Sermon for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year B: Transfiguration Sunday
February 19, 2012
Mark 9: 2 – 9
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Today is called Transfiguration Sunday—it’s the last blast of the Epiphany light we get before entering the darkness of the Lenten journey. But what a blast of Light it is—precisely when so many of us need it. Today, like Peter and James and John, Jesus invites us to be his friends, and to accompany him on a life-changing journey up a mountain.
If we accept the invitation, just as we saw the fullness of Jesus’ humanity revealed at Christmas, when he was born a vulnerable child to an impoverished teenager—today we’ll see the fullness of Jesus’ divinity revealed at the Transfiguration: the incandescent brilliance of Jesus the Christ, the mysterious magnificence of the Messiah, God’s own Chosen One– radiant with God’s glory, on fire with Divine Love…and with the two most legendary heroes of Hebrew scripture at His side, Moses and Elijah– the Lawgiver and the Prophet. It’s a spectacular scenario indeed!
Both Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences with God; both are believed to have somehow escaped death and to dwell now in heaven; and both are expected to return to earth only with the coming of the Messiah. Their presence here is no small thing: Barbara Brown Taylor calls this, “the Mount Rushmore of heaven—the Lawgiver, the Prophet, and the Messiah.”
In the presence of such celebrated spiritual supermen, poor Peter is so rattled all he can come up with is some first century version of, “Wow, Lord, this is awesome! Let’s set up camp and hang out for a while!” But it’s not tough for most of us to sympathize with poor Peter: we know all too well what it’s like to have a painful proclivity for saying the stupidest things to those we most want to impress!
But Peter’s mortifying moment is cut blessedly short when a cloud appears out of nowhere and the voice of God’s Own Self says in no uncertain terms, “This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to him!” There’s barely time in which to catch one’s breath, and Moses and Elijah are suddenly gone. Peter, James and John are alone again with Jesus just like before.
And what of us? Remember that we, too, are invited on this journey. We, too, are invited to be friends and followers of Jesus. We too are invited to share this mountaintop experience. Scripture is, after all, a living document. It has a life and a power all its own. When we read it, something happens. When we listen to it, it speaks to us. And when we let it, it has its way with us.
So I’m going to invite you to try something a little different now, something that takes a certain amount of trust and courage. But we’re all family here, and because of the Winter Break we’re a smaller than usual group, so I’m going to ask you to take just a minute for this little experiment and to close your eyes. Try to move past the awkward self-consciousness you might feel by taking a deep breath or two…then turn your focus inward.
Now try to imagine with your mind’s eye that you are standing on a mountaintop with the Transfigured Jesus—his clothes dazzling white and his Divine Radiance melting your heart with warmth, love, and awe. Trust your imagination.
What time of day is it on your mountain? What’s the temperature like? Is the air windy or still? Imagine that Moses and Elijah are there, too…but Jesus only has eyes for you. Imagine him gazing at you with tenderness and compassion. Imagine feeling that he can see right through you, yet knowing he obviously loves you more than anyone else has ever come close to doing. Let yourself just rest here for a minute, basking in the Transfiguring Light of his love– totally known and understood, totally forgiven, totally accepted.
What might you say in the face of such a close encounter of the divine kind? Or would you be speechless, like James and John?
Just one more minute, we’re almost done: Now imagine hearing God’s voice, saying to you and only you, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
Again, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
Okay, now before you open your eyes again, take just a moment to say a quick thank you to God for being with you in this meditation, and then re-orient yourself to your surroundings and when you’re ready go ahead and open your eyes.
What you’ve just done is a kind of prayer made famous by St. Ignatius and his friends of Jesus, the Jesuits. It’s a kind of prayer in which we engage our imagination and all of our senses to place ourselves inside a gospel story as evocatively as we can, so we can meet, see, and talk with Jesus more intimately. The idea is that our relationship with Jesus is strengthened as we spend more time with him, and we become better equipped and more willing to follow him faithfully. Not only that, but we can return to the same prayer repeatedly, mining it ever more deeply for insights and consolation.
Hold on to that, but come with me now as we return to the sermon. In Mark’s telling of the Gospel, the disciples come down from this mountaintop experience and go upon their way apparently as clueless as they were before it happened. It’s pretty stunning, really, but reassuring too. (It’s one of the nice things about Mark’s gospel that the disciples look far more spiritually challenged than saintly.) So despite this climactic epiphany of Christ’s identity, and a first-hand encounter with God, in just a few verses Peter will be bragging to Jesus about how much they’ve all given up to follow him, and James and John will be asking for the best seats in the house when they get to heaven. Crazy, right? Jesus will already have told them three times by then that he’s going to be betrayed, condemned, mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed—then rise again three days later—and these knuckleheads still won’t get it. And all the while they will be walking ever so steadily to Jerusalem with him, inching closer and closer to their betrayal and his cross.
So again I ask, what about us?
I wonder what our own walks with Jesus to Jerusalem will be like during Lent this year, and if they might be changed by our experience of the Transfiguration. I wonder if we might do a better job than the disciples in Mark’s gospel of remembering and responding to the voice of God that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” Or might we be too busy bragging about what we’ve given up, like Peter—or jockeying for position and power, like James and John? I wonder if on one or two of those dark and desolate days of Lent that we all have, we might return here in prayer–return to our mountain and the consolation of meeting Jesus face to face, awed by his incandescent brilliance and transfigured by the radiance of his life-giving Light and Love.
You know, I’ve always wondered why this reading begins with verse 2 instead of verse 1. Did you notice that? It starts with verse 2 and the words, “Six days later…” as if we all know what was going on before this. Well, verse 1 reads, “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’” Then comes, “Six 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…”
Now the way I read it, these two verses are totally connected. Jesus brings Peter and James and John along with him on that mountain, so they can “see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” That’s what the Transfiguration is all about—showing us the Divine Power of God in Christ. Jesus wants to etch for eternity the reality of his divine identity on the hearts of his closest friends—Peter and James and John—and us!
Because the kingdom of God has come with power in the very person of Jesus Christ. And it’s more than a nice little Bible story. It’s more than an abstraction or a doctrine or a theology. It’s the good news of the reality in which we are all invited to live as followers of Jesus. And if we accept the invitation you can be sure it will change everything….beginning with us! Amen.