The reading begins “Six days later”: six days after Jesus first told his followers that he would be rejected in Jerusalem, crucified and raised; six days after Peter has rebuked Jesus for such a thought and been himself rejected; and six days after Jesus taught that they must take up the cross for “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Mark 9:2-9: 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
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I found myself struggling to find a story to tell this morning, something that could pull out the drama of this text, something with which we could connect. The problem is that the Gospel story itself is so unreal to us. We are not a people who have visions – or, if we do, we tend not to talk about them. They aren’t considered normal. If we told someone we saw things like this they might think we are a little crazy.
Other cultures put great importance on visions. We know, for example, that certain indigenous societies had a rite of passage sometimes referred to as a vision quest. Such visions provided profound guidance for their lives. But we don’t do visions. We don’t listen to dreams. We don’t hear God’s voice. Our spiritual lives are often neglected and impoverished.
I am not suggesting that you go on a vision quest. There is a rich spirituality within the Christian tradition, and I would invite you to see what is to be seen: To see Christ in the water, washing you with grace. To see Christ in the bread, joining his life to yours. To see Christ in the cross that walks in our midst. To see Christ in the glory of the flowers that decorate our space. To experience Christ in the beauty of the music. To see Christ in your neighbor, to feel Christ’s hand in yours at the passing of the peace, and to feel your hand become Christ’s hand as you extend peace to others.
But to go back to our text: This is a strange story to us because it speaks in a language we don’t really understand. And because we don’t understand the language, it’s easy for us to get it wrong.
This is my story about imagining Jesus to be kind of like Superman. When I heard this story as a child, I imagined that this event showed us the real Jesus, that the story gave us a glimpse inside the phone booth. Clark Kent pulls back his shirt and there we see the bright red S. Jesus is God and the disciples are getting a glimpse of it.
But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus is not Superman. Jesus is not God masquerading as a human being; he is a human being just as we are. He doesn’t know things we don’t know – he just sees more clearly than we see. He hears the voice of God better than we hear. He feels the breath of the Spirit more profoundly than we feel it. He sees into the human heart more honestly and courageously than we see.
We are not seeing the true Jesus on the mountain; we see the true Jesus on the cross. We see the true Jesus protecting his disciples when the mob comes with torches and weapons. We see the true Jesus extending the hand of compassion to the leper, and to the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died. We see the true Jesus invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus and call Matthew, the tax gatherer, to be a disciple. We see the true Jesus driving out deceit and falsehood and all those spirits that corrode and debilitate human life. We see the true Jesus in the outrage at what’s happening in the name of God at the temple, and in the tears at the death of his friend Lazarus.
The real Jesus is the human being.
But Peter, James and John are given a vision. They see for a moment beyond the ordinary reality of everyday life into deep and profound things of God. For a moment that bread in their hands radiates with an overpowering grace. For a moment the word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service seems to thunder. For a moment they are grasped by an infinite truth.
The nature of visions, however, is that they not only give, they also take. They give us truth, but they also take away falsehood. They grant us a new vision of God and ourselves, but that means that old ideas get left behind.
We have all had these moments when we think that a person or a situation is one thing, and then we have one of those “Oh, my goodness” moments when we see everything differently. Once your perception has changed, there is no going back.
Sometimes that process is sudden and dramatic. More often it takes time. The vision is granted and then the person must ponder the vision to understand what it means.
So these followers of Jesus are granted this vision of Jesus made radiant by the presence of God. They see all the glory of God shining upon him. Jesus is the perfect mirror of God.
And they see Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah, the great heavenly figures that are the pillars of Israel’s faith and life: Moses the giver of God’s law and Elijah the prophet, empowered by God’s Spirit, working wonders, the living voice of God.
They see, but they don’t yet understand. And so Peter says, “Let us build three dwellings”.
Our text repudiates Peter by saying: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
I used to think that Peter was a doofus who put his foot in his mouth by saying the first thing that came to mind. That he couldn’t think straight because he was so terrified at what he saw. But Peter wasn’t babbling. His suggestion was based upon what he thought he was seeing.
He has seen Jesus destroying the citadels of Satan’s power. He has seen Jesus casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and raising the dead. He has seen Jesus commanding the wind and the waves and walking on the sea, the remnant of the primordial chaos.
Now here are Moses and Elijah. Now here are the heavenly figures who fought God’s battles in ancient times and who disappeared into the heavens without anyone ever finding their bodies. Here is Moses who stood on the mountain and held up his hands and – when his hands were raised, the Israelites triumphed over their enemy. Here is Elijah who stood on the mountain and won victory over all the priest and prophets of Baal. I don’t think Peter is terrified at the presence of God as much as he is terrified by the moment: the heavenly armies are about to appear. The battle of good and evil is beginning, the cosmic battle that will overthrow all tyranny and oppression and bring God’s new creation. It’s happening now!
And Peter is proposing that they set up three tents by which these three commanding generals can witness the battle when all evil is overthrown.
But Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter wasn’t seeing what was there to be seen. The vision wasn’t over. The cloud of God’s presence envelops them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.
The rebirth of the world isn’t coming with the battle of heavenly armies; it is coming with Jesus crucified. It is not by victorious conquest, but by deeds of love and mercy. It is not by strength and power but by service. It is not by judgment but by grace. It is not by purifying the world of the faithless but by gathering the outcast. It is not by gaining the world but by remaining faithful to Jesus even at the cost of one’s life.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” says the voice from heaven. And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIsrael_hermon_(5330547343).jpg By Yoni Lerner from Tel Aviv, Israel (hermon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons