Grace Presbyterian Church
February 15, 2015, Transfiguration
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
It’s one of those days, liturgically speaking.
One of those days that isn’t quite a major event in the liturgical calendar. It’s certainly not on the level of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter, not even quite on the level of, say, Pentecost or Epiphany. It’s there, and it must mean something, but explaining or understanding just what it means isn’t easy at all.
The Transfiguration of the Lord – there’s an unwieldy name for you – marks in the liturgical calendar the final Sunday before Lent starts. Its subject is that peculiar incident we’ve heard from Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus takes a few of his disciples up a mountain and something happens that is rather difficult to describe.
“Transfiguration” itself is an unusual word at best. Dictionary.com defines being “transfigured” as “to change in outward form or appearance; transform,” with a secondary definition of “to change as to glorify or exalt,” a definition which is largely based on its usage to describe this event.
In fact we really don’t use this word very often outside of this story. We’re more likely to use a word like “transformation,” “transmogrification,” or maybe “metamorphosis,” which is actually close to the word used in the Greek text. Of course popular culture can affect how we understand any of these words. The toys and movies about those robots that change into other kinds of machines can easily pop into our minds when we hear or see the word “transformer,” and the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes used the word “transmogrifier” for Calvin’s fanciful machine for changing himself into someone else (that word became so uniquely associated with that comic strip that to this day, readers still think “transmogrify” was a made-up word, though it is quite real).
All of these words carry some implication that a person or thing changes appearance, but not necessarily changing in substance or person. The robot can still be called Optimus Prime even when it looks like a truck. Calvin is still Calvin even if he’s “transmogrified” into a tiger or frog or whatever his imagination comes up with.
What happens in today’s gospel is not exactly like that.
Mark’s early readers would have realized that something was up the moment that Mark mentioned that Jesus and the three disciples were going up a mountain. Anyone who know their Hebrew Scriptures would have remembered that interesting things happen on mountains.
One of the first such examples would have been Moses and his trips up Mount Sinai to receive the law from the Lord. In Exodus 34, when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the re-dictated Ten Commandments, his face was glowing, after God his Moses in a cleft in the rock and allowed divine glory to pass by Moses.
Another, similar mountain encounter with the glory of God is recorded in 2 Kings, when the fugitive prophet Elijah encounters the glory of God not in fire or earthquake or whirlwind, but in the “sheer silence” that followed. Mountains are often – not always, but often – places where holy and mysterious things happen, and not just in the Hebrew/Jewish tradition. Mark’s readers would have likely taken the hint, and expected something unusual to happen. And in Mark’s usual no-nonsense, no-frills, no-time-wasted fashion, that expectation is rewarded.
Our author quickly tells readers that Jesus began to … change. To be transfigured, as translators have usually chosen to translate μεταμορφὠθη (metamorphothe), the Greek word found here. As Mark then describes the event, Jesus changes, but the change that Mark describes seems to be mostly about light; “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (v. 3). This would also remind Mark’s listeners about those previous mountaintop experiences, with Moses’s face ending up glowing and Elijah glimpsing the dazzling glory of God.
And then, as if any more clues were needed, we get those very figures themselves appearing in this scene. Elijah and Moses appeared next to Jesus, talking with him – now there’s a conversation you wish somebody had been able to record!
By this time Mark’s readers must have felt as if they were being hit over the head with the obvious; this man Jesus is of God. Mark told us way back at the beginning of the gospel that this was the “son of God” (1:1), and the scene before the three disciples seems to us (who after all have the benefit of Mark’s narration and storytelling to clue us in) to be a magnificent and irrefutable demonstration of the glory of God manifested in Jesus. This would seem to be as much proof as anybody could need, right? This man is from God, right? The son of God?
You know how there always seems to be one person, no matter the situation, who always seems to say the wrong thing at the wrong time? No matter how beautiful, how glorious, how transcendent the moment, they manage to chime in with something that’s just wrongheaded or ugly or maybe just … off? Peter is a good bet to be that guy in the gospels. In all of the gospels he manages to be that rare combination of (1) always willing to speak, and (2) not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer. In this case, these two traits combined to cause Peter to blurt out a suggestion that, for all his good intentions, ruined the moment. It was as if a resplendently beautiful bride took a pratfall halfway down the aisle.
To be fair, Peter’s suggestion about building three “dwellings” (also translatable as “tents” or “booths”) wasn’t totally wacky. One of the possible interpretations of Jewish tradition at that time was that the “Feast of Booths,” a regularly-observed event, would be the time when God would intervene in Israel’s fortunes and usher in a new age. Peter seems to have jumped to the conclusion that the appearance of Elijah and Moses with their teacher was just this sign that God’s new age was arriving. Peter, though, was forgetting about the very things this teacher Jesus had been telling them, unpleasant things about suffering and death. Perhaps he wanted to forget them, or hoped that this intervention would make them unnecessary. Whatever it was, Peter’s blurted-out suggestion, probably babbled in a moment of bafflement and uncertainty, was just … off.
To make that clear, a cloud descended over the mountain, and when it lifted Elijah and Moses were gone and Jesus stood alone before the disciples, with a stern warning from above to “Listen to him!”
It was a moment of revelation, in a way. The Transformers and Transmogrifiers that came up earlier were about concealment. Even the very packaging on that Transformers toy described them as “Robots In Disguise.” This, on the other hand, wasn’t a disguise. Just the opposite; for those few transcendent, dazzling moments, the disciples caught just a glimpse of Jesus as he really is, in all the divine glory that is his.
It had to be hard for the disciples not to wonder as they headed down the mountain, particularly when Jesus started going on about their not telling anybody about what they saw, why they couldn’t see this all the time, or at least more often.
Why is it that we can’t see this glory? Why do we have to live in the dark and grey of the world, down in the valley instead of up on the mountain?
The Apostle Paul may be helpful here. In writing to the Corinthians he puts forward an idea that God does not choose to be “veiled” from our perception. Instead, Paul suggests, the “god of this world” has “blinded the minds” of those who do not believe. Paul is not literally suggesting that there is another god at work, but he is a firm believer that evil is active in the world, and that this evil seeks to separate people from God. It's not like we need another god or evil to blind ourselves to things we don't want to see anyway, and that glory can be a little blinding sometimes. Furthermore, this separation is exactly why we are called out to bear witness to the light of God that we have seen, the revelation we have known in Jesus, the indwelling of God that we know through the Holy Spirit. If others do not see the light, it is our job to bear witness to it.
This is why we don’t get to stay on the mountain. There are too many in the valley or on the plain, in the city or out in the countryside, from whom the light is veiled, and our calling is to bear witness, to let that light that is within us shine through us.
It’s not our light, of course. It is the light of God’s glory, the light that illumined Jesus on the mountain, dazzling and intense and brilliant. It is that glory, that transcendence that points us towards hope, knowing that the Jesus transfigured on the mountain goes before us, intercedes for us, suffers and rejoices with us in our sufferings and rejoicings.
For this we rejoice. The Transfiguration, strange as it may be, is a moment of hope, maybe one last reminder before the penitence and reflection of Lent that we are not abandoned, we are not forsaken, we are not alone. To borrow from John’s gospel, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
For light, for transfiguration, for glory revealed, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “Immortal, Invisible” (263), “Jesus on the Mountain Peak” (74), “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (411)