Transfiguration: Who Then is This?

Festival of the Transfiguration

19 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Who Then Is This?”

Based on Mark 9: 2-13

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

 

Today, we mark the end of the season of Epiphany, and will on Ash Wednesday begin the Lenten journey. Epiphany is the season of light, of growing knowledge of whom Jesus is. Lent is alternatively, a solemn season leading to the cross. As we reach the end of one season and begin another, St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration is particularly appropriate. The gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke include very similar accounts of the Transfiguration. But the difference in Mark is that the Transfiguration occurs almost immediately after Jesus has explained to his twelve closest disciples that he will undergo great suffering. What follows, is basically a slow journey to Jerusalem, and ultimately Calvary.  The Transfiguration story lies in stark contrast to everything else in St. Mark’s gospel, particularly in how it is placed between accounts of Jesus declaring how he will suffer and die. According to James Boyce, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, “More than any of the gospels, Mark’s story makes clear that if there is to be any transformation of us hearers into disciples and followers, new life will be connected to the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah that now unfolds in his subsequent story.”[1] Here we have, for the disciples, a dazzling revelation of who Jesus is, with the declaration: “This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!” Up on the mountain the disciples receive a marvelous epiphany, but they still have much to learn from Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

In the previous chapter of the gospel, Jesus asks the disciples,

Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Apparently, Peter gets it. He has affirmed that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. It would appear that the disciples, who up to this point, are painted as bumbling buffoons, are finally starting to get it. But immediately after this,

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Peter has just declared that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Yet, Peter has the audacity to challenge Jesus—to tell Jesus that this is not the way it is supposed to happen. Peter and the disciples left their families, their friends, their homes, and their careers to follow Jesus; but yet, they don’t fully understand what it means to follow Jesus. Their ideas of a messiah who breaks into the world powerfully and victoriously, with a radical revolutionary overthrow of the power of Rome still reign. They were not prepared for the way that Jesus would show them, for power shown through servanthood and suffering. When during the Transfiguration, God’s voice bellows from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” it sounds as a rebuke to the disciples. The subtext is that “You have chosen the Way, which is right and good. But you must unharden your hearts, and truly listen, in order to go the true path of discipleship.”

            After Jesus had rebuked Peter, he told the crowd around them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.” No doubt, the disciples began questioning what they’d gotten themselves into—wondering what this suffering would be, when, and if it was really worth it. Again from Dr. Boyce, “In the same way, the question for hearers today is whether we who have heard Jesus’ call and followed him through these series of “epiphanies” will be just as eager to follow him where he leads us on this way to the cross.” Jesus certainly knew that the disciples might be questioning their commitment. Wise it was then to take his “inner circle” of disciples up to the mountain, away from the crowds, perhaps to pray, reflect, and get some sense into Peter’s head. It is vital to note here, that James, John, and Peter, the three who witnessed the Transfiguration, also became the three most important leaders in the early Christian church, in Rome and Jerusalem.

            So the disciples go up the mountain with Jesus, likely expecting some private teaching from Jesus. But with not even so much as a voice saying “And now for something completely different,” almost immediately atop the mountain Jesus’ clothes become an astoundingly bright and effervescent white. The gospel makes clear this was no trick or slight of hand, saying “his clothes became dazzling white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” So either Jesus’ clothes were so dirty that even the best bleach provided no hope for him, or something miraculous was happening. The disciples suddenly see Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the greatest prophet, surrounding Jesus, speaking with him. How do they identify that these holy men are Moses and Elijah? Surely there were no icons of them in the synagogue. One commentator suggests that perhaps, just as we, even by seeing only silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln, know who they are, the disciples saw signifiers indicating Moses and Elijah. Can you imagine it? Jesus shining brightly, with the company of the greatest men of God ever known? It is almost incomprehensible. Surely the disciples were astounded and at loss for what to do, amazed by this revelation. Peter, ever impulsive, suggests building three booths, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He basically is suggesting a resurgence of the Festival of Booths, when booths were built to commemorate the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. We hear no response from Jesus on this, but after the cloud descends and God declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah disappear.

            So much comes together in this brief moment; no wonder the gospel says the disciples were terrified! Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s law, and came down from the mountain with his face shining like the sun—as radiantly as Jesus’ clothes. Then there is the passage from 2 Kings, in which Elijah is carried off to heaven. Dr. Lance Stone, a minister of the United Reformed Church in the UK, suggests a much starker comparison:

Here, in this story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; there, at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Here in this story, Jesus is surrounded by two great heroes from ancient history; there, on the cross, Jesus he is surrounded by two common criminals. Here, at the transfiguration, Jesus is witnessed by three male disciples – Peter, James and John; there, at Golgotha, three woman followers are named as witnesses: two Marys and Salome. Again, this scene of transfiguration is one a scene of dazzling light, while at the crucifixion Matthew tells us that darkness came over the whole land. Here, in this scene, Jesus basks in God’s presence, there he suffers the hell of God’s absence and cries out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ Here on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved!’ There, in utter abandonment, it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’[2]

It is no wonder then that “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.” The disciples could not fully comprehend what had happened on the mountain for those brief moments, until living through Christ’s death and resurrection. This account as well as the crucifixion, resembles too the resurrection, with Jesus’ clothes dazzling white and two heavenly beings by his side. So soon, after Peter has declared Jesus to be the Messiah, he along with James and John see a reflection of what this truly means.

            The Transfiguration did not change Jesus. In this moment Jesus of Nazareth did not become Jesus Christ. He was not suddenly infused with holy power. Indeed, he already had it, as evidenced in the miracles and healings that performed in Mark prior to this event. Jesus, from birth, was both fully human and fully divine. I imagine if instead of the birds and the bees talk, Joseph didn’t instead have the “savior of the world” talk with a young Jesus. What happens rather is more of a transformation of Peter, James, and John. They still do not know the suffering, the persecution that awaits them. But they are privileged to witness a momentary lifting of the veil between heaven and earth, a glimpse of the Kingdom of God to be, and Christ in his glory.

            It is this brief moment, which they do not yet fully understand, that must sustain them on the road to Jerusalem. Whatever awaits them, whatever trials they are yet to endure, they have been confirmed in their belief in Jesus as the anointed one of God. In one of his last speeches, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”[3] Dr. King’s own mountaintop experiences sustained him too, in the midst of all the turmoil and the great burden put upon him as the focal point of the entire civil rights movement. It is such experiences when we meet God face to face that can sustain us when we have to make our long journeys through the desert.

            Through their mountaintop experience the disciples begin to see more fully who Jesus is, and are prompted by God to listen to his beloved. Throughout the gospel, St. Mark through the miracles and healings attempts to create an understanding of who Jesus is. The Transfiguration event is one such story that illustrates and leads us to greater understanding of Jesus. This is not to say that it is merely a story or literary device used by the gospel authors—its appearance in the first three gospels and Peter’s second epistle points to the fact that this was an important moment for these apostles, in both their own journey, and one that can illuminate the journeys of others. The event is so mystical, so contrary to the world that we typically experience. But to discount it, is to discount the ways God can radically enter the world and interact with God’s creation. In the words of a friend, “We don’t believe in miracles—we depend on them.”

            What does it mean for us, to be transfigured or transformed, to be fully realized into our God-given vocations? Is an alcoholic who turns away from the bottle and becomes sober transfigured? Is the racist who recognizes the error of her ways and seeks reconciliation, is she transfigured? Are we transfigured when seen anew with the eyes of someone deeply in love with us? I think we are. I believe that when we strive to live into the fullness of who God calls us to be, we are transfigured as well. Like Moses, we will come down from the mountaintop with our faces shining like the sun. Who stands with you on that mountain, declaring what is fulfilled in you? Which saints of glory stand by your side then? This is not to compare us to Jesus, but to affirm that like Peter, James, and John—when we truly see who Jesus is, we can see who we are called to be as well. The more we know about Jesus, the more we understand about the way of life that he calls us to and who God calls us to be.

            In closing I’d like to share with you a reading from the Church of Scotland, which eloquently addresses some of these questions.

My name is Abraham.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before the journey,

before the star-map,

before the wandering in the desert,

before the child born to a hundred year old pensioner,

before sand grains became promises,

before the attempted sacrifice of Isaac,

I was Abram.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Israel.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before making peace with Esau,

before 12 sons,

before the dreams of Joseph,

before the coloured coat,

before the kidnapping,

before the droughts,

I was Jacob.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Peter.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before the discarding of nets,

before the walking on water,

before the confession,

before the denial,

before the running to the tomb,

before being called the rock,

I was Simon.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Paul.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before Damascus,

before the letters,

before the thorn in my side,

before preaching to the Gentiles,

before Antioch,

before imprisonment,

I was Saul.

 

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

where stars have names,

and sand grains whisper between your toes.

 

I was settled,

retired,

and comfortable.

 

Now I’m a new father,

I have a young family,

an old wife,

and a career in futures.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given a new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Abram,

now I am Abraham.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

to a new land,

and a wrestling match with God.

 

I was restless,

I was pushy and dishonest,

the trickster.

 

Now I’m settled,

live in honesty with my eleven sons,

rejoice at the finding the twelfth one in Egypt,

and long for the prospect of a peaceful retirement.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given new meaning,

transfigured, by God’s own hand

 

I was Jacob,

now I am Israel.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

of discipleship and cross carrying,

of foot-washing and broken bread.

 

I was hot headed,

misunderstanding everything,

jumping out boats and sinking,

embarrassed to confess on the night of his death

Jesus as Lord.

 

Now I am The Rock,

recognising the truth of the empty tomb,

 

happy to confess Jesus as my Saviour,

right to the point of my own death.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

 

given new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Simon,

Now I am Peter.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

to where there is no difference

between slave and free, Jew and Gentile

 

I was racist,

holding the coats,

persecuting a new faith

that questioned my own.

 

Now I am imprisoned for their sake,

for I am committed to the cause of Christ ,

an apostle to those I once persecuted.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Saul,

Now I am Paul.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 (Church of Scotland, Rev Roddy Hamilton, Clydebank Abbotsford)

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

           

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