Day of Transfiguration
February 15, 2015
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 anymore, but only Jesus.
It’s a dazzling story. What can we say about it? Years ago, when I worked with an associate pastor, she accused me of always assigning her to preach on Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday when this story is appointed to be read. Guilty as charged!
She said, “Every year, you have me preach on the story of Jesus climbing the mountain and glowing like the sun.” I replied, “Well, by now, you ought to have figured out something to say about it.” The fact is I didn’t know what to say about it. Still don’t!
Peter, James and John didn’t know what to say. Mark says they were terrified. They were everyday fishermen. They didn’t deal with mystical experiences. They dealt with the specifics of hard reality: where are the fish lurking today, how many did we catch. So when this mountain moment comes, the words in their mouths don’t work.
Ever the extrovert, Peter opens his mouth to see what he’s thinking. He calls Jesus “rabbi,” though it’s clear he is something more. “It’s good to be here,” he stammers, but he is too scared to be serious about it. And then, in the grand tradition of religious people who feel the need to capture a moment in a monument, he says, “Let’s put up a few tabernacles.” Mark says he was clueless and shaking in his boots.
It’s happened before. Peter, James, and John have been traveling with Jesus for eight chapters. They have been places and seen things that scared them half to death. Right after he called them to follow along, they went with him into the hometown synagogue. He started saying all this amazing stuff, then got into a shouting match with the crazy man in the fifth pew – and then Jesus cast away an evil spirit, and they said, “Whoa! What’s this? This never happens in church. Usually we let the evil spirits sit in the pews with the rest of us.” (1:21-28)
Peter, James, and John went with him on the day he healed the leper. They saw him touch the man that their Bible said you should never touch. The ancient book of Leviticus was clear: don’t ever get close to a leper. Make the leper yell to you as a warning so you never cross the invisible boundary. But Jesus steps right over that boundary. He refuses to let an old rule constrain him from doing the right thing, the holy thing. He touches the leper and heals him. I’ll bet Peter, James, and John were scared. (1:40-45)
Or there was that night on the boat. Jesus was tired out from teaching, and took a nap while the fishermen headed across the water. Suddenly a storm came out of nowhere, swirling around that punchbowl lake. They were hardy fishermen, but they grew nervous. Then they got really frightened, and shook him awake. “Don’t you care that we are going to perish!” He looked up and said, “Shut up!” And the storm stopped. Then they were really scared, and whispered, “Who is this?” (4:35-41).
Maybe we would like to think that life with Jesus would be pleasant and fun. It wasn’t at all. The disciples often looked sideways at one another. Like when that little boat ride was over, and they landed on the Gentile of the lake. When they got out of the boat, there was a cemetery there – that’s unclean if you’re a Jew – and another wild man was there, screaming at them. He was bad news. He lived among the tombs, Mark said, and bruised himself with stones. He was the first person Jesus met when he stepped ashore on Gentile land. There was another screaming match, and whatever was in that man jumped into some Gentile pigs and dashed them into the sea. This time, the whole town was scared of Jesus and asked him to leave (5:1-20).
Walking with Jesus was not a walk in a park. A woman who had been bleeding for years touched Jesus, and it made her well. Immediately he took Peter, James, and John into the bedroom of a dead little girl. And while people laughed at him, Jesus said, “Get up!” And the little girl was alive again. Sounds great, but I’m sure they were scared (5:32-42).
Even more frightening: now Jesus starts talking about the cross. It is inevitable. God sends Jesus into a broken, self-destructive world. He shows God’s mercy by fixing what he can – but there’s evil in the world, and it reacts, smacks him back, and resists – and evil will conspire to kill Jesus in order to stop him. Jesus says it is going to happen.
If you confront evil, it will talk back. If you feed the hungry, the tyrants will try to starve you. If you raise the dead, the zombies will attack you. There will be a cross for anybody who does the life-giving work of God in a world like this. Jesus says, “Watch what the world what the world does to me, because it’s going to happen to you, too.” Peter and the others were frightened. They didn’t know what to say.
And that’s exactly when the Transfiguration happens. “Six days later,” says Mark, they go up the mountain. It’s just the inner circle, Peter, James, and John. As they catch their breath from the climb, Jesus suddenly changes. He begins to shine like the sun. He had just been talking about death, but he’s so thoroughly alive. And not only him, but Moses the great lawgiver is alive, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, is alive. When Jesus shines, he stands among the Law and the Prophets, who are talking with him.
Mark will not separate this dazzling moment from what comes before or what comes after. There will be no sidestepping of the cross. Jesus will still be beaten and humiliated. You know the story: he will suffer and he will die. In this gospel, there is no question about that. Somebody once referred to the Gospel of Mark as “the passion story of Jesus’ death with a long introduction.” God’s Son will die.
Yet there is also the moment on the mountain: where there is power beyond all we know, where there is light beyond the thick darkness. It is Mark’s way of saying there is more holiness than we ever realize, and it’s close at hand. When Mark tells about the transfiguration, he gives the moment a time stamp: “six days later.” It’s his way of saying suffering isn’t all there is. There is something more beyond it, through it, in spite of it.
“Why does God appear on high mountains, in barren deserts, and other fierce landscapes?” That is the question that Belden Lane asks in one of his books. You can probably guess some of the answers. In an extreme place, like a mountain, there are no other distractions. You see clearly what you don’t see at easier locations. And frankly, that’s when we most need God – when the going is really tough. The good news in the Transfiguration story is God is present all the time, in all power and glory, even if it mostly seems that God has blended in and remains out of sight.
Sometimes the veil drops and we see the truth, even if we don’t quite have the words to describe it. Like the funeral that I attended some time back. Cancer took a dear friend away after months of struggle. But in the last stretches of illness, my friend was gracious with everybody she met. Face to face, she would say, “I’m not afraid.” Before she ended each phone conversation, she declared, “I love you, honey.” She revealed the grace and glory of God even when she was worn out, and you should have heard us sing God’s praises at her funeral. For the moment, we knew death has no hold over those who trust God with everything.
Sometimes we see that the work of Jesus continues, long after he stood on the mountain. He fed the hungry and cared for those who have nowhere else to turn. That’s why people in our church are providing for the people in the city who have nowhere else to sleep or eat. There is no more room at the AME homeless shelter on these cold nights, yet when somebody knocks on the door, they are not turned away. That is precisely why we are working with our partners in that place. Housing the homeless, providing a hundred packets of oatmeal every morning, that is Kingdom work. It points to the glory of God in extreme human circumstances. It testifies that God really does care about everybody, beginning with those the world doesn’t notice.
I saw it last Sunday morning, when a friend introduced me to a woman named Daphne. He said, “Come here a second, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” Daphne runs a care program in the Methodist church I was visiting. She began by noticing two things: some people in the church were isolated by Alzheimer’s and other forms of decline, and the church had some empty space during the week. She said, “What if we invited those folks here and gave their families a break?” It’s the only program like that in their city. The church people started it without any budget. They cooked a hot lunch each day, volunteered to lead activities, and provided transportation.
“See that painting above my desk?” Daphne asked. “It was painted by a former five-star general who cannot remember his own name.” She paused, composed herself, wiped away a tear and said, “He’s so precious.”
This is what Christian people do: they step beyond their fear, they walk through human wreckage, they refuse to accept that suffering and pain shall define or constrain human life, and they point to the bright shining glory of a God who makes and loves us all. Just like Jesus they carry the cross of service and compassion, testifying to the holy power both in the midst of difficulty and far beyond it.
And if nothing else, that’s why we invite a Dixieland band to play on the coldest day of the year. This is a fun day, to be sure, but it is much more than that. Let the joyful music be a Gospel sign that there is far more to life than brutal weather. In the thick of bleak winter, we point to the abundant life given by God, even if we cannot see it yet.
That’s the way it has always been. Even before he moves toward the cross, Jesus reveals the life-giving power of God. We see it, too, and it beckons us to follow wherever Jesus goes, to serve wherever he serves, and to love all those he loves.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.