Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B on Mark 9:2-9, February 15, 2015
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.
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 at a youth camp one summer where, after the teaching sessions we had open question and answer time. I remember one student asking if there was any evidence that Jesus sang songs. I said, yes, because Mark and Matthew both tell us that on the night of the last supper, before they left the upper room to go to the Mount of Olives, the sang a hymn.
The comment is made so off-handedly it is clear that this was just the normal, expected thing to do. And of course it was. Jesus was Jewish. He worshipped in the Jewish synagogues. He read from the part of the bible we now call the “Old Testament” which has, within it, a hymnbook of 150 songs we call the book of Psalms.
Judaism is a singing faith. Some of the Psalm-songs even tell the people to praise the Lord with songs; enacting what it teaches: a song, telling us to sing. We Christians inherit the musical tradition in worship from our Jewish ancestors in the faith.
I am sure that the memory of that question about Jesus and singing came to mind because of this special day for this congregation: today we dedicate and begin to worship from the new Presbyterian Hymnal, “Glory to God.” It has over 800 hymns in it, selected from the thousands of possible songs from our tradition.
These songs link us to the faith of our fathers and mothers in past generations. These songs also bear witness to the living faith that, in each generation, continues to express itself in new songs.
Deep Reasons for Singing
What do we have to sing about? Of course we can start with the good things in life that we are blessed with – the myriad of reasons for our gratitude, just as the song “For the beauty of the Earth” speaks of. But this morning we are going to consider another, deeper, more profound reason to sing.
This Sunday is more than hymnal dedication Sunday, it is Transfiguration Sunday. As I was thinking about dedicating a new hymnal on Transfiguration Sunday, it struck me how fitting it is.
We read the gospel story from Mark this year about that mysterious, numinous mountain-top moment. What happened on that mountain? A vision? A shared mystical occurrence?
However we want to imagine the meaning behind this thickly, intertextually layered narrative, the story is not about a rational event, but a powerful spiritual experience, similar to Jesus’ experience at his baptism.
That too is fitting to consider, on a day of hymnal dedication. Music too is non-rational in its effects. Somehow, music gets to places in our hearts that logic and reason never go. It moves us, sometimes to joy, other times to tears.
In the transfiguration story, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John see figures they recognize as Moses and Elijah, who died hundreds of years before, and they are talking to Jesus. There is a lot going on here. The most obvious meaning of their presence is that the story of Jesus is part of a larger story, the story of Israel.
We remember that Moses and Elijah both had direct experiences of the presence of God on mountains. Elijah was hiding in the rock as the earthquake, the wind and the fire terrified him, only to finally experience the presence of God as “the sound of sheer silence” (1Kings 19:12).
Moses, on Mt. Sinai, experienced the cloud, along with a “devouring fire” lightening, thunder, trumpet blasts, and a voice that terrified everyone. In the Transfiguration story too, the presence of God is terrifying for the disciples.
Just as Moses and Elijah heard God speaking from the cloud, so again the voice of God, speaks saying:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
The timing is perfect. In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus has been saying things, but he has been having a hard time getting his disciples to listen to them so far.
Specifically, just before they went up that mountain Jesus was telling them about his impending suffering, death, and they did not want to listen. When Jesus spoke of these, Peter actually rebuked him. That was the famous scene in which Jesus has to tell Peter “Get thee behind me Satan”.
They had a hard time wanting to listen those words. Suffering and death did not fit into Peter’s plan for Messiah. The music Peter and the others wanted to sing was a victory march.
But life is not like that, is it? Life involves suffering. We all have heartache, disappointment, grief and pain. We all go through experiences we cannot understand. And, we are mortal. We are alive today with the full knowledge that someday we will not be. That knowledge conditions all of our experiences of life, even its joys and successes, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us.
See Jesus, See God
And this brings us to, center of the story of the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus is there, and the voice says: this is my Son, listen to him! How could you make the point in any stronger way? We are to look at Jesus and see God in him. This is called “incarnation.”
Consider it for a moment. What does it mean to tell a story about God in human form?
What does the incarnation mean if not that the God we know is the God who totally embraced humanity, thoroughly, and completely.
This is why this is such a huge reason to sing. How should we think of God? How should we understand God? Like a volcanic eruption? Like a terrifying, rock-splitting whirlwind? Yes, that truth never goes away – God is overwhelming. But this story is here to say: to know God, look at Jesus. To understand God’s will, listen to him.
And this is where it gets amazing; what happens to God in human form? He suffers.
The God we know, if only in part, analogically, as Paul says, “as through a glass, darkly,” we know by seeing what Jesus reveals about God. That God is willing to suffer just as we mortals suffer. That God is even willing to go all the way, and experience the suffering of death itself.
Jesus fully embraced his future suffering and death and was still able to know himself as God’s son, to understand that God was with him, even in his suffering, even in his death.
This is surely what we are invited to know: that we too, as sons and daughters of God are so cared for by a loving Heavenly Father that we can trust that he is with us every living moment of our lives. That he suffers when we suffer. That he knows the pain we feel. That we are never abandoned, never forgotten, never left to suffer alone. God is for us, and with us. This, if nothing else, give us reasons for singing.
Compassion for Suffering
And there is even more to sing about here. The God who knows human suffering has also given us eyes of compassion that are open to seeing the suffering all around us. And the God who calls us from the cloud on the mount to listen to the words of his beloved son has, in those words, given us a charge to keep. We are now God’s agents of compassion in the face of suffering.
We do listen to Jesus. We hear his call to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We see people who are poor, people who experience discrimination, people who are disabled or challenged by a host of issues, and we feel the call to respond compassionately.
We know that it is not enough merely to pat ourselves on the back that there is equal opportunity for all of the able bodied and gifted people to “make it” in our society. We, who know the God who embraced human suffering, know that God calls us to respond in kind. So we are inspired to respond as we sing songs of justice and mercy, songs that anticipate the peaceable kingdom we long for.
So, the worst mistake to make on the Mount of Transfiguration is to want to stay there, up on the mountain, in mystical ecstasy, a long way from the people. Peter’s idea to build some booth-shrines was innocent, but wrong-headed. The action that counts is down the mountain.
The whole point is to go down to where the other humans are, and to be there for them. To be the people who have also been transformed, who now see what they could not have imagined before: that God is going to walk down that mountain with them.
And yes, the path will lead to suffering and even to death. It is the path all humans take. But new life will follow.
So, yes there are millions of great reasons to sing praises to God. We are so blessed! But even more, we know that in our times of pain and suffering, God is with us, literally “feeling our pain.” He understands as one who has been there, and has the scars to prove it. And he will be with us right up to the end, and lead us through that final curtain.
In the mean time: he has put us here for a reason. We are to listen to Jesus, and respond to the call to discipleship and to service.
People of faith in the God who suffers: we have reasons to sing!