-climbing. It seems to have been plonked somehow in the middle of the story where it doesn’t quite fit – one minute Jesus is going about his business of healing and teaching, the next he takes his best mates up the nearest high mountain where they have an experience they clearly don’t understand. His face and clothes all of a sudden turn Napisan-white and Moses and Elijah appear from nowhere either side of him for a chat. With a Cecil B. de Milne style voice from the cloud giving a commentary just for good measure, leaving Peter, James and John, wide-eyed and whimpering with fear and wonder.
What an odd story! What are we supposed to make of it? And what’s it doing here, right in the middle of Jesus’ ministry? Some Bible scholars even go so far as to suggest this incident was originally told as a resurrection story that somehow got jumbled up in the oral tradition and reinserted at the wrong place, in the middle of the story instead of right at the end. And it’s a story that feels especially mysterious and meaningful because of the connection it makes with older stories the hearers already know – the account of Moses encountering God on Mount Sinai and coming down the mountain with his face shining with divine light. Or the passage from 2 Kings that we read this morning where earth and heaven overlap as Elijah is carried bodily away into God’s presence.
But the story of the Transfiguration doesn’t just send us scurrying backwards to the Old Testament stories of God’s people, it also sends us fast-forwarding to the story of another mountain – this one called Golgatha, the place of the skull. Except when we put these two stories together, what we notice is not how similar they are, but how absolutely they contrast. In the Transfiguration story, Jesus’ clothes shine with an unearthly brilliance – on Golgotha his clothes become a pathetic gamblers’ stake. Today, Jesus’ is flanked either side by the two greats of Jewish folklore – on Golgotha he is crucified between two brigands. At the Transfiguration, Jesus’ exaltation is witnessed by his three closest male disciples – on Golgotha, after all the male disciples have fled, Jesus’ death on the cross is witnessed by three women, the two Marys and Salome. The scene of the Transfiguration is one of dazzling brilliance – as Jesus dies, Matthew tells us, darkness descends over the whole land. In today’s story, Jesus is radiant with the presence of God – on Golgotha he suffers the hell of abandonment by the One he calls his Father. On today’s mountain a divine voice proclaims, ‘this is my son’ – on Golgotha it is left to a pagan Roman soldier, one of Jesus’ executioners, to blurt out at the end, ‘surely, this man was God’s son’.
It’s almost as though the scene on Golgotha is a perverse mockery – the flip side- of today’s mountain. But if this is right – if this is part of what the writer of the Gospel wants us to notice – then what does it mean?
I think that Mark – who finishes his Gospel with silence and a question-mark – is reminding us in advance that the journey Jesus is on doesn’t end with the crucifixion. In the chapter before today’s reading, just a few verses ago, Jesus is telling his uncomprehending disciples that his journey is taking him towards his death, and today’s story is giving us a glimpse of the end of that journey – a journey that has to pass through Golgotha but is promised not to end there. The cross is the means, not the end.
But the most important thing for us to notice is that what we glimpse just for a moment on the mountain-top is not just the end of Jesus’ journey, but the destination that God intends for every one of us. In St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church he reflects on Moses’ encounter with God on Mt Sinai, and he says that is what’s in store for all of us, that Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our own transformation. So what Peter, James and John are witnessing, what Peter would like to hold onto by building huts up there on the mountain, is not just Jesus’ destination but their own, too, after the long and arduous journey that still lies ahead of them. And to get there, paradoxically, they can’t stay.
I think it’s interesting that this story begins with the words, ‘after six days’, because what Mark’s hearers would automatically connect that phrase with – what happens after six days – is the Sabbath. The Transfiguration for Mark is primarily a Sabbath experience, that uniquely Jewish conception of time out of time, the day set apart – not our modern Aussie Sunday that occasional churchgoers assure us is really family time, a day for sleeping in and going to the beach or playing football. But the real Sabbath, the day of creation. The day when all creation is at rest and at peace, when God rejoices with God’s creatures in the wonder of being. A day of reconciliation and harmony when God’s purposes are complete and fulfilled. And so the transfigured Christ is first and foremost the sabbath Christ: the Christ of our journey’s end.
No wonder Peter wants to stay. But of course the mystery of the Sabbath is that it is a glimpse of God’s time, interwoven with and experienced within the rhythm of creation. So down the mountain they go, and within a few verses they are confronted by a desperate need - a man whose son is possessed by a demon that flings him on the ground and has him foaming at the mouth. It’s the flip side, again. Abruptly we’ve cut to a very different image of our humanity. From divinely transfigured humanity, to a cruelly disfigured parody of what God intends for human life. An image closer to Golgotha than to the mountain of transfiguration. And the most shocking thing of all is that we recognise this place more readily. It’s part of our everyday experience, it’s the everyday reality of a world where the humanity of women and men is abused and denied.
I read the other day a story from the Western Front in World War I, in the mud of the trenches with the twisted bodies of the dead and dying all around, a young soldier turns to a comrade in desperation and says, ‘we weren’t made for this’. Maybe that phrase should stick in our minds as we look around us at the landscape of the 21st century. When we see Aboriginal children born into our wealthy democracy with a life expectancy 20 years less than white babies. When we see the human faces of war in Gaza or cholera in Zimbabwe. When we see the see the loss of old growth forest and the drying up of waterways, the destruction of habitat that drives more and more species to extinction. When in the evidence of climate change and financial catastrophe we see the inevitable consequences of greed and overconsumption. We weren’t meant for this.
And the danger is that we give in to despair, or that we just switch off. That we get overwhelmed, or that we simply stop caring, when what we need instead, and what as Christians we need to be able to offer, is an alternative vision. A vision of what we have been created to be, a vision of transfiguration, a vision of Sabbath which is our true journey’s end. All around us we see visions of Golgotha, and our vocation is to say, we were not meant for this. This is not what we have been created to be. Christ came to raise us from this. Like Peter and James and John we have been given a vision of what God intends for all human life, and the promise that through us that vision will come into being. If we can just believe it, if we can just hold it out to a world that is desperate for it.