February 15, 2015
It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to climb this mountain with him. The physical challenge would do them good, give their minds a break, and get them away from the pressures of their work for a few hours. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.
It wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing from the top of this mound that jutted up in the middle of the plain. Looking out over the fertile farmlands of the valley, they could almost see Nazareth, just beyond Mt. Precipice.
They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the peak, it was already afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. But they were tired, so they agreed to a short break before heading back down.
That’s when …
They didn’t tell anyone about it right away, but something had definitely happened while they were up on that mountain. The others could tell. Something was different. But the crowd was pressing in again, begging the Teacher for help. It was a long time before James and John and Peter told the others what they had seen.
Then, one day, Peter says, “Remember that time we went climbing, on our way back from Caesarea Philippi? You know, it was the day that man brought his son with the demon, the one you guys tried to cast out, but couldn’t. Remember?” The others turn and listen. They had wondered about that day. It had been a pretty intense week, with the Pharisees and Sadducees challenging Jesus. There had been hard conversations about death and sacrifice and facing what would surely come soon. Even though it was all behind them now, they still wondered about that afternoon. The others moved in closer, as Peter began the story. We find it in the ninth chapter of Mark’s gospel, beginning at verse two:
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, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 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.
It’s unusual for Mark to make specific references to time in his gospel, so we have to wonder why he mentions that the events of this story happen six days after verse one. You can walk from Ceasarea Philippi to Mt. Tabor, the traditional location of the transfiguration, in about six days, so maybe he simply wants to let us know that Jesus is on the move again, after feeding four thousand people, arguing with the religious leaders, and having a pretty intense discussion with his disciples about his own identity and mission.
Or maybe Mark wants his readers to remember that Moses waited on Mount Sinai for six days before God called him up into the cloud to receive the Ten Commandments. The parallel is striking, and there are other parallels between Jesus and Moses in the story, so this may be more than mere coincidence.
For example, Jesus’ clothes shine with dazzling brilliance, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down off the mountain after speaking with God. And the cloud that covers the mountain where Moses meets God sounds a lot like the cloud that overshadows the transfiguration scene. The very fact that this scene happens on top of a mountain, where Moses encountered God – and so did Elijah, for that matter – tells us that none of these details can be called a coincidence.
The parallels are intentional, and we need to pay attention to that. While Mark’s gospel is often considered the roughest version, sort of a “first draft” that Matthew and Luke will flesh out and smooth over when they add their editing skills, it is remarkable that he takes great care to craft the details of this story so the connections between Jesus and Moses and Elijah are clear.
Mark plants the transfiguration right in the middle of his gospel story. It forms the pivotal climax between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and its conclusion. It also connects the promises of the Law and the Prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah, with their fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of God. All that dazzling brightness and cloudy darkness let us know that God’s timelessness is breaking into our time-bound reality, and the Kingdom of God is here in front of us, drawing us into God’s eternal ‘now.’
The Festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth, begins just five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. To celebrate, people would live outside in tents or temporary shelters, as they remembered the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Jewish tradition claimed that the Messiah’s appearance at the end of days would occur during the Festival of Tabernacles. Knowing this, Peter’s suggestion to create three ‘dwellings’ or tabernacles doesn’t sound so strange. He was simply responding to his sudden awareness that what he was seeing did not fit into time, so it must be the end of days. If this was the end of days, it must be time to put up the tent!
But Peter quickly realized that no tent could contain what he was witnessing. In fact, no human experience could contain what Peter, James, and John were seeing. What happens to us when we are faced with the unface-able? All three gospel accounts use the same word for it: terror. These disciples weren’t just afraid. They were terrified.
Every time we encounter God in a tangible way, it’s scary. The fabric that separates the mundane from the holy is torn, and God’s glory shines through to blind us with light brighter than we can imagine. We want to make sense of it all. We try to assign meaning to the various elements of the story, and if we only had a Secret Jesus Decoder Ring, we might be able to figure it all out.
It is just at this moment, when things can’t possibly get any more confusing or terrifying, that a voice comes out of the cloud overshadowing them.
The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, back at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. This time, God says, “Listen to him!” God doesn’t say, “listen to me,” but “listen to him.”
Listen to Jesus. Pay attention to what he’s saying, even when it doesn’t make sense to you. When he tells you that he is about to suffer, that the religious leaders are going to reject him, that he will be killed, and that he will rise again from the dead after three days, you need to believe him. This may not match what you think the Messiah is supposed to do, but it is. He is my beloved Son, and I am very pleased with him. Listen to him.
When we were traveling in the Holy Land, I was haunted by a question we were asked near the beginning of our trip. Why had we come? What had we come to the Holy Land to find? As I pondered that question over the next several days, I decided that it was too simple to answer, “to see the places where Jesus walked,” or “to inform my preaching.” What I was looking for was the center of a paradox. I wanted to find the point of balance where truths that contradicted each other had to be held in tension so they could affirm each other.
Peter and James and John found themselves at the very center of the greatest paradox of all. Jesus was eternal God. They were certain of that now. But he also had to suffer and die a shameful death as a very finite human being. They were eyewitnesses to his dazzling glory, but that glory could only be achieved through the scandal of his death on the cross. The Anointed One of God, the Messiah, would be lifted up – not on a kingly throne, wearing a golden crown and fine robes, but on a rough wooden cross, wearing thorns and bruises. That cross would be as much a part of Christ’s glory as the dazzling white robes he wore at his transfiguration.
Then Mark writes, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
Only Jesus. Only Jesus could hold the center of the paradox together. Only Jesus could maintain the perfectly balanced tension between death and life. Only Jesus made sense when nothing made sense. Only Jesus understood that death was necessary in order to have resurrection.
It’s like the story we heard last week in our Alpha course:
A pastor once gave a children’s sermon on how to get to heaven. He asked the children, “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” “NO!” the children all answered. “If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?” Again, the answer was, “NO!” Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my wife, would that get me into Heaven?” Again, they all answered, “NO!” “Well,” the pastor continued, “then how can I get into Heaven?” A young boy shouted out, “YOU GOTTA BE DEAD!!!”
Christ’s death and resurrection are always linked in the gospel of Mark. Every time Jesus predicts his own death, he also predicts his own resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Jesus knew that only resurrection could conquer death, but to be resurrected, he would have to die.
To die a shameful death was not unusual. Criminals did it all the time. To be raised from the dead wasn’t common, but we have several stories in both the Old and New Testaments about people being raised from death to life.
The thing is, all of those people needed someone else to bring them back to life, and none of those people is still alive now. They all died again, presumably after a long and fruitful life. But Jesus needed no outside help to be resurrected from the dead. And Jesus never died again after his resurrection.
Here at the center of Mark’s gospel, the transfiguration of Jesus gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse of resurrection glory outside of time, outside the limitations of their human understanding. It wouldn’t make sense until after they had seen the actual resurrection take place, but then they could tell everyone what they had seen on the top of that mountain.
Because transfiguration is the center where Jesus is all there is.
At the point where Jesus is all there is, we too can be transformed.
In his second letter to Corinth, Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV)
We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It may not happen overnight. It can take a lifetime for the transformation to be complete, but the change is already at work in us.
Mark had one single purpose in mind when he wrote his gospel: that all would believe that Jesus is the Son of God. If we believe this to be true, what are we to do with this story of Christ’s transfiguration, and with our own transformation into his image?
Throughout this season of Epiphany, we have followed the theme of discovery. “Eureka! I’ve found it!” has echoed through every story we’ve read, every sermon I’ve preached. But what have we found? We have found an urgent call to follow Jesus into the unknown territory of fishing for people. We have found a teacher whose authority casts out unclean spirits and heals disease. We have found a Savior who is not satisfied with staying in one place, but who goes out in search of those who need to hear the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand. If Mark is right, we have found the Messiah who ushers in that kingdom as the crucified and resurrected Son of God.
But are we willing to call him Lord?
We are entering the season of Lent, a time to grow closer to God, to become more faithful as we follow Jesus. It is a time to look deeply inside our own hearts to see what holds us back from becoming all that God created us to be, and to repent of the distractions we let come between us and the God who loves us. It is a time to grow more deeply connected to Christ, to seek for him in scripture and in prayer.
It is a time to live into the paradox that, though we are broken, sinful people, we who have put on Christ are being changed from glory into glory. It is a time to focus our attention so that, no matter where we look, we see only Jesus. Amen.