February 11, 2018 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Mark 9:2-9 – The Transfiguration of Christ
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
In January and February our readings from the Gospel of Mark have been from the beginning of the book, from chapter 1. Today we skip ahead to chapter 9, the beginning of the second half of this 16 chapter long book. We take the lessons out of chronological order because every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday the Gospel reading is an account of the Transfiguration of Christ.
In recent sermons I have related what Mark teaches, that in Jesus the reign of God has come near. When we see what Jesus does, we see God in action. We see evil subdued, diseases cured, strength given to the powerless, and the brokenhearted healed. We see a man who looks like other men, even as he reveals his extraordinary authority and power.
At the Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature. Jesus does not look like other men on that mountain. His divine origin and the divine power with which he is filled are revealed in dazzling light. White light – the color of purity, of light without darkness. Dazzling white light that shone around his ordinary physical body, the body so well known to Peter, James, and John.
When Jesus was on the mountain, transfigured in the presence of his disciples, he talked with Moses and Elijah. These are two of the greatest men in the history of Israel. Through Moses God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, the basic law that would guide the Israelites in their existence as a nation and provide them with moral guidance to govern their relationships with each other, with other nations, and with God. Moses was the great leader of the Israelites who brought God’s people out of their slavery in Egypt. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (34.10). Moses is the supreme representative in the history of Israel of the person who is the connection, the bridge between God and human beings.
Elijah was one of the greatest of the Israelite prophets, a towering figure in the history of the Jewish people. He lived in Israel in the 9th century BCE. Elijah challenged the Israelites to be faithful in their worship of the Lord and only the Lord. At the time many of the people also worshiped the local deity, called Baal. “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions?” Elijah asks the Israelites. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Elijah had a great contest with the priests of Baal. Elijah prepared a young bull for sacrifice. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal prepared another young bull for sacrifice. The prophets of Baal called on Baal all day long, asking that Baal send fire to ignite their sacrifice. No response. Then Elijah had four jars of water poured over his bull, and he called on the Lord. The fire of the Lord descended on Elijah’s offering and consumed it. And the people cried out, “The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!”(1 Kings 18.20-39). Elijah was also a miracle worker and great healer.
What does it mean that Jesus was speaking to these two great figures from the history of Israel? It is the Gospel’s way of revealing important information about who Jesus is. Jesus is like Moses, but even greater than Moses. Jesus stands in relation to both God and humankind: he is the bridge between the human world and the divine realm. Jesus is unique, being both human and divine. When we come to know God through our connection with Jesus, we understand that God is a God of right and wrong, who upholds justice and fairness and condemns those who oppress and exploit. Jesus is like Elijah, but even greater than Elijah. Jesus challenges people to choose God and God’s way and only God and God’s way, no matter the cost. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus is a miracle worker and a great healer. In Jesus we see proof that God knows us “face to face” and is involved with us in our very human troubles and trials.
When the disciples followed Jesus up the mountain, they caught a glimpse of a different realm. They saw Moses and Elijah and Jesus’ divinity revealed through his humanity as dazzling white light. The disciples were terrified, and we can imagine that they were! 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.” In the account of the Transfiguration in the Gospel of Luke, it is clear that this isn’t a very good suggestion. Why not? We can’t hold on to mountaintop experiences. We must come down from the mountain and return to ordinary life. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel the Transfiguration occurs just before Jesus sets out for Jerusalem on a journey that will end with the cross.
But Peter was right when he declared to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” It is good when we catch a glimpse of divine reality. And it is good for us to reflect on these experiences and to allow them to inform the rest of our lives. Have you had moments of feeling God’s love for you or for someone else? Have you ever felt especially united to God? Have you been “lost” in worship or in prayer? Swept up in the power of the Holy Spirit? Have you known God’s healing power in your life or the life of someone you love? Have you experienced the peace which passes all understanding or felt a deep assurance that God will make all things well? It is good for us to dwell on these experiences, to treasure them in our hearts.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ and remember the vision of Christ’s glory given to his disciples, Peter, James, and John. Glorious, dazzling light and God’s voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” The vision and God’s words lead us into Lent, a period of forty days when we are called to listen to Jesus and to walk deliberately with him, according to God’s ways of justice, mercy, and love, whatever the cost. We journey through Lent from one vision of Christ’s glory to another, from the Transfiguration to the glorious vision of our risen Lord at Easter. We journey through this life with faith that we are headed for a closer relationship with God, to everlasting life in which we will have the joy of knowing and loving God more fully than we do now. In Jesus’ name. Amen.