A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 11, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
And after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John and privately leads them up alone to a high mountain.
That’s the first verse of today’s Gospel in a new translation that I’ve been using in my study and sermon preparation. David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament emphasizes the individual voices and oddities of the books of the Greek New Testament rather than conforming them to the smooth formal flow of the translations that we use in the liturgy. And, of course, our lectionary sometimes smooths out the text even more. The reading leaves out the first phrase of the first verse: “And after six days.”
I always find the story of the Transfiguration difficult to get a handle on as a preacher. It doesn’t have the moral, theological or historical content that most of the passages that come up for sermons contain. Shiny Jesus, two prophets and a cloud just doesn’t ring a bell for me—what’s it connected to? What sense does it make?
For me that transition phrase, “And after six days,” provides a clue. The Gospel of Mark almost always marks transitions with the word that means “immediately,” so this is unusual. It was the amount of time that Moses and Joshua spent under the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai, waiting for the tablets of the law.
But why this pause? What does it mark? Flip the page of your New Testament back one and the event that happened immediately before this is the most serious conflict between Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered that he was the Messiah. But then Jesus began to explain what that meant: suffering, rejection, being killed and rising in three days. Peter kind of freaked out, took him aside and rebuked Jesus. Jesus’ response was: “Get behind me Satan!” Not exactly the response that Peter was hoping for. Jesus then said to the whole crowd, as well as his disciples,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
Then, after waiting six days, he takes the inner circle of his disciples privately to the top of the mountain. Jesus, shining with the glory of God, accompanied by the two most significant of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. The conflict with the disciples had been about his suffering and death. They weren’t understanding. It’s not made explicit here, but there is something that Peter ignored when he decided to rebuke Jesus. What Jesus had said was that he would be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed … and after three days rise again.”
Violence and dying are familiar to us and easy to digest, but what about resurrection? Is that just wishful thinking? Is it just a placeholder, do we just ignore it? Jesus took these three disciples, the first ones he called, to show them something different, a new and different life, triumphant and in the presence of God—yet inextricably linked with those things that these disciples were afraid to face—rejection, suffering, death. To share this Gospel, they must know both sides. And notice, when Peter sticks in his suggestion about building something, it is because they are afraid here too—the reality of God’s goodness and presence can be as frightening as suffering and death. Life takes courage, especially life in Christ’s resurrection.
Then the cloud came upon them, just as it had for Moses, just as it had at Jesus baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The Resurrection of Jesus is here in the center of the Gospel of Mark—we don’t separate his active life of healing, his rejection and suffering, or his teaching of the Kingdom of God from God’s conquering death and raising him from the dead. Knowing the resurrection puts the rest into perspective. The disciples may still fear, have doubts, worry and forget, but they have seen Jesus manifesting God’s glory with Moses and Elijah, they have seen that the truth is Jesus facing death, not in avoiding it or shying away from the difficulties of rejection or disapproval.
Tuesday night, we will have a grand celebration with pancakes and then on Wednesday, we begin our journey of Lent. Lent is a penitential time, but that does not mean a time of feeling bad and guilty. It’s not a time to be run down and resentful and headachy because of a lack of candy or coffee. The penitential season of Lent is about facing the truth. We are tempted to hide from the truth, because we are fearful—but Jesus shows us the truth: his Transfiguration into the Glory of God, his Resurrection and defeat of death. But that truth is not avoiding the difficulties and hurts of this life, or the realities and limitations we must face as individuals or as a congregation. In today’s epistle, Paul observes that “the god of this age has blinded the thoughts of the faithless, so that the illumination of the good tidings of the glory of Christ—he who is God’s image—should not shine out.” The distractions and temptations of the ways of this world push people to avoid difficulty and thus be blinded to life. Jesus took his disciples up that mountain so that they could see—not avoiding their difficulties, but knowing that abundant life is here, that freedom is in joining him in faithfully accepting and living in the truth.
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.