Sermon by Keith, 2.23.20: Mark 8:27–9:8
I have been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land!
No, literally, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land. Now, there are some arguments about which mountain Jesus was transfigured on because the scriptures don’t say exactly which one it was. The two top contenders are Mount Hermon, an almost 10,000 feet mountain way north of the Sea of Galilee, or the much shorter but still impressive Mt. Tabor in central Galilee. It is this one that I got to go to the top of, a flat topped volcanic cone that sits by itself away from the other range of hills and mountains. There is more than one church there, because people can’t seem to agree about where the exact spot Jesus might have been transfigured. What is ironic is that in the one church we did get to visit, they built the huge sanctuary with this beautiful mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the ceiling, and off to the left and right of the main sanctuary are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijiah. Peter got his wish after all!
But what impressed me most about the spot the church was built on was the view. There is what can best be described as an observation deck to see out across the valley. Our guide, Ezra, started pointing out historical places that took place. There is Nazareth, there is Zarephath, the place where Elijah lived with the widow. He lists off all the battles that took place that are listed in the Old Testament. And the valley’s name? Megiddo. Or the Valley of Armageddon, the place where history will culminate per the book of Revelation. Before our eyes was ancient history and future history all wrapped up for one to take it all in and really see it. What a spot for the Transfiguration.
I’ve always struggled with the meaning of this story. Glow in the dark Jesus being visited by Moses and Elijah. But the more I’ve studied it, I think it is a moment of seeing, of clarity, of not just from a human point of view but also from God’s point of view. That’s kind of a scary proposition, to see the world from God’s point of view, but we will try.
Let’s start by taking a step back. What has happened in the gospel so far? Jesus has, metaphorically speaking, led the disciples up the high mountain to a new view of God’s kingdom during the first half of Mark’s gospel. In extraordinary actions and puzzling but profound words he has unveiled for them what God is up to. Those ‘outside’ look and look, but never see; the disciples are having their eyes opened, to that they can see for the first time the inner reality of God’s kingdom, and its central truth that, even though he doesn’t look like what they might have expected, Jesus really is the Messiah. Thus the story so far keeps telling us about eyes being opened, in several senses, and it all concentrates on Jesus himself and God’s kingdom that is arriving with him.
Now Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain, and something similar happens, through on an entirely different level. Western culture is increasing realizing that most cultures have never forgotten, that the world we live in has many layers. And when we peer into one of these layers, we ever afterwards see everything differently.
That’s what happened on this mountain. What was the inner reality of Jesus’ work? He was continuing and completing the tasks of the great prophet Elijah, and the lawgiver of old, Moses himself. Both of them, interestingly, had disappeared from view rather than died in the ordinary way, surrounded by their families and friends. Now they reappear, with the veil of ordinariness drawn back for a moment, and Jesus is with them, shining with a brilliant light.
What does this all mean? We should state that the Transfiguration isn’t a revelation of Jesus divinity; if it were, that would make Elijah and Moses divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think. Mark does believe in Jesus’ divinity, but hasn’t told us why yet. Instead, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, just the way a scenic vista can change how you view the world or how music transforms words that are sung. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It is the sign that he is indeed the true Messiah. Everything is culminating with him.
That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying. Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job. Mark is happy for later Christians to hear in the phrase ‘son of God’ fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard, but for them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at baptism, is that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s enough to be with now on the next steps of Jesus’ journey.
Once again, Jesus tells them not to reveal what they have seen. This time he gives them a cryptic time-frame: ‘until the son of man has risen from the dead.’ Not surprisingly, this puzzles them. In Jewish thought of the time, ‘the resurrection’ would happen to all the righteous at the end of time, not to one person ahead of all the others.
What could Jesus mean by implying that ‘the son of man’ would rise from the dead, while they would be still living the sort of normal life in which people would tell one another what they had seen months or years before? Mark’s readers would already know about Jesus’ resurrection, but the characters in his story certainly didn’t and weren’t expecting it. Like much that Jesus said, it remained cryptic and puzzling until after the event.
The final exchange is even more teasing. The disciples are trying to work it out; scripture, they know, tells them that Elijah will prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus also has other scriptures on hand which speak to him of his own vocation; this time, he seems to be blending passages and images from Daniel and Isaiah. But the fateful identification, the one that matters, is his cryptic comment about Elijah having already come. Now there is nothing left but the final messianic task, the task which Jesus has already declared will involve his own suffering and death.
So, what does this mean for us? We don’t generally experience things in our lives as dramatic as this story. Sometimes I think it would be nice if we did, but I have to admit I’d probably be as bewildered as Peter.
But in Mark, the Transfiguration takes place right in the middle of his gospel, the transition point of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region to headed to Jerusalem and this death and resurrection. What have you seen so far? There is an invitation to look back and see how Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah as God intended.
Peter was surprised. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. He is supposed to lead Israel to freedom and new glory. How was it in his healing and teachings that Jesus was letting them know he was a different kind of Messiah than they had expected? Be as surprised as Peter at what you discover about Jesus and yourself during this time in Galilee. There is also an invitation to look towards Jerusalem and follow Jesus with your own cross.
Most importantly, each of us is called to do what the heavenly voice said: Listen to Jesus, because he is God’s beloved son. As we learn to watch where he goes and listen to what he has to teach us, even if sometimes we get scared and say all the wrong things, we may find that glory creeps up on us unawares, strengthening us, as it did the disciples, for the road ahead. Amen.