2 Peter 1.16-21
When my family first arrived in Australia in 1965, we were placed into a rather grotty fish processing plant which had been recently turned into a migrant hostel. It reeked of fish. Rotting fish. We took any and every opportunity to get away from there, and not knowing what else to do, we went into Brisbane City quite a few times. We’d been advised that you couldn’t get lost in the city—all you had to do, wherever you were, was to look for the City Hall clocktower and take your bearings from it. And you know, it worked! We used it as a landmark to help us in a strange place.
Of course, today that’s impossible, with all the high-rise buildings that have gone up since. Today, City Hall is dwarfed by its neighbours. The clocktower no longer serves as a landmark.
If you’re in a strange place, or on a hike through the bush, landmarks are essential. They tell you where you are. A landmark may be a mountain, a waterfall, a building or a fork in the road. Without those landmarks, we’d be lost.
The spiritual writer Margaret Silf talks about landmarks on the spiritual journey. When we’re on the spiritual journey, we need landmarks just as much as when we’re on a walk through the bush. Perhaps even more.
Let me tell you about a landmark on my spiritual journey. It was 3 April, 1983. I can date it exactly, because it was Easter Sunday.
I’d been studying hard for my post-graduate qualifications as a psychiatrist. I’d also been steadily losing my faith; it seemed to me to be less and less real.
Most of my friends had gone away for Easter, but I had stayed home to study. I’d decided to go to church on Easter morning, more out of a sense of duty than anything. So I walked down the road to a nearby church, St Peter’s Anglican Church.
I love the Anglican liturgy, I really do—when it’s done well. However, it can be done very badly indeed.
On this occasion, it was dire. I wasn’t a regular attender of this church by any means, and I’d heard that the priest wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it was.
As the service went on, I wished I were somewhere else. But I was too polite to walk out.
Sitting there, bored and regretting having gone at all, I was totally unprepared for what did happen. The Spirit of God spoke to my heart.
I realised that the words and prayers of the liturgy were connecting very deeply with me. I realised that if I did let go of my faith, I’d be losing something right at the core of my being.
I walked in as someone only barely convinced of the Christian good news. I walked out with a renewed spirit.
I thank God that it happened in a tediously boring service. I wasn’t carried away by a fantastic speaker or brilliant music. I was just reminded by God’s Spirit that I was a child of God.
That was a landmark for me. I look back to it and see a decisive point on my journey. God dealt with me in a very real way that day, and I have never doubted that Jesus is true since then.
Perhaps you can identify a landmark in your journey. It might be a service or a sermon; it might be a conversation with a friend or the touch of someone who loves you; it might be a flash of sudden insight; it might be a sunset, or a waterfall, or a lorikeet. It may have happened at a retreat, or a family camp. It might well have been at a time when the way had got a bit hard, when the going was tough, when you wondered if this ‘spiritual stuff’ was really true.
The vision the disciples had of Jesus being transfigured before them was a landmark. The disciples’ way was getting a bit rough.
Jesus had started telling the disciples about what was to come: we read a few verses before the story of the Transfiguration that
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Things had been going so well up to now! Jesus had been teaching about the Kingdom, in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. By the time this vision occurred, he had healed people, stilled a storm and fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish.
There had been opposition from the religious establishment; but surely Jesus would prevail against them?
No, Jesus says, he won’t prevail, and he won’t carry the day. He will suffer and die.
And in the midst of this, he shines like the sun!
Hang on, though; didn’t Jesus say he’d be raised on the third day? You know when you go to the doctor, and you get bad news, and afterwards you realise that half of what the doctor told you hasn’t registered? You just can’t remember what she said?
I think that’s how it was with the disciples. They heard the ‘undergo great suffering… and be killed’ bit all right, but the ‘on the third day’ part just didn’t register with them. So they didn’t understand when Jesus said,
Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
But after he was raised from the dead, then they could begin to understand.
The Transfiguration was a landmark for the disciples. That was the time when they began to see the truth about Jesus. He was greater than their heroes Moses and Elijah—but more than that, God said:
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased…’
Those were the words that Jesus heard at his baptism. Words that are being confirmed in the disciples’ hearing. This man is God’s Beloved Son.
Whatever is happening to him, this much is true. Jesus is the Son of God. They can take him, whip him, strip him and crucify him; God will be there.
And the face of Jesus shines like the sun.
The Transfiguration was a landmark for Jesus too. He had heard God name him ‘Son’ at his baptism; he had been tempted to serve the evil one rather than God, with the words ‘If you are the Son of God…’ ‘If’ you are the Son. We can see Jesus wrestling with this insight.
And then the opposition comes. Could the scribes and Pharisees be right? Could he be mistaken after all? ‘If’ you are the Son. The Transfiguration affirms him as the Son of God. It becomes a landmark for Jesus.
Perhaps we can see why we hear the readings of the Transfiguration today. There is an annual feast of the Transfiguration—it’s on 6 August, which is also Hiroshima Day, when a very different light lit up the sky. Why not wait till then to hear this story?
The Transfiguration fits here, just as we are about to start our journey through Lent. It occurs just as Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he is going to die in Jerusalem; and the Transfiguration anticipates his resurrection. ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
The suffering of Jesus was necessary. But the disciples couldn’t get it until after the resurrection. God raised Jesus to life, after life was gone.
God gives life to the dead. God gave us life while we were dead in our sins. God gives us hope where there is despair. God gives us faith for cynicism and energy to replace fatigue. God gives us hearts to love, and delivers us from apathy.
God gives us landmarks so that we can remember what he has done in our lives. The vision of the Transfiguration was a landmark for Jesus and the disciples. That boring Easter Service in which God re-energised me became a landmark for me. I don’t know if my face shone like the sun, but my heart certainly did.
What are the landmarks on your spiritual journey? When has God been made known to you in a new way? What times of worship, of conversation, of difficulty has God used to renew your life? Which people have been God’s gifts to you and enabled you to recognise the landmarks? How is God leading you as you reflect on where the landmarks are?
Let me invite you to consider these questions, and also consider what God is asking you to do and who God is calling you to be as you recall your landmarks.