The Transfiguration (Sunday February 23, 2020)
Mark 9: 2-8
Today is transfiguration Sunday. It is a day of celebration that we typically celebrate, hence the white color of celebration, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And we read this story, the story of Jesus going up on the mountain to be in transfigured in front of the eyes of Peter, James, and John. There’s a lot of different things that you can learn from this story, which is good because we look at it typically multiple years, similar to the Christmas story or the Easter story. This is a key story in our life as Christians, and our story as Christians. This is the coronation of Jesus as King in Heaven.
But of course this year we are looking at the story of the New Testament, what is actually happening. And so as we approach the story this year I want to look at its place within the narrative. What does this story do for the disciples, for Jesus, for us as we look at Jesus‘s life? And that’s something that I think will be interesting. I will have the brief lessons that I can teach in three minutes, of course, but what I really want to look at is what the story serves in the overarching narrative.
So the story really begins the chapter before. In chapter 8 we have the story I talked about last week, which is Jesus taking his disciples away up into Syria, and he goes to the capital there: Caesarea Philippi. And he sits with his disciples in private. I like to think of this as sitting down with the disciples in an upper room, because it parallels the upper room experience we’re going to have in just a few weeks. But Jesus gathers the disciples together in private, away from the crowds in Galilee, away from everything they’ve been doing. And he asked them the question: “who do you say that I am? Given all the possibilities, who do you say that I am?” And of course Peter says, “you are the Messiah, Jesus.” Jesus says “you are correct,” and then Jesus says “this is what the Messiah must do. This is what it means to be a Messiah. I am going to go to Jerusalem, and I’m going to be turned over to the authorities, and I’m going to be beaten and killed, but I will rise again.” And Peter again stands up, and says “no Lord, we won’t let that happen.” And Jesus says that famous line: “get behind me Satan, you don’t know what you are talking about.” Peter got one right, and Peter got one wrong.
We’re told that before they leave Caesarea Philippi, before they head out on the rest of their journey, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. We don’t know which mountain, but he takes him up a mountain. If you’re in a mountain in the Golan Heights, you can see all over. You can look out over the entirety of the the Galilee, the entirety of Northern Israel. A real view. Jesus takes them up there. And they have the experience known as the Transfiguration.
So what is the transfiguration? We’re told that Jesus metamorphizes in front of them. He changes his appearance into something that is a very angelic, very God-like. His clothing becomes pure white; Scripture says so white that you couldn’t bleach it to be any whiter. He starts to glow. And then next to him, presumably also glowing, is Moses and Elijah. The three of them start talking amongst themselves. Their conversation is not recorded.
And we know that Peter and James and John are sitting there terrified. Absolutely terrified of what they see. The latest in the long run of human beings and encounter the Divine and be terrified by the power of the Divine. It’s one of the reasons that I like to mention that I believe it is the job of a Christian, the goal of a Christian life, to learn to believe in Jesus with the connotation that you are trusting. That you would put your life in his hands. You must believe in him to that point. But when you encounter the Divine you will be terrified. And you have to be there, ready and trusting to look over at Jesus, who is the only time the Divine has ever shown up to us and not terrified everyone; look over at Jesus, and take his hand and say “OK, I trust you to get me through.”
And then Peter again gets the courage first. He stands up and says “Lord, it is good that we are here with you. It is good for we will build you a tent that you can reside in.” This seems strange to our ears, but to a good Jewish boy like Peter it wouldn’t seem strange at all. In fact is probably the right reaction. He is probably thinking about the last time that someone went up on a mountain and encountered the Divine and ended up glowing. That was Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain and he encounters God, and when he came back down to the Jewish people they said that he was glowing so much that he put a veil on and hide his face for the rest of his life. But what Moses does immediately upon coming down is to say that he had been assigned something by God. They were to build a dwelling place for God. They were to build a tabernacle so that the Lord their God might tabernacle with them. And so they build the tent that became the tabernacle, which would become the designs for the very temple that Jesus would step foot in in a few months. This was what happened when you encountered the divine presence on a mountain.
But just like Peter did not understand what a messiah really was, so he does not understand what this encounter really is. And he is shut down quickly. He understands that when you go up on the mountain and encounter the Divine that the next thing that comes is you learn how to worship that Divine that you have encountered. That’s what happened to the Old Testament, and that’s what’s happening here. Except he’s not getting instructions for how to build a Temple, he is getting instructions for how to worship God without a Temple. A voice greets Peter, a voice from God himself, and it comes with an affirmation of who Jesus is and instructions for how to worship God in this post Messiah world. The voice of God says, “This is my son, listen to him.”
If you believe in Jesus as Savior, if you’re trusting that he is your best chance, if you are believing in Jesus in that way; then listen to him. That’s how you worship Jesus. As you listen to what he had to say, and you implement what he had to say; that means that you do things that were considered radical, and are considered radical even to this day. You’re feeding the hungry, you’re clothing the naked, you’re giving water to the thirsty, you’re visiting the sick and imprisoned. It’s not easy, but that is what it means to serve God. These two things: believing in Jesus and doing what he said, cannot be separated. In the words of Scripture, faith without works is dead. This is what it means to worship God post the Messiah’s visit.
And then they blink and Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus is standing there as a fisherman, a carpenter, a rabbi again with his tattered clothes and his dusty sandals. And Jesus says “let’s go down the mountain.” And from this moment we’re done with Galilee. Jesus is going to take his disciples and turn his face toward Jerusalem. And that is where we are headed. From this moment on, he walks to Jerusalem; walks to his Passion. This is the moment of transition in the Gospels: from Galilee to the Passion, from Epiphany and thus Christmas and the joy that comes with that to Lent and thus Easter. And although Easter is nice, there’s also Good Friday in the mix. There’s the cross. This is the moment of transition. And in many of the Gospels, the mood changes as well; from joyful happiness to forboding abd often times witnessing Jesus predicting his death to the disciples who don’t know what to do with it. This is the moment of transition. Which is why we put it right before Lent, when we try and transition ourselves. And often times pastors will have some sort of a sermon series or story series that is focusing on Galilee or the good things of Jesus before Lent, and then we go to Lent where we start to prepare you for the Passion through Bible studies and sermons. We start to prepare you, as we head for Jerusalem and the cross.
When you live life with Jesus, and you’re doing the the work of Jesus, you’ll have mountaintop experiences. You’ll have moments like this. Maybe you don’t encounter the Divine with Moses and Elijah showing up. Maybe for you, it’s just the joy you feel in bringing a smile to someone or seeing someone’s face light up in that way when you visit them in the hospital or in prison. Maybe it’s the goodness you feel as you’re giving food to the food pantry; as you’re feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Maybe it’s just the little things that you do, the joy you have when a child laughs with you that will be mountaintop experiences. These are the times where you can see the kingdom breaking in; the veil over this world being lifted ever so slightly and the light of heaven shining forth into your darkness. But the reality of life as a Christian is you have to go down the mountain. And you’ll wind up in Jerusalem eventually. And it is when you get to Jerusalem that who you believe Jesus is and whether or not you trust him will matter the most.
As we enter into the Lent season, and not only just any Lent season but the one for this year, which promises to lead into some trying times for our denomination and for our nation. As we enter that, let us come to trust Jesus to be our light in darkness. Let us hold on to the mountain without having to stay on the mountain. There is no tent for Jesus’s dwelling. There’s no Temple, there’s no Tabernacle, because he dwells in the hearts of every disciple. The light is in you. Be the light to others. Amen.