Numinous Luminosity: And?
2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
When I read the bible, I’m always asking myself: what was the point the author was making? Why did the author use this word? Why recount this story? Why tell it this way? Why tell it here, surrounded by these other stories?
Some faiths claim that their sacred texts were recited by God directly into the ear of a listening person who merely transcribed what he heard, word for word. Other faiths teach that their sacred texts came down from heaven, directly written by God. Judaism and Christianity have never taught that.
The “finger of God” in two versions
The closest we have come is in the story of the ten commandments which, the text says, was written “by the finger of God.” It says that in both versions of the ten commandments: the one in Exodus 20 and the one in Deuteronomy 5.
But these two versions are not the same. The same ten commandments are given, but there are differences in things like the wording here and there, and differences in the reason for the commandment (especially the Sabbath commandment’s reason). We can only conclude that we are expected to understand the “finger of God” as a non-literal metaphor; a way of saying how centrally important the commands are. It’s not literal, but it is true, powerfully so.
The Story of Jesus – in 4 Versions
When we come to the story of Jesus, we have not one, but four versions of the story, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They tell the same basic story, but with their own distinctive differences. We believe that this is just how God wanted it to be. And we believe that we can learn from all of them. All of them are true, powerfully so. How much to read literally is a different question.
All three of what we call the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke have this story of the the Transfiguration; we just read Mark’s version. The story they tell is basically the same, but the details vary. Even the words that the voice of God says from the cloud vary between the gospels. Most scholars believe that Mark’s story was written down first, and that Matthew and Luke used it as the basis for theirs, making their own creative edits.
So when we read Mark’s telling, we will ask: what is the point the author, Mark is trying to make? What does this story mean for me, today? And why did he tell it this way?
Oddities in the story
There are many odd things about this story, as we shall see, but one that is the most odd. The most odd thing is that the most important point of the story, and
the one that is jump-right-off-the-page clear, is the one most often missed. But this is crucial for our lives – we need this story, I believe, both the literal and the symbolic aspects of it, now more than ever. So, let’s look at it.
It starts out like a story of a fishing trip – or perhaps a hiking trip – on a normal day with normal people. Jesus takes Peter, James and John, men who have become his inner-circle, and goes up a mountain with them six days after his last recorded event, so this story takes place on the “seventh day” – as if it matters.
In the bible, things happen on mountains. Strange things. Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, also with three named companions, in Exod. 24, and God appeared and spoke to him there. In fact, Exodus tells us that the voice of God spoke to Moses on the seventh day. One gets the feeling that Mark is intentionally telling his story of Jesus in a way that cannot help but recall this story of Moses on Sinai.
In Exodus 24, a cloud of the Glory of the the Lord comes down and covers the top of the mountain. That sounds like Mark’s story too. A bit later, in Exodus 34, God’s voice comes from the cloud, at which Moses, it says, “quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Exod 34:8) The similarities are obvious.
The experience of being in God’s presence is transformative for Moses: it makes his face shine, so much so that it made the people afraid to come near him (Exod. 34:29). In Mark we read that God’s presence on the mountain transforms Jesus so that his clothing shines with an un-earthy whiteness. Nothing in Mark is said about Jesus’ face shining. Interestingly, both Matthew and Luke add the detail that his face too shone, bringing their versions of the story closer to Exodus.
Living Dead People
In Mark’s story, Moses himself and Elijah appear with Jesus as he is transformed. Mark tells us that they speak together, but he does not tell us what they say, so clearly the point must be their presence with Jesus.
Where did they come from? They both lived hundreds of years ago. They are now dead – or, we should say, they are in the state that one is in after death. And Jesus is there with them, transformed into someone who can be at home in that state of after-death-existence. Is this a foreshadowing of a future time in which Jesus will have been dead but is alive? (there is much more going on here than we have time for).
We should note before we go on that Elijah too had an experience of meeting God on a mountain. He hid in the crack in the rock as God’s terrifying presence passed by. After an earthquake and a fire, Elijah met God in the sound of sheer silence. Then God spoke to him. Odd things happen on mountains, in the bible.
Peter then reacts to what is happening. Mark tells us:
9:5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings (or tents), one for you, one for Moses, and one for
Peter’s nervous suggestion that they should build three tent-shrines, one each for Moses, Elijah and Jesus is elegantly odd. Clearly he gets the concept that Jesus too is at home in the after-death world – even though he has not died yet. And certainly Peter is aware that Jesus fits within the context of the primary story of Israel – the story that includes the exodus from Egypt, the giving of Torah at Sinai, the experience of the prophets who spoke truth to power, as Elijah had done to Ahab.
But the point that Peter gets wrong is exactly the climax of the story. The point he misses is the ‘so what?’ He has been moved by the glory of the numinous presence of God; he has been amazed by the luminosity of Jesus’ transformed clothing. But what does he think is the implication? Stay and worship. Build a shrine. Show devotion.
The Point of the Story – from the Voice
But the narrator, Mark, tells us this is a confusion. The voice from the cloud, the voice of God himself, in the climactic moment, tells them, and us, what the point of this odd story is. The voice of God says:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Yes, it sounds like what Mark told us about Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel:
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And yes, it sounds even more like what the voice from heaven said at Jesus’ baptism:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
But the voice from the cloud in this story goes one step further, telling us not only who Jesus is, but adding the crucial “so what”; what to do about it:
“listen to him!”
This is so powerfully clear that it is often missed.
Getting the point
If Jesus is God’s Son in some unique way, what does that mean? What does he want from us? A new pilgrimage site? A new place for worship and veneration as Peter mistakenly believed? Maybe a three-temple complex? None of these.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
The one, single and completely clear implication for us who believe that Jesus is uniquely God’s Son is that we are to “listen to him!”
We are to be “red-letter” people. We have been given the mandate from God to study Jesus. To learn from Jesus. To imitate Jesus.
The whole basis of our Christian theology is that Jesus shows us God. Jesus shows us what God cares about, who God cares about, what God does about the issues he cares about. In Jesus we see, know, and understand God. Therefore, “listen to him!”
These words from the cloud are also, it turns out, taken right out of the story of Moses. Moses himself makes a prediction and with it, puts a duty:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall listen to such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:15)
It should surprise no one that in Hebrew, the word “listen” and “obey” are the same. To listen is to obey – no questions asked.
The Peter Mistake: Often made
There are two things that are very odd about this. One is that people still are find it far more attractive to make the Peter-mistake than to do what the voice so clearly says. People are more inclined to think that the point of this story is how God-like Jesus is, and therefore to worship him, than to, as the voice says “Listen to him.”
Remember watching shows like the Sopranos about people in the mafia? Those guys would kill, run protection rackets, organize crime of all kinds, and then go to church, dip their fingers in the holy water and cross themselves. Is that what God wants?
““With what shall I come before the LORD,”
and bow myself before God on high”
the prophet Micah asks?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?
“This is my Son, the Beloved”
Don’t build another alter, rather, listen to him!” Build a community of justice and mercy.
So, it is odd indeed that people today still make the mistake Peter made preferring veneration to obedience to Jesus’ teaching.
The other odd thing is that there is so little teaching Jesus does by words in the gospel of Mark. There is no “Sermon on the Mount,” no beatitudes, and very few parables. Most of what we learn from Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, we learn by watching what Jesus does. In this way we “listen to him.”
And so what do we see Jesus doing that we should “listen to?”
Listen = Watch and learn
We see him repeatedly extending compassion to people in pain. We see him concerned that there are people without enough to eat, and getting food to them.
We see Jesus stopping for people who are sick, and providing health care for them.
We see Jesus even willing to break through the boundaries of culture and custom to extend God’s mercy to people in need – especially to people whom others have undervalued, like women and children, or excluded people, like lepers.
He reaches out across ethnic boundaries. He reaches out to people consumed by evil – there is no one, who comes seeking it, whom Jesus rejects or from whom he withholds mercy. No one.
Are you in pain this morning? Are you suffering? Do you need a loving, compassionate, inclusive embrace? Jesus is here for you today doing exactly what he always does: offering God’s love and mercy to you.
And for all of us he is extending this mandate: “listen to him” Learn from him; obey him. There is no one he does not love, no one he does not include, no one he is not willing to die for so that the cycle of violence can be stopped.
What is the point of transfiguration Sunday? It is to commit ourselves to being people who “listen to Jesus” because he is God’s unique Son. And the place to put it into action is not on a mountain shrine, but down the mountain, where the people are waiting.