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Twenty-Five Village Sermons, 15 - THE TRANSFIGURATION

By Charles Kingsley


      MARK, ix. 2.

      "Jesus taketh Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them."

      The second lesson for this morning service brings us to one of the most wonderful passages in our blessed Saviour's whole stay on earth, namely, His transfiguration. The story, as told by the different Evangelists, is this,--That our Lord took Peter, and John, and James his brother, and led them up into a high mountain apart, which mountain may be seen to this very day. It is a high peaked hill, standing apart from all the hills around it, with a small smooth space of ground upon the top, very fit, from its height and its loneliness, for a transaction like the transfiguration, which our Lord wished no one but these three to behold. There the apostles fell asleep; while our blessed Lord, who had deeper thoughts in His heart than they had, knelt down and prayed to HIS Father and OUR Father, which is in heaven. And as He prayed, the form of His countenance was changed, and His raiment became shining, white as the light; and there appeared Moses and Elijah talking with Him. They talked of matters which the angels desire to look into, of the greatest matters that ever happened in this earth since it was made; of the redemption of the world, and of the death which Christ was to undergo at Jerusalem. And as they were talking, the apostles awoke, and found into what glorious company they had fallen while they slept. What they felt no mortal man can tell--that moment was worth to them all the years they had lived before. When they had gone up with Jesus into the mount, He was but the poor carpenter's son, wonderful enough to THEM, no doubt, with His wise, searching words, and His gentle, loving looks, that drew to Him all men who had hearts left in them, and wonderful enough, too, from all the mighty miracles which they had seen Him do, but still He was merely a man like themselves, poor, and young, and homeless, who felt the heat, and the cold, and the rough roads, as much as they did. They could feel that He spake as never man spake--they could see that God's spirit and power was on Him as it had never been on any man in their time. God had even enlightened their reason by His Spirit, to know that He was the Christ, the Son of the living God. But still it does seem they did not fully understand who and what He was; they could not understand how the Son of God should come in the form of a despised and humble man; they did not understand that His glory was to be a spiritual glory. They expected His kingdom to be a kingdom of this world--they expected His glory to consist in palaces, and armies, and riches, and jewels, and all the magnificence with which Solomon and the old Jewish kings were adorned; they thought that He was to conquer back again from the Roman emperor all the inestimable treasures of which the Romans had robbed the Jews, and that He was to make the Jewish nation, like the Roman, the conquerors and masters of all the nations of the earth. So that it was a puzzling thing to their minds why He should be King of the Jews at the very time that He was but a poor tradesman's son, living on charity. It was to shew them that His kingdom was the kingdom of heaven that He was transfigured before them.

      They saw His glory--the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. The form of His countenance was changed; all the majesty, and courage, and wisdom, and love, and resignation, and pity, that lay in His noble heart, shone out through His face, while He spoke of His death which He should accomplish at Jerusalem-- the Holy Ghost that was upon Him, the spirit of wisdom, and love, and beauty--the spirit which produces every thing that is lovely in heaven and earth: in soul and body, blazed out through His eyes, and all His glorious countenance, and made Him look like what He was--a God. My friends, what a sight! Would it not be worth while to journey thousands of miles--to go through all difficulties, dangers, that man ever heard of, for one sight of that glorious face, that we might fall down upon our knees before it, and, if it were but for a moment, give way to the delight of finding something that we could utterly love and utterly adore? I say, the delight of finding something to worship; for if there is a noble, if there is a holy, if there is a spiritual feeling in man, it is the feeling which bows him down before those who are greater, and wiser, and holier than himself. I say, that feeling of respect for what is noble is a heavenly feeling. The man who has lost it--the man who feels no respect for those who are above him in age, above him in knowledge, above him in wisdom, above him in goodness,--THAT man shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. It is only the man who is like a little child, and feels the delight of having some one to look up to, who will ever feel delight in looking up to Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of lords and King of kings. It was the want of respect, it was the dislike of feeling any one superior to himself, which made the devil rebel against God, and fall from heaven. It will be the feeling of complete respect--the feeling of kneeling at the feet of one who is immeasurably superior to ourselves in every thing, that will make up the greatest happiness of heaven. This is a hard saying, and no man can understand it, save he to whom it is given by the Spirit of God.

      That the apostles HAD this feeling of immeasurable respect for Christ there is no doubt, else they would never have been apostles. But they felt more than this. There were other wonders in that glorious vision besides the countenance of our Lord. His raiment, too, was changed, and became all brilliant, white as the light itself. Was not THAT a lesson to them? Was it not as if our Lord had said to them, 'I am a king, and have put on glorious apparel, but whence does the glory of my raiment come? I have no need of fine linen, and purple, and embroidery, the work of men's hands; I have no need to send my subjects to mines and caves to dig gold and jewels to adorn my crown: the earth is mine and the fulness thereof. All this glorious earth, with its trees and its flowers, its sunbeams and its storms, is MINE. I made it--I can do what I will with it. All the mysterious laws by which the light and the heat flow out for ever from God's throne, to lighten the sun, and the moon, and the stars of heaven--they are mine. I am the light of the world--the light of men's bodies as well of their souls; and here is my proof of it. Look at Me. I am He that "decketh Himself with light as it were with a garment, who layeth the beams of His chambers in the waters, and walketh upon the wings of the wind." This was the message which Christ's glory brought the apostles--a message which they could never forget. The spiritual glory of His countenance had shewn them that He was a spiritual king--that His strength lay in the spirit of power, and wisdom, and beauty, and love, which God had given Him without measure; and it shewed them, too, that there was such a thing as a spiritual body, such a body as each of us some day shall have if we be found in Christ at the resurrection of the just--a body which shall not hide a man's spirit, when it becomes subject to the wear and tear of life, and disease, and decay; but a spiritual body--a body which shall be filled with our spirits, which shall be perfectly obedient to our spirits--a body through which the glory of our spirits shall shine out, as the glory of Christ's spirit shone out through His body at the transfiguration. "Brethren, we know not yet what we shall be, but this we do know, that when He shall appear, we shall be LIKE HIM, for we shall see Him as He is." (1 John, iii. 3.)

      Thus our Lord taught them by His appearance that there is such a thing as a spiritual body, while, by the glory of His raiment, in addition to His other miracles, He taught them that He had power over the laws of nature, and could, in His own good time, "change the bodies of their humiliation, that they might be made like unto His glorious body, according to the mighty working by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself."

      But there was yet another lesson which the apostles learnt from the transfiguration of our Lord. They beheld Moses and Elijah talking with Him:--Moses the great lawgiver of their nation, Elijah the chief of all the Jewish prophets. We must consider this a little to find out the whole depth of its meaning. You remember how Christ had spoken of Himself as having come, not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them. You remember, too, how He had always said that He was the person of whom the Law and the Prophets had spoken.

      Here was an actual sign and witness that His words were true--here was Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the chief of the Prophets, talking with Him, bearing witness to Him in their own persons, and shewing, too, that it was His death and His perfect sacrifice that they had been shadowing forth in the sacrifices of the law and in the dark speeches of prophecy. For they talked with Him of His death, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. What more perfect testimony could the apostles have had to shew them that Jesus of Nazareth, their Master, was He of whom the Law and the Prophets spoke--that He was indeed the Christ for whom Moses and Elijah, and all the saints of old, had looked; and that He was come not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them? We can hardly understand the awe and the delight with which the disciples must have beheld those blessed Three--Moses, and Elias, and Jesus Christ, their Lord, talking together before their very eyes. For of all men in the world, Moses and Elias were to them the greatest. All true-hearted Israelites, who knew the history of their nation, and understood the promises of God, must have felt that Moses and Elias were the two greatest heroes and saviours of their nation, whom God had ever yet raised up. And the joy and the honour of thus seeing them face to face, the very men whom they had loved and reverenced in their thoughts, whom they had heard and read of from their childhood, as the greatest ornaments and glories of their nation--the joy and the honour, I say, of that unexpected sight, added to the wonderful majesty which was suddenly revealed to their transfigured Lord, seemed to have been too much for them--they knew not what to say. Such company seemed to them for the moment heaven enough; and St. Peter first finding words exclaimed, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If thou wilt let us build three tabernacles, one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias." Not, I fancy, that they intended to worship Moses and Elias, but that they felt that Moses and Elias, as well as Christ, had each a divine message, which must be listened to; and therefore, they wished that each of them might have his own tabernacle, and dwell among men, and each teach his own particular doctrine and wisdom in his own school. It may seem strange that they should put Moses and Elias so on an equality with Christ, but the truth was, that as yet they understood Moses and Elias better than they did Christ. They had heard and read of Moses and Elijah all their lives--they were acquainted with all their actions and words--they knew thoroughly what great and noble men the Spirit of God had made them, but they did NOT understand Christ in like manner. They did not yet FEEL that God had given Him the Spirit without measure--they did not understand that He was not only to be a lawgiver and a prophet, but a sacrifice for sin, the conqueror of death and hell, who was to lead captivity captive, and receive inestimable gifts for men. Much less did they think that Moses and Elijah were but His servants-- that all THEIR spirit and THEIR power had been given by Him. But this also they were taught a moment afterwards; for a bright cloud overshadowed them, hiding from them the glory of God the Father, whom no man hath seen or can see, who dwells in the light which no man can approach unto; and out of that cloud, a voice saying, "This is my beloved Son; hear ye Him;" and then, hiding their faces in fear and wonder, they fell to the ground; and when they looked up, the vision and the voice had alike passed away, and they saw no man but Christ alone. Was not that enough for them? Must not the meaning of the vision have been plain to them? They surely understood from it that Moses and Elijah were, as they had ever believed them to be, great and good, true messengers of the living God; but that their message and their work was done--that Christ, whom they had looked for, was come--that all the types of the law were realised, and all the prophecies fulfilled, and that henceforward Christ, and Christ alone, was to be their Prophet and their Lawgiver. Was not this plainly the meaning of the Divine voice? For when they wished to build three tabernacles, and to honour Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, as separate from Christ--that moment the heavenly voice warned them: 'THIS--THIS is my beloved Son--hear ye HIM, and Him only, henceforward.' And Moses and Elijah, their work being done, forthwith vanished away, leaving Christ alone to fulfil the Law and the prophets, and all other wisdom and righteousness that ever was or shall be. This is another lesson which Christ's transfiguration was meant to teach and us, that Christ alone is to be henceforward our guide; that no philosophies or doctrines of any sort which are not founded on a true faith in Jesus Christ, and His life and death, are worth listening to; that God has manifested forth His beloved Son, and that Him, and Him only, we are to hear. I do not mean to say that Christ came into the world to put down human learning. I do not mean that we are to despise human learning, as so many are apt to do nowadays; for Christ came into the world not to destroy human learning, but to fulfil it--to sanctify it--to make human learning true, and strong, and useful, by giving it a sure foundation to stand upon, which is the belief and knowledge of His blessed self. Just as Christ came not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them--to give them a spirit and a depth in men's eyes which they never had before--just so, He came to fulfil all true philosophies, all the deep thoughts which men had ever thought about this wonderful world and their own souls, by giving THEM a spirit and a depth which THEY never had before. Therefore let no man tempt you to despise learning, for it is holy to the Lord.

      There is one more lesson which we may learn from our Lord's transfiguration; when St. Peter said, "LORD! it is good for us to be here," he spoke a truth. It WAS good for him to be there; nevertheless, Christ did not listen to his prayer. He and his two companions were not allowed to STAY in that glorious company. And why? Because they had a work to do. They had glad tidings of great joy to proclaim to every creature, and it was, after all, but a selfish prayer, to wish to be allowed to stay in ease and glory on the mount while the whole world was struggling in sin and wickedness below them: for there is no meaning in a man's calling himself a Christian, or saying that he loves God, unless he is ready to hate what God hates, and to fight against that which Christ fought against, that is, sin. No one has any right to call himself a servant of God, who is not trying to do away with some of the evil in the world around him. And, therefore, Christ was merciful, when, instead of listening to St. Peter's prayer, He led the apostles down again from the mount, and sent them forth, as He did afterwards, to preach the Gospel of the kingdom to all nations. For Christ put a higher honour on St. Peter by that than if He had let him stay on the mount all his life, to behold His glory, and worship and adore. And He made St. Peter more like Himself by doing so. For what was Christ's life? Not one of deep speculations, quiet thoughts, and bright visions, such as St. Peter wished to lead; but a life of fighting against evil; earnest, awful prayers and struggles within, continual labour of body and mind without, insult and danger, and confusion, and violent exertion, and bitter sorrow. This was Christ's life--this is the life of almost every good man I ever heard of;--this was St. Peter, and St. James, and St. John's life afterwards. This was Christ's cup, which they were to drink of as well as He;--this was the baptism of fire with which they were to be baptised of as well as He;--this was to be their fight of faith;-- this was the tribulation through which they, like all other great saints, were to enter into the kingdom of heaven; for it is certain that the harder a man fights against evil, the harder evil will fight against him in return: but it is certain, too, that the harder a man fights against evil, the more he is like his Saviour Christ, and the more glorious will be his reward in heaven. It is certain, too, that what was good for St. Peter is good for us. It is good for a man to have holy and quiet thoughts, and at moments to see into the very deepest meaning of God's word and God's earth, and to have, as it were, heaven opened before his eyes; and it is good for a man sometimes actually to FEEL his heart overpowered with the glorious majesty of God, and to FEEL it gushing out with love to his blessed Saviour: but it is not good for him to stop there, any more than it was for the apostles; they had to leave that glorious vision and come down from the mount, and do Christ's work; and SO HAVE WE; for, believe me, one word of warning spoken to keep a little child out of sin,--one crust of bread given to a beggar-man, because he is your brother, for whom Christ died,--one angry word checked, when it is on your lips, for the sake of Him who was meek and lowly in heart; in short, any, the smallest endeavour of this kind to lessen the quantity of evil, which is in yourselves, and in those around you, is worth all the speculations, and raptures, and visions, and frames, and feelings in the world; for those are the good FRUITS of faith, whereby alone the tree shall be known whether it be good or evil.

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