God in the mess – a reflection on the Transfiguration

Mark 9.2-10 (The Transfiguration); Mark 9.30-37 (Jesus welcomes children)

As I looked at today’s readings, I remembered another time when I preached on the Transfiguration: it was in a big church, with lots of children, and it was an All Age Service, so I wanted to think of something the children could do. I decided to use ‘magic painting’ – do you remember those books of picture outlines, where you paint over the picture with water, and the colours appear? Perfect, I thought, for illustrating the point I wanted to make, which was that in the Transfiguration Jesus is transformed not into something different, but to reveal more of who he really is. So too, as the children carefully painted over the pictures with water, those pictures would reveal more of what they were. A great analogy! (Or so I thought.) I laid out pictures, paint brushes and pots of water on tables at the front of church and invited the children to paint while I preached.

Those of you who have ever worked with children may be laughing by now, and have probably already guessed the punchline to this story. As I reached the end of my sermon, I went to get one of the freshly painted pictures to hold up and illustrate my point, and found a scene of utter devastation. There was water everywhere – and not just water, but painty water – all over the floor, the tables, the children, the chairs, a number of innocent bystanders, a swathe of ancient stonework, and by this point it was starting to seep up from the hem of my vestments. The pictures were not the beautiful sermon illustration I had been hoping for either. Some were floating in puddles on the table or floor, others were well on their way to becoming paper mache. I fished the least soggy one out of the wreckage to show the congregation, and spent most of the rest of the morning mopping up and apologising. Not my finest hour!

But what did I learn from this? The point I was originally (and somewhat ineptly) trying to make remains. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed: not transformed into something different, but into a fuller and more glorious version of himself. His friends recognise something in him that they hadn’t seen before. And this is the kind of transformation to which Jesus calls us too: not to become someone different, but to become more fully and gloriously ourselves, the people God has created us to be, alive to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us. And that transformation – which is not a one-off moment like the Transfiguration, but the slow and steady work of a lifetime – will not go unnoticed by our friends and neighbours either.

But something else I learned was this: transformation is a messy business. God knows, transformation is a messy business. God, in the incarnation, chooses to involve herself in all the transformative messiness of being human. God, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, demonstrates that the transformative power of love is at work even in grief and pain and anguish. God, by the Holy Spirit blowing wildly through the world, blows apart all our ideas of order and control with scandalous mercy and grace. God is very much at home in the mess of transformation.

Peter, however, is not so comfortable with messiness. Peter wants to tie up the loose ends. He has seen this incredible, transforming glory, shining in the face of Jesus, and Moses and Elijah with him. And he wants to capture it, to build something to contain it. And, as so often, Peter in his eagerness misses the point. He misses the point that the glory of God is not something that can be contained or pinned down, or tamed into something nice and neat and manageable. God does not fit in a box – or, indeed, in a mountain-top dwelling. God’s transfiguring power is not found in a moment to be captured and preserved, but in an ongoing movement of transformation.

Jesus doesn’t go in for tying up the loose ends, or giving neat answers. In our second reading, the disciples want answers – they want to know who is the greatest. But Jesus does not respond with words, but with a person: the person of a child. And note, this passage is not the teaching which comes a little later in Mark’s gospel about receiving the kingdom like children, or as Matthew’s gospel has it, changing to receive the kingdom like children. Here, Jesus is making a different (but related) point: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children are – according to Jesus – not only to receive the kingdom, but to be received, to be welcomed. And welcoming children, as I learned at that All Age Service, and as any of us who have lived or worked or worshiped with children know, is undoubtedly a messy and transformative business.

The children’s bibles of decades past, with their illustrations of perfectly well-turned-out and well-behaved children being held up as an example by Jesus, do actual children a disservice. They try to neaten up the messiness that comes with the reality of children’s lives. Those picture-perfect, unreal children are an attempt to contain human lives in the neat boxes they just don’t fit into, just as Peter wanted to contain the glory of God in a dwelling place on the mountain, but found that it would not be contained.

“The glory of God,” says the second-century theologian Iraneus, “is a human being, fully alive.” The good news we find in the Transfiguration is that the glory of God cannot be contained. It seeps out into and through all the messiness of our lives, sometimes in strange and unexpected ways, often in ordinary glimpses of extraordinary love. And it is transformative. In knowing God, in following Jesus, in acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in our neighbours, we are transformed. Like Jesus on the mountaintop, we are transformed not into something different from who we are, but to become more and more ourselves, the people God calls us to be. God does not want us to fit into boxes that are not designed for our flourishing, but longs for us to be transformed in all the messiness and reality of who we are and who we are becoming. May we be open to that call, ready to embrace the endless, transforming, uncontrollable, messy, glorious love of God.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/