Professor Sarah Mortimer
The Sunday Next Before Lent


Sung Eucharist

2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

Mountains are special places.  High on the mountain the air is thinner, the perspective wider, the view clearer.  Mountains are sites of power and wonder, ‘thin places’ where the line between the earthly and the divine begins to blur, where humans come closer to what is eternal and ethereal.  In the Bible, mountains are places where the presence of God can seem nearer, more vivid and real, they are places of encounter, of new experiences.   When Jesus led those favoured disciples with him up onto the mountaintop, their sense of expectation must have been intense, overwhelming almost.

For the disciples knew the power of mountains.   Their tradition recorded that Moses had been given the Law by God from the top of Mount Sinai.  But the disciples also knew this power personally, at first hand.  At the start of his ministry Jesus had called his followers up onto the mountain, appointing twelve with power to preach and drive out demons.  Back then they were only dimly aware of what they were caught up in, but since then their knowledge and understanding had grown as they had watched Jesus heal and teach and command the forces of nature.  In the excitement, Peter had even found himself declaring that Jesus was the Messiah, the chosen saviour of God’s people.   Now, six days later, he was ascending the mountain with the one on whom all his hopes were focused.  And as Jesus stood on the mountain, he was soon clothed in dazzling brightness, in the company of Elijah and Moses – announced as the beloved Son of God.

The scene as we have it underlines the presence of the divine, a theophany in which God is manifested to mortals.   The first impression is of power and authority, with those echoes of Moses and Sinai, but it is blended too with elements from the Hellenistic culture Mark and his readers know so well.  When the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece visited mortals they too would shine with unearthly brightness, to make themselves known and ensure they were obeyed.  It is tempting perhaps to see Jesus here as that kind of deity, supreme in control and commanding all.

But Jesus refuses to let the disciples cling on to this thought, unsettling them as he swears them to secrecy until he has risen from the dead.   Though some of the elements of this mountain experience may have been familiar, in reality the disciples’ sense of God, God’s power and purposes, are being radically challenged.  This experience of Jesus’s shining presence, and the affirmation of the divine voice, reveal part, but only part, of God’s purposes, only part of the nature and divinity of Jesus.   Until the disciples have followed Jesus’s ministry through, right to the bitter earthly end, they cannot understand fully what it means for God to be with us.   Only then will they realise that the true power of God is revealed not in splendour and might, but in vulnerability, in a self-giving love that is absolute.

 After Peter had recognised Jesus as Messiah, Jesus begins to unfold some of the implications, the suffering and rejection that he must undergo.  But Peter cannot yet bear it, refusing to allow Jesus to speak in such a way.  Peter’s devotion and commitment is not in question, but he struggles to accept and to trust in the messiahship that Jesus embodies.  He has seen with his own eyes Jesus calm the storms and heal the sick, and heard him preach the coming kingdom.   But Peter’s expectations for that kingdom are still very much his own and those of the culture around him, he’s still wanting a God to fulfill his own hopes and dreams, perhaps even his own desire for power and dominion.   He needs the heavenly voice to insist that he listens, that he is truly attentive and open to the reality of divine Sonship, to Jesus himself.

Frightened and excited, Peter wants to stabilise the moment, to build a tent so that they can all stay on the mountain, protected by the glow of divine radiance and glory.  But Jesus will not let him.  They must return to the plain, back to the crowds and the people so hungry for healing and hope.  The cost of that return may seem immense, but it is integral to the very nature of God’s purposes, integral to the Sonship announced in the blinding light.   The scene on the mountaintop is one moment in a larger story, one aspect of a Sonship which cannot be captured or frozen in a scene of power.  And though that Sonship would be declared from the heavens, the only human in Mark’s gospel to acknowledge it will be a Roman Centurion, who stands before Jesus as he dies on the cross.

Coming down the mountain, Jesus continues to explain all this to the disciples, but – as Mark is acutely aware – words can only do so much.  The true meaning of that divine power cannot be conveyed in words or taught in texts; we cannot know it from afar, as a hypothesis or a set of propositions.  It is instead through encounter, through journeying with Jesus as he lives for others that we can come to learn what God is, what we are.   The disciples stay close to Jesus as he subdues the storms, heals the blind, tells them of the coming kingdom.  Then they (or at least the women) watch as he gives himself over to death and crucifixion, to what must have seemed the antithesis of those moments on the mountain, when Jesus shone in glory.   But in their perseverance, the disciples come to see what Mark is here telling his audience, that in the life – the whole life – of Jesus, our ideas of God are made anew.  And in coming to see God as revealed in life for others, our relationship and communities can be transformed too.

This week we mark Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent; we remember the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan to see his ministry in terms of self-centered power and dominion.  It was to a mountain that Satan took Jesus to offer him all the kingdoms of the world, to set before him an authority over all people grounded in sheer might and coercive will.  Jesus rejects that vision and the kind of kingship which rules from on high, set apart from the people, choosing instead to serve and reveal a God whose power is known in solidarity, in vulnerability, in a togetherness which seeks nothing of its own.   To recognise this God in Jesus is to see the true meaning of glory, a glory which cannot be gathered and fixed on the mountain but which must be shared and given away, without reserve or remainder.    Only that glory, made known on the cross as on the mountain, can draw us back to each other, and back to God.