Mark 9: The Transfiguration

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 4, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 9:1-10.

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This preached version of the sermon ended up a little different than the manuscript. May the Spirit’s presence be in both.

Just who is Jesus? Mark wrote his gospel to answer this question for his first audience in Rome, and we’re reading Mark to grow in our knowledge, faith, and love of Jesus. As Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up the mountainside, the disciples were probably pondering this question a bit, given their recent experiences.

They thought they’d started to figure him out. Just six days before, Peter had confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ [the Messiah]” (Mk8:29b). Jesus followed this by teaching the disciples about how he would be rejected, killed, and then raised on the third day, as well as saying, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mk8:34b). And then he assures them that, at least some of them, will surely see “God’s kingdom arrive in power” (Mk 9:1). Except, isn’t that a strange phrase? What did they expect this to look like? Well, six days later, they were about to find out.  

So, who is Jesus? Sometimes, we read scripture to find head answers, like theological systems to answer questions like this. And yet, head answers aren’t all that Jesus is after. Taking up a cross, or, as he says elsewhere, changing our hearts and lives in response to the good news of his presence, are heart and life answers (Mk 1:15; 6:12). Jesus comes not just to teach, but to transform. This requires that we develop ways of reading scripture that are somewhat different from how we’d read, say, a newspaper. We read scripture prayerfully, and we use our imaginations – trying to see the image described in the text. To this end, today, I’d like to lead us through this passage prayerfully, engaging our imagination and our senses, by considering an ancient icon of this scene, which we call the Transfiguration. Icons like this are intended to help us see through the text to Jesus whom it reveals. It’s a window to God’s presence.

Let’s pray. Spirit, open the eyes of our hearts, that as we ponder this image of scripture and the story behind it, we would see Jesus more clearly. And then, seeing Jesus with heart-eyes opened, help us to love and follow him today and all days. May it be so.

Let’s start with Jesus. Surrounded by dark colors, it looks more like he and the light streaming around him extend from infinity into the present moment on the mountain. He’s not even standing upon the ground. As God-in-flesh, incarnate, heaven and earth connect in him. As we gaze at Christ transfigured with the disciples, we see that Jesus is the one who existed with God and was God in the very beginning, even before creation, and now, God is with them.

Now, focus on the light. There’s all that yellow at the top. Then, look at how the beams of light shine out directly from Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus’s “clothes flashed white like lightning” (Lu 9:29). It’s shockingly bright, so bright that the disciples are thrown backward. Might this show that, as in John’s gospel (Jn 1:5), in Jesus, light has come into the world that is so bright it cannot ever be extinguished? Clothes shining like lightning, “brighter than if they’d been bleached,” we see that Jesus shines the very light of God into the world, the light that enables all to see and know God’s darkness-defeating presence (Mk 9:3).

Now, look to Jesus’ sides, where Moses and Elijah stand. Why those two?  The one on the right is holding a book or tablet. That’s Moses, whom tradition says wrote the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. The one on the left is pointing. That’s Elijah – traditionally, the greatest of the prophets, who points the way to God. So, Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah displays to the disciples, and now to us, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets serve in leading us to God, and Jesus is the full revelation of God, as well as the Way for all of Creation to be connected with God.

But, what were they talking about? Mark’s gospel doesn’t say, but Luke says that Moses and Elijah “talked about [Jesus’s] departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31b). Here, the word translated departure can also mean exodus. Can you hear the echoes of Scripture? Moses, the bringer of the Law, the one whom God used to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, is talking to Jesus about his impending exodus. Luke’s intention is clear. Putting Moses and Jesus together links the first Exodus, in which God saved and formed the people of God, to the final Exodus in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection: in Jesus, God saves all creation, freeing all from slavery to sin and death, and forming us as God’s family.

Now, let’s look at Peter, John, and James, left to right at the bottom. It’s almost like the shock of seeing Jesus, Moses, and Elijah brought them to their knees. Perhaps they’re also shocked at their own sense of unworthiness: they’re encountering God, on a mountaintop, like Moses and Elijah did. Might we also be tempted to hide ourselves in the midst of such greatness? Peter’s suggestion to build “shrines” – literally, “tabernacles” – seems strange to us. But it’s a perfectly Jewish response. This week, in fact, Jewish people are celebrating Sukkot – which is also called the Feast of Booths of Tabernacles – in which they build huts in their yards to pray, remember, and celebrate that God dwelt with the people of Israel in their wilderness journey, as prescribed in Leviticus 23:39-43. He saw God’s presence there in Jesus, and he wanted to build a place to stay with God. We can understand that. We’d want it to continue too. Think about sitting on a beach as the sun sets. We want to dwell in the warmth and light just a little bit longer, but the air has already turned cooler and even the sand feels a little damp. We want to remain comfortably in the light. This is certainly how Peter feels.

And isn’t it true?  We want to hold on to the high points of spiritual experience and linger in them. When have we felt the joy and light of God?  Perhaps it was being in a tight-knit Christian community for a season, like working at a summer camp, or participating in Walk to Emmaus, or a Sunday School class, or a Bible study group. Perhaps, it was when we spent a weekend fishing with friends. In such situations, we experience a blessedness and peace, a warmth from the assurance of God’s presence, that we don’t want to end.

Finally, let’s imagine the voice, which interrupts our longing to linger in the light. It’s a call back to the so-called real world. We’d like to stay, but we can’t. Not even the disciples and Jesus could stay. A voice from the clouds booms, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” and the party’s over (Mk 9:7). God’s made it clear: everything Jesus said about being the Messiah, about his death, and being raised from the dead, is true, and they had better pay attention.

With this, they head back down the mountain where they immediately meet throngs of people, crowds crying for comfort and healing. And so too are we thrust back into life. Perhaps it’s a moment in prayer, in receiving the sacrament of Communion, or in Sunday worship: we feel a wave of peace wash over us; or, we sense for just a split second that God is really, truly with us. And then we’re back to staring at the computer screen, or the preacher, or the taillights ahead of us – and we wonder if it was even real. We’re thrust back to the busy-ness of life with so many things calling and tugging on us: children, jobs, appointments, family, bills, wives, husbands, retirement funds, and the like.

But it was real. We did experience God. We knew, if for only a moment, that we were covered in the light of God’s grace and truth. In God’s light, we see Jesus as the Son our Savior, both fully human and fully divine, and we know that God has our destiny carefully in hand. In the Transfiguration, God enables us to see Jesus for real. We see Jesus as God’s Way of salvation for all – the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, because he fulfills God’s intention that all the world be blessed.

And because we’ve seen Jesus, we can follow Jesus more faithfully. We can follow him down the mountain and into the crowds. We can follow him through the crowds, healing and transforming people as he goes to Jerusalem where a cross looms on a hill. We can follow him with our own crosses – those Christ-like or Christ-inspired actions we could choose not to do – because we have been indwelt with the light of God through Christ. We can follow him with our practices of talking to God, listening to God, serving others, cultivating generosity, and sharing our lives with others. As we move through this world then, it will be as the children’s song in which our very lives will sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  That little light is the light of God indwelt in us through Jesus by the Spirit. And in our living and dying, ours is the task of letting it shine, letting Christ be seen through us. God enables us to see Jesus through the Transfiguration, so that we can know, love, and follow him as his light-bearers. May it be so.

Reflection Questions

  1. This sermon is different than some, because it is seeking to explore the text through a prayerful, imaginative exploration of the text through an icon’s imagery of the passage. Is this a new experience for you? What other pictures of the life of Jesus stand out in your mind? How does this way of exploring a text help you? Could you try it with another text? (Some passages have vivid imagery, others are harder to imagine).
  2. If you were one of the disciples in this scene, what would be running through your mind?
  3. This passage is followed by another healing story. Have you noticed that many times after Jesus reveals something new or challenging about himself, he (or Mark) return to a healing scene? Look back through Mark to see where this is and isn’t the case. What do the healing scenes show us about Jesus, God, and God’s mission? Could Mark and Jesus be trying to show something significant about Jesus, like that all of who Jesus is can be summarized as “Jesus heals”? What does this miss? What else is important to you about Jesus?
  4. What else in Mark 9 stands out at you? Follow that inspiration. Perhaps trying praying through the scene in question with your imagination.
  5. The central thing about the Transfiguration is, arguably, that God reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s mission to save the world. How do you respond to Jesus? What’s hard about following Jesus? How well are you following Jesus? What is one thing you could do this week that would help you follow Jesus more faithfully?

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