More Than Meets the Eye
A sermon on Mark 9:2-9 by Nathan Nettleton, 2 February 1997

Moments of transfiguration show how much more lies beyond our mundane perceptions - of Jesus, of the world, of ourselves.


Some years ago a bloke by the name of Morton Kelsey did a survey of regular church attenders. The survey was done in Roman Catholic churches, but I don’t think there’s any reason to assume its finding would not be true in protestant churches too, and seeing’s a similar question came up on the National Church Life Survey last year, it will be interesting to see when the findings come out later this year, how true it holds in Australian churches. What Kelsey found out was that most lay people reported having had a mystical, life changing experience, something of the kind reported in this gospel story. However he also found that the vast majority of them had never told anybody else about it! Why? I suspect for the same reason as most of us. Most of them said, “Everyone would have thought I was crazy.”

When we are confronted by some mysterious intrusion into our lives, something that just cannot be explained within the terms of our usual world view, we typically either dismiss it ourselves as something a bit crazy, or we tend to keep our mouths shut for fear that other people will dismiss, not just our experience, but us as well.

I know that some of you have had such experiences. I suspect that most of you have, but not all of you have told me about them. In some cases it is something really spectacular, something that seemed to defy the consistent patterns of the physical universe and can only be spoken of in terms of miracle. More of you have had experiences that were quite miraculous in their timing and impact on your lives, but which a competent psychoanalyst would no doubt give a very rational scientific sounding explanation for.

But you and I know, having experienced them, that such explanations don’t explain them away, or diminish the life changing impact they have. You can have a thorough technical knowledge of how television sets work and still have your life changed by something that you see on a TV broadcast. You can explain the technical mechanisms of dreams or visions or mystical sensations and still have your life radically transformed by one.

However, listening to the technicalities often makes us even more reluctant to risk talking about the actual experience and being written off as a bit wacko. For the same reason I am somewhat reluctant to go into too much explanation of this story of the transfiguration of Jesus. I don’t think it is the kind of story that is supposed to be dissected and analysed. It is more the kind of story that is supposed to be prayed and experienced. A story where you allow the imagery to wash over you and surge through you and take you wherever it will. It is the kind of story that seems to be diminished by explanation rather than expanded, because no explanation can ever do it justice, but every attempt seems to close off some of the alternatives.

So rather than attempt to explain it in any detail, I want to talk a little more about how we experience these kind of events, and perhaps some background to some of the images in the story, because two thousand years of cultural change has clouded the significance of some of them.

The first thing I want to say about this story is that the impact of this event, whatever it was, on the three disciples was a type of impact we are all familiar with. I’m ignoring the specifics of the event for a moment, and just focussing on its impact. In that moment of transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus in a way they’d never seen him before, and from this moment on they would never see him in quite the old way again. They didn’t see anything about him that hadn’t been there or wasn’t true before, but they saw it for the first time.

Now all of us know something of the feeling of seeing something quite familiar as though it was completely new because you’ve seen so much further into it than you’ve ever seen before. It can be negative or it can be positive. Someone who you always saw as a fine upstanding family man is spotted on a TV expose of paedophile sex tours to Asia. Suddenly that person is transfigured in your eyes and you never see them the same way again. Someone you’ve been sneaking looks at from behind your paper on the train every day and thinking was just an air-head but oh-so-nice to look at, turns out to be a human rights lawyer working for half pay in a campaign to end child slavery. You can never perve in quite the same way again!

Visions of transfiguration are not usually about seeing something change, but about a change in our way of seeing. You’re all familiar with the phrase “the tip of the iceberg”. For various reasons that’s all we usually see of most things. That’s partly because of limitations in our perceptive abilities and partly because some things are deliberately concealed.

Look at the person sitting next to you. How much do you know of them? If you’ve never met them before, then the chances are all you know is what they look like and perhaps what their voice is like. You wouldn’t want to base to many judgments about a person on that. But even if you’ve known them for years, of all the things that could possibly be known about them, how much do you know?

Even at a physical level. Without looking, what colour are their eyes? Perfectly obvious when you look, but how much of the available information do we take in. And only a tiny fraction of even their physical make-up is that available. What’s their blood group?

When we leave the physical features it gets even more complicated. Now I know Margie better than I know anybody else in this room, but there are plenty of things about her I don’t know or don’t understand. And there’s even a few things where I know more about someone else than I do about her. For example, I know that Kristin has had her wisdom teeth out, but I’m not sure about Margie, because she could have had them out before I met her but until now I never thought to ask.

But I know her better than I know anyone else here, because I’m very much in love with her and so I’ve taken the time to get to know her. But if I wanted to tell you about her so that you could know her like I know her, how could I do it. I could have a biologist write books about her anatomy and physiology. I could have a psychologist write a depth analysis of her personality and how her mind works. I wouldn’t mind reading that myself. A biographer could present her life history, and perhaps I could even get a artist to paint a portrait of her. All of which could give you an enormous amount of information, but still not really capture her. If I’d had all that information before I’d met her, I don’t think it would have been enough to make me conclude that I would want to share the rest of my life with her.

Perhaps the closest we could get to communicating who Margie is to someone who’d never met her would be to have a poet write about her, because poets don’t usually deal in facts and figures but in essence. And the essence of Margie, the thing that makes Margie Margie, is not something material, or intellectual or even psychological. It’s mystical, spiritual, and everybody who’s ever been in love knows that.

But also everyone who’s ever read poetry knows that you wouldn’t start with the poetry and try to work our her blood type from it. And that’s why it would be so inappropriate to try to be too factually descriptive about what it was that the three disciples witnessed on the mountain. Because not only were they not allowed to talk about it until after the resurrection, but even with a few years to think about it they still couldn’t explain it in any way that didn’t slide into poetic imagery to convey the essence of the experience. Clothes becoming dazzling white, more white than any white ever seen. There is no point going to a colour consultant to try to determine just what that would have looked like.

We are talking about a great mystery here, a mystery that defies our powers of description. The mystery of a man who most of the time was indistinguishable from any other man, at least until he opened his mouth, but who in moments like this of transfiguration, those moments when you catch a glimpse of the reality that lies beneath the surface, a man who could be clearly seen to be related to God in unimaginable ways.

It is impossible to untangle the evocative language of the poet and the precise language of the historian in this story, and there is no need to do so, because we are dealing with one of those moments when the veil that separates earth from heaven, the natural realm from the supernatural realm was pulled back and you’re dealing with two kinds of reality overlapping each other. You don’t have to have been dealing with the world of the spirit for very long to know that you can’t apply the same criteria of truth to both realms.

They heard the voice of God saying, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.” What do you mean they “heard”? The physiologist would talk about the eardrums vibrating in response to sound waves. Is that what we mean? Who cares? People of spirit know they have heard the voice of God and they really don’t care whether their eardrums picked up sound waves or whether it happened on some other level entirely. You can’t often take the questions of one realm and expect them to make sense of the other.

They saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Was this visionary seeing or physical image-on-the-retina seeing? Who knows? Who cares? Such questions are pointless. Instead pray yourself into the story. You are there on the mountain, far away from the normal concerns of life. Suddenly, your companion Jesus, a pretty outstanding bloke at the best of times in transfigured before you into a dazzling heavenly being. With him appear Moses and Elijah, not only the two most significant representatives of God in the history of faith, but two of the three people who the traditions said had not died but been carried alive to heaven.

You fall awe struck to the ground as you see your transfigured friend, who had so recently spoken of his own impending suffering and death, converse with these two deathless messengers of heaven. What do they speak of? What do you overhear? And in the ecstasy of the moment you’re right with Peter, ready to put up the tents and hang onto this extraordinary glimpse of the truth behind all truth, when you are swallowed up by a cloud of God’s glory and there’s the voice. The voice. “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.”

And then its over. As suddenly as it began, everything looks normal again. And isn’t that always the way with moments of transfiguration. The vision of just how big the iceberg beneath the tip is is only fleeting, but your a little more conscious of it forever more. Some of you have told me of times when for you, for just a few moments, the veil of heaven was pulled back and you encountered the loving glorious Christ in a way far beyond the normal mundanities of life, and that moment of transfiguration lives with you even though everything still seems perfectly normal most of the time.

Some of you have told me of times when for just a few moments you saw into yourself, far deeper than you can normally see, a moment when you saw the extent of what you could become. You saw either the extent of the sin that has infested you and seeks to master you, or you saw the extent of the dazzling white image of God within you, striving to take flight. Or perhaps you even saw both at once, although you’d have to be exceptionally strong to cope with both at once. I think it would leave you a quivering mess. Rather like Peter, James and John really.

Whether a transfiguring vision of Christ, or of the world, or of yourself, I think these moments are enormously important for our faith, fleeting though they are. Most Sundays this year we are watching Jesus as he moves through the gospel of Mark. Often what he does seems strange, difficult to explain. We struggle to come to terms with what’s going on. With the disciples we ask “Who is this?”

Then in some stunning moment, in some dazzling glimpse, we see things as they really are - Jesus, the world, ourselves. Jesus is seen in context of the other greats of the faith. There is a voice, speaking explicitly to us, “This is my son. Listen to him.”

And so we listen. And so we see. And so we believe.