Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I’ve been told Science teachers never tire of the moment when a child first looks into a microscope. What up until that moment had seemed a boring little speck of dirt can suddeny become full of pattern, color and interest. The child will never look at things the same way again; everything now has the potential to be more than it seems.
The same thing happens other places in life.
- Telescopes transfrom the night sky into a world of awe and power.
- A good actor can turn an apparently insignificant line into a profound and moving statement of beauty and truth.
Take those common experiences and move them up a few notches on the scale of fact and experience. The story of Jesus’ “transfiguration” describes an event in which the deepest significance of everyday reality suddenly and overwhelmingly confronted Peter, James and John.
“This is my Son, whom I love. Look at him. Isn’t this display something! I mean, just get a load of this light show!” That’s what I’d expect God to be saying.
But God doesn’t. Why not? Isn’t it about the light show?
We have seen such visual spectacles. They typically happen every year during halftime at the Super Bowl. It’s not the kind of thing designed for radio. So how odd it would be to hear the producer of the halftime Super Bowl show to say to reporters in the run-up to the event, “People will be amazed to hear this—it will be great on the radio!!” Yes, that would be very odd indeed. And yet, in Mark 9 at the climax of one of the Bible’s grandest visual light shows of glory, God the Father comes and advises the disciplesnot to look at Jesus. Nope, what we get is: “Listen to him.”
Listen? Did they hear that voice from the cloud right? It reminds me of a scene from Forrest Gump. At one point in the movie Forrest’s childhood sweetheart (and future wife, as it turns out) is trying to launch a singing career, but the only gig she can secure is one that requires her to appear on stage wearing nothing but her guitar. Perched on a stool naked as the day she was born, she finds it very difficult to get the audience to listen to her singing. The men in the audience had come to look, not listen, and the figure on the stage was ensuring that looking was what it was going to be all about no matter how well she tried to also sing.
Listen to him. It’s not what we expected to be the bottom line of this exceedingly striking event up on that mountaintop. And yet at this juncture in the Gospel of Mark, that is exactly the message that needed to be conveyed.
Talk about a small-group ministry experience! Jesus takes three of his closest followers up the mountain for a foretaste of the reign-of-Christ-to-come, with Moses and Elijah and God’s voice from heaven. It’s a mind-bending and terrifying experience for them to see Jesus revealed in his true glory.
The interesting thing about Mark’s gospel is that it doesn’t end in an encounter with the resurrected Christ. If the scholarly consensus of New Testament scholars holding that the gospel ends at Mark 16:8 is correct, and I believe it is, then the story concludes with an empty tomb and two terrified women running away, far too frightened to say anything to anyone. So the closest thing we have to a resurrection story in Mark is today’s gospel account of Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, a resurrection that occurs not at the end but smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing and casting out demons.
This is also the second time in Mark’s gospel we hear the voice of God speaking from heaven. The first was at Jesus’ baptism where the divine voice declared to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11.) Now we hear that same voice addressing the disciples with the same declaration and demanding, urging, pleading, with them to listen to that Son.
This lesson is a stark reminder that following Jesus is more like an invitation to attend your own funeral.
You can see that such an invitation might have limited appeal. You can certainly see why Jesus’ claims might raise some questions for Peter and the others. As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to acknowledge that this language of dying is deeply woven into the fabric of Christianity. What should we make of this?
I suspect most of us believe that despite whatever personas we might construct for ourselves, we are not as we want to be, we are not quite at home in ourselves. We feel that even with our abundance, we are not always spiritually healthy, or as spiritually healthy as God wants us to be. This was as true for Jesus’ followers and enemies as it is for us. Jesus’ response is to invite us to come follow. The closer we follow, the more we will die.
The closer we follow the more we will come to see those things that keep us from being our true selves, from being the people God wants us to be. We will confront those ways of living that keep us from being truly at home. We will come face to face with those relationships that keep us from the love of God and from the love of others.
As these things come to light, Jesus will ask us to put them down, the Spirit will work in us to reform them and to repair them and in this way we will die a little. Of course, this is not the whole story. As these pieces of us die, fall away, get repaired, we will also take on a new life. This is the death that leads to true life. This is a demanding way to live and God understands that we cannot be constantly dying. Our lives cannot be one constant demolition site.
God knows there has been and still is a lot of Christianity around that is mighty short on Jesus.
- There was no shortage of crosses worn and carried by members of that mob that stormed the Capital Building on January 6th.
- There is a lot of nail biting, hand wringing and consternation these days about declines in church membership and financial support for the mainline denominations as well as some frantic discussions among us about how to turn that around, many of which, sad to say, have little to do with Jesus or the reign of God he proclaims.
This sent me down a rabbit-hole and made me wonder whether the church is worth renewing. If the world sees nothing of Jesus in us, why is it so all fired important that we last into the next decade, let alone century?
I have to say that I found refreshing the words of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry spoken in a recent webinar to the effect that Christianity needs to recenter itself on the teachings, example and Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. Curry is calling for a positive witness testifying to God’s priorities for humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ. “We need a standard,” he says, “of what Christianity looks like and it’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
So how do we do this?, you may be asking. Well that’s where the church’s liturgical year is a way of helping us out. Today is one of those hinge Sundays in our liturgical year. We wrap up the season of Epiphany and look forward to Lent. Jesus’ transfiguration, when Jesus and three of his disciples separate themselves from the crowds and spend an evening on a mountain top praying. It is a scene filled with light.
- Epiphany is that season of appearances, showings, revealings, all designed to focus our attention on Jesus, on God’s invasion of our world beginning with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.
- Epiphany is the season of light.
In Epiphany God provides light and calls us to look and see, see where God is, see what God is doing, see where God is leading us, see and rejoice.
- Epiphany is not one of those seasons of death and demolition.
In Epiphany we focus on light because the light is where we find God’s love is most intense, we walk this way because in that love we are more truly ourselves, we walk in the light because where ever God is leading us God is always drawing us home. Epiphany fortifies us for Lent.
Unfortunately, this has been the most Lenten season of Epiphany I’ve ever known. Most days, the light is often dim or very hard to locate. If Epiphany has been fortifying us for Lent, I am a little worried. Lent is one of those seasons of demolition and dying. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In various ways the readings for the Sundays in Lent invite us to forms of death and demolition.
I don’t know about you, but this year I prefer receiving my resurrection now rather than later. A resurrection that takes place only in the distant future is of no use to me just now.
- I need the light of the resurrection now as I muddle through the grief and confusion that comes with losing so many of my family members and friends.
- I need the light of the resurrection now to help me navigate the ever changing terrain of a world turned upside down with pandemic, racial violence and a troubling global rise in nationalism.
- I need the light of the resurrection now to help me see and visualize hope when the daily news gives me so much reason for despair.
I need Jesus to shine into the dark corners of my daily existence, into my marriage, into my family, into my work and ministry. And thanks be to God, that is what Jesus offers us. Let us remember, and act like, we are the Body of Christ.