Sermon on Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration B, February 11, 2018
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.
I have never been to Scotland, but off the West coast is a small island called Iona. Christianity spread to Iona as early as the first or second century. Today it is the home of the Iona Community of Christians who are re-discovering and celebrating the ancient Celtic Christian perspectives in their prayers and worship.
We sometimes use one of the Iona Community Affirmations of faith in our worship service. I love its fresh and vibrant language. It begins, “We believe that God is present, in the darkness before the dawn; in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands, conflict and caring link arms, and the sun rises over barbed wire.”
Many people make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Iona Community. I hope I get a chance to do that someday. Often people report that Iona is a “thin place.” A thin place is where the border between the material world and the spiritual world feels especially thin. In other words, it is a place in which people encounter the Divine, or the Spirit, or, simply put, they encounter God there.
The Story of the Thin Place Experience
The gospel text we read is the story of a thin place experience.
There is no way now to get back behind the text and determine how much of this experience was simply remembered and described, and how much of the story is symbolic – probably it is a mixture.
People do that today. Sometimes people will say, “God told me to do something” – for example, to apply for that job, or to buy that house, or whatever. They do not usually mean that they heard a voice, but they felt an impression that they took to be from God, and use the figure of speech “God told me” to describe how real it felt. So, we cannot see behind this text, so let us just notice the details and try to understand what Mark is trying to convey through it.
The story begins with Jesus taking his core group, his inner-circle of disciples up to “a high mountain.” When? It says, “six days later.” Why mention the timing? Probably because it makes us all think of something else that famously happened on the sixth day on a high mountain that involves God’s voice and a cloud:
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Exodus 24:15
So this story is meant to echo one of the most significant moments in the life of Israel: the moment God spoke the words of Torah, or literally guidance, or instruction, to Moses. We call it “the Law of Moses” but it is more than just a legal document. It is the stipulations of the covenant between God and the people of Israel whom God has just liberated from slavery in Egypt.
They have come to Mt. Sinai, and after six days, God speaks to Moses from a cloud. Clouds are often symbols of the Divine presence because you can see the cloud, but you cannot see what is inside the cloud – God’s presence is known, but yet still mysterious and invisible.
So, the six days and the cloud reminds us of Moses on Mt. Sinai, hearing God’s voice giving him the Torah. So what about the other elements of the story? Mark tells us that Jesus’ clothing was turned to white, in fact,
“dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
That is an echo of the prophet Daniel who had a vision, in which he says,
“I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, …his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan. 10)
Which of course terrified Daniel. He said,
“and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground. But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees. He said to me, “Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.”
We see the parallels – the prophet hears the Divine messenger; he is terrified, falls the ground, and is then called “greatly beloved.” In Mark, the disciples see the metamorphosis of Jesus’ clothing becoming dazzling, and they hear the Divine voice calling Jesus God’s “beloved Son”. Mark says the disciples, like Daniel, were terrified, but does not add that that they fell to the ground; that detail was supplied by Luke alone.
Moses and Elijah
Besides seeing Jesus “transfigured” the disciples also see Elijah and Moses.
How they know what they look like is not explained, but there they are. This whole experience is called a “vision” by Jesus in Matthew’s version. In a vision, when you see Moses and Elijah, you know who they are.
Why would Moses and Elijah make an appearance? This brings us close to the point of this whole story. Moses received God’s message on that high mountain. But Moses was not the only one through whom God spoke his message to the people; he had also spoken through the prophets. Elijah was considered Israel’s greatest prophet.
So Moses, who represented the law, the Torah, and Elijah who represents the prophets, are both there as Jesus is seen in an entirely new way by the inner circle of disciples.
What should happen in response to this thin place vision? Peter makes the most logical, normal suggestion:
“Lord…let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
His conclusion is that the Israelite tradition has now experienced phase three of God’s messengers. Phase one, Peter imagines, was the law, from Moses, phase two was the prophetic tradition represented by Elijah, and now Jesus is phase three. That would certainly be a new way of seeing Jesus, this carpenter-turned-prophet from Nazareth – to take his place among the great messengers of God.
More Than Phase III
But there is a correction coming. Peter is on the right track, but he does not go far enough. The Divine voice from the cloud then speaks.
In words that echo the only other time in Mark’s gospel when God’s words are heard directly – namely, at Jesus’ baptism, when Jesus alone heard him, the voice says,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Jesus is more than phase three; an equal among equals. He is unique. He is God’s son, the beloved. So, listen to him. Do not listen to him alongside others, but uniquely to him.
The mandate to listen, in a unique way, to Jesus, echoes the ancient prophecy from the book of Deuteronomy. Centuries before, Moses is described as predicting that in the future, God will raise up a person like him, a prophet, from among the people. When he does, Moses says, “you shall heed such a prophet”. So the Divine voice from the cloud says the same thing that Moses had said. The point is: listen to him.
Listen to Jesus
So this is the whole point. What is Jesus to us? More than phase three. Jesus is the one who we listen to uniquely. It is Jesus whose message we take to be final.
So, when the Hebrew Bible pictures God as a warrior, but Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers,” we listen to Jesus. When the Hebrew Bible tells of a God who sends people to fight their enemies, but Jesus says, “love your enemies,” we listen to Jesus.
When the Hebrew Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but Jesus says, “turn the other cheek,” we listen to Jesus.
When the Hebrew Bible teaches that the obedient are blessed and the disobedient are cursed, but Jesus says that the man who was born blind was not being punished for either his sins nor experiencing punishment for his parent’s sins, and that the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, we listen to Jesus.
When the Hebrew Bible says that God is a devouring fire, but Jesus calls God his Abba, meaning “Father” – or even “daddy” – we listen to Jesus.
It is Jesus who gives us our understanding of God. This is the most comforting, liberating and challenging message we could possibly hear.
Is God for you or against you? Listen to Jesus for the answer. God numbers the very hairs of your head!
Is God present to you or distant and far away? Listen to Jesus as he says, the kingdom of God is at hand, is among you, is within you.
Does God care about your concerns? Jesus says, pray; ask, seek, knock; when a child asks her parent for bread does she receive a stone?
Is God out to punish you when you wander off away from God’s way? Listen to Jesus: God is the good shepherd who understands that sometimes sheep, like us, get lost, so he searches until he finds us. And when he finds us, there is not a scold, but rejoicing in heaven.
But Jesus’ message is not just comforting and liberating, it is also challenging. To anyone who thinks that their money will save them, Jesus says, you cannot serve two masters, God and money. A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.
Jesus teaches us that we are obligated to forgive people who sin against us even 77 times. Jesus taught us that we are to see everyone as our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan did – even people who are ethnically or racially different from ourselves.
Jesus said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and told us to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice.” The demands of seeking justice may bring us into conflict with vested interests of the status quo that benefits from injustice, oppression, and discrimination, but Jesus says, “blessed are you when people persecute you on my account.”
Jesus also challenges us to take his comforting, liberating, and challenging message to everyone, everywhere, and take up where his mission left off, making disciples. He says,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28)
The Baptism Today
So we are going to listen to Jesus and baptize a person here today.
The man we will baptize has likewise heard the voice calling him to follow Jesus, and so he will become a baptized member of the body of Christ and of this congregation today.
Scott will take the ancient vows of baptism “to be a faithful follower of Jesus, obeying his Word and showing his love.”
And we all will take a vow, on behalf of the worldwide body of Christ, to “guide and nurture Scott, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ, and to be a faithful member of his church.”
It is our joy, our privilege, and our high calling to respond to the Divine voice, to understand Jesus as God’s Son, and to commit ourselves to hearing his voice as we come to understand ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons, the beloved community of the baptized.