For United Methodists and many other Protestants, Transfiguration Sunday always concludes the season of Epiphany. That’s because Epiphany is a season of revelation, and perhaps only the Resurrection reveals more about who Jesus is than the Transfiguration.
So let’s look closely at what the Transfiguration tells us. We’ll be following the story as told in Mark 9:2-9. Mark begins, “Six days later…”
Mark’s narration may appear rushed, but it is not casual or sloppy. He must have a good reason to link this story to the one just before it. So we have to ask, what happened six days earlier that is so important that Mark wants to remind us about it now?
Six days earlier, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him the gossip they’ve heard, and then Jesus makes it more personal. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter blurts out, “You’re the Messiah!” Jesus then sternly warns them not to tell anyone who he is, because he is going to be rejected and suffer and die, and on the third day rise again. “No, no,” Peter objects. “The Messiah can’t die!” And Jesus shuts him down, hard.
If you still think Jesus is all sweetness and light, hear what the tells Peter. He says, “Get behind me, you Satan!” A little later, to everyone in earshot, he says: “If you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:27-38)
Jesus often speaks in memorable metaphor and colorful exaggeration, but he does not appear to be exaggerating here. There is a note of chilling reality in what he says. When he says “take up your cross,” he may not be speaking literally, but he’s clearly saying that there’s a huge personal cost involved in following him.
Six days later, it must be a subdued group that Jesus leads up a high mountain, off by themselves. With him are Peter and James and John, the inner circle of his group of 12.
Without warning, something happens. He is transfigured before them. He is transformed. He is transmogrified. He is changed in ways that can barely be described. His face shines like the sun, another account tell us, and his clothes become dazzling white, whiter than any known substance could bleach them.
Two figures appear with him. Apparently they are transfigured as well, yet they are easily enough identified as Moses and Elijah, and they are talking with Jesus. These two figures represent so much. Specifically, they represent the testimony of scripture. Moses represents Torah, the basic teaching of Judaism found in the first five books of our Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy.
Elijah represents the rest of scripture. First, he represents the books of the prophets – that is, first all the books that we think of as history, Joshua and Kings and all the others – though they’re not straight history at all; they’re history written from a prophetic point of view, interpretive history, history with a definite slant that the writers think mirrors the mind of God.
He also represents the words of the written prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and the 12 prophets who are called “minor” only because their books are so short. And he represents the rest of the Bible, too, what Jesus once refers to as “the Psalms” (Luke 24.44), meaning all the other writings in what we today call the Old Testament.
Even more, Moses alone represents the full testimony of God. For Moses is the greatest prophet ever, Deuteronomy declares, because God spoke to Moses as a friend, face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10) Elijah’s stature is great, but it shrinks by comparison to that of Moses.
Now the disciples see both Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. We aren’t told what they say, or whether the disciples can hear or understand what is said. But perhaps hearing their words is not necessary. Their presence alone is a clear endorsement of Jesus. Just by being there, they are saying, “Jesus completes our work. He’s the One we saw coming.”
Naturally, the disciples are terrified by what they see. Naturally, only Peter is bold enough to say anything out loud. He tells Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Right, Peter. Don’t you think that’s why Jesus brought you here? Of course, it’s good for you to be here.
But Peter babbles on. “Let us make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He is probably thinking of temporary structures, like the flimsy booths erected during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Or maybe he’s thinking of some kind of permanent shrine where the faithful could come on pilgrimage to see the places where these three great figures once stood, and vendors could set up kiosks to sell dried fish and falafel, and maybe souvenirs of some kind.
Who knows what he’s thinking? The point is, he’s so frightened that he isn’t thinking. He’s just chattering to keep the fear at bay. That’s why everybody loves Peter. He’s so much like all of us so much of the time.
Now a cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus has heard similar words before, at his baptism. Maybe some others who were present heard those words as well, but as far as we know Peter and James and John were not there and they didn’t hear God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
So this may be a reaffirmation for Jesus, but it’s a totally new revelation for these three disciples. Peter has declared Jesus to be God’s Messiah, and he knows there is some intimate connection between God and God’s Messiah, but none of the prophets, not even Moses, is ever clear what this connection is.
Now it seems crystal clear. That voice has to be God’s voice, and God’s voice clearly says that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. That’s an astounding claim, but what it means to be God’s Son still has to be determined. Indeed, Christians will spend centuries more trying to figure it out, and the way some babble about it today, it’s clear we’re still not all on the same page.
Even more, what should you do in the presence of God’s Son? Bow before him? Worship and adore him? Maybe, but one specific command of God ought to be crystal clear. “Listen to him!”
I am here to tell you that listening is not a passive experience. Listening is an active experience. Listening involves taking in, processing and acting on what you heard. You don’t just hear it and shrug. If you don’t act on what you’ve heard, you haven’t actually been listening, have you?
So when God says, “Listen to him!” it’s like God saying, “Hey, people, drop whatever you’re doing and listen up because what you’re about to hear is vital to your understanding of the universe and vital to your grasp of the very act of living, and it’s vital for how you will act every moment of every day for the rest of your life, not to mention your life beyond this life. Got it? That means, LISTEN!”
The rest is anticlimax. Suddenly, the vision is over. The disciples gape, but now they see that Jesus stands alone, and he looks pretty much how he looked before. So now they head back down the mountain, and he tells them not to tell anyone about what they saw until he’s risen from the dead.
“Risen from the dead?” The three try to avoid eye contact with him as they steal wide-eyed glances and little head shakes that say, “Whatever he means, this is not the time to ask.”
So down the mountain they go. Ever been mountain climbing – even on a small mountain? Coming down is always – well, it’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? You’ve been to the top. You’ve had that fabled mountaintop experience. No matter how many times you climb a mountain, even the same mountain again and again, it’s always an experience worth remembering.
And though you may cherish that memory and have a great sense of accomplishment, now you’re going back to the world that you left behind, the normal world, the real world. You feel like you ought to be changed somehow, transformed yourself by the experience back up there, but you’re still so caught up in the experience, in the realness of it and the unreality of it, that you’re still uncertain what’s changed and what hasn’t.
There’s not much you can say about it. Anything you tried to say would sound just like Peter’s babbling. You’re still trying to figure out what happened. You know you ought to feel different somehow, but your feelings haven’t caught up with your brain – or any other part of your body, for that matter. Someday, perhaps soon, it will make sense. You’ll think you know what it meant. But at the moment it’s all a blur.
All you can say for sure is that you saw something fantastic, something wonderful. You saw Jesus, and no matter how normal he looks now, you will never see him the same way as you saw him before, because now you’ve had a glimpse of his glory. You’ve had a glimpse of his greatness, his divinity, his marvelous and infinite capacity to be who he is, the Great I AM.
You’ve seen Jesus in an entirely new way, and now it’s not just Jesus that’s been transformed. It’s everything you see now after you’ve seen Jesus transformed. Everything is different now. Everything is new now. And now you realize that you also are different now. You also are new now. You may look the same and talk the same and act the same, but you also have been transformed, too – even if you still can’t explain it or fully feel it.
You’ve peeked beyond the veil of illusion that this world presents, and behind that veil you’ve seen the face of God. And you survived! And you have this crazy confidence that everything is going to be all right. As wrong as so much of the world still is, everything is going to be all right.
That’s part of what the Transfiguration of Jesus is all about. That’s not all of it, but it’s part of it. It’s enough to keep you going, enough to keep you following Jesus all the way to that bitter end he talked about – all the way to the end, and beyond the end; moving with him from Transfiguration to Resurrection.
Ah, but in between Transfiguration and Resurrection there’s that matter of the cross, that bitter end that’s really not the end. That’s what we’ll talk about for the six Sundays of Lent, starting next Sunday. It’s a long and deep valley, but once you’ve been transfigured, you know that Resurrection must be ahead.
This message was delivered February 14, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 9:2-9.