(A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday Year B–February 19, 2012–Mark 9:2-9)
I’ve been to the top of a mountain – more than one, actually, but I’m thinking of one in particular. Nearing the summit, I came up over some rocks that formed steps and saw that the rest of the climb was all rock. There was no more earth, only stone and sky.
The sight of what I had to cross to get to the actual top frightened me. There were no handholds, no trees or shrubs. Just great big rocks.
I couldn’t breathe right. My heart beat too fast. I wanted to turn back. I wondered if a person could just sort of crawl the rest of the way. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the downward view and didn’t like it much better. I only had another 20 feet to go and from there a person could step up onto the highest point, another enormous (though it didn’t seem that way at the time) solid ledge of ancient stone.
The place, the situation, none of it felt real to me. The hours of hiking – and this was the tallest mountain I had ever hiked – all disappeared, and I no longer felt the motivation to get where I was going, because mostly I felt terrified.
It’s possible I said some things that sounded silly, even foolish. I don’t remember them exactly, but
I believe words came out of my mouth suggesting that I would be risking my life were I to go those last 20 feet. Yet there were other hikers sitting comfortably at that distance, eating sandwiches carried up in their backpacks, enjoying the sunshine and taking in the view.
Yes, I said some foolish things.
Usually if you just let me keep talking, I can get down off the figurative ledge myself, and that’s what happened after a few minutes. Eventually I took the step up and over to the big expanse of stone. I never did take the last step up to the flat place, but I was close enough. I experienced the view, all 360 degrees of it, taking in the other peaks of the White Mountains all around.
I think that was the day I came to understand why people used to believe you were nearer to God on a mountaintop. That day awe – well, fear, actually – overcame my exhaustion. I trembled. I marveled. I felt so hard I could not think.
It wouldn’t have surprised me at all, though I might have wished for something to hold onto, if suddenly some great figures from my faith history had appeared on the mountain top. Really, anything seemed possible. But I suspect I would have been just as unable to speak an intelligent word in their presence as Peter was in the presence of Moses and Elijah and the Voice from the Overshadowing Cloud declaring,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7b, NRSV)
But let’s back up and start the hike from the beginning, because this story crops up in the lectionary as unexpectedly as the mountain appears in the lowlands of Judea. We’re at the mid-point of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been healing and teaching and traveling all around Galilee, but people don’t understand who he is. Remember in the stories we’ve read the past few weeks, from Chapter 1 of Mark, it’s the demons that recognize Jesus as God, not his friends.
Six days earlier, Jesus had a heart-to-heart talk with his disciples, because even though he had miraculously fed a giant crowd, they were still worried about where they would get bread, and even though he had healed a blind man, they still could not see.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. (Mark 8:31-32a, NRSV) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b)
So, they’ve been told, but it’s safe to say they don’t understand. Six days later, Jesus takes the three he holds the closest, Peter and James and John, on a hike up a mountain, and there they see he is definitely not like all the other guys.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
We chuckle a little about Peter, and the foolish thing he said that day. What would possess him to want to build dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah? Maybe the elevation affected his thinking. (After all, he was a fisherman. He was used to living at sea level.) Maybe he was awe-struck, dazzled by more than the brilliant whiteness of Jesus’ clothes. Maybe, just for a minute there, he understood who Jesus was. If he did, it’s no wonder he babbled. It’s a wonder he could speak at all.
Here at the center of Mark’s gospel we get the only story in this gospel that shows us a supernatural Jesus. In Mark, he never reappears after his death. There is no Resurrection appearance, only an empty tomb that terrifies the women, just as this strange and spooky moment with long-dead Moses and Elijah terrifies Peter and James and John.
Still, the appearance of these famous dead people gives the disciples a sense of what Resurrection will be: a visible event intended to show that this life is not all there is. By God’s grace and power, existence goes on beyond death.
It’s not Jesus who needs this mountaintop experience. Nor does he say anything quotable while in the company of Elijah the Prophet and Moses the Law-Bringer.
But the Cloud Voice is insistent: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
It’s the disciples who need to see Jesus in this company. It’s the disciples who need to hear the voice from the cloud. “Listen to him!” It’s “six days later”…six days after Jesus got serious with the disciples. Six days after he told them something not nice at all. Six days after he prophesied and didn’t sugarcoat it.
The Son of Man will be arrested by the authorities and put to death…and in three days he will rise. He asks them if they have what it takes to carry their own crosses. He wonders aloud, do they have what it takes to follow him?
“This is my Son the Beloved.” They are the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, but there is more. “Listen to him.”
That day on the mountain, I imagine he hoped his closest friends would come to understand him better, but they didn’t, not yet. He had to tell them to keep the whole thing to themselves. For once, they listened, because all they had to do was keep quiet about something they couldn’t have explained anyway.
“Listen to him.”
The Voice from the cloud instructs them to listen to Jesus over Moses, who represents the Old Testament Law, and Elijah, who represents the Old Testament Prophets. In this moment, God affirms what we’ve been hearing from the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is a new authority on humankind’s relationship with God, and he describes a new way of being faithful that transcends accepted rules and rituals.
“Listen to him.”
Oh, dear. Do we want to? Because we have our own rules and rituals, our own law and prophets in 21st century America, and Jesus seems as radical by comparison as he did 2000 years ago in Galilee. Forget about climbing the mountain. Jesus is calling on the disciples to walk up a terrible hill with him, carrying the weight of the cross on their shoulders, prepared to lose their lives right beside him.
And I wish I could tell you it’s just a story for them, for that time, a desire he had only for the Big Twelve or the Special Three, but in truth being faithful requires us to prepare to do the same thing. Following Jesus will sometimes put us on a hard road, carrying the weight of his hopes for us. Following Jesus will mean speaking the truth about God’s embracing, forgiving and sacrificial love to a world that
mostly didn’t want to hear it then and mostly still doesn’t want to hear it now. Following Jesus will often cause us to lose the lives we expected to have.
“Listen to him.”
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
I remember thinking, foolishly, that coming down the mountain would be much easier. I had no idea the new and exciting ways my legs could hurt or how stiff they would get as soon as I stopped moving. The high of being at the top became a memory, just as it did for Peter and James and John. But the story they couldn’t tell anyone transformed them, once they understood it. They lost their old lives and gained new ones, leaving behind their bumbling to become the founders of our faith.
For each of us, there is a new life waiting, a transformation into the person Christ calls us to be. Are we willing? It can happen, if we’ll listen to him. Amen.