2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 150:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
As you might imagine, preparing sermons can be a complex task. Each week I read the scriptures appointed for the Sunday, as well as several commentaries, and then I ruminate on what I’ve read: What do I have to say about these words of God? What’s going on in the life of St. Paul’s that deserves comment? What’s going in my life that needs to be sorted?
My husband Don often asks me what the gospel lesson is for the week. This week, when I said, “It’s the Transfiguration,” Don said, “Ooh, that’s a hard one.”
I suppose that may be everyone’s reaction. This story is strange; it’s mystical. But is it hard to grasp? Not really. Jesus goes up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and has a direct encounter with the Church Fathers and with God. In fact, this sort of event is exactly what we would expect of the Son of Man, isn’t it? This seems like a very godly occurrence.
I think that the unexpected actions of Jesus are much harder to wrestle with: His interactions with the lowliest of society; his rejection of traditional power and authority; and his willingness to accept his own seemingly inevitable torture and death.
Now I’m quick to say that we do have one of those hard to understand moments in this passage in verse 9, when Jesus orders the disciples with him not to tell anyone about the extraordinary event they have witnessed. Remember that Mark’s Jesus again and again commands his followers NOT to tell what they have seen. I am pretty baffled about what that might mean.
So if you don’t mind, let’s just leave that aside for now. I can promise you that it will rear its head again.
This Transfiguration seems right in line with the Jesus we know. It affirms again for the hearer that this man is truly who his followers claim him to be: the Son of God.
It is interesting to note that this story seems to be told from the point of view of the disciples. We are experiencing this amazing event through their eyes. Of course, in this amazing cast of characters they are the ones most like us. No doubt their reactions are like ours would be, if we had been there.
They also help us remember that this is a human story—our story. The entire gospel story is about the meetings of God and humanity. As we ponder what all of this means for us, I urge you to see it not only through the lens of the disciples, but also through the lens of your own encounter with God. Or through the events and places in your life where you long for God’s presence. This story is told, at least in part, to help us see the truth of the central message of the gospel: that God came and lived among us, as one of us.
The story begins as the disciples go up the mountain with Jesus. Remember that mountains are places of encounter with God. Peter, James, and John should have known that something amazing was going to happen; history told them that was so.
Mountains are higher up – they give us the ability to see a bigger picture, to perhaps understand better the world around us.
They are also liminal places – that is, places on the edge, or the threshold. The air is thinner; the elements of the sky are clearer, closer. The people of the ancient world understood them to be holy. It is no mistake that this event occurs on the mountain.
And then Jesus is changed, right before the disciple’s eyes. The text says, “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” This brightness emanates from Jesus himself, not just from his clothes. He is transfigured – he takes on a different appearance.
The best-known earlier example of such a dazzling transformation is Moses, in the 34th chapter of Exodus. After Moses converses with God about the future life of God’s people, he descends from the mountain so reflecting the light of God’s glory that he has to cover his face to keep from frightening the people.[i]
Back to the gospel. Who should appear at this sacred moment, but Moses and Elijah, who converse with Jesus. This helps the reader understand the stature of Jesus, and that he comes not just as another preacher, but rather as the next step in the history of the Jewish people—truly, the successor, or even fulfillment of the law, represented by Moses, and of the prophets, represented by Elijah.
And because the death of these two great leaders was mysterious (Moses dies in sight of the promised land, but not in it, and his grave was never found, and, as we heard in the reading from Second Kings, Elijah is simply carried up into a whirlwind), these two are understood as available to return to earth—and their appearance here, beyond being a sign of the passing along of the mantle of the faith, can also be understood as a sign that the end times are nearing.
All of these plot points confirm for the disciples, and for us, that this man is who he claims to be. He is clearly the Messiah, chosen by God. And that is an important point as Mark’s gospel begins to shift to the events of the end of Christ’s life.
So what do the disciples do in response? Well, note that the text says they didn’t know what to say, for they were terrified. Of course they were! What an incredible event this was! I think their fear was certainly the appropriate reaction!
But we also read that Peter wants to memorialize the event. He says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, there is a reason that Peter makes this interesting suggestion. Sarah Henrich tells us that, “According to some Jewish expectation and as stated in the book of Zechariah…God would usher in the new age, the ‘Day of the Lord,’ during the Feast of Booths. This God-commanded festival kept by Jews for centuries, was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom. So Peter’s question about building booths is neither laughable nor mistaken.”[ii]
Well, perhaps it is a little mistaken. It would seem that Peter wants to hang on to this moment—and why not? It is an extraordinary event. And it befits the mystery and grandeur of the Son of God much better than most of the activity that this band of men has undertaken. I can’t say I blame Peter for wanting to capture something of the moment, and wanting to stay there for a bit.
But the story doesn’t end here, with contemplation of the mysterious and a desire to build memorials. Instead, a cloud suddenly comes over them, and the voice of God comes from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” I am guessing that any fear that might have ebbed from them came back, along with a big shot of adrenalin!
The announcement from God is to heed the words of Christ. To understand who this man is, and to pay attention to what he says and does! While Peter is busy trying to memorialize a moment past, God reminds them to be in the present: to listen!
And what happens next is perhaps the most important point of all: they go back down the mountain.
David Lose says this: “Think of it: Jesus could have stayed there. Perhaps he should have stayed there. After all, this transfigured state, attended by Moses, Elijah, and his three disciples, was much closer to the state of glory that Jesus deserved than what’s coming. Yet he comes back down.”[iii]
Jesus leads the disciples back to the road they have been traveling on—a road that will lead to many more amazing encounters between Jesus the Christ and people in need, but also one that will end with the mysterious events of the persecution and crucifixion of Christ. Lose goes on to say,
This isn’t a story about our going up, it’s a story about Jesus coming down, all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss. And, of course, it only gets more so, as we will soon watch our Lord travel to the cross, there embracing all that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life in order to wrest victory from death itself that we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, Christ has already been and that where Christ is now we will one day be.[iv]
That’s the message that we are called to embrace in this time in the church calendar. This week we will mark the beginning of Lent with the service for Ash Wednesday. The highlight of this ritual is the mark of ashes on our foreheads, which we are reminded is a sign of our mortality and penitence.
As we receive the mark, we say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is not done to be morose; rather it is to help us remember that while our lives on earth are finite, we receive the gift of eternal life through discipleship to Christ. Let me say that again: While our lives on earth are finite, through discipleship to Christ we receive eternal life.
I realize that’s a loaded statement, one that means different things for each of you. But the point is this: A life lived after the example of Christ brings blessings, both for us and for the world.
This one who we see today shining white on the mountaintop glows with the promise of greater things than we alone, in our mere mortality, can achieve.
That promise will not bear fruit if we merely worship it on a mountaintop, or rather in a church like this. That promise is for the world, and we must be come down from this mountain, out of our doors into the world to allow it to be fulfilled.
That’s the challenge that lies before us. May we spend this season of Lent thinking and praying about how we can bring Christ’s blessing to bear on this community. And then, I pray we will come down from the mountaintop, and make it happen. Amen.
[i]Henrich, Sarah, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012&tab=4,
[ii] Heinrich, Sarah, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1202, accessed 2/10/2015.
[iii] Lose, David, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=557, accessed 2/16/2012.
[iv]Lose, David, op cit.