a sermon on Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration Sunday
preached on February 15, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
They had been plenty of strange places with Jesus before, so when he asked them to go up the mountain with him, Peter, James, and John were not particularly surprised. It had only been six days earlier that he begun talking his disciples about the journey that would be ahead for him. Right after Peter had recognized him as the Messiah, they learned that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It was a stark contrast for them all. It seemed impossible that their beloved teacher and friend could face such horrid things, especially considering that he had just been revealed to them as something more than what they had understood before. How could this man they had come to know so well, this man they had dropped their nets to follow, face rejection that would lead to his death?
So as Peter, James, and John ventured up the mountain with Jesus, their heads were surely swirling with questions. They had already started to get a new and different image of him, and what they would see that day on the mountain peak would only change it even more. It was a solitary, reflective journey for all four of them—Mark tells us that Jesus “led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves,” requiring three different words to make it clear how distant they were from their everyday experience and how disconnected they were from any others who might have usually gone with them along the way.
When they reached the top, “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Something was happening to Jesus before their very eyes, and even if they could not understand it, they would witness it. Then, before they could figure out what was happening, Elijah and Moses appeared there too, talking with Jesus. The disciples were suddenly surrounded by the Messiah, the Law, and the Prophets. The fullness of the Jewish tradition of the past and the emerging witness of Jesus was present with them on the mountain, and they were witnesses to this glimpse of incredible glory.
Peter’s reaction to this incredible sight was pretty strange. Only a few days earlier, he had just become the first to confess Jesus as Messiah, only to make it clear a little later that he didn’t understand what that would mean as he sought to keep Jesus from taking the road of suffering and death. But as Mark puts it, after witnessing the transfiguration Peter “did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Rather than just taking it all in quietly, Peter broke the silence strangely, mumbling and bumbling and rambling:
Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
But before any of them could respond to Peter’s incredibly ridiculous suggestion, a cloud came over them, and a voice called out from it:
This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!
As quickly as the voice had spoken out, the visitors from the past had appeared, and Jesus’ clothes had turned a dazzling white, things all went back to normal. When they looked around again, “they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” The reason for their journey complete, the three stunned disciples and Jesus headed down the mountain, and as they made their way back to the other disciples, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” They had glimpsed his glory and seen the fullness of who he was, and yet they could not describe it to anyone—until it would be visible to everyone.
This story of the transfiguration is one of the most mystical and mysterious in all the gospels, but I think it is probably one of the greatest because it gives us a very real glimpse of who Jesus is. The transfiguration is a rare moment when the veil of heaven is pulled back, the divisions between this world and the next are set aside, and we are given a glimpse of God’s glory. It stands in a line of rare and wonderful moments in the Bible where God reveals God’s self to us: Abraham and the strange visitors, Moses and the burning bush, Moses on the mountain receiving the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, Elijah in the cave encountering God in the sound of sheer silence, and even Jesus in his own baptism by John the Baptist, as a voice from heaven again declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the transfiguration and all these moments, we see a little more of who God is, sometimes in mighty and powerful ways, sometimes in quiet and mystical ways, and always with a bit of a veil continuing to conceal a portion of God’s glory, leaving us to await an even greater vision of something more than our human minds can comprehend and our human eyes can see.
But I think that the transfiguration may actually be about more than just this. As we discover more of who God is in this moment when we gain a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, I think we also gain a glimpse of the transfiguration that is possible for us. When we see the transfigured Jesus shining in dazzling white clothes, we catch sight of what we will one day be. When we watch with wonder as Jesus gathers with the Law and the Prophets atop the mountain, we see the beginnings of a conversation that will one day be ours to share. And when we hear a voice from a cloud declaring that Jesus is beloved and worthy of our careful ear, we can learn that we too bear the beloved image of God into a world that needs such a gift even in us.
On the mount of transfiguration, as Jesus is transformed before the eyes of the disciples, so we too witness the possibilities of transformation in our lives and in the life of our world. Like Jesus, we will one day be more than we are today. Like Jesus, we will one day participate in transformed life where we will understand the Law and the Prophets in a new and deepened way. And like Jesus, we have heard and will hear again and again God’s voice in the waters of baptism and the food of this table proclaiming that we too are God’s beloved children. In this glimpse of glory for Jesus and us, in this moment when the heavens are torn apart and God’s wonder is revealed, we are strengthened for all the things that are ahead—for the struggles of yet another depressing week of winter, for the challenges of repentance and renewal in this coming season of Lent, for the joys and sorrows of our lives in these days, for living, for dying, and for life eternal.
So as we come down from this mountain and gather around this table, may we be strengthened by this glimpse of what is ahead for us, that all our living might embody the new life we have already seen in the transfiguration and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord so that we might join him and all creation in being made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.