Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
The Coming of Elijah
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.
I was listening to a Bible podcast this week called Sermon Brainwave and one of the scholars, Rolf Jacobson, I think, said he once heard a really good sermon about the transfiguration. That preacher pointed out that there is a mountaintop at the beginning and the end of Lent. Today, the day we call Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, finds us up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, astounded by seeing Moses and Elijah. God will tell them clearly to listen to Jesus. Near the end of Lent, we will be drawn up a mountain again, this one Calvary. Peter, James, and John will not be there, but the women disciples will be watching from a distance. They, too, will be astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, but that astonishment will be shaped by a deep grief and fear. Bystanders will think they hear Jesus call for Elijah when he is calling out, in anguish, to God. We won’t hear God speak on Calvary, even as Jesus dies and the temple curtain tears. Lent begins and ends on a mountain. It is said that you can see clearly from a mountaintop. What can you see clearly of Christ on these two mountains?
Important things happen on Mountains. Dr. Bonne Bowman Thurston talks about that in her commentary on Mark. In Exodus 19, speaking to Moses, God consecrates the newly liberated Hebrews, covenanting to protect them. In 1st Kings 19:11-18, Elijah hears the voice of God on Mt. Horeb, receiving a divine mission. When the city of Jerusalem is invited to serve as a prophet to the cities of Judah in Isaiah 40:9, Jerusalem will go up the mountain to point towards God. Ezekiel encountered God up on a mountain, too, in Ezekiel 40:2. Scripture tells us that you see God more clearly up on a mountain. Even knowing that important things can happen on mountain tops, James, Peter, and John still seem surprised at their own holy epiphany.
The scholar Melina Quivik, in her commentary on this passage, encourages us not to rush to try to explain, with modern, scientific inquiry, just what is going on up on the mountain. It’s not that science is bad or contrary to Christian faith. It’s that science is not the right language to translate this story. It’s like trying to write a love poem in algebra. The Transfiguration is more art than science, pointing us towards something that is beyond what we normally understand. It is wild and weird and incomprehensible and unnatural. And, importantly, this wild, unnatural, incomprehensible event is similar to other wild, unnatural, incomprehensible events. When it happens to Jesus, according to Thurston, it places him into the prophetic lineage of Moses and Elijah, who also encountered that which is beyond natural up on a mountain.
It's no wonder that Peter wanted to build a structure to commemorate the event. I mean, you have to do something to honor what you saw when you see something as wild as this. Stack up a pile of rocks or put up a memorial marker or take a selfie with the incredible thing that is before you. It’s like Peter thinks there should be a signpost that says, “On this day, Jesus blew Peter, John, and James’ minds.” That may actually be what he’s doing with the dwellings he offered to build: making a signpost. Scholar Ched Myers, in his commentary on this scripture, said that these tents or dwellings were structures built to mark the presence of the Divine, like the tabernacles built in Leviticus 23. Terrified and awestruck, he couldn't figure out any other way to respond to what was happening. But, God wasn’t looking for memorials or markers. God was looking for a commitment to follow Christ.
A cloud overshadows them. Peter, James, and John could see nothing in the divine darkness. Remember, in Exodus, God appeared in the dense cloud up on the mountain when talking to Moses. This story is supposed to remind us of that and also to foreshadow something important: These disciples will often not see things clearly. They will misunderstand regularly, and they are his closest companions. Jesus will need people to see and understand. So many times, they won’t. As the cloud overcomes them and Jesus, and Moses and Elijah disappear, the disciples hear something that they seem to understand. God speaks, much like when Jesus was baptized, but, instead of speaking to Jesus, God speaks to the three disciples, saying two things to help the disciples figure out how to respond to what they have witnessed. First, God says, "This is my Son" and calls Jesus “Beloved.” The next thing God does is tell the disciples to listen to Jesus. Again, all that is happening is weird and unnatural but also fits alongside the other prophet stories I mentioned earlier. This is yet one more example of God making sure that the people God's sends are listened to. Then, poof, just as quickly as this fog shows up, it clears, leaving the three a little stunned and still confused, but clearer, at least, that they should be listening to Jesus.
After the cloud clears, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they saw. I’ve talked about this a couple times recently. Mark has Jesus asking for a certain level of secrecy throughout this Gospel. For some people, this might have been a relief. This story is so wild. If they were supposed to tell other people about it, surely they would have faced disbelief and dismissal at best, ridicule and mistrust at worst. Imagine what would happen if you started talking about seeing long dead prophets and Jesus. For some people, though, it would be a challenge to not tell everyone, or at least the other disciples, about the about what they had seen. It was so incredible that Peter wanted to make memorials of it. I don’t think you make a memorial about something you want to hide from people. It would have been such an incredible sight. I can imagine that at least Peter would have a hard time not telling people what they saw and heard. But, Jesus said, now is not the time to share this story. So, they do what God said. They listen to Jesus. They tell no one... at least until after the Resurrection.
The scholar Fred Craddock has a sermon about this passage that I find helpful. He said that he wondered if Jesus asked them to wait because there was no way they understood the miraculous thing they just saw mere moments after they saw it. To go around telling everyone about it before they understood it was to risk missing the point of the event. To truly understand what they saw, maybe they needed some more experiences, some more stories, some more mysterious clouds. Jesus knew that and asked them, for now, to hold this piece of information close. Pray about it. Listen to some more teaching, and follow Jesus’ guidance. Dr. Craddock thinks Jesus was saying “Take some time to tell this story right. It's ok to not understand everything immediately. Stick around and keep learning.”
The pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi said about the season of Epiphany that is it really a season of many little epiphanies, small moments when it becomes clearer and clearer who Jesus is and what he has come to do. The Transfiguration, the account that ends the season of Epiphany and points us towards the season of Lent, is perhaps that fanciest of the small epiphanies. But, we should remember that it doesn’t complete the story. The transfiguration is but one shining moment that helped his disciples figure one part of the mystery of Jesus. It is but one mountain top from which they can see Christ. They will have to continue the journey, even to that sorrowful mountain of Calvary, to learn more. They can’t get stuck, here, on this mountain, because they feel like this event was miracle enough. Maybe that’s why they couldn’t build dwellings there. Jesus’ mission was never going to be enacted in the isolation of the mountain top. They would have to return to the people to live out God's vision of love and justice.
In her commentary on this passage, Melinda Quivik made a distinction between transfiguration and transformation that I think is helpful. Transformation indicates a change of substance. Transfiguration is to be changed in outward form, but not substance. The disciples saw Jesus differently, with the glowing form allowing them to see and understand something about his essence that was always there. But, there is promise of transformation: transformation of the disciples and the world. The nature of that transformation will become clearer in the stories between the mountaintops of Transfiguration and Crucifixion. Because the crucifixion won’t change Jesus’ essence, any more than the transfiguration did. Calvary will simply allow those who are watching to understand something about Christ’s essence that was always there. The fierce love was always there. The deep loyalty was always there. The willingness to serve and to speak truth, even in the face of great danger was always there. But, some won’t be transformed by that knowledge until that final mountaintop and the events of the days to follow.
We are living the days after the resurrection, when the disciples are free to tell what they have seen and how it changed them. We are living in a time that feels a bit like we are struggling our way between two mountains. May we pay attention to the Christ that is before us, in our neighbors, in the stranger, in the prisoner, in the hungry, in the foreigner, and listen to him. That is the only way that we can be changed.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
· Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-5
· Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/768-transfiguration-of-our-lord-b-feb-14-2021
· Maren Tirabassi: https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2021/01/29/strongholy-communion-liturgy-for-february-7-2021/
· Ched Myers, "Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
· Fred Craddock, "Tell No One Before Easter: Mark 9:2-9,"The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.