Sunday was the Transfiguration–which is a fancy way of saying it’s the day when we tell a story of Jesus going up on a mountain top and changing in front of the disciples’ eyes. It’s a wild story. My audio from Sunday is below and the text is after the jump.
Well. So there’s that.
Here we are, moving along, healing people, preaching, casting out demons—and then Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, three of his closest disciples, up to the top of a mountain. And reality disappears.
Did you hear what happened?
Jesus was transfigured. Transfigured. The word in Greek is the same root as our word metamorphosis. It was a change as unlikely and surprising as a butterfly emerging from chrysalis. And it happened to this man they’d been tramping along with, mile after mile, on dusty, dirty roads—can you imagine how grubby their robes must have been? How the dirt must have settled into the cracks in their feet, and their hair and beards.
And then there’s the long climb up the mountain. We don’t know what mountain they were climbing, but the best guess, given where they are before and after this story is that they climbed Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is no Mount Ranier, but it is over 9,000 feet. As they climbed, I wonder if the chatter died away. As they had to concentrate on where they put their feet, as their breathing got heavier, did they fall silent? Did their minds grow quiet as well? Was that a relief after the stress of the previous days, weeks, months?
There had been tension building before this. Run-ins with the authorities. Things were getting real. Jesus could sense it too.
Immediately before this, Jesus had begun to speak about how the story would end. If you have your Bible open and flip back just before this story, you’ll find those well worn words “any who want to follow me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross…” He had explained to them that his path was not the easy road to fame and fortune. For him the cards held crucifixion, death, and then, he would rise again after three days.
I think the disciples stopped listening at the death part. Or that was the last thing they understood. And no wonder. That part was all too real. Rising again in three days… that might just be a figure of speech. Regardless, it didn’t seem like good news. It sounded pretty horrible, truth be told. Who was this man, what was this path? And why did they leave everything for it? For him?
Anyway, that was before. That was down at sea level, six days ago. Now they find themselves at the top of a mountain.
The author of Mark describes it so simply: “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
That dirty robe is suddenly glowing, dazzling, shimmering. And he was transfigured—changed, morphed somehow.
And if that were not enough, two more other-worldly figures appear. Moses and Elijah. Long dead, or at least long gone.
How did they know it was Moses and Elijah? Somehow they knew.
And Jesus, this dusty Nazarene they’ve been tramping along with for months, is conversing with Moses and Elijah as if this were the most normal thing in the world.
They’re struck speechless. Well, not Peter. He always finds words. Ever the fixer, he’s ready to leap into action and make things comfy and cozy up on this mountain.
Is this a desire to hold onto the moment for forever? Or a desire to escape the bad news Jesus gave them down at sea level? The text says he was so scared, he didn’t know what he was saying. And maybe we should just leave it at that. Who among us hasn’t been so scared or sad or in love that we just blurt things out?
And if it were not enough to be utterly in awe at the sight in front of them, a cloud covers them and the voice of God Almighty breaks through. This is my Own. Listen to him.
And it’s over. Jesus standing there. Regular Jesus, who they know.
As they head down the mountain he asks them not to tell anybody until after he;s raised. And our story concludes, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
I bet they did. Both parts of that—the questioning, and the keeping quiet.
We’re still with them in some ways. Coming down the mountain, questioning what this all means. What this rising from the dead could mean, what this Jesus means, what this dazzling, shining, cloud covered encounter is all about.
Some scholars suggest that this story is actually a story of Jesus after his resurrection, and Mark made the authorial choice to put it here, as something of a flash-forward, a hint of what was to come.
After all, Mark’s gospel, as best as we can tell, didn’t have any good resurrection stories the way it was originally written. So perhaps this is it, just somewhat out of order.
Other scholars have spent a lot of time thinking about how this might all just be a big thunderstorm with lightening. You know how frightening that can be, and how everything looks strange when lightening strikes too close. Or perhaps the sun was setting and the light hit Jesus just so and the story got bigger in the telling.
How deeply we long for things to fit in boxes we can label and store in their place. How much we strain to find the underlying order and meaning. How attached we are to our ideas of what is real and what is not, what is possible and what can’t possibly be.
Maybe it was a thunderstorm. Maybe it didn’t really happen like this. Maybe.
But maybe not. Maybe it happened exactly like this. In the middle of their journey, just as things were getting really scary.
It is as if Jesus said, yes, there will be this hard, horrible thing, but there is also this. And for a moment the veil was lifted, and they saw the really-real. They caught a glimpse of the world outside of time, and the beauty that is deep at the heart of things.
And they kept it to themselves. That part’s not hard to believe either. Who could they possibly tell who wouldn’t laugh them out of the room? After it was all over, or once it had all begun, after the death and resurrection, then they found the voice to talk about it. But even then, even now that we know how it all went, this story still seems utterly beyond.
I wonder if they finally came to a place where they said, well, I sure don’t understand it, but it was one of the most real things that has ever happened to me.
I wonder if this experience prepared their hearts to see and understand what happened later—when he died and rose again.
I wonder if, as they went back down that mountain, and every day afterward, as they carried this experience, and pondered it in their heart, I wonder if this gift of revelation broke open the categories they carried so dear, if this changed them, made them look at the world, and each other, and God differently.
And I wonder, too, how many of you have had an experience like this. Maybe not on Mount Hermon, maybe in the Cascades. Maybe not with Moses and Elijah, maybe with someone else who seemed long lost to the movement of time, or maybe with someone right here.
Thomas Merton was an American spiritual writer and monk. Don’t let the monk bit distract you, though. He tells of an experience that is not so very different from the one we read here in the gospel of Mark, and perhaps is like something you might have experienced. This is how he describes what happened:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness… But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. … Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…” (Thomas Merton Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Doubleday, 1966)
For a moment, the veil was lifted and Merton found the world transfigured, changed, revealed as it really is. Merton, like Peter, James, and John, didn’t make this experience happen. He wasn’t extra-holy that day. This kind of thing isn’t like a gold star on faith. It’s grace; it’s a gift. Even Jesus didn’t make it happen—he didn’t transfigure himself; he was transfigured. Like most of life, we don’t get to control these moments of wild, unreal beauty. But we can be awake for them. We can choose to be open, to trust that there is more here than meets the eye. We can do that for ourselves and for each other.
I have not been among you very long yet, but already, I know that there are stories of transfiguration in our midst. You have told me some of them—stories as unlikely and as real as the one we read this morning.
And yet we hesitate to share this kind of testimony with one another. We hesitate because how do you put words around something like this? And we can’t bear to have a life-changing moment of grace laughed at or misunderstood. And we wonder, too, if perhaps it didn’t really happen.
But maybe, just maybe this story today could give us the courage to share a little more often. Or to believe our own eyes in moments of encounter like this.
These moments of transfiguration are few and far between. Remember, most of the time Peter, James, and John spent with Jesus was spent tramping from town to town on dusty roads. This is neither the beginning or the end of the journey for them. And it does not erase the tedium, the boredom, or the pain and death that they will endure before all is said and done. All of that is still there.
But there is also this.
And so it is in the life of faith even for us. We too have our daily rounds. We have our work to which we’re set. We have the heartache and happiness, the joys and the suffering—sometimes deep suffering of life. We have our questions, and our doubts, and our misunderstandings. We follow in fits and starts, as well as we can, and sometimes not even that. We live as finite creatures in a finite world. All of that is part of life in Christ.
But it is not the whole story. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Because below in the depths, or up beyond the clouds, somewhere past the edges of language, waits the really Real—the Love that binds us together, that conquers death, through which the world came to be and by which it is sustained and in which it is being saved.
And sometimes, the veil is lifted and here, now, in the midst of this place and this time we catch a glimpse of that glory.by Sarah W. Wiles February 19, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA