Some of you might be impressed to know that about ten years ago, I climbed a mountain in the French Alps. Well I say climbed, but when I tell you the mountain was Mont Blanc, you might realise that what I actually mean is – I ascended a mountain courtesy of a cable car.
I was with a group of close friends and after spending a few freezing cold moments gazing in awe at a glacier from an observation platform, we made our way to the suitably enclosed café.
The rest of the group were all delighted by the experience and rattling on about how they appreciated the creative nature of God and how much closer they felt to Him as they surveyed the view.
As I was unable to raise my eyes further than my glass of gluhwein, this was not an experience I felt able to fully enter into. I’m not a great fan of mountains: they’re usually beautiful I admit – from a distance, but as someone who doesn’t enjoy heights, being up a mountain again would definitely not be top of my list of 100 things to do before you die.
In fact, following my Mont Blanc experience, I’ve developed a strong sense of self-preservation which suggests that the very fact of being up a mountain would in itself contribute to my death – even going upstairs on a double-decker bus can sometimes give me palpitations!
Mountains, of course, are very symbolic in the Bible: they are often the places where key people encounter God.
For example, remember Moses climbing Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. Today in Mark’s Gospel we have Jesus climbing another mountain where he encounters his Father.
I know that “mountain” is probably a bit of a stretch when used to describe the geography of the Holy Land, but when I read these passages again and try to imagine myself into the scenario, I don’t have any sense of resentment that Jesus should only take a select group of his followers with him. In fact, had I been invited to be in that select group I would probably have declined – “Me? Up there? No, you’re fine thanks. You go ahead. I’ll stay here and hold the coats.”
But at the top of this mountain, Jesus is revealed in his glory, His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
The gospel passage today is about transformation, but is more widely known as The Transfiguration. The supernatural and glorified change in the appearance of Jesus is itself a witness to who Jesus was and is – even if the disciples didn’t quite join the dots at the time.
The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the incident on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. The Transfiguration not only supports the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but the statement “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” identifies him as the messenger and mouth-piece of God, just as it did at his baptism.
Today this is enhanced by the presence of Moses and Elijah, (Moses representing The Law and Elijah, The Prophets) because it shows Peter, John and James then, and us now, that Jesus is the voice of God above all others. Jesus surpasses and supersedes all the key religious leaders who have gone before and their teaching!
I wonder if you have ever tried to re-invent yourself. It’s more easily done during some big life change that has an element of geographic movement: perhaps leaving home to go to college, changing jobs, moving home, starting at a new school, changing churches and so on. Sometimes that physical movement of place is the impetus for change.
Occasionally as a teacher, I see youngsters who are desperate to change but who have backed themselves into a corner.
Without the geographic change they are locked into a cycle of self-defeating behaviour because of the expectations of those around them – others won’t let them change. If you have the reputation of being the ‘class clown’, or the year group’s ‘gossipy girl’ it’s really hard to change and in all areas of life the more close-knit the community, the more difficult transformation can be.
And yet transformation is a part of our Christian life: through the power of the Holy Spirit we are being transformed from what we once were into what we shall one day be.
It is a work in progress. We are all works in progress.
As 2 Corinthians tells us, If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. And this happens – is happening – because of our encounter with God regardless of whether or not we were up a mountain when that encounter took place.
The problem though is that often we can’t see the wood for the trees: it’s rather like being a parent or grandparent who sees the children daily and because of that doesn’t notice the subtle changes that take place. It takes the visit of a family friend or other relative who hasn’t seen them for a while to say, “Aren’t they growing up?”
I remember at university hearing the testimonies of other Christians who told dramatic tales of transformation when they made a Christian commitment.
It both excited and disappointed me that these testimonies told of change from a really lurid past: excited because of the possibility that God can change anyone, however dodgy their previous lives, and disappointed that my life was so dull and ordinary in contrast.
I’m not doubting the truth of those testimonies, but they were so far removed from my own comparatively uneventful upbringing that they were hard to identify with and yet the Holy Spirit was still at work in my life. I was just too close to the wood to see the trees. So, slowly but surely, attitudes and behaviours changed.
I know I’ll never know the answer to this, but I sometimes wonder how very different from the current me, the old me would have been at this stage in my life had I not made a Christian commitment.
As I try to analyse my own life, and as I look at the lives of other Christians I have known for a long time, I am increasingly convinced that there aren’t that many of us who need a radical transformation of the Holy Spirit, although that’s not to say that we don’t need any transformation.
What the Holy Spirit does, though, is to take the essential us, the essential you and me and works with that God-given material and life’s experiences to challenge and effect incremental transformations that we may not even notice. The fact that we don’t notice that transformation mustn’t be taken as a sign that it isn’t happening.
Perhaps, every once in a while, we should surprise our friends by affirming what we admire and value about their spirituality and Christian witness. We are a work in progress. We are being transformed by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not going to be accomplished this side of the grave so let’s not look for or expect perfection.
Just one minor point to finish on: Jesus chose to take friends with him. They were there to witness the event and talk of it to others later. Let’s not be afraid to do the same.
Lets talk to others of the Transfiguration of Jesus – Jesus as the link between the human and the divine certainly, but let’s not forget to talk about what God is doing in our own lives: our own little transformations by the Holy Spirit; and if we can’t recognise it in ourselves let’s make more of a point in affirming it in each other. Sometimes it’s the personal rather than the profoundly theological that draws others in.
So, this week, in your day to day encounters, look for that transformation in your life. Recognise and give thanks that God is working through you, and through our church family. Share with those around you what God is doing in your lives and let others know that they too can be transformed.