Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 26, 2006
The Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
Sermon: "The Transfiguration is the Prelude to the Cross"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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.
The Transfiguration is the Prelude to the Cross
Last Sunday after the Epiphany - February 26, 2006
When Daniel was little he got into a line of toys called "Transformers". These toys were plastic robots. By twisting the legs and arms and head around to different positions they could be turned into models of cars or planes. I think some of them even became boats. The problem for Ellen and I, and I bet a lot of other parents too, was that we couldn't figure out how to change the shapes. Only a child could figure out how to make the toy transform from robot to car or plane and back again. We still have a tub of these toys in our attic. I have to confess I bet I can't manipulate a single one of them into the various toys it can become.
These toys were transformed. They were physically manipulated so that they were changed. Not only did the appearance change, the function changed. They went from being a robot with arms and legs to a car with wheels or a plane with wings. A child could actually play differently with the toy because the function of the parts had changed. The transformation was not just a physical change.
Today we celebrate the story of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ on the mountain. The account in Mark tells us of the journey of Jesus, Peter, James and John up the mountain. After they reach the top Jesus is transfigured. His clothes become dazzling white. Before him appear Elijah and Moses the greatest prophet of Israel and the giver of God's Law to the people. In that moment the disciples see Jesus in his heavenly glory. They see not only the brilliant splendor of God. They also see the authority of Jesus as he stands with these two men. He is not just another prophet or great teacher. He is the Son of God with power and authority over and above the greatest people in Israel's history.
Of course, we see the disciplesí response to this incredible event. They want to stay on the mountain. They want to stay in this place where God's glory has been revealed. But God's revelation to them is not over yet. From a cloud that rolls over them they hear the voice that says, "This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!". Jesus turns and takes them back down the mountain.
In these few minutes, the disciples saw the true nature of Jesus. They saw Jesus in all his glory and splendor. They witnessed his true identity. It was confirmed by the presence of Elijah and Moses. They were commanded to listen to him. Yet, they still didn't understand. They wanted to stay in God's glory on that mountain. They wanted to keep the awe and wonder of that moment alive forever. They liked what they saw. It was so much better than what they were part of in the world. In the world, they didn't see God in that way. They saw people hurting and hungry. They watched people gain riches and wealth off the hard labors of others or by stealing it from others. They saw sickness and they saw death. Sometimes these real visions of the world overshadowed the presence of God. Is it any wonder then that they wanted to stay?
Yet, Jesus could not stay on that mountain. In fact, the disciples couldn't either. Jesus was transfigured not for his sake. Jesus knew his identity. Jesus knew he had to go from that mountain to Jerusalem. He knew he was going there to die. The disciples didn't understand this concept at all. They were looking for a Messiah to be an earthly ruler of power. Now, suppose the disciples got what they wanted. Suppose Jesus came with great power. Suppose Jesus was born and raised like any other Jewish child. He starts to teach and preach. He heals some people. He works his way toward Jerusalem and once there, he raises a mighty army. Now, with his army he recaptures the land of Israel. He defeats the might of the Roman army. Israel is restored to greatness by the power of the spear and the shield, the war horse and the sword. What would the message of God be to the people and yes, to us. We know this message and they would have known it too. Might makes right. God helps those who help themselves. The rich and powerful are God's chosen. The ways of the world, the hierarchies we have established, are correct and proper. If Jesus comes down off of that mountain in glory and splendor the message and the purpose of his ministry is greatly changed. The disciples would have what they desired.
Jesus did not come down off that mountain in radiance and splendor for all to see his glory. He did not go to Jerusalem to raise a conquering army and rule by the sword. Jesus came with a different message and a different way. Jesus came to show us the ultimate path of servanthood. Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing that he would die at the hands of the rulers of the times. He went willingly. He chose to go because he knew no other action would teach the fullness of God's love. Jesus died on that cross, not because God said he had to. He died on that cross because he chose to. He chose to die simply because we could not understand the depth and breadth of God's love in any other way.
Let me give another example of what I mean here. During every war we have had people we call heroes. Many of them are decorated for their bravery and they stand before us with their medals. However, many men and women have died and received awards for offering their lives for the people around them. They have stayed behind while allowing others to retreat. They have fallen on explosives covering the blast that others might live. They have freely offered their own bodies and souls out of love for others. Jesus dies on the cross for us. He dies to show us another way, God's way. God's way is the way of the servant. Yes, God could use power. Yes, God could use persuasive techniques to gain our loyalty and homage. God wants our loyalty, worship and love because we want to give it, not because we are scared, intimidated or manipulated. God desires our love freely offered and freely given. Jesus dies to show us the extent to which God will go to help us see what love really is.
Jesus is transfigured on the mountain. The disciples see his glory. Then they watch Jesus, knowing of his glory, offer himself out of love for the world. The purpose of his death is to teach us that love is the ultimate expression of God. God would experience rejection to show that love overcomes rejection. God would experience pain and humiliation to show that love overcomes the pain and the humiliation. God loves us so much that God would experience death to overcome death.
For the disciples to begin to understand they first had to see Jesus in all his glory. Then they had to witness the fullest expression of God's love in the crucifixion. Finally, they witnessed the power of love in the resurrection. When we think of Jesus today do we think only of his glory? When we see the empty shiny crosses, do we think only of the resurrection? Or do we think about the whole story and the extent to which God will go to make God's love known?