Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jesus on Fire

Mark 9:2-9
Day of Transfiguration
February 19, 2012
William G. Carter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Maybe you weren’t keeping track, but today is exactly between Christmas and Easter. It is halfway, and this is the story that the church tells at the midpoint of that journey. Jesus took his closest friends up a mountain, and suddenly he was transfigured.

Maybe there is some significance in the timing. There are a lot of people who worship here on Christmas, and a lot of people who worship on Easter. Maybe those people are going to miss the importance of this story. The angels sing on Christmas, Jesus the Christ is born.  The child of God has made his home among our homes. The angels return on Easter, and announce that Jesus is risen. He is raised from the dead and returning to the Father. In between, there is this story.

It’s not only a story told between Christmas and Easter, it is told between Epiphany and Good Friday. On Epiphany, we remember the arrival of Gentile wise men to worship the Jewish king; we sing of these “three kings” and learn about their generous gifts. On Good Friday, hardly anybody is around to worship Jesus as he is enthroned upon a cross. He is abandoned by his friends and dismissed Pontius Pilate. In between worship and desolation, there is this story.

We call it the story of transfiguration. We don't know what that is. Transfiguration is an invented word with no predecessor. Certainly all of our words were invented at some point in time, and we don't know where this particular word comes from. The only time it ever appears in the Bible is when Mark, Matthew, or Luke tells this story.

What is a transfiguration? Mark does not say, but he shows it. Jesus shines as bright as a candle in full flame. Christ is full of fire. It’s this visionary moment that has no ready-made meaning. It can't be reduced to a simple, flat message. If that's what you want, you won't get it from this story. There is no practical life lesson on the mountain. And Mark says those who see it are terrified.

Up until now, it is clear that Jesus has great power and authority. We have spent four weeks together on the Gospel of Mark, with more to come. We have heard how Jesus drives out the nasty spirits, heals the headaches, cures the cripples, and cares for the needy. And every time a demon wants to identify him, and say, "We know who you are," Jesus tells it to be quiet. But here, on a wayside stop between his birth and his death, between his ministry and his departure, some of us get to see that there's more to Jesus than we thought.

You and I are included I seeing this vision - - did you notice that? It is a privileged group: Peter, James, and John, along with anybody who hears this story. We are given some inside information. Someone must have told Mark about it, and now he's going to tell us. And this is why he tells us about this fiery moment: because the truth about Jesus is not obvious.

Some folks don't seem to understand this. They want the Christian faith to be completely obvious to everybody, and act as if it's a simple plan of A-B-C to make everything better. Just follow the words on the bumper sticker and they will change your life. Just repeat after the preacher and you, too, can be happy and successful. Some of those people have TV shows on Sunday night television, and they preach success and power and blessing and good, old-fashioned affluence. They point to the good things in life and say, "These are the signs that God loves us."

Yet Jesus himself never talks this way. He has just told the inner circle of his followers, "Pick up your cross and follow me." His words are still in the air as he takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.

Others would like to believe the Gospel is pure mystery. They worship a cloud of incense without any clarity. Someone once said, "Faith is a leap in the dark," that it's like a holy question mark dangling from the sky and you jump in order to grab it. Maybe you will land and maybe you won't. Well, that is not quite the same thing as faith. It might be speculation, but it's not faith.

So here's what we see on the mountain: that the Jesus who we thought was a human just like us, is still a human being, but he really isn't like us. The countryside medic is also a holy man. The first-century Jewish male is not bound by time, race, or gender. The Galilean servant whose ministry leads him through the dust is really the Holy One through whom the world was created. We thought we comprehended Jesus. We believed him to be a wise teacher, nothing more, and then discovered his secret identity is a bright star burning like the sun. We thought we apprehended him, but he is beyond all of this. That's what we discover on the mountain.

Madeleine L'Engle has this to say about the transfiguration in one of her poems:

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
The way he really was all the time,
Although they had never seen it before,
The glory which blinds the everyday eye
And so becomes invisible. This is how
He was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
Like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was — is — from the beginning,
And we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
Came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
They saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn't that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.[1]

What Madeline’s Transfiguration poem suggests we have a hard time looking at one another for the same reasons we have a hard time seeing Jesus. Looking closely, she says,   requires a kind of death: death to my superior attitudes, death to my agenda, death to all my judgments and prejudices. All of these require a kind of cross-bearing, which is good preparation for Lent.

One of our members says he visited a church full of people with a skin tone different from his. He was surprised to discover that they shopped in the same stores and had the same jobs as the rest of us. “Never realized I was a racist,” he said, “but now I see differently.”

All of us judge others on our own suppositions.  I remember a few years ago at a conference. I'm standing with a bunch of people in a buffet line. There's this one guy, looks like a pretty boy. Tall, thin, tanned, hundred dollar haircut. I took him to be a mountain biker or a professional athlete who turned out well. I was noble. I engaged in the first rule of friendly conversation and asked an open-ended question. "Where are you from?" Right outside of Denver. "What do you do?" I'm a Presbyterian minister.

By now, my eyes are turning green with envy. He's about my age, but he has only one chin. I said, "What's the name of your church?" Columbine United Church.

"Columbine?" And he said, "Two members of my youth group were killed. I was at the high school on the day of the shootings, holding the hands of the wounded, talking with some of the survivors." I was ready to discount him because of his haircut until I discovered that he knew all about carrying the cross.

It's always worth giving somebody a second look. There is more to everybody that we realize, and we learn that if only because there is more to Jesus than we realize. Jesus doesn't fit into our mould; if anything, we are the ones who are being reconstructed in his image. And we can't nail him down and keep him on a cross, anymore than you can keep him safe in a sealed tomb. There is more life at work in him than we realize, more love than we ever thought possible, more power than we can contain. Remember how Madeleine L'Engle puts it?

"This is how He was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. 
This is the way he was — is — from the beginning . . ."

Last Sunday, we baptized one of God's children. We did it, not because it’s a social nicety, but because we believe there is more holiness going on in the world than anybody usually sees. On the surface, a pretty baby, a precious child. But below that, she is the latest of God’s many masterpieces in the making. We have an obligation to tell her that, to teach her that.

Last week, a friend spoke eloquently at his brother’s funeral. “You can see all the layers of my brother’s life,” he said. “He was a son, a husband, a father, a business man, a friend. That’s how we knew him. And when you scrape each layer away, you see him for what he truly was, at his deepest essence. He was a child of God.”  Somebody taught him how to see.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the good news and got three thousand converts at the 9:00 service. He said, "Looks like we'd better baptize them." And it probably took most of the day. It's amazing what God can do; always more going on than we ever thought.

Not long after that Peter was praying on top of a roof, and the Spirit said, "There's an Italian soldier downstairs who needs the Gospel." He didn't want to do it; after all, the man was an Italian. But the Spirit said, "Get up and go!" So he got up, and preached about Jesus, the living Jesus, and the man believed, and Peter said, "Bring me some water; I'm going to baptize him and his whole household, because if God says yes, who am I to say no?"

Then God pushed Paul and some friends into Europe. They landed in Philippi, down by the river. And there was a woman named Lydia, a very wealthy woman. She already believed in God, even though Paul and his buddies weren't doing all the preaching. And they baptized her whole household, because God is so loving and holy and active, you never quite know what's going to happen.

That's the testimony of the scriptures. If Jesus is who the scriptures say he is, there is no way we can reduce him to a careful little formula. He is enfleshed like us and he is able to know what it means to be a living being. And he is greater than us, stronger, more loving, and therefore he is able to help us in our weakness.

            So here we are today, halfway between the cradle and the cross. We get a brief glimpse of the God with whom we must contend. The carpenter with calluses from working the wood is more than a carpenter. The peasant in the muddy tunic is suddenly so dazzling that we don’t really have the words to describe him. The village healer who opened blind eyes by rubbing mud on them is the very One who burns so brightly that we cannot completely see him.  

            If we thought we could avoid all this God stuff as unnecessary, look again. If we thought we could dismiss Jesus as somebody who only lived a long time ago, take another look. If we thought we had solved all the mysteries of the universe, Jesus appears, to push us beyond everything we knew. This is where faith begins, true faith. Not by tying everything down, but by discovering to our shock and astonishment, that when it comes to God, there is so much more.   

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977) 194.

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