February 11, 2018
Lissa Wray Beal
2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
The Transfiguration of Christ is a little weird – a very strange event occurring in the midst of what seems to be a very ordinary outing involving Jesus and 3 disciples. One can imagine how startling and terrifying it would be to see Jesus’s garments changed to dazzling white, Moses and Elijah talking with him (according to Luke’s account, they were talking about the upcoming Passion), the sudden cloud (reminiscent of Sinai), and the voice of God. How would you react?
The disciples were terrified. Peter (in his usual impetuous style) blurts out the idea of creating tents for each of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Though terrified, he apparently wants to keep them close by! But as suddenly as the spectacular appearances occurred, they are gone. All that is left is the ordinary day and Jesus as he’s always appeared to the disciples.
The spectacular appearances of the Transfiguration might be appealing to Steven Spielberg: the action, adventure, other-worldliness, mystery, and power. But his treatment of the opening of the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark suggests he is better to leave it alone! The bursting forth of God’s glory and the mysterious appearances are best left to our imagination.
Similarly, our Old Testament text has visual displays of God’s glory: the fiery horses and chariots; Elijah whisked to heaven in a whirlwind. No wonder these two texts are paired together: in both, we enter a numinous place between heaven and earth, life and death; in both we see terrifying wonders of the heavens opened. In both, Jesus and Elisha are somehow transformed – one illuminated in the glory of heaven that was his before the world began; one endowed with the power of heaven.
But the visuals of both accounts are not the point.
Elisha does not stay in the desert, looking for more spectacle. Instead, he goes back west, back across the Jordan. He returns to a land devastated by idolatry; people turned from God; people hungry, and weary, and sick. He returns to show forth God’s power, to speak God’s word; to woo a people back to the God they have abandoned, and who loves them.
The momentary glimpse of wonder in the desert? It is but a brief interlude in which God’s glory bursts out. But the real purpose of that glory? It is to empower an ordinary man – Elisha – to accomplish God’s work of saving his people.
In the Transfiguration, despite all the description of things seen, the focus is on what is said. God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Listen to him! Not “remember the wild things you’ve seen.” Not “paint a picture to preserve the image.” But “listen to him”!
We could take this as a general comment: “Jesus has good things to say, so listen up!” But there is something else going on here, for in this part of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been talking about one thing over and over again.
What does he say as they go down the mountain? “Don’t tell what you’ve seen, until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead!”
What was he saying just before they took this walk up the mountain? “He began to teach them that he must suffer. . . and be killed. . . and rise again” (8:31). It is a teaching that he returns to after the Transfiguration for again he says “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him. . .” (9:30). And a third time, as they are going up to Jerusalem Jesus tells them that he will be “handed over, condemned, and killed.” No wonder (as Luke tells us) that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking about the death that Jesus would soon die – it was on his mind. It was the ultimate expression of his work for God. . . his work as God. That he would show God’s love for a lost people; a lost world, by laying down his life to win those people for God.
This is what the disciples are to listen to. Remember his words; remember his work. And remember that these words about suffering and death speak of a death taken by one whose true reality – whose true likeness – is the glory seen on the mountain. He is not Elisha – just a prophet. He is the living God, the Beloved Son, pleasing to the Father. It is this one – who talks with dead men; whose garments dazzle with glory and power – this one is the one who will die. We glimpse his glory. And we are astounded that this one of glory is the one who willingly takes the road to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
What greater glory is there than that? That the all-powerful Lord of heaven and earth – the one of glory – comes to suffer and die for you; for me?
This week, on Wednesday, we are invited to join together in the church’s journey through Lent. It is a season in which we imaginatively walk along Christ’s road to suffering and death. During this season of Lent, we will reflect on Christ’s death: how it is our own sinfulness for which he died. We will also reflect on how broken our world is. Perhaps there is pain or suffering that we experience. We might sit at the bedside of the sick or dieing in this season. We may (God forbid!) see any number of horrors enacted on our world stage: terror attacks, famine, disease, disaster, war. During our Lenten journey, we will be confronted by these things, for it is on account of them that Christ dies.
But although this season is a dark season, our Lenten journey need not be one of despair. Our experience of sin, of sickness, of brokenness, is not an experience we bear alone. For we do not walk this road alone. We do not face our sin, or our sickness, or our brokenness alone. With us on this journey goes the one who walked it in his own life – and who died at its end. And with us goes the one whom death could not hold in its power, and who now lives forever in the glory we glimpsed on the mountain. We do not walk it alone; we are reminded today that we walk it with the one who is glory – both the powerful transformative glory we see, but even more, the glory of which we hear in this text: glory of a power that willingly submits to death, only to overcome death in the end. This is the companion of our Lenten journey: the transfigured Lord of power.
So, my friends, be of good courage. You do not walk alone. Christ – the Risen Lord of Glory – walks with us. Walks with you.
And for this we say, “Thanks, thanks be to God!”