I Kings 19, vv1-18; Matthew 17, vv1-9
What a supreme irony, almost a blasphemy, to drop the atomic bomb on the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6 1945. But so it was. A holy day become an unholy day. Hiroshima remains a name to send a shudder down the spine. The film industry has revisited the story of one of the pioneer scientists on the Manhattan Project, Dr Robert Oppenheimer and his most famous line, taken from Hindu scripture, when he realised what they had created: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
In our Old Testament reading the people of Israel were in one of their frequent bouts of religious and political confusion over whether to stay loyal to the Lord, Yahweh. Elijah faces down the prophets of the nature god Baal and then flees for his life. How will the Lord save him? Then we read that ‘the Lord was not in the earthquake, wind or fire’ but in the famous still small voice. But how realistic is that? Are not the earthquake, wind and fire more impressive? How else is the world to be changed, except by such power?
But the Lord was not in the earthquake, wind or fire. He rarely is.
In our noisy world, the voice of Jesus is something of a still small voice, unnoticed or despised. His teaching seems so unrealistic in a world of nuclear weapons or financial muscle or the apparently inescapable abuse of power by rulers all round the world. Yet the words of Jesus provide a stark contrast to Oppenheimer’s: ‘I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness’. And Jesus does show us how to use power. This is the message of the familiar story of his temptations which are all about power. Jesus could use his power to make a name for himself. And why not? Power on this scale would be the short-cut to a world re-designed along much better lines, with the hungry fed and everyone subservient to Jesus as Lord? When Jesus resists this as the talk of the devil it is not because he is relinquishing his calling but rather interpreting how power is meant to be used by human beings – that bringing in the authentic rule of God will be done through love, however costly and however unrealistic it may seem, never more so than on Calvary.
The feast of the Transfiguration is not just about Jesus and his friends on the mountain top. It is about seeing the deeper truth that this is how God will prevail; the voice of God ‘this is my son, listen to him’ means that this is how God’s kingdom will come, the Jesus way. This is the holy transfiguration, in which Jesus is filled with light, transparent not in the horror of Hiroshima but as the revelation of divine power as love and compassion.
Each one of us has some power, some resources at our disposal, some advantages acquired by birth or by our efforts, some opportunities and abilities – all things that Jesus wants us to use with love for the well-being of others – and all things which it is much too easy to use for our own self-interest in a society which assumes that the self is all-important. There’s one clear lesson from this sad coincidence of dates, this clash of transfigurations. To choose to follow Jesus is to resist the blandishments of power as a means of advancing oneself and one’s ego, even for a good cause. Rather choose life as love in all its fullness.
Ultimately more powerful than the earthquake, wind, fire or bomb.
Revd Peter Brain