Occasion: The Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B
Text: Mark 9.2-9
This sermon was preached at East Iron Hill Community Church, Maquoketa, IA, on 22 February 2009.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip over Spring Break with some of my college friends, and we went out to a little outdoor ministry site called Lutheran Valley Retreat in Colorado. We were working to clean up in the wake of the Hayman forest fires that had devastated the region, and especially the camp. Not only did we do a lot of good work there, but we also got an opportunity to do some hiking and exploring.
My fondest memory from this recreational time was when we climbed a mountain. I realize that for the Rocky Mountains, a 9700-foot mountain is just getting started – a hill really – but it was – and remains – the biggest “hill” I’ve ever climbed. We were encouraged to carry a small stone with us up the mountain, and there at the top was an enormous cross. It was held up by a large pile of stones that other climbers had brought and laid at the foot of the cross, each stone giving more support. I was moved beyond words when I reached the top, but I was also tired, so like the others in my group, I sat down to rest. I was soon to find out that you are always in for surprises at the foot of the cross of Christ.
One of my friends noticed, as we sat around the foot of the cross, a strange gray powder. It was clingy stuff, and several of us had sat in it. To us, it was just more dirt. After all, it had been a long, hard, dirty climb, and everyone was already covered head to toe in dirt and grime. Then one of us found the slip of paper, and our perception immediately changed.
The paper was a small white rectangle, perhaps three inches by two inches. On it was a small portrait photograph and a little bit of writing. The paper explained that a young man, twenty-one years old (the same as me!), had loved the camp we were serving and loved the top of this mountain most of all. He died suddenly and tragically of a terrible illness. The last dying wish of this faithful man was to be cremated and to have his remains scattered at the foot of the cross of Christ at the top of this mountain that he loved. Suddenly, we realized the truth: it wasn’t dust that we were sitting in. It was the remains of a faithful Christian.
Our Gospel story for today opens with Peter, James, and John being led by Jesus up “a high mountain apart” or “all alone.” There he is transformed in front of them. The word translated “transfigured” is the same word from which we get the English word “metamorphosis,” and it means that his outward appearance was completely changed. His clothes become dazzling white, and Mark tells us that he doesn’t care how much Oxy-Clean you use, you couldn’t get them this clean. The other versions of this story tell us more details, for example, that his face shone like the sun. But the point is that Jesus is transformed before them in a glorious, powerful way.
The disciples, of course, are completely terrified. In the face of divine majesty itself, they are not throwing a party. They are not kicking back and reveling in the sweet glory of it all. Instead, they are cowering in fear before the very face of God. And then it gets worse. Moses and Elijah show up.
We know now that this story is definitely a story of a heavenly vision, that this mountaintop is symbolic of heaven, because Moses and Elijah are here. We have in the Bible the story of Elijah being taken up into heaven by fiery chariots without dying. And Deuteronomy isn’t very clear on what happens to Moses, it just tells us that his burial place is not known, and Jewish tradition held that Moses didn’t die either. So we now have Jesus shining in glory, and two of the great Old Testament prophets, who never died, also present with Peter, James, and John on this heavenly mountain. No wonder they are scared.
Peter does what Peter normally does when he is terrified and confused: he opens his mouth. He suggests, if it’s okay with Jesus of course, that he could put up three tents, or booths, in which the three of them can be honored equally. We are meant to recall the tent of meeting in the wilderness when the Children of Israel wandered for forty years. But nothing comes of that suggestion, and Peter is completely ignored.
Just when you think things couldn’t get weirder or more terrifying, God the Father shows up in the form of a cloud. Just as in Jesus’ baptism, we are told again “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But instead of that being followed with “I am well pleased with him,” now we hear a stern command to the disciples: “Listen to him!”
At this point, the vision abruptly ends. We don’t know from the story itself that Jesus returned to his normal appearance, but Mark goes on without people noticing that anything looks different about him. We are told that Moses and Elijah are gone, too. They go down from the mountain, and as they do Jesus warns them not to tell anyone until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
Let us focus today on the words that we have from God the Father in the cloud. I want to read this for you three times, with a different stress each time. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” From this compact phrase, just nine words, a single sentence in the original Greek, we have three important messages to hear for today.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” There are lots of competing voices in the world today, and I don’t just mean other religions and denominations. There are hundreds of television channels, books supporting every conceivable viewpoint on every conceivable issue, advertising messages plastered on every possible surface, and more. Here’s an example: the BBC just ran an article a week or two ago about a new ad campaign with messages on the sides of thousands of London buses. The banners read: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” There are those who would say even today that Jesus is nothing but a good teacher, on a par with other good teachers in the world. Into this confusing mess, God interjects two important words: “This is.” Not that this man is like a son to me, not that this man is merely a prophet or teacher who says and does things that I approve of, but that this man is in his very identity – in the very core of his being – God’s Son.
God lines up arguably the two greatest prophets from Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah, and then says, “Let me tell you who this guy is. He’s not just a teacher or a giver of the law like Moses. He’s not just a wonder worker like Elijah. He’s my Son.” And those two are even more symbolic, because Moses was traditionally considered the author of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and Elijah symbolizes and stands in the place of all the prophets and prophetic writings. Even today, we refer to the two sets of writings as “the Law and the Prophets.” In this vision, by refusing to go along with Peter’s idea to honor these three men equally, by sweeping away Moses and Elijah afterward so that only Jesus stands there. It’s like a moment out of tribal council on Survivor. With those words, “This is my Son,” God shows us that Jesus Christ is the authority over all of Scripture, and not even Moses or Elijah has the power or authority to represent God to the people that Jesus does.
And this authority really matters. Martin Luther wrote almost five hundred years ago that “that in which we put our faith and trust is, properly speaking, our god.” When we talk about authority, then, we’re talking about something much more important than what your politics are or what you do with your free time. We are asking: who is your God? Who do you trust? Who do you follow? What we see on television, then, ought not be the authority for how to live our lives. Nor can the images of happiness that we’re sold with every tube of mascara and box of Shredded Wheat bring us eternal life. It might not be mascara and Shredded Wheat, but every single person in this room (and I chief among you) have any number of created things that we trust more than God on a daily basis. Yet we will not be happier, more successful, safer, smarter, more respected or better off in the long run with anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ as Lord. In fact, when we acknowledge Jesus as God’s true and only Son, happiness, success, safety, intelligence, respect, and wealth all become secondary to the marvelous gift we have in him.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” This word, listen, is perhaps the hardest to hear. There are, after all, two different kinds of listening, active and passive. We’re very good at passive listening. Passive listening is hearing that dinner is ready but taking five more minutes to finish your newspaper. It’s the kind of listening you do when you’d rather be somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the kind of listening you do in church during a sermon! Though not today, of course. Passive listening is listening that doesn’t change who you are.
Here’s an example from my own life: when I’m reading something, I don’t hear anything. My fifth grade teacher used to take advantage of this fact. Right before lunch time, she would have us sit down and start reading from a book. Then, as we became more engrossed in what we were reading, she would quietly tiptoe around behind the class, tapping students on the shoulders to dismiss them for lunch. Anyone who noticed was also dismissed for lunch. It was always embarrassing to find that I was the last one there, that I was the worst listener of the class. (I guess you could say that I was the best reader, but a fifth grader never can really see it that way.)
Active listening, on the other hand, is listening that craves to know more, that immediately captivates your whole attention, and that demands a response. Active listening is what happens when someone you love is in a terrible accident, and you need to do something about it right now. Active listening is what happens when you’ve heard the best news of your life. It’s drop everything listening. It’s the kind of listening that leaves you truly changed – metamorphosed, transfigured. It’s the kind of listening that draws us into a relationship of deep discipleship. Discipleship is a word that has at its root the word “discipline,” which is action intended to change someone’s behavior. The kind of listening we are to do with Jesus is listening that leads to a change of heart.
Here’s another example. I drifted away from the church when I was a teenager because I thought I was way smarter and better informed than the people I thought were hypocrites in my church. Then a few years later, because of my interest in a girl, I started going to her youth group. The youth leader there began talking about issues that I thought I had long understood and had the upper hand on. That was a drop everything experience. I realized at that moment that I didn’t really have a clue what I was talking about, and it changed my whole attitude towards God. I don’t give myself credit for that active listening, though. I call that the work of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to respond to God’s grace.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” With this last word, we are brought back to the scene before us. Jesus, Elijah, Moses, James, John, and Peter on the top of the mountain. The cloud. The booming voice. We have three men, followers of Jesus, cowering speechlessly. We have two men who were among the great prophets of history. And among them all, Jesus Christ shining with the light of God’s glory. This Jesus, whom this story teaches us is the interpreter of all Scripture, who is the Authority over all Authorities, the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords.
The glory we see in Jesus, though, is not the glory of a conqueror, or even the glory of a great prophet. Moses walked on earth long into his old age, and was revered among the people as the great Lawgiver, the prophet who established the Mosaic covenant, and the great teacher of the people. Elijah did many miraculous signs of power, and was remembered for centuries as a great man of God. And, the stories are told, these men were so great that they got to skip over death itself.
Yet when the man Jesus walked this earth, he did not receive great renown. He had, at times, many followers, yet when he taught his hard message, many fell away. He was neither the founder of governments nor respected by the ruling class. His miracles demonstrated his identity clearly, but were often more subtle than Moses or Elijah. And when he brought his message to the seat of power in Jerusalem, he was slaughtered on a Roman cross. He did not skip over death like Moses or Elijah did.
That is precisely what this story is trying to come to grips with. Moses and Elijah, in the tradition, never died. And yet we have here, sandwiched between two stories where Jesus predicts his own death, a heavenly vision where we see a glorified, resurrected Jesus. Jesus lives again, just as Moses and Elijah always continued to live, and he dwells bodily in heaven with God the Father, just as Moses and Elijah also do even today. In the midst of these stories of judgment and death, his disciples tell a story about the moment when they began to realize that the shame of the cross didn’t mean failure of Jesus’ mission.
And this story, despite its beauty and glory and wonder, is leading us very intentionally to the cross. Jesus clothes shine in glory now, but in the crucifixion his clothes will be divided between the Roman soldiers. Here, the truth of his identity is attested by two great heroes of the faith. Soon, he will be crucified between two criminals. Peter, so eager to honor him now, will soon deny him three times. Even as we rejoice in our celebration of the Transfiguration, we also, at the same time, know that the cross is coming. And we are called to be people of the cross.
In the midst of competing claims upon our lives, competing claims about who Jesus is, and competing claims about who we are living in this world that God created, we have in this story a transcendent vision of a transformed Jesus. But we have more than that, too. For when we hear in this story those nine simple words, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” the Holy Spirit is already there changing our hearts. When we see in this shining vision that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, eternally begotten by the Father before time even began, that Jesus Christ is, by his coming to earth and becoming truly human, the great high priest who atones for our sins and reconciles us with God, we cannot help but be transformed. When we hear that word, “listen,” and we heed that and we pay close attention to Jesus, we are led up the mountain into a life of new discipleship. We realize, at the mountaintops in our lives, that things are not what they seem, and that God is calling us into a new awareness of His grace. When we choose to continually grasp the voice of Jesus and listen to him instead of the other voices in this world that try to drag us away, we are led to the foot of the cross, and we are never the same.