a sermon for Transfiguration of the Lord on Mark 9:2-9
preached on February 19, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
What do we say about the transfiguration of Jesus? This is one of those days that is clearly important in our life together as the church, but figuring out the exact reasons for that and meaning of it is not quite so easy.
What do you say about a story that seems so otherworldly, so seemingly unreal? It’s not like we go around climbing mountains and seeing people’s clothes turn dazzling white every day. And visitations from the great ancestors of our past just aren’t part of our experience. If I were choosing stories for the gospels on the basis of what makes sense, I would probably leave this one out – I’d want things to be believable, to be unquestionable and accessible for everyone.
The transfiguration of Jesus has so much speaking against its reality by these standards. There is only a small pool of sympathetic, highly biased witnesses. Supernatural appearances of ancestral figures stand at the center of the story. Strange voices speak out of nowhere. A sudden ending leaves the whole thing hanging. And those who saw it receive stern instructions not to tell anyone what they had seen.
Yet this story is such an integral part of the gospel witness. Three of the four gospels tell this story, and each of them uses it as a pivot point in its narrative, helping to turn our focus from a humble teacher wandering around the villages of Galilee to the clearly marked Son of God willing to risk even his life to show that God’s power is greater than any human designs.
At the core, this is a simple story. Jesus gathers his three most-trusted disciples – three of those fishermen whom he called on that first day as he was walking by the Sea of Galilee – and he takes them with him up the mountain. Atop the mountain, something happened to Jesus. There, he looked entirely different from the man who had hiked up with the disciples. His appearance changed, and “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Then two others appeared and started talking with Jesus. Somehow, maybe based on the conversation they had with Jesus, the disciples recognized these guests as Moses and Elijah.
It was an incredible experience. The disciples were mesmerized and terrified by it all. Peter clearly didn’t want it to end, so he stupidly suggested a plan to preserve the moment, to build three shrines atop the mountain for the three great leaders so that they could enjoy this time of teaching and learning for all eternity. But even before Jesus could respond to Peter, a voice spoke out of the cloud, just as had happened a few years earlier at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly Jesus and the disciples were all alone again, and it was time to head back down the mountain. Along the way Jesus instructed them to keep quiet about what they had seen until the time was right.
There are plenty of possible ramifications of this story for Jesus. Biblical scholars have debated the meaning and consequences of this text for centuries. Theologians have suggested that this might be the moment when the divine nature of Jesus started to become clear. And storytellers and literary critics have noted how this transfiguration is a turning point for Jesus in much the same way as the later story of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem transitions us so well into the last week of Jesus’ life.
Yet I think all those impacts of this story are a little too theoretical for us. I for one want to know what this transfiguration business has to do with me. Why should this strange story of a shiny happy Jesus matter to me two thousand years after it theoretically happened? What is the point of following someone who one day suddenly lit up brighter than a Christmas tree? And can we even get anywhere close to this shining Jesus ourselves?
Well, first of all, I think this story helps us to think more clearly about the idea of the mountaintop experience. The human life always seems to have its ups and downs, and one of the great challenges seems to be how to carry what we learn in our highs into our lower moments. Jesus’ brief moment of bright glory on the mountaintop is a good reminder for us that we can be energized by our glimpses of glory. As our last hymn put it so well,
How good, Lord, to be here,
yet we may not remain,
but since you bid us leave the mount,
come with us to the plain.
– Joseph Armitage Robinson, 1888
When we carry the memory and power of our mountaintop moments into our daily lives, we have wisdom and energy to be more faithful and to listen more closely to what God is calling us to be and to do.
Yet the brightness we witness on top of the mountain is also important, too. In the Transfiguration, we get a nearly-complete glimpse of God’s glory as revealed in Jesus Christ. We still see him as a teacher, but we also finally see him exalted and glorified, receiving the honor and appreciation that we know he deserves, getting a little preview of the greater glory that will come on Easter. By the power of this witness to God’s glory, by our glimpse of this shiny happy Jesus, we too can bear a bit of that glory into the world. Like good mirrors that reflect light into more visible brightness, like the orbs of our night sky that shine brightly yet often only cast back the light that they receive, we can be reflections of God’s glory into this world that so desperately needs God’s light.
And so we can and should and must be shiny happy Jesus people because of this light that we witness on the mountaintop. We can embody a new and different way of life and living that points to something beyond ourselves so that others might join us on this journey. We can reflect even a little glimpse of God’s glory into our broken and fearful world so that all might have courage to be the people whom God has called them to be. And we can shine with the wonder of Jesus himself because of this encounter so that we can have the light we need to follow in his path.
So today as we prepare to begin the season of Lent, we can be shiny happy Jesus people. We sing songs of God’s glory and wonder and praise. We rejoice with “alleluias” loud and strong as we prepare to set them aside for the season ahead. We gather at this table, hoping to catch a glimpse of our bright, shining savior meeting us here. And we go forth to continue reflecting the light of Christ that we find in this place into our lives and our world.
May we shine with happiness, peace, joy, hope, and love, today and always, living and walking as the shiny happy Jesus people that we are, unafraid to reflect his glory and new life into every place until he comes again to make all things shine with his glory forever and ever.
Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.