The Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
Shiny Happy People?
I’ve been thinking all week about happiness. For one thing, I was at a conference on Tuesday which was about the connections between the Christian faith and mental health. For another, happiness came up over and over again in talking to students and staff. What do you want? I might ask. I want to be happy, more than one said. And of course, I knew that I had chosen the title Shiny Happy People? for this sermon, so I’ve had the REM song going through my head all week:
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing
For some it’s an obvious connection: being a Christian and being happy. There are certainly preachers who will promote this connection, and there’s no doubt that some Christians give the impression in a fairly constant smiling and general glee, that in following Jesus, they have discovered the secret of happiness, a happiness which cannot truly be challenged by the circumstances of life, from essays to exams, from broken legs to break-ups, from tsunamis to Syria.
And on the surface at least, today’s story from the gospel according to Luke may seem to back up this point of view. Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, taking with him three disciples, Peter, James and John. When there, Jesus’ face and clothes change in appearance, and he is joined in glory by two Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah. Peter asks to build shelters for these visitors. They are enveloped by a cloud from which a voice comes, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
The story is known as the Transfiguration, and it could be read as a story of shiny happy people. Jesus shines; he is joined by two glorious figures; Peter is so happy he wants to preserve the moment for ever. This is the archetypal mountain-top experience – who would ever want to come down?
And yet, the closer we look at the story, the more it seems not to be a story about preserving a moment of happiness. And the more we realise what the story is saying, the more we gain a deeper understanding of what it is to be a Christian.
Let’s think about that voice from the cloud. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” I don’t think there can be any doubt that this is meant to be the voice of God. God has spoken to people before on mountain-tops – to Moses on Mount Sinai as we heard earlier – and indeed spoken of Jesus in similar terms from heaven, when Jesus was baptised. And the words have deep echoes in the Old Testament’s longings for a figure to transform the people’s fortunes, for God to send his chosen one, his anointed one, his Messiah, to reign in the midst of the Earth, for God himself to be the people’s king. And so the words convey the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, that this man who has climbed a mountain with three friends to pray is the human being in whom God has returned to his people and his world to dwell and to establish his reign of love.
It’s not only the voice which forms this revelation: it’s the shining, the dazzling change in Jesus’ appearance. The story of Moses’ descent from Sinai tells us that his face was shining because he had encountered God there. No-one has seen God, scripture tells us, but such shining, such brightness is a sign of the divine presence, its purity and brilliance reflecting God’s holiness and glory.
In other words, this account of Transfiguration sets forth a deep reality about Jesus. He shares the divine glory. He is called by God, “my Son”. He is the Messiah, the return of God. When he speaks, we listen to the divine. So although the story seems to be about a change, in fact it’s about how Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, that he is the eternal Son of God sent into the world, that he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. It’s a story which shows who Jesus is, rather an event which changes who he is. Peter, James and John were only the first witnesses to this revelation; we are the latest. And so of course, as God’s glory shines on and in Jesus, Peter’s response was – Wow! This is amazing. Let’s keep Moses and Elijah here. Let’s keep the glory going. Let’s never return down to the plain, to the others, to all the problems there. Shiny happy people holding hands.
Luke, it has to be said, is not very generous to Peter, saying rather tartly that he didn’t know what he said. For Luke, although writing of the mountain-top, knows that this is really a story of the plain, of the world as it really is, and of a glory found in the strangest of places. The key verse is 31. Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Departure has rather a prosaic air in English, with echoes of railway stations. But in Luke’s Greek the word is exodus. This has quite different echoes, of the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, their miraculous escape through the Red Sea under Moses, their 40 year wanderings and eventual entry into the Promised Land. Exodus speaks less of departure and more of deliverance. This gives even more weight to the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son: if Jesus is to enact a new exodus, a new liberation of God’s people from slavery, a new journey to the promised land, he must be one with the Lord who led his people out of Egypt.
But how? And this is where the shiny happiness of the moment begins to falter. For he was to accomplish this exodus at Jerusalem. And Luke would in a few pages tell the story of what would happen at Jerusalem. It’s a story you may know: this Jesus who was transfigured in dazzling clothes, would be arrested, tried, stripped, beaten, mocked, forced to carry the cross, his method of execution, and then put to death, the humiliating death of the guilty criminal. One commentator, noting that John’s gospel doesn’t have the Transfiguration story, suggests that John has transferred it, so to speak, to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, at the moment when he is handed over – it is then “that the ultimate dimension of the divine glory becomes manifest in him.” This is the glory which the New Testament knows. This is what has been unveiled: that God does not dwell untouched in clouds, sky and mountain-tops, but that he lives among us on the plain, in our pain, even to our death.
And so that’s why there is something fundamentally mistaken about the sense that the Christian faith is about happiness. It’s not about preserving those mountain-top moments. It’s not about escaping life’s reality with a top-up of glory. We don’t pray so that we achieve peace. The glory of God, whatever else it means, is about God’s sharing a world of pain, of sorrow of sin and guilt, of injustice and isolation, sharing it as far as the grave. This is a glory which the church explores in the season of Lent beginning this week on Ash Wednesday.
So should the song be changed? Should Christians be Dingy Gloomy People? Is there no connection between following Jesus and being happy? If the grave were the end of the story, probably not. But the Jerusalem events did not end with Jesus in the tomb: Luke and other gospels record that he rose on the third day, that the grave became empty, that Jesus appeared to Mary, to Peter, James and John and other disciples. Fundamentally, the Christian faith is filled with hope. And so Paul, when he reflects on the glory of God seen on Moses’ face, says, “Since, then, we have such hope…we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Followers of Jesus share in his glory: this means not by-passing the reality of life, with all the pain that may mean. But it also means that resurrection could not by-pass us, that in every circumstance, there is the deep hope of God’s presence, trust in his love, and promise of his deliverance.
Does this make us happy? Sometimes. Sometimes not. It would be bizarre to be happy at the dodgy exam, the re-freshers flu, the ended relationship, the loss of a loved one, the pictures of thousands of people making their exodus from Syria. But we do not believe that God is absent from these situations. Jesus is with us by his Spirit, Jesus who faced the worst life can bring, and rose in life and hope. Shiny happy people? Maybe Bruised but hopeful people is who we are. Bruised but hopeful people holding hands.