Sunday Next before Lent
Mark 9 2-9
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, 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 anymore, but only Jesus. 9 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.
Having had a break for a couple of weeks we are back in Mark’s no-nonsense Gospel again. It’s unusual for Mark to make specific references to time in his gospel, so we have to wonder why he mentions that the events of this story happen six days after verse one. It would take about six days to walk form Ceasarea Philippi to Mt. Tabor, the traditional location of the transfiguration, it may be that Mark simply wants to let us know that Jesus is on the move again after feeding four thousand people, arguing with the religious leaders, and having an intense discussion with his disciples about his own identity and mission.
I think it more likely Mark wants his readers to remember that Moses waited on Mount Sinai for six days before God called him up into the cloud to receive the Ten Commandments. The parallel is striking, and there are other parallels between Jesus and Moses in the story. Mark writes that Jesus’ clothes shone with dazzling brilliance, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down off the mountain after speaking with God. The cloud that covers the mountain where Moses meets God sounds a lot like the cloud that overshadows the transfiguration scene. The very fact that this scene happens on top of a mountain, where Moses encountered God – and so did Elijah, tells us that none of these details can be called a coincidence.
The parallels are intentional, and we need to pay attention to them. While Mark’s gospel is often considered to be a sort “first draft” that Matthew and Luke will flesh out when they add their editing skills, it is remarkable that he takes great care to make the connections between Jesus and Moses and Elijah so clear.
Mark puts his account of the transfiguration right in the middle of his gospel story. It forms the pivotal climax between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and its conclusion. It also connects the promises of the Law and the Prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah, with their fulfilment in Jesus, the Son of God. All that dazzling brightness and cloudy darkness let us know that God’s timelessness is breaking into our time-bound reality, and the Kingdom of God is here in front of us, drawing us into God’s eternal ‘now.’
Peter wanted to hold on to this sacred moment and suggested that he build three dwellings, one for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. That might seem strange to us but to put it into context:
The Festival of Tabernacles, begins five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. To celebrate, people would live outside in tents or temporary shelters, as they remembered the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Jewish tradition claimed that the Messiah’s appearance at the end of days would occur during the Festival of Tabernacles. When Peter suggested creating three ‘dwellings’ or tabernacles he was simply responding to his sudden awareness that what he was seeing did not fit into time, so it must be the end of days. If this was the end of days, it must be time to put up the tent!
But of course no human experience could contain what Peter, James, and John were seeing. What happens to us when we are faced with the things that seem out of this world? All three gospel accounts use the same word for it: terror. These disciples weren’t just afraid. They were terrified. Just when things couldn’t possibly get any more terrifying, a voice comes out of the cloud overshadowing them.
The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. “Listen to him!” God doesn’t say, “Listen to me,” but “Listen to him.” What God was saying was:
Listen to Jesus. Pay attention to what he’s saying, even when it doesn’t make sense to you. When he tells you that he is about to suffer, that the religious leaders are going to reject him, that he will be killed, and that he will rise again from the dead after three days, you need to believe him. This may not match what you think the Messiah is supposed to do, but it is. He is my beloved Son, and I am very pleased with him. Listen to him.
Peter and James and John found themselves at the very centre of the greatest paradox of all. Jesus was eternal God. They were certain of that now. But he also had to suffer and die a shameful death as a human being. They were eyewitnesses to his dazzling glory, but that glory could only be achieved through his death on the cross. The Son of God, the Messiah, would be lifted up – not on a throne, wearing a golden crown and fine robes, but on a rough wooden cross, wearing a crown of thorns.
Then Mark writes, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
Only Jesus made sense when nothing made sense. Only Jesus understood that his death was necessary in order to have the resurrection.
A vicar was talking to children about how to get to heaven. He asked the children, “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” “NO!” the children all answered. “If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the lawn, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?” Again, the answer was. “If I was kind to animals and loved everybody would that get me into Heaven?” Again, they all answered, “NO” “Well,” How can I get into Heaven the vicar asked?” A young boy shouted out, “You have got to be dead”
The death and resurrection of Jesus are always linked in the gospel of Mark. Every time Jesus predicts his own death, he also predicts his own resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Jesus knew that only his resurrection could conquer death, but to be resurrected, he would have to die.
Here at the centre of Mark’s gospel, the transfiguration of Jesus gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse of resurrection glory outside of time, outside the limitations of their human understanding. It wouldn’t make sense until after they had seen the actual resurrection take place, only then they could tell everyone what they had seen on the top of that mountain.
What does this mean for us? The transfiguration is the centre, where Jesus is all there is. When we come to that point where Jesus is all there is, we too will be transformed.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another;” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It may not happen overnight. It may take a lifetime for the transformation to be complete, but the change is already at work in us.
On Wednesday we are entering the season of Lent, a time to grow closer to God, to become more faithful as we follow Jesus. It is a time to look deeply inside our own hearts to see what holds us back from becoming all that God created us to be, and to repent of the distractions we let come between us and the God who loves us. It is a time to grow more deeply connected to God in scripture and in prayer.
We are broken, sinful people, but we who believe in Jesus and call Him Lord, are being changed from glory into glory, and like the three on the mountain top our longing and goal is to see ‘only Jesus.’ Amen