“Six days later…” That’s how our story begins. You may wonder, “Six days after what?
What happened six days ago that makes it so important to mention now? What’s the connection between what happened then and what’s about to happen now?”
What happened six days ago was the story that we’ve explored for the previous two Sundays.
It begins when Jesus takes his disciples on a retreat, to the region of Caesarea Philippi, in Gentile country north of Galilee. There, he asks them two questions. First, “Who do people say that I am?” Then, “Who do you say that I am?”
Ever quick with an answer, Simon Peter says, “You’re the Messiah!”
Jesus charges them not to tell anyone. Then he begins to teach them that he will be arrested and killed, but on the third day he will rise again.
Peter objects, “This can’t be so!” and Jesus silences him harshly.
Then he says something truly startling. He says, “If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
He says that to his 12 closest disciples, plus whoever else is on hand. Now, six days later, he takes aside his inner circle of three disciples, and they ascend a high mountain on a quest that’s somehow related to what happened earlier.
The three are James and John, the Thunder sons, and Simon Peter, one of the Johnson brothers. Where’s Andrew, the other Johnson boy? It is my theory that Jesus leaves him in charge of the other disciples while he and his core leadership team are gone. Given the fractious nature of the team Jesus has assembled, keeping them in line is not a small task, but Andrew seems to be a capable guy.
We don’t know whether they are still in the region of Caesarea Philippi or whether they’ve returned to Galilee, so we don’t know what mountain they have ascended.
If they’re in Galilee, it must be Mount Tabor. It’s formidable enough, jutting up from the plain nearly 2,000 feet. That’s half again higher than the Empire State Building in New York City.
If they’re still up north, it must be Mount Hermon. It’s more than 9,000 feet high, and its peaks are often covered by snow.
Tradition favors Mount Tabor. Jesus is known for a lot of things, but mountain climbing isn’t one of them. Still, ascending even 2,000 feet in elevation will leave you panting. Whether the three disciples know it or not, the climb has primed them for a new revelation – and that’s exactly what they get.
Standing before them, Jesus is transfigured. His appearance is changed. Whatever color his clothes were before, now they are dazzling white, as white as snow, whiter than you could hope to ever bleach them. And, according to another telling of the story, his face shines like the sun.
Suddenly standing with him are Moses and Elijah, Moses the great teacher and lawgiver, Elijah the great prophet. Together they represent the entirety of God’s revelation though the Hebrew scriptures. Through the presence of these great men, long dead, God is testifying to the importance of Jesus.
The disciples are rightly terrified by this vision. Peter begins to babble. He says, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here.” Mark that down. It may be the only time that Peter deals in understatement rather than exaggeration. Then he shoots over the top: “Let’s make three dwellings here, one for each of you.”
The Hebrew people always were good at erecting rock monuments to mark special events on their journey with God. Ebenezers, they were sometimes called – rock cairns that say, “The Lord brought me safely thus far.”
Peter proposes something similar, though who knows precisely what it is. Maybe he wants to erect booths the way you might at Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Maybe he’s thinking of something longer lasting, some holy site that might draw thousands of pilgrims to the top of this mountain. Or maybe not, considering how inaccessible it is, even today.
Whatever Peter is thinking, it’s clear that he wants to hold on to this moment. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what it means, he wants to preserve the essence of this revelation. And it’s not over.
A cloud has overshadowed them – do you know how scary it is to be on a mountaintop that’s suddenly covered by clouds? – and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him!”
They have seen Jesus exalted. Moses and Elijah testify to his greatness. Scripture points to him. The voice of God says: “Listen to him!” What a fabulous experience!
Then, as suddenly as it began, it’s over. No one is there but Jesus, and he appears quite normal again. Show’s over. Time to go. On their way down the mountain, Jesus tells them to keep quiet about this until after he has risen from the dead. Well, what could they say? It’s hard enough to describe what they’ve just seen. How could they ever explain it? And what can it possibly have to do with rising from the dead?
Years later, in the second New Testament letter that bears his name, Peter will say, “We didn’t just make this up. We were there. We saw this.” (2 Peter 1:16-18) But what exactly did they see, and what can it mean?
I’ve heard the Transfiguration described as a threshold event, a doorway between two states of existence.
On the Christian liturgical calendar, it’s a doorway between seasons. It’s the climax to the season of Epiphany, and it leads us into the season of Lent. Epiphany is about revelation of who Jesus is. The Transfiguration is an epiphany itself, the peak revelation of the season.
One a deeper level, the Transfiguration is a threshold between levels of understanding. Once you step over this threshold, you can’t see things the way you saw them before. Your vision has been altered. Your understanding has been changed.
But to appropriate this in your life, you’ve got to step over the threshold, and that’s harder than it sounds. The problem is making an epiphany last, keeping this new understanding firmly in your mind. The problem with epiphanies is that they can be ephemeral. They can fade away like smoke. If they are remembered at all, they might easily be misremembered.
The best description I can give you comes from the mystery novels by Andrew Greeley. Greeley was a Catholic priest who was both a sociologist and a somewhat racy novelist. His greatest literary creation, in my opinion, is Bishop Blackie Ryan, a Chicago priest who feels most at home wearing a Chicago Bears starter jacket.
Blackie is a crackerjack detective who has a knack for solving the most unsolvable mysteries. But even he is baffled until that precious moment when all the pieces fall together and everything suddenly makes sense.
He describes it as seeing the door of an elevator open. Inside is the solution to the mystery. He glimpses the solution, but then the elevator door closes. He glimpses the solution, but he hasn’t seen it clearly enough to understand. Only when the elevator door opens and stays open does he know whodunit.
It’s the same with the Transfiguration. It seems so simple, so obvious. And yet, the meaning of it is somehow elusive.
The disciples see Jesus transformed in a way that is so fantastic it’s almost unbelievable. They see great figures from the past testifying to his greatness. They see the identify of Israel as revealed in its scriptures testifying to his greatness. Even a voice from God says, “This is my Son!”
But seconds later, it’s over. The light that transformed the figure of Jesus is gone. The great figures from the past who testified for him are gone. The voice from God is not even an echo any more. As the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth says, all they see now is the same Jesus they saw before. They glimpsed his greatness, but that vision has faded away.
And when they come down off the mountain, they discover that Andrew hasn’t been able to keep the other disciples out of trouble. Instead, they’re at the center of a village brawl. That’s another story entirely.
Here’s a simple point, made many times by commentators on this story. Mountaintop experiences do not last. They cannot last. You cannot live on the mountaintop. There’s no food there, no water and – sorry, Peter – no shelter either. Mountaintops offer incredible views, but they are not hospitable to human occupation.
Hiking in the woods and mountains is one of my favorite pastimes, though I do far too little of it. I’ve been to the top of many peaks higher than either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon. I can testify that the view is magnificent, and the cliché is true: You feel on top of the world! But then comes that nudge. The wind comes up. A cloud passes by. It’s as if the mountain is saying: “Time for you to go.”
Mountaintop experiences cannot be sustained, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. But maybe they can be internalized. Maybe they can be remembered well. Maybe you can take that vision down from the peak and keep it alive in the plains and valleys below.
What’s the vision we need to take away from this Transfiguration experience? When we say it today, it sounds so ordinary, so much a cliché. Jesus is Son of God. The Word is not only with God, the Word is God.
Last week I saw a video of a preacher who waltzed through the books of the Bible, finding a new title for Jesus in every book, 66 titles in all, but none higher than this one. Jesus is Son of God: present at creation, present with us in all ways at all times, Alpha and Omega, King of kings and Lord of lords. At his name, every knee shall bend and every tongue confess his glory.
If that’s the takeaway, how do we take it away with us? How do we internalize this mountaintop high? You know already. This is not rocket science. This is Christianity 101, the basics of following Jesus. We rely on the classic means of grace, those lines of power from God to us that we only have to plug in to activate.
In the Wesleyan tradition, we see them first as works of piety, works that strengthen our love of God.
These include reading, studying and meditating on scripture; lifting up our whole selves to God in prayer; fasting and other acts self-denial; attending worship regularly; sharing holy communion frequently; sharing our faith with others always; and engaging in holy Christian conference with one another.
There also are works of mercy, works that strengthen our love of neighbor. These include refusing to harm others; instead, doing good to all as often as we can; visiting the sick and the imprisoned; feeding the hungry – and that dangerous task mentioned in our baptismal vows: resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms we encounter them.
Resisting evil and seeking justice can get you killed. That’s why Jesus’ call to bear the cross leads, six days later, to this vision of Jesus as divine. Without divine help, we couldn’t bear the cross. Without divine help, we won’t do it.
Need I also add that these means of grace are also the themes of Lent? Lent is all about bringing us closer to God, making us better followers of Jesus.
The call of Jesus to discipleship leads here. It leads to a mountaintop experience that confirms our wildest hope: that Jesus is God incarnate. And it leads to the sudden realization: that even after this revelation, the Jesus we worship is the same Jesus we saw before. He’s God in human form, calling us to follow him to a new life, calling us to be transfigured with him in glory.
A message delivered February 23, 2020, Transfiguration Sunday, from Mark 9:2-10, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas.