(A sermon for Transfiguration, Year B February 22, 2009 Mark 9:2-9)
Must of been mid afternoon
I could tell by how
far the child's shadow stretched out and
He walked with a purpose
sneakers, down the street
He had, many questions
Like children often
Tell me all your thoughts on God?
Tell me am I very
~Dishwalla, "Counting Blue Cars"
My daddy loved long car trips, which was perhaps a little unfair to my mother, since she did all the driving. I used to say, only half-kiddingly, that he couldn’t focus on something as practical as operating a motor vehicle because he was too busy thinking great thoughts! But while my mother drove, he kept my brother and me occupied, learning states and capitals or playing Twenty Questions or counting cars of different colors.
We asked many questions, as children often do.
One of those car rides, a famous one in our family history, took us through western North Carolina, where we saw waterfalls and visited Ghost Town in the Sky and infamously drove up the switchback road on 5,946 foot Grandfather Mountain. My mother could have cheerfully killed my father for that one.
Of course once we got to the top, the view seemed worth it.
Well, it seemed worth it to me, a person too young to drive, aware of the tension my mother felt, but not privy to her thoughts until some years later. She kept things to herself, even the answers to some of the questions I couldn’t help asking, those many questions. Why keep silent? Was she afraid of saying the wrong thing, or simply adhering to the philosophy of parenting she learned from her own mother or in her studies of early childhood development?
Our story today contains an admonition to be silent, to keep a story quiet, and of all the things about this story, it’s the one that troubles me the most.
We talked on another Sunday about the way Jesus would heal someone and then ask the recipient to keep the news quiet. We wondered how that could be possible, and we read further to discover that it was not.
People who met Jesus and experienced his power wanted to tell others about it. You have to hear what he said at the synagogue! You must see how he made that leper well! Listen to the story of the man who had demons, you’ll be amazed! And did you hear that he lifted Simon’s mother-in-law right up from the sickbed?
Here at the hinge of Mark’s gospel, we make the turn toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion. Jesus needed his most trusted friends to know him better. Three disciples made the climb with Jesus on the fateful day, three men who have been with him from the beginning, from Chapter One. Simon Peter, James and John follow Jesus on a hike up a mountain, and there they have an extra-ordinary experience. Two great spiritual heroes of the past, Moses and Elijah, appear on the top of the mountain. You may wonder, how did the disciples know who those other two were? After all, if George Washington and Abraham Lincoln appeared with Barack Obama, we would have art and photography and the images on our money to thank for our recognition of two famous faces.
Like a child, I want to know: how did they recognize the old ones? I usually love Mark’s spare style, the gospel writer of a few words, but in this story I want the details! There must have been some symbol that helped identify them, perhaps for Moses, who saw God, the tablets of the Ten Commandments; did Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind, return in one as well? Placing Jesus with these two figures places him in the tiny company of humans who transcended the boundaries between everyday reality and God’s realm.
Did Peter and James and John know they were climbing a holy mountain? We’re not sure which mountain they climbed. It may have been Mount Tabor, a short steep climb, or it may have been Mount Hermon, a giant of a mountain compared to our scale of Mount Washington or Mount Katahdin. What we do know is that people of an earlier time thought of earth and heaven in a hierarchical relationship, that while we may think of heaven as some sort of metaphorical “out there,” they thought of the Earth as a flat platform with heaven above it. Naturally climbing a mountain would get you closer to God, closer to the place where a person might even cross over into the holy.
And just so, they found themselves with Jesus, Elijah and Moses, all together on the mountaintop.
Imagine yourself and the two people sitting closest to you today in place of the disciples. Your dearest friend and teacher is in the company of your two greatest heroes. Who would they be?
Suddenly Jesus changes, becomes luminous, his body and clothing alight from within and without, his being changed.
The word we translate as “transfigured” might also mean “metamorphosed.”
As a butterfly coming out of the cocoon reveals a new way of being, so Jesus showed himself to the disciples in a new form.
We’re reading a gospel that ends with a group of frightened women at the tomb.
Oh, if you had your pew Bibles handy, you could turn to the end of Mark and find the “alternate endings.” But the original text ended with an empty tomb, and the promise of something not revealed: a risen Savior. In Mark’s gospel, the only appearance of a divine Jesus comes in these short verses in chapter Nine.
And I believe it is a fully divine Jesus we meet here.
Tell me all your thoughts on God, the little boy in the song on our bulletin cover says. He wants to meet God, and wonders if that meeting place is very far.
Up the side of a high mountain trudged Peter and James and John, to see a sight that must have freaked them right out. How much did they know about who Jesus was? A teacher and a healer, yes. A miracle worker, sure. But his transfiguration makes him even more. He becomes God before their very eyes.
It must have seemed like a dream, this experience so counter to what preachers are usually telling us to do. Jesus lit up like a Christmas tree, Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere, and the disciples? They are told to KEEP IT QUIET!
Tell me all your thoughts on God—what’s your comfort level with a Jesus who is God? Could you walk down the mountain with him and have supper as if nothing had happened. Would you be totally relieved to hear him ask you to keep it quiet?
I have to admit, I might.
Aren’t we supposed to share these experiences to win people over? The time we felt God’s presence or saw something unusual and beautiful in nature, or got somewhere just in time or met the person we needed to meet, these are all things we might want to share as examples of God’s reality in our lives.
But in fact that is often what we dread, having to tell people our thoughts on God.
I would love to know what Peter and James and John said to each other later. Peter may have kept to himself, embarrassed by his remarks about building shelters for the holy party on the mountaintop. But surely the sons of Zebedee, the brothers who left their father in the fishing boat with the hired men, these committed followers of Jesus, must have whispered to each other, wondering what they had seen.
Here’s the question I want to ask. What really happened on the mountaintop? Did Jesus become God, then? Or was it simply that the disciples did not see him that way until the Transfiguration?
Tell me all your thoughts on God, our children ask us, and we may take a step back, wondering if we have an answer that makes any sense. When I could drive, I took over some of the duties from my mother, taking my dad to his office, holding awkward conversations in which he asked me what I learned in school that day and I tried to get him to talk about things that mattered to me. Things like God. I remember how he squirmed, my rational dad, who clearly believed something but could not explain it all rationally.
I said, “Maybe that doesn’t matter; isn’t that why they call it a leap of faith?”
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is absolute amazement.
And so if you asked me to tell you all my thoughts on God, I would begin with the one that amazes me most. Two thousand years ago, the Divine Source of all That Is decided to walk around in the body of a human person, to eat and drink, to heal and teach, to make friends and suffer disappointment in them, even to allow us to misunderstand who he was and to die because of it, all as a sign of love for us. And we don’t have to keep it secret anymore. Amen.
You can find the song "Counting Blue Cars" at YouTube.
Thanks to Textweek for the second and third images: