Sermon for February 14, 2021

Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 14, 2021, Mark 9:2-9

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
    9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Today is the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday after Epiphany. Each Sunday in this season has offered up epiphanies, revelations that help us better understand Jesus and his sacred mission.

Today’s passage from Mark begins, “Six days later….” Well, six days after what? Six days after Jesus’ prediction of his passion, his suffering and death and his call for his followers to take up their cross to follow him – itself a major revelation in Mark about Jesus and his mission.

This passion prediction is the narrative context for Jesus’ ascending the high mountain apart with Peter, James, and John.

Once on the heights, Jesus was transfigured before them, “his clothes becoming dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

The Greek word that’s commonly translated “transfigured,” is the word from which we get metamorphosis, which arguably might be better translated here as “transformed.” That is, Jesus was transformed before them. He underwent a metamorphosis.

Transfiguration suggests simply a change in appearance, a surface level reality. Transformation, or metamorphosis, suggests a more essential change, as when a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.

Transfigured or transformed, however you might understand it, it was still a pretty amazing thing – clothes dazzling white beyond any and all earthly efforts at bleaching, at whitening.

Moreover, Mark reports that Jesus was engaging in conversation with both Elijah and Moses, two of the most significant figures in Hebraic history. I wonder what they were talking about…. But one thing is clear from the story is that Jesus is revealed as having a prominence in keeping with and ultimately exceeding that of Elijah and Moses.

The event was so amazing, so terrifying to the disciples who accompanied Jesus up the high mountain that Peter was left to stammer out a suggestion: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings (or booths), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” An odd statement, out of the blue.

Mark reports that Peter said this because he did not know what to say since he was so terrified.

Then to add to the drama, a cloud overshadowed them all and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Perhaps this was the same voice that made the announcement at Jesus’ baptism – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” At the baptism, the voice was directed to Jesus. Here the voice and announcement are directed at the disciples.

As quickly as all of this came to pass, after the voice spoke from the clouds, everything vanished and became as normal again. Suddenly, the dazzle was gone, as were the cloud and voice, as were Moses and Elijah. It was just Jesus again with Peter, James and John.

So, what was this all about? What was the epiphany, the revelation, portrayed in Mark’s recounting of the Transfiguration?

I see the Transfiguration as one of those liminal moments, or thin places, or thresholds, where the demarcation between heaven and earth, between things divine and human, is opened up, is blended, when the sacred and profane mix in human experience.

Today’s first reading from 2 Kings recounts such a blending of the heavenly and earthly when “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated [Elijah and Elisha], and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11) And “Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two places.” (2 Kings 2:12)

Less dramatically, and writing theologically, Paul speaks to things divine and things human becoming one in Jesus Christ. Here’s what he has to say in today’s second reading: “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

Of course, intense religious experiences confound the human mind and leave us bewildered, without meaningful speech. Again, such was the case for Peter who was so terrified that he did not know what to say in response. And likewise, Elisha who in response to Elijah’s dramatic ascension into heaven “grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.” It seemed the natural response to such dramatic, divine proceedings.

Paul had the benefit of chronological distance from his own dramatic experience of being blinded on the road to Damascus and hearing the voice of Jesus calling him to proclaim the gospel and to turn from his having been a persecutor of the church. Paul’s theologizing language is nonetheless difficult for us to understand, to grasp.

Christian mystics who have written through the centuries often proclaim that their religious experiences are beyond words, but yet they only have words to attempt to give an accounting and to attempt to come to some understanding of their experiences.

High on the mountain, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white – so dazzling, so bright perhaps as to have been blinding light. Indeed, sometimes light is so bright that rather than revealing things, the light obscures what we can see.

So it can be with the divine light. Thus, part of what is revealed on the Transfiguration is that the fullness of God in Christ remains obscure to us. It’s a paradox of simultaneously offering both clarity and obscurity. Part of what is revealed is mystery that is beyond the grasp of human understanding.

So it is that God’s wisdom is also hidden on the cross – remembering that the narrative context for the Transfiguration story in Mark is one of Jesus’ predictions of his Passion, his suffering and death.

So it is that Jesus instructed Peter, James and John “to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:9) Only then would all of this begin to make sense.

So it is that we are left with mysteries like the Trinitarian nature of God – one God, but in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So it is that we are left also with the mysteries of the sacraments, that through water, word and Spirit we are made children of God and inheritors of eternal life. That through bread and wine that is blessed we become partakers of Christ’s real presence even now, millennia beyond when Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth.

Where does all of this mystery leave us on this last Sunday after Epiphany as we are on the brink of entering into Lent to journey to the Three Days in Holy Week and finally Easter?

The purpose of preaching, according to Luther, is that at its best and in its most faithful expression, preaching is a means through which the Holy Spirit generates or awakens faith, our trust in Christ.

Retelling, proclaiming, preaching the story of Transfiguration, recounting the holy terror that captivated Peter and the other disciples, may inspire our own holy fear, our own awe and wonder at the divine mysteries. Such awe can be a central feature of generating and awakening faith in us.

Retelling the story of Transfiguration may help us recall our own encounters with holy mystery, helping us to see our own stories in the biblical narrative, thus enlivening our faith.

It seems to me a fitting way to conclude this season of epiphanies is with a final revelation that so much of what is revealed persists as mystery.

It is thus with a spirit of humility and hopefully awe and wonder that we embark soon on the journey of Lent to ultimately encounter the continuing mystery of the cross and empty tomb.

Especially during these days of ongoing disruption with the pandemic, may God in Christ awaken our awe, our faith, in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Recall occasions when you have perhaps experienced holy awe and wonder:
    • What might these experiences have revealed to you?
    • What persists in mystery?
    • How have such experiences impacted your journey of faith?