2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one[a] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi,[b] it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son;[c] listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
Burning Mountains and Great Balls of Fire Mk 9:2-9 Transfiguration Sunday Feb 11, 2017
When was the last time you were really “wowed” either by a natural occurrence, or one of human creation? We went to the Cirque du Solei performance last summer, that was pretty spectacular…but I’m thinking something bigger yet. When in Turkey, we saw the burning fires of Mount Chimaera, butane leaking form the subsurface of the earth was findings its way to the surface, and once lit, would burn indefinitely. Pliny the Elder wrote about these fires some 2000 years ago. Again, this was pretty amazing, but I’m thinking bigger still. For me, probably the most wowed I have been in my entire life regarding an event in the natural world, would have been on Nov 21, 2008 when a meteorite lit up the night sky as I drove north on Hwy 36. As I quickly turned to my right, I saw a giant fireball that appeared to land directly on my house. I remember “ducking” in the car (not sure why exactly), and feeling about as anxious as I can ever remember. In that moment, it seemed that the world as I knew it was coming to an end.
I expect this may have been close to the feeling that the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples; Peter, James, and John, might have felt on the Mount of Transfiguration the day Jesus was transfigured before their very eyes. Although the gospel writer Mark did not observe this event first-hand, he most assuredly was told it by one who did (Peter). Just so there was no confusion, Mark states that no launderer on the planet could get garments this white, so don’t look for a “natural” explanation as to what is going on here. For those of us who have been to Honduras or Mexico, and observed how white they can get their T-shirts there…this was whiter, and more brilliant still.
Throughout most of the gospel of Mark, Jesus is recorded time and time again as telling his disciples to keep news about him and his Messianic mission on the “down low” (often referred to by Biblical critics the “Messianic Secret”). We even see this here as the disciples descend from the mountain. But in this moment, there was nothing secret about the nature of Jesus, nor his Messianic title or ministry. His glory and brilliance were now on public display for his three current disciples, and the two great prophets of the past, Moses and Elijah. As you heard in the reading from the OT lesson, Elijah was one of the two people mentioned in the Bible that did not have to go though the gate of death to enter into the Lord’s presence (1000 points if you can name the other). The belief for those anticipating the coming of the Messiah, was that the return of Elijah would signal that the Christ was close at hand. Elijah had in fact returned (both in his person here, and symbolically in the person of John the Baptist)…and the Messiah was in fact in their very midst. As for the presence of Moses, he was undoubtedly the greatest of the prophets of old, the prophet who could stand in the very presence of God and yet live, the one who would represent God to the people, and the people to God. However, as a result of his disobedience in striking the rock as opposed to speaking to it as commanded by God, Moses did not enter the Promised Land, and died seeing it from afar. As we read in Deut 34:5-7, “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Although Moses had died some 1400 prior, God give him a cameo performance here at the revelation of His Son, Jesus.
One can well appreciate that the oft-impetuous Peter wanted to memorialize this place in some fashion, so offered to build three tents/booths for the three Biblical “heavyweights”, but such was not to be. As both Moses and Elijah had faithfully spoken for God in former times, in this this time and place, God the Father exalts Jesus alone. Jesus is not one among equals, but stands alone as the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Although Jesus’ glory had been set aside during his earthly ministry as we read in Phil 2; “ 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”, on this rare occasion His glory shines bright and clear, and when the cloud from heaven does dissipate, Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen…Jesus alone is left standing.
In this great demonstration of glory and luminescence, one would think the take-away piece would be to look at Jesus, the one who shines brighter and fairer than all. Although this is true, God the Father does not direct the disciples’ eyes to Jesus, but rather their ears…”listen to him”. From this point on, the journey for Jesus will be downward (for a while at least). Down the mount of Transfiguration, down again into the life of ministry, and ultimately down to the depths of human depravity as he bears the sins of the entire world on his shoulders. Only then would he begin his ascent, but in Jerusalem the ascent would not end on God’s holy hill at the Temple, but rather on another hill outside the city gates at Golgotha. At that point, the disciple’s eyes would betray them. Their eyes would only see death and the grave, as the light of Jesus appeared to be extinguished. It would be his words that would be most helpful in that moment, his words about rising again on the third day. Often seeing is believing, but such would not be the case now. Hearing would be the primary agent of hope and faith.
One can well imagine Peter’s desire to construct booths to contain the mystical, and the sacred that day. Israel as a nation was birthed on the notion of tent-building to house the Holy One. For most of us, mountaintop moments are rare, and when we do have them, we want to freeze time. What the apostle John discovered however, is that our attempts to enshrine and house God always come up short, and rather than build tabernacle(s) for God, God chose to “tabernacle” in the person of Jesus, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt (or “tabernacled”, as the GK word here has the same root “skenoo” as the word for tabernacle in the OT) among us: Jn 1:14. Rather than us housing God, God chose to be housed in one of us, Jesus.
Peter never forgot this epiphany of Jesus on the mountain, and comments about it in his second letter; “For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” 2 Pet 1:17,18. I don’t expect I’ll soon forget the fires of Chimeara, or the fireball that lit the entire night sky in November of 2008. Both of those events however, are now allocated to more distant part of my day-to-day existence. Like the inner circle disciples however, I would far rather hear the words of the one who was transfigured on the mountain that day, who died on the cross on another day, and who rose from the dead on the third day. The one of whom the Father says, “This is my beloved Son…listen to Him”. Amen