(A sermon based on 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 & Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration Sunday 2012)
Many of us have had mountain-top experiences in which the glory of God shone so brightly that it overcame us—or we crave such an experience.
Our text shows us the quintessential mountain-top experience. Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus up a mountain where Jesus was transfigured—the Greek verb is the root of our word “metamorphosis,” so he was somehow transformed—and his clothes became dazzlingly white. There Elijah and Moses, two great figures who had been gone from the earth for centuries, appeared and conversed with Jesus.
While the remarkable event was still happening, Peter stammered out some words about building some booths for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, and, while Mark tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say, he seems to have had his wits about him enough to remember that his tradition taught that Elijah and Moses were associated with the inauguration of the coming kingdom of God (cf. Malachi 4:4-6) and that the kingdom would come during the Feast of Booths (cf. Zechariah 14:16ff).
Just then a voice from heaven spoke saying, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” and Elijah and Moses were gone.
To what were they—and we—supposed to listen? To answer that question we must take some context into consideration.
First, once before in Mark we hear a voice from heaven speak to Jesus. It’s at his baptism when the voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Between the hearing of the voice in that text and of the voice in today’s text, Mark has been painting a picture of who Jesus is and of the challenge the disciples faced in trying to understand who Jesus is.
Second, a crucial text in Mark’s presentation has closely preceded today’s text. There, Jesus asked his disciples who they said he was and Peter had affirmed, “You are the Messiah” (8:27-30). Then, Jesus began to explain to the disciples what kind of Messiah he was, namely, one that would undergo suffering, rejection, and death before he experienced resurrection, an explanation to which Peter objected which in turn led Jesus to refer to Peter as “Satan.” Then, Jesus expounded on his explanation of his messianic identity by describing its implications for his followers: they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the suffering, rejected, executed Messiah. It was only in losing their lives, Jesus said, that they would find them.
Then—and this is critical—Jesus said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).
So, when we take into account the passages leading up to Mark’s story of the Transfiguration, we’re led to this conclusion: the voice from heaven told the disciples (and us) to listen to what Jesus said about the kind of Messiah he was, namely, a self-emptying sacrificial one, and to what Jesus said about the kind of people they as his followers were (and we as his followers are) to be: people who give themselves up for the sake of God and for the sake of other people. [Cf. Craig A. Evans, The Lectionary Commentary, The Third Readings: The Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 243.]
The third context piece to which we need to pay attention is that which follows the Transfiguration scene: Jesus leads the three disciples down off the mountain and into the valley where they immediately begin to be confronted with great human need. And so it is with us; even when we do have mountain-top experiences in which we encounter the glory of God we must go in the strength of them to face the real problems of real people in the real world with our real discipleship and real grace and real love and real service.
There is a very real sense in which we can say that the life of Jesus moved from mystery to mystery and from glory to glory. It moved from the mystery and glory of his birth to the mystery and glory of his baptism to the mystery and glory of his transfiguration to the mystery and glory of his crucifixion to the mystery and glory of his resurrection to the mystery and glory of his ascension. In every case more of God’s light was shared that, light being light, also produced shadows; whether and why someone focuses on the light or on the shadow is another mystery.
There is a very real sense in which we can say that our lives move from mystery to mystery and glory to glory. They move from our birth to our salvation to our mountain-top experiences to our valleys to our death and then to our resurrection. But as long as we are here, we have to go back down into the valley where we live and serve and sacrifice and love. As Diane Ackerman said, "It began in mystery and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between" [Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 309].
The question for us is, what are we going to do in this savage and beautiful country? How are we going to live in this savage and beautiful life? How are we doing to relate to all those savage and beautiful people?
Put differently, what are we going to do with all the light that God in God’s grace gives us—“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 4:6)—as we confront the darkness that threatens to overtake the lives of so many of the people around us—that can even threaten to overtake our lives?
It’s one thing to experience the glory, to experience the light; it’s quite another to have that glory and that light have such an effect on you that it shines on everybody that you meet, that is causes you to let that light shine in very practical, gracious, loving, and kind ways on the hurting people that you meet. It’s one thing to let the light shine; it’s another to hide it under a peach basket.
Yesterday (February 18) was the birthday of Wallace Stegner, who was born in Lake Mills, Iowa in 1909. Stegner wrote about the experiences of Western pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; his best known novel is The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). Because Stegner cared so much about the American West he not only experienced it and wrote about it; he also took action to try to preserve it, becoming involved in the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said,
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope (The Writer’s Almanac, viewed on February 18, 2012).
Lots of us look at the glory that emanates from the beautiful mountains, fields, lakes, streams, and oceans of our land—but how many of us take steps to go in the power of that glory to do something to preserve the hope that is imbedded in them?
Lots of us experience the glory that emanates from the Lord Jesus Christ—but how many of us take steps to go in the power of that glory to do something as we go, as we live in this savage and beautiful world and as we live in these savage and beautiful lives and as we encounter savage and beautiful people, to share that light—to let it reveal the hope that is imbedded by God in this life, in our lives, in their lives through Jesus Christ—in practical, meaningful, glorious—and, yes, mysterious—ways?