May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is the Sunday in the lectionary cycle where we reflect upon the Transfiguration [Mark 9:2-10; and 2 Peter 1:16-21]. That event where Jesus ascended a high mountain with three disciples – Peter, James and John – who saw him transformed before their eyes and talking with Elijah and Moses.

Previously I have commented on the crisp brevity of Mark’s writing style. He did not waste words in his descriptions; when he wrote something, he wanted us to glean meaning from it. In this context there was one phrase that stood out to me in preparing for this morning’s sermon; it’s a phrase which also appeared in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, the shortest incidentally of the three versions; but not in Matthew’s, the longest. So it would seem that Matthew, who wrote his gospel later than Mark, hadn’t found the phrase significant, yet Mark and Luke had. The phrase I am talking about is:

(Peter) did not know what to say.

It’s an odd thing for Mark to have written; especially as it comes straight after Peter had in fact just spoken, having said:

Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.

All things considered, Peter had said quite a lot; so why did both Mark and Luke say that he ‘did not know what to say’?

Reflect on the scene that day, Jesus had taken three of the disciples with him on a hike up a high mountain. The disciples had then seen Jesus ‘transfigured before them’ with clothes far whiter than Persil could ever have achieved. Then, as Jesus stood there in glorious radiance, Elijah and Moses appeared and talked with him. The disciples, we are told, were terrified; and it was in his terror that Peter, for some reason, felt he should say something. He proffered the suggestion that they should make three dwellings – the actual Greek word used in the original was σκηνάς  [skenas] or tabernacle – ‘one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’. Jesus seems to have ignored Peter’s suggestion; for the next thing heard was the voice of God, one of only three times that the gospels record God speaking audibly:

This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!

Moses and Elijah then disappearing, Jesus and the three descended the mountain. Mark tells us that, on the descent, Jesus told Peter, James and John that they shouldn’t say anything about what they had just seen ‘until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. While, according to Mark, they didn’t say anything, he did add that they were nevertheless perplexed.

This is the fourth sermon I have given this year on a reading from Mark’s Gospel. In the third of these sermons, given six weeks ago, I spoke about the miracle of Jesus calming the storm. In part, this is what I said:

In Matthew and Luke’s telling, this story is simply a miracle; certainly impressive, but just one of the many others that Jesus would perform. But here in Mark, this miracle became the first of three great transformations that the disciples would ultimately witness. Here, before their very eyes, the human Jesus became divine – “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” In the second great transformation, the disciples would witness the Transfiguration where Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah on a high mountain. Then finally, the third transformation, when the crucified Jesus would be resurrected. So Mark’s purpose in relating this miracle was much more than just for the sake of the miracle itself, it was also to reinforce Mark’s overall purpose proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, and a quite different messiah from previous expectation.

So, if you will accept my proposition, those three events as reported by Mark – the stilling of the storm, the Transfiguration, and the Resurrection – served a singular purpose. That singular purpose being to convince his readers that Jesus was a Messiah beyond historic expectation; moreover that he was none other than the Son of God.

The concept of מָשִׁ֫יחַ [maschiach] or messiah has a long tradition in Judaism. There was certainly a very long held idea of waiting for the coming of one who would deliver God’s people. The Ramban, the title given to the C12 rabbinic scholar, Maimonides, wrote in his Thirteen Principles of Faith that:

I believe with complete faith in the coming of Mashiach, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come.

And deliverance was to be the benefit of such waiting. The period covering a century both before and after Jesus’ incarnation saw a particularly ‘messianic’ phase in Judaic thinking, for the harshness of Roman oppression had brought apocalyptic expectations to many Jews – they were waiting for the evil to be brought low and the oppressed to be freed.  For example, in the century after Jesus, many initially considered that the revolutionary Simon barKokhba was the promised messiah, believing he would deliver them through the revolt he led against Roman tyranny. However, that rebellion was a catastrophic failure; meaning no longer did some of God’s people consider him the prophesied messiah, and so they returned to waiting.

For a similar reason, many Jews contemporary to Jesus, failed to see in him the prophesied messiah. For they believed that a true messiah would bring the result spoken about in Isaiah 2:4:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Jesus had come and then he had gone, but the swords had not become ploughshares, nor the spears pruning hooks; and he did not seem to be sitting there judging the nations. He just seemed very dead. He could not after all be the maschiach, the messiah. This was a challenge of understanding that even the disciples had to face that day at the foot of the cross. But it would not just be the Resurrection that would answer that challenge. The Transfiguration also would ultimately come to have great significance for them, when taken in the context of the Resurrection. But this could only be if a qualitatively different understanding of messiah was adopted.

While the Judaic messianic expectations of the age were for a deliverer, at no point in either early or contemporary Judaism had or has there ever been the suggestion that a messiah would be endowed with a divine nature.

In the chapter before our reading this morning [Mark 8:29], after witnessing such miracles as the feeding of the five thousand and the healing of the blind man, in answer to Jesus’ question as to who he was Peter had said:

You are the messiah.

He would have been speaking in a Judaic understanding of messiah – Jesus the divinely-inspired deliverer from earthly danger, but not himself divine. Now, at the Transfiguration, there was to be a radical upending of Peter’s understanding of what ‘You are the messiah’ actually meant. Peter and the other disciples had seen Jesus miraculously talking with two from ancient times – one who had died, Moses, and one who had not, Elijah. His first response had been to equate Jesus with them; hence his glib suggestion of building a tabernacle to each of them.

However, the voice of God interposed, defining Jesus not as an equal part of a human trinity – Moses, Elijah and Jesus; but coincident with God himself – his own beloved son.

Why hadn’t Jesus wanted them to say anything about what the three disciples had witnessed on the mountain? Not even presumably to the other disciples who had not accompanied the three? It may have been because Jesus knew they could not yet possibly have understood what had happened that day on the mountain top. Indeed, Peter really confirmed that point, when the best he could offer was a suggestion to build three tabernacles. Peter, in his feeling the need to at least say something, had also revealed that he only perceived Jesus as of the same standing as Moses and Elijah.  The messiah he had proclaimed just a week or so earlier, was not the Messiah that he would later come to understand through the Resurrection.

Years later, Peter would come to understand just what he had witnessed that day on the mountain. In between then and his subsequent understanding would be his three denials, another example of his not knowing what to say, and the Resurrection, which would be followed by his three proclamations of love for Jesus. Through that journey from not knowing what to say, Peter finally became a reliable interpreter of prophecy.

We know that he did eventually come to a full understanding of the import of the Transfiguration through his letters – a section of which was part of our Lectionary reading this morning. Some scholars believe that, unlike the first letter attributed to him, the second letter of Peter was in fact written after Peter’s martyrdom, most probably by someone who had been an amanuensis of his during his lifetime. However, there is still justification in considering that second letter as reflective of what Peter had come to understand from the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his own.

2 Peter in its first chapter establishes the truth credentials of all that follows in that letter. It is particularly interesting that the event chosen as a testimonial to truth in that letter was not the crucifixion and Resurrection, but the Transfiguration. Note the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our LORD Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

The phrase ‘cleverly devised stories’ was used at the start of those verses. That idea was echoed in the next chapter, where Peter or his follower noted:

… there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them … [2 Peter 2:1]

What then of the significance of the Transfiguration for us, we would do well to harken to what Peter saw that day, what he had then said and what he would finally understand. On the mountain he had spoken as a false prophet, when he did not know what to say. Later at the cross, he again did not know what to say, so he three times denied Christ as ‘sovereign Lord’. But after the Resurrection, all that would change, as he then knew what to say in truth and in faith.

Hearing the story as we do each year, do we know what to say? Or, like Peter, do we blather and miss the point? In talking about building three dwellings or tabernacles, Peter had misunderstood what he was seeing. Do we too misunderstand what we witnessed in hearing the story of what happened on that mountain? Had Peter proceeded with building the tabernacles, he would have disfigured the Transfiguration. We would also do well to note that that same event could be disfigured by us in its interpretation, if we fail to understand the full power of what happened that day on the high mountain and choose to think that human efforts will suffice. Peter wanted to build a tabernacle by his own hands; but it would be Jesus’ rebuilding of the Temple through his Resurrection that would transform Peter to a believer.

Mountains have always had deep significance for people through history. The mountain top, the place at the end of the hard climb, the place where we see more clearly. It is no accident that Moses would encounter God on a mountain top, as would Elijah. The late Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev [1958-1997], who died on Annapurna put mountains in a beautiful and profound context:

Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.

That day, on a high mountain, Peter, James and John had stepped into a special cathedral where they would ultimately find true faith, not through their own ambitions to achieve, but through belief in he through whom all things are possible. So as we come shortly to the sacrament of communion, may we not just take the host to our comfort, but as an invitation to transformation by the body and blood of the transfigured Christ.