Suffering and joy in perfect balance


Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Suffering and Joy in perfect balance.

I wonder what things made you sad this week, and what things brought joy?

I was struck by the tragic story of 40 year old Caroline Flack, a former presenter of the reality show Love Island and one time winner of Strictly Come Dancing. She took her own life on 15 February in her London flat as she awaited trial for an alleged assault on her boyfriend.

The story reveals a hurting person who appeared to be the life and soul of the party but who struggled with insecurity and who was under relentless attack from the media. It reveals too a world in which kindness is sometimes in short supply, a world where we still advertise excitement and glitter and smiles and good looks as something to aim for, but forget about how that manufactured life consistently falls short of offering any real happiness.

How did Jesus face the darkness of the world that he saw coming towards him as he entered the final phase of his ministry? And how did he prepare his disciples for suffering?

We get a glimpse into the answers to these questions, as we encounter the story of the Transfiguration, on this last Sunday before Lent (look at the liturgical wheel picture).

As we are poised before Lent, similarly the disciples were about to enter their own wilderness as they discovered what Jesus had been trying to tell them; that before the Messiah could enter his glory, he would have to suffer and die.

With hindsight, we perhaps accept this concept, of suffering and glory, better than they could. We know that Peter has, in the previous chapter, been swinging on a pendulum between getting it completely right and getting it completely wrong. He has declared that Jesus is the Chosen One – and that as such he must be protected from the cross. From “you are Peter the Rock…” to “get behind me, Satan”.

Peter’s conundrum is the human conundrum – we don’t know how to square suffering with an all-powerful, loving God. Someone has said that the problem of suffering is the only really important question of apologetics. We still can’t get our head around the idea of a suffering God and we are wary of divine weakness. In our lives in the world we want to skirt around the negative in order to forge ahead with the positive, but Lent teaches us to wait in the difficult places in between, in the wilderness of not knowing ‘what the plan is’; of not having things neatly resolved.

So what was happening on the mount of Transfiguration? Jesus appears very deliberately to choose the inner circle of Peter, James and John and he leads them up the mountain, where Luke’s account says he is going to pray – a small detail omitted in Matthew and Mark.

At any rate, up the mountain they go and things start to get very mysterious, as you would expect up a mountain. Chris sent me pictures this week of him standing at the top of a mountain in Norway called Gaustatoppen, looking out over the brilliant white Hardangervidda, the sun piercing the blinding blue sky as far as the eye could see. He called it ‘utterly jaw dropping’ and it certainly looked it. Even if you’re not a religious person, there’s something about the top of a mountain that is ethereal, even spiritual. The immensity reminds us of our own smallness.

I felt something like that when we took a Canadian holiday in 2014 and although we only got to the edge of the Rockies, about two hours drive north of Vancouver, I felt incredibly over awed at what I was witnessing, very small in significance, and almost nervous just looking up at the mountains.

And that was before my family persuaded me to swallow my fears and get in a cable car named the Sea to Sky Gondola, that swung precariously upwards (it seemed to me) in an almost vertical trajectory towards the summit, at the end of which you hopped off casually and actually walked around on a platform up in amongst some of those awe-inspiring mountains. When I look at photos, I remember how mildly terrifying I found the whole experience. And I can’t say anyone had any kind of transfiguration up there, unless you count my sad realisation that I was probably the least physically brave of all the members of my family, which was a rather humbling experience.

So Jesus takes Peter, James and John into the rarefied atmosphere of Mount Tabor, or possibly Mount Hermon, which is much taller. Whichever mountain it was (and scholars are not sure) we can almost sense the unveiling of Jesus as the glorified Messiah of God as the clouds blow over and it appears that Moses and Elijah are suddenly there talking with him.

And before we look on in doubt, with our scientific mind-set, just take the opportunity, if you’re ever able to, to listen to someone who has lost a loved one, recount the strongly felt presence of that person, even thought they are not with us any more….

…This sense of the thin veil between us and something ‘beyond’ is, by its very nature, very difficult to put into words. But maybe someone will describe how, they felt the presence of their relative or friend when, for instance, their favourite bird suddenly alighted near them in the garden, or when a butterfly flew right onto their hand…

…or when the exact perfume of the deceased wafted towards them during the burial; or when their iPhone randomly chose the exact track they were looking for that spoke of their loved one; or when the clock stopped working the moment their loved one died; or when the Christian doctor witnessed, in a very dark room, the dying patient asking everyone to turn the lights off because it was so bright (all real scenarios I have personally experienced or listened to others recount).

This is just to illustrate that more things go on between the land of the living and the land of the ‘dead’ than we will ever know.

And this is something akin to the disciples’ experience on the mountain top: Moses and Elijah – very much not dead – but having fellowship with their longed-for Messiah just like we declare that we have when we speak of ‘the Communion of Saints’ in the words of the Creed. And Moses and Elijah are actually having fellowship with Jesus because they’re talking together.

Much has been made of poor Peter’s attempt to offer a monument to the moment – his three shelters idea – and how ridiculous it was, but it merely illustrates how out of our depth we are in the face of real mystery. But when they hear God speaking from the cloud the disciples react as normal human beings who encounter the living God; that is, they are terrified.

In that moment, we see divinity and humanity woven into the one experience. They pass out on the ground: Jesus offers them his simple touch and says don’t be afraid. They look up and he is alone; no more Old Testament greats, no dazzling light, no billowing cloud; just a human being offering them kindness.

Of course, they are asked not to tell of their experience until the right time – the right time being after the resurrection of Jesus. Why might this have been? Perhaps because the disciples’ mountain top experience only really makes sense within a framework of resurrection, of life that goes on after death, because The Life cannot be extinguished.

So here we are, about to begin Lent, a liturgical opportunity to examine our lives and be honest with ourselves and with others and God. Honest in a way that hopefully feeds into a world where it shouldn’t be possible for someone to have to pretend everything is fine when it is so not fine that they take their own life in tragic isolation.

The Transfiguration shows us a God who is glorious but who took flesh to face suffering on our behalf and to face ours alongside us. The Transfiguration is a gospel pivot between the life and the death of Jesus. It speaks to the theological puzzle of bringing together the so-called historical Jesus and what Richard Rohr calls the Universal Christ.

As we live our lives of joy and sorrow mixed; as we grapple with suffering whist being assured of resurrection, we enter into the mystery of this story and this reality, this God of suffering AND joy. May this final quotation be an encouragement to us and give us a fresh vision of the God who journeys with us through Lent towards to Cross; and towards final, hopeful resurrection:

‘We cannot escape God, Immanuel among us. God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when our hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. “So, get up and do not be afraid”’ (Maryetta Anschutz, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1: p.456).