February 14, 2021
Watch a video of this sermon here.
In the second season of “This Is Us,” Jack Pearson does the best job of casting a compelling vision I’ve seen in a long time.
He takes his family to a car dealership, in search of a family car. They can’t afford much, probably something used. The kids fall in love with a brand new Jeep Wagoneer on the dealership display floor. Their mother, Rebecca, steers Jack and the car salesman toward the used car lot, but Jack has a different vision.
Sitting across the desk from the salesman, Jack paints a picture of his family’s future. He describes in great detail how that car will get stains on the upholstery and scrapes on the paint job. He says, “That car is going to tell my family’s story just by looking at it. … I want my kids to be okay, I want my family to be okay…. I see my family ‘okay’ in that car.”
And Jack talks the car salesman into selling him the car at a price the Pearsons can afford. Jack’s clear vision was something the car salesman could understand. It might have cost him to buy into it – a lower commission on the sale, maybe – but Jack’s vision was so compelling, the car salesman wanted to be part of it.
A good vision is like that. People want to get on board. They can see themselves in the picture. They want to be part of something that makes them feel good. It just makes sense.
A God vision, on the other hand, might not make sense at all. A God vision is so compelling it’s irresistible, but that doesn’t mean it feels good. In fact, a God vision is almost always terrifying.
In his poem, “Terrifying Transfiguration,” Steven Garnaas-Holmes reminds us of just how frightening a clear vision of God’s Kingdom can be. He writes, Let’s be honest: it’s terrifying
to stand too close to a speeding train,
to get near to the power of God,
the light that can change you
into your own unknown, …
… As with any great force, if you’re not scared
you’re not paying attention.
Pay attention. Bow down, and listen.
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. (Mark 9:2-9)
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 Caesarea Philippi to Mt. Tabor, the traditional location of the transfiguration, in about six days. 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. Mark 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.’
Here we are at the final “liminal moment” in the season after the Epiphany. We’ve reached the threshold of heaven her on the Mount of Transfiguration. And, characteristically, the disciples who witness this amazing sight have no idea how to respond to it.
They are overwhelmed, just as the magi were overwhelmed with joy when they knelt to worship the Christ child; just as Nathanael was overwhelmed with faith when he recognized Jesus as the Son of God; just as the fishermen were overwhelmed with obedience when they dropped their nets to follow Jesus; just as the man with the unclean spirit, and Peter’s mother, and all those who came to Peter’s house were overwhelmed with gratitude for healing – now on the mountain, as they see Jesus in a completely new light, Peter, James and John are overwhelmed with Christ’s glory. They are in liminal space between heaven and earth, between time and forever.
And what do they want to do? They want to pitch a tent.
Peter’s suggestion to create three ‘dwellings’ or tabernacles was a response to his sudden awareness that what he was seeing did not fit into time. Jewish tradition claimed that the Messiah’s appearance at the end of days would occur during the Festival of Tabernacles, when people remembered the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness by living in tents or temporary shelters. If this vision didn’t fit into time, it must be the end of days. And if this was the end of days, Peter figured it must be time to put up the tent!
But 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 un-faceable? 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, but we can’t. Terror freezes our minds, just as it did Peter’s.
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 above the disciples. The voice 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!”
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 your idea of “Messiah” but don’t let that scare you. He is my beloved Son, and I am very pleased with him. Listen to him.
Then Mark writes, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
Peter and James and John found themselves at the very center of the greatest paradox of all. Jesus was eternal God. But he also had to suffer and die a shameful death as a very finite human being. The dazzling glory of the transfigured Christ could only be achieved through the scandal of his death on the cross.
Only Jesus can hold the center of the paradox together. Only Jesus can maintain the perfectly balanced tension between death and life. Only Jesus makes sense when nothing makes sense. Only Jesus can show that, in order to be raised to new life, you have to be dead first.
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.
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. And at the point where Jesus is all there is, we are 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. So, what are we to do with this story of Christ’s transfiguration, and with our own transformation into his image?
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 the God who loves us and ourselves.
Lent 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.
I’ve often heard that the problem with mountaintop experiences is that, eventually, you have to go back down into the valley. What happens when we come back down the mountain, having seen a vision of something God has in mind for us that doesn’t make sense?
Are we like Peter, trying to squeeze the unimaginable into the only framework we know, insisting on making sense of it instead of letting it transform us? John Eldredge writes, “Desperate for something larger to give our lives transcendence, we try to lose ourselves in the smallest kind of stories.”
Do we try to limit God’s glory to the smallest kind of story? Or are we more like the other disciples, hearing the story second-hand, after Christ’s resurrection?
This story only makes sense in a post-resurrection world. Here’s the good news: that’s where we live now. Right now, right here, God’s kingdom has broken into our world. The disciples on the mountaintop saw something outside of time, but we live in the time between Christ’s resurrection and our own.
Earlier today, we heard the story of Elisha carrying forward Elijah’s prophetic legacy, having seen a glimpse of heaven’s glory. Peter and James and John saw a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly glory, and brought it down the mountain. They carried forward Christ’s legacy into a post-resurrection world.
So let me ask you, what legacy will we carry forward? What kind of ancestors will we be for those who worship here 160 years from now? What will people then say about us?
Will they say, “This church brought Jesus down from the mountaintop into the valley of everyday lives, and changed them. This church transformed this town with its generosity. This church did more than address the social issues of its time; this church changed people’s lives. This church brought Jesus to people, and this church brought people to Jesus.
This church saw God’s glory breaking into the world, and when this church looked around, it saw only Jesus.
And because it stayed centered on Christ, this church offered Christ –
- not just events,
- not just experiences,
- not just service or social justice,
- but Christ –
This church offers the transforming, transfigured, risen-from-death Christ, to people who need Christ.
God is offering to show us a vision, and a God vision is almost always terrifying. It might not make sense to us at all. Over the next few weeks, I invite you to catch a glimpse of it. Let us see what God might do among us when we look around, and see only Jesus. Amen.
 “The Car” – This is Us, season 2, episode 15 https://www.nbc.com/this-is-us/video/the-car/3661900
 John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 41.