Text: Mark 9:2-9
A bit of drama, a hint of science fiction, a lot of mystery, the bonds of friendship, the voice of God-the Transfiguration story has something for everyone. It is classical biblical material and theologians love these kinds of texts. They are an open door for rigorous theological debate; and what serious theological student doesn’t love a heated debate on issues of theological substance. If anything, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is like a well-designed playground for meaningful theological interaction. Over the centuries, thoughtful religious scholars have engaged this story in areas of Christology, pre- and post-resurrection appearances, and understanding the divine presence of God. In seminary, with a refreshing drink in hand, I enjoyed nothing more than sitting with my friends and having spirited conversations about the humanity of Christ versus the divinity of Christ; or whether the crucifixion was really necessary for the atonement of sins; or the historical versus the theological significance of the resurrection; or whether or not God’s voice is actually audible-all issues raised within the context of the Transfiguration.
But that is not the conversation I want to have with you this morning. I don’t want to debate this story the way scholars have debated it with words like: pre- and post-resurrection appearance; or Christ’s humanity versus his divinity; or the historical versus theological nature of the Transfiguration. No. What interests me about this story is this question: What does the story of the Transfiguration attempt to say about who Jesus is and who his disciples were and who people like us are when touched by God? Those are the questions at the heart of this story and, if, for the next few moments, we consider what truth they hold, we may just leave here transfigured ourselves.
Mark begins the story with the human Jesus-the Jesus who has recently disclosed that he is going to suffer. By placing Jesus on the mountain with three of his disciples, the gospel writer is signaling to his Jewish followers that Jesus is one of them. Mark further stresses this point by the appearance of Moses and Elijah, which indicates Jesus’ continuity with the prophets. Any Jew hearing the story of the Transfiguration would immediately recognize the similarity of Jesus with Moses. Like Moses, whose face shines after speaking with God, so Jesus is also transfigured. A cloud appears to Moses and Jesus and both hear God’s voice. There is little doubt that when a first-century Jew heard the Transfiguration story it would carry echoes of Moses. The message being sent to the disciples is that God is present in their day with Jesus even as God was in ancient times with Moses. There would be a resonance. The story would sound familiar, plausible, and true.
One can assume that Peter, James, and John had gotten the message. So there on the mountain top when Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus, Peter volunteers to build three dwellings, little huts where they can stay. At first, I wondered if this was Peter’s way of dealing with his fear and with the reality of being in God’s presence. Sometimes it is easier to do something when faced with God’s presence than to simply be in God’s presence. But the more I thought about Peter’s response, it would seem to me that he and the other disciples were actually eager to remain in that place-geographically but also theologically-on the mountain top with a Jesus who fits comfortably in the old tradition beside Moses and Elijah. Jesus would be for them a new Moses law giver, a latter day Moses intermediary, between the chosen people and God.
All of this seems very reasonable until, while Peter is speaking about making three dwellings, creating a Jewish trinity, a voice comes from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Mark tells us that when they hear this they fall to the ground and are overcome with fear. “Listen to him!” Not to Moses and Elijah. But “him.” And what suddenly becomes apparent to the disciples is that God is separating, differentiating, discriminating Jesus from the prophets of old. Their fear is about knowing for the first time that everything they have served and believed, the Moses law and Elijah prophets at the heart of their tradition and faith, are not the same as Jesus. “Listen to him!” means hearing a Jesus who is pushing them beyond their religion or leading them more deeply into it. The disciples are overcome with fear because there is more than they had counted upon. No longer is keeping the laws written on stone tablets enough. In those moments, I imagine that their fear was not only around what they were losing but also about what they were finding. Some call such moments “liminal,” free-fall times when the solid ground upon which we stand gives way and nothing has changed and everything is different. Life shifts and the world tilts. For Peter, James, and John the world shifted and before them stood not only Jesus their friend but Jesus the Christ. For the very first time they realized that while Jesus was one of them, he was something and someone larger than any of them.
Bible stories are not just about God and Jesus and people of long ago. They are about us and about our world today. We read them to get some insight about who God is or who Jesus was or how the first followers believed and acted. But they are really about telling us who we are. At the heart of the Transfiguration story is our story: our story of what happens to people like us when we hear a voice, look into eyes, are touched by joy or sadness, when life in its unexpected and unaccountable ways awakens us and we hear and see as if for the first time. It is our story of all those times when we have been changed or transfigured because we encountered something larger than us-a different way of thinking, of loving, of living, of being in this world. The Transfiguration story is that moment in our lives when in fear and in joy we are forced to let go of what we think we know for a deeper and fuller truth. It is that moment when we finally let go of what is and reach out for the possibility and hope of what can be and who we can be. It is that moment when we finally realize that there is something in this world larger than any one of us and, at the same time, realize that we are a part of that something larger.
The moment or moments of transfiguration are terrifying. It is never comfortable to step out of what is familiar-our safe dwelling places of thinking, believing and being in relationship. I get Peter. Oh, how I get Peter. I get wanting to settle down on some mountain top in my little hut with what I know and with all that feels safe, and comfortable, and reassuring. But if these stories are not just about God and Jesus and people of long ago, then I must consider what it means for me, and we must consider what it means for us, to hear God’s voice and believe that we, too, are being transfigured.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get to the mountain top often. And rarely do bright lights go off before my world shifts. And while I do feel at times as though Bonnie Stone and Alan Neely are nudging me, I’ve yet to see them post their resurrection. So, if in this life, there are no bright lights or hearing God’s voice or seeing the dead, how do we recognize when the transfigured Jesus is standing before us inviting us to see that there is something more and something larger and some truth deeper than that which we already know? How do we, like Peter, James, and John let go of what we know and the safety of that for something more life giving and freeing that God is longing for us to discover and experience?
I believe the place we start is by believing that the Transfiguration story is real. No, not literally-although there is nothing wrong with believing that it actually happened. But we must believe its truth. We must believe that there is something larger than us that gives our lives meaning and purpose; and that while we are not that something larger, we are connected to it and a part of it.
On paper, in books, debated in the halls of theological discourse, and in Christian tradition, the Transfiguration story is a story about the transition that took place from the disciples’ relationship with the human Jesus to their faith in the same Jesus as the Christ. But in real life, in our day-to-day living, it is so much more than that. It is a story about every one of us in this room and how we hold on to those things in life that we believe will save us but actually hold us back from the life God longs for us to live. Every single time we are willing to let go of who we think we are and what we think we know, each time we are willing to lose our lives in order to find life, we are participating in the story of the Transfiguration. The fear in this story is real. But so is the hope-the hope that we discover when our eyes are opened and we see in Christ, for the first or the hundredth time, who we truly are. That, I believe, is the real meaning of transfiguration without the bright lights.