(2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9) Provided I don’t fall off the ladder, the church will look very different next Sunday, dressed as it will be in the austerity of Lent. And hopefully the difference between how the church will look in Lent and how it has been since Christmas and before that, will be distinctive and noticeable.
In the same way, there are distinctive and noticeable differences between the two halves of St Mark’s Gospel. And just as this Sunday in the Church’s year marks the transition between Epiphany and Lent, so the account of the Transfiguration (which is always the gospel reading for today) is the turning point, or hinge, between the two halves of the gospel narrative.
It’s not difficult to recognise it as such. The Transfiguration story is not only positioned exactly half way through his gospel (almost to the verse), but it cleverly reflects what is at the beginning and end of that gospel. A voice is heard from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,’ just as it had at Jesus’ baptism. And the picture of Jesus lifted up, with two figures either side of him and a dark cloud overshadowing them, suggests the scene at Jesus crucifixion, which is the only other time in the gospel (here voiced by the centurion at the foot of the cross) that Jesus is named and identified as the Son of God.
In character with this (and you wouldn’t notice this unless you’d read the gospel in one go), the first half of St Mark, taking up the theme of his baptism, is concerned with Jesus’ ministry in the power the Spirit. So he is found there preaching and teaching with great authority, and casting out demons, healing the sick and doing other miracles and mighty works that reveal his identity as the Messiah, Son of God.
The second half of Mark is very different. It describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to Holy Week and the cross. In this part of the story Jesus undertakes virtually no healings or miracles. The narrative is full of conflict and controversy. Jesus’ teaching is all about the cost of following him as one called to suffer and to yield up his life in the service of others. Instead of being the author and agent of great works, Jesus becomes the passive recipient of that which is done to him, by those who plot and bring about his demise.
At one point in his early ministry Jesus says, ‘If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, know that the kingdom of God has come upon you.’ And to that we may well say, Yes, I get that. I see in Jesus the power of God let loose, to save and to heal. This is good news. This is what we expect of God, where we might look to find him, where there are miracles, and mighty works and changed lives. Here in the first part of St Mark is the God we know we need, powerfully present in Jesus.
But that - this glorious gospel of Christ - is only half the story from St Mark’s perspective. A perspective which recognises also the presence of suffering, the reality of sin and death. Which persist even in the presence of Christ. And over and against the power of God. Which might lead us – it certainly leads many in this modern age – to question God’s existence, or doubt his love, or his ability or desire to change things for the better.
We call those things idols that people build their lives upon in place of God. To believe in God requires the shattering of those idols. And that includes the idol of false belief. The image of the God that we think we know. Or the God we are comfortable with.
And this is what Mark seeks to do (especially in the way in which he juxtaposes the power and the passion of Christ in the two halves of his gospel) is to shatter the illusions and preconceptions we have about God, and any of the ways in which we might, or might want to, limit God, or define him, or mark out what he can or cannot do. Because ‘my ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord.’
Being God, God can do infinitely more than we can conceive or imagine. But what if we were actually to encounter the kind of awesome presence and miraculous happenings and healings that are described in the first part of Mark’s gospel? That really is a disquieting thought – so we tend to hold God at a distance, and maybe take comfort in our lack of faith, as it protects us from what God might require of us, or do to us.
Equally, the ungodlike god of the second half – the God who takes on the role of victim, of powerlessness, of acquiescence – calls into question our whole concept of God. Or at least the slot-machine God, who if you put enough prayer or faith into it will do whatever you want and make everything right.
It is not, of course, that God is ever absent or unconcerned or inactive, but his ways and the means of his presence may not accord with our expectations. And perhaps it’s that he stays his hand and withdraws his presence in order that we might have the space and freedom to be. And just as there are active ways to confront and correct the evils of the world, so there is in God a passive way as well, which involves bearing the pain, accepting the hurt, absorbing the wrong, and forgiving the fault.
Paradoxically, it may be the absence of God that makes room for faith. It’s certainly when our understandings are questioned or changed, that it’s then that we grow.
So this is something we could strive to do this Lent - lay aside the God we think we believe in to make room for the God who truly is. The God who allows things to happen which we don’t think he should. But who is also able to do things we are not ready for, or ever imagined could happen. The mysterious contradiction of power and passion, glory and grace, meekness and majesty, weakness and strength.