A Sermon for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9; 2 Peter 1:12-19) preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
Spoilers. You have to hate them. Movies depend upon unforeseen plot twists to be effective entertainment. Screenwriters and directors go out of their way to make sure that the steps of the plot are each only revealed at the right time; in the best movies, they make sure that dramatic tension is allowed to build to the very breaking point before a dramatic resolution or revelation occurs. Imagine how much less effective When Harry Met Sally would have been if we had seen an aged Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as one of the old married couples being interviewed at the beginning of the film instead of at the very end, having wondered for two hours if they would ever finally get together? Or if we saw Bruce Willis’s widow standing by his graveside ten minutes into The Sixth Sense, or if the little kid had said, a half hour into the film, “I see dead people … like you, for instance”? Or if, when Luke Skywalker asked old Ben Kenobi twenty minutes into Star Wars: A New Hope, “You knew my father?,” Ben replied, “Yes, a great Jedi that Anakin. Pity he turned to the dark side and now goes by ‘Darth Vader’.”
But, when it comes to life, we desperately want spoilers. We want to hear an authoritative voice speak the words, “we’re definitely going to beat this cancer; it will just take a few rounds of radiation and it’ll be all behind you.” Or, “things are going to work out just fine for your daughter – two years from now she’ll be a new person with this addiction completely behind her.” Or, “I’ve already seen the two of you reconciled again with all of this mess behind you; it will just take a few months’ of work to get there.” Sometimes we’d give just about anything – even fifty dollars to a “psychic” – for a spoiler, to get us through the hard times in which we find ourselves, to give us the assurance we crave that the outcome will be good. If we had that, maybe, just maybe, we could persevere through the hard times and not give up along the way.
God appears to have decided that Jesus’ inner core of disciples needed such a spoiler if they were going to press on, for that’s essentially what we find here in this strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Things were getting a bit bumpy for them before we got to this mountaintop. Jesus had gathered his disciples around him, asking them about public perception of him and, finally, asking them about their own perception. Peter had boldly declared, “You are the Messiah!” In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, because “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). None of this, of course, was in anyone’s messianic playbook, so Peter tries to set Jesus straight on what it really means to be the Messiah, earning Jesus’ sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You’re not thinking God’s thoughts, but merely human thoughts!” (Mark 8:33).
If that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus followed this up with an on-the-spot teaching to the crowds about what it would mean to follow such a Messiah as he was: “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow me. For as many as want to preserve their lives will lose them, but as many as lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will be the ones to preserve them” (Mark 8:34-35). Such an invitation would probably have sounded like the equivalent of this: “the first person to give away all his or her money will be the richest of all. Ready? … Go!”
I didn’t think so.
But Jesus is clearly very serious about this claim, for he follows it up with an urgent warning: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in front of this sinful and adulterous brood, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him or her whenever he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Whoever does not own this Jesus, even if following him means putting reputation and life on the line, Jesus will not own on some mysterious future date after he himself is … put to death. What? Isn’t that what he said was going to happen to him? Why am I following him, exactly?
I think that God gave a few key disciples a bit of a break at this point. They were being asked to swallow a whole lot, and they needed something to help them see that, yes, Jesus’ vision for his own messiahship was heading somewhere glorious. Yes, Jesus did have a place in God’s plan that was every bit as central and exalted as he had suggested with that last bit about loyalty to him now on this side of history being determinative for one’s well-being at some future point when Jesus would come again in glory. Yes, following this Jesus to the end and beyond did make sense as a sound investment of one’s life. The transfiguration was a spoiler, but it was a necessary one.
Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus, as the eternal Son, had had with the Father before his incarnation; they got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus would have, not just on the far side of his resurrection, but on the far side of his ascension and, ultimately, at his coming again as lord and judge. This was the glorified Christ that Paul would encounter as he rode off to Damascus to persecute the Jesus cult that was eroding loyalty to the covenant of Israel, as he saw it. This was the glorified Christ that John would see on the island of Patmos, as he entered into the visionary experiences that would eventually yield the book of Revelation. It is no doubt because of this that we always celebrate the Transfiguration at the close of the season of Epiphany. Short of the second coming itself, it is the ultimate epiphany, the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ glory, within the story of the Gospels.
It’s a strange story, but hold on: it gets weirder. The disciples do not see Jesus alone in this glory, but they see Moses and Elijah showing up to talk with him. Bear in mind that, according to the Old Testament, Elijah is never said to have died, exactly. When the time came for his prophetic ministry to be over, a flaming chariot whisked him away to the divine realm. It is because of this distinctive departure that later Jews expected to see him again, prior to God’s decisive interventions in history. The closing words of the prophet Malachi, in fact, are these: “Look! I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will turn the hearts of the parents toward their children and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5-6). In the final chapter of Deuteronomy, we read that Moses died (Deut 34:5-6), so his availability to appear here is harder to explain. Nevertheless, the symbolism of these two men coming to speak with Jesus is unmistakable – the giver of the Law and the foremost of the Prophets were conversing with the One in whom both the Law and the Prophets would find their fulfillment.
Luke thought that the topic was Jesus’ “departure” – in Greek, the word is his exodos – “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Mark, however, doesn’t say anything about the topic of their conversation. This was not part of the story that was important to him, and he leaves it to his readers to speculate, if they wished. He pushes ahead to the climax, where a cloud – the visual symbol of God’s own presence settling down on a place – covers the six figures and God pronounces with his own voice: “This is my Son, my beloved one – listen to him” (Mark 9:7). In Mark’s Gospel, the first time the divine voice speaks, it is to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son, my beloved; in you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). This is a second divine authorization of Jesus’ teaching, this time with his inner circle unmistakably hearing the voice. To listen to Jesus is to obey the voice of God.
How strange, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection. It must have stunk to have been Andrew! “So, bro – what went on up there on the mountain? Anything interesting?” “Sorry, bro – can’t really talk about it. Inner circle stuff.” We are more aware as we read Mark’s Gospel than any of the others, however, how intent Jesus is that nothing should get in the way of his giving his life as a ransom for many on Calvary. The time for talking about his divine glory is after that work is done.
How strategic, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection. Even though they will continue to have trouble “getting it,” Jesus creates a mental hook for them: this awesome manifestation of his glory, this fleeting lifting of the veil that hid his divinity from view, should keep them looking forward to what would happen at the end of those long three days after he was nailed up on a cross and died.
Now, I have to admit that I am personally jealous of Peter, James, and John. I’m jealous of Paul with his Damascus Road experience, and I’m jealous of John the prophet who was the last New Testament author to see the glorified Christ, to be visited by him and to encounter him. I have often wished – I have sometimes prayed – for such an encounter. I think it would go a long way toward burning off some of the mist of doubt, some of the reluctance to commit all the way.
But, I’m reminded that even such a vision didn’t resolve everything for them – certainly not for Peter, James, and John in Mark’s Gospel. Not long after this episode we find James and John taking Jesus aside and asking him to allow them to take seats at his right and left hand in his glory. They understood the coming exaltation of Jesus just fine and saw it as a source of personal advantage to them both – and clearly Peter was the only real competition they had to beat out. But they didn’t yet understand what it meant to follow Jesus now on the way to glory, that whoever wishes to be most distinguished among Jesus’ disciples must most distinguish himself or herself as a servant of others, just as “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve – and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The vision of Jesus transformed, radiant with the glory that had been and would again be his, didn’t help Peter in the courtyard of the high priest. It didn’t embolden him, when Jesus was on trial for his life, to stand by his master and own him as his friend and teacher, as a man who had done nothing worthy of being put on trial, as a man whom God himself had invested with authority and called his Son.
Through that long Saturday, however, and through that long night into Sunday, did Peter, did James and John, remember their experience with Jesus on the mountain? Did they look at one another in that room behind the bolted doors, and did they remember that experience that only the three of them had that day. Did they remember that they couldn’t tell their brothers and sisters in that upper room until after Jesus’ resurrection? His resurrection! Did it keep them looking forward, daring to hope that there would be an “after” the resurrection?
And after the resurrection, we can well imagine that the memory of this event became even more important. “He told us all along; he even showed us; now we experience him risen – we’re not giving up now no matter what.”
If you were to read just Romans through Revelation – the back half of the New Testament – and write down everything we know about Jesus’ life from those twenty-two texts, it would surprise you how little you would write down. But of all things, the transfiguration would be one of those events, referred to in some detail in 2 Peter 1:16-18:
For we didn’t make known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of following cleverly invented myths, but on the basis of having been eyewitnesses of his majesty – for we were with him on the holy mountain and we ourselves heard the voice that was borne from heaven when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne from the Majestic Glory to him: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
In this letter, the apostle Peter is preparing for his departure, his exodos (2 Pet 1:15), specifically preparing the Christian communities for which he feels responsible to carry on in the same assurance after his departure. The letter responds to a challenge being voiced against one core conviction – “where is this promised ‘coming’ of his, for ever since our fathers died everything has gone on the same way since the beginning of creation?” (2 Pet 3:4). Peter offers his eyewitness testimony to the transfiguration – the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain – as evidence against this challenge.
Mark had also understood the transfiguration as a sign, a foretaste, a “spoiler” of the second coming. Just prior to this episode, Jesus had said: “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming in glory” (Mark 9:1). Mark understood this to be fulfilled in the transfiguration, the next episode he relates – and the only episode in the story of Jesus up to this point that he connects to the preceding one with a precise timeline (“six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them up to a high mountain,” Mark 9:2). Second Peter understands the transfiguration in precisely the same way – a visionary experience of Jesus at his second coming. It was an experience that, for Peter, James, and John at least, made “the prophetic word more certain” for them; the apostolic testimony can do the same for us.
We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred just as Jesus foretold; if we did not, we would have little reason to be here today rather than in bed or at Starbucks or kicking around the mall. The transfiguration gives us additional assurance that the story will yet unfold as Jesus promised – that, as we confess in our creeds, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” It is a conviction meant not to remain in our heads or merely to find expression on our lips, but to shape our entire life. As Peter will express it at the close of his second letter, looking ahead to the cataclysmic coming of Christ to usher in the new creation:
Since all these things are thus slated for destruction, what kind of people, then, are you obliged to be, awaiting and hastening the coming of the day of God in holy conduct and reverent piety! (2 Pet 3:11-12a)
I don’t know that Peter would have been all that surprised to learn that the end would still not have come almost two thousand years later. He almost anticipated this as he wrote:
Don’t let this one things escape you, beloved, namely that one day is as a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years as a single day. The Lord does not delay in fulfilling his promise, as some people reckon a delay, but he is patient where you’re concerned, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pet 3:8-9)
It is perhaps not accidental that the Sunday of the Transfiguration immediately precedes the beginning of Lent. Taking seriously the promise of Christ’s return and the prospect of encountering him as the judge of all things, and rightly understanding every day that he delays as a gift to us to prepare ourselves and our neighbors more fully, naturally leads us to examine our lives more closely, to repent of all that does not reflect “holy conduct and reverent piety,” and devote ourselves more fully to all those things and only those things that will leave us unashamed at his coming in glory.