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The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 15, 2015
The Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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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.
Do you have a best friend; someone who is very close to you whom you know better than anyone else? If so, there are probably no big surprises to them – not for you anyway; nothing earthshaking.
But, suppose, just suppose, that there is something more about them, something truly incredible that you would never have even guessed could be possible – something that you couldn’t imagine could have escaped your notice. Yet, there it is.
One evening you are with this friend, you leave them for a few moments. When you come back to them you see them surrounded by powerful and famous people. Angela Merkel of Germany, the President of the United States, Pope Francis, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, are all assembled, and interspersed here and there are celebrities: Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Bono, and Bill Gates among the more note-worthy. There in the middle of them all, the one upon whom all their attention is focused is your friend. Your friend speaks with each person in turn as a familiar equal. They all defer in all matters of discussion to your friend and hang on every word. What would you think? Where did my friend ever get to know these people? How could I have missed knowing this about their life? You’d wonder wouldn’t you? You’d be caught up in wonder, most likely.
Something like that happens to three of Jesus’ disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a mountain top set apart. There his appearance is changed, and they see him conversing with Elijah, and Moses. It’s a shock to them. They know that something incredible is happening here; something that will forever change their lives. It is also something that can affect and change your life and mine as well. This something is the Transfiguration of Jesus; the revealing of the Glory of the Son of God. To better understand how it means to affect and change us, we need to hear the story again, and ask some questions.
The story begins in the dead of night. Jesus and three chosen disciples ascend a high mountain. Suddenly, the night becomes bright as day – but the light source is no sun or moon or star – it is Jesus himself, revealed in power and aglow with glory.
What shall we make of this Transfiguration? Why did it happen? It’s a good question to ask. After all, Jesus was not one to go in for this sort of thing. Consider how he always avoided glorifying himself. He was always slipping away from those who would make him a worldly leader; avoiding the trappings of success and outward affectations which usually go with leaders of great power.
Now, suddenly, for a few moments, he does the reverse. He is revealed to these three disciples in all his glory. Why? The key is in verse 2, “Six days later…;” later than what? Just six days before this, Jesus had spoken of his death to come. The disciples had rejected the message. Peter was blunt – “This shall not happen to you!” he said. Jesus admonished Peter and the rest for their hardness of heart toward his message. Alienation set in between the disciple’s personal agenda’s and the Lord’s purpose and will. Nothing is recorded of any conversation between them after that admonishment, during these intervening days in any of the Gospels. It may have been silence. What purpose would there be for our Lord to speak if they were not willing to listen; if they would only hear him if he spoke what they wanted to hear?
It’s like that for you and me too. We’ve all had moments when the Lord has been silent in our lives. How often the Lord is silent with us, not because he has nothing to share with us, but because we have already decided on what we are willing to hear, and nothing more. If we will hear nothing but what we have decided on, what else could there be between our Lord and us at such times but silence? If we want to hear the Lord speak, we have to be willing what hear what he is saying. Somehow, Jesus had to break through their intransigence. We read that he was astonished at their incapacity to receive, to accept the idea of his death. So Jesus reveals himself to them, the inner circle, so that they may know that he is up to something much greater than an itinerate ministry. His purpose is far greater than they can imagine. They must be compelled to think outside the lines of limitation they have always presumed everything fit within. He reveals himself now that they may prepare themselves for his atoning work to come.
But why just these three, we could ask? Why not everybody? Just think, everyone was asking for a sign from him. He was the Son of God. He could have done that at anytime. Why not where it could have been more effective: such as in front of the crowds, kings, Pilate or the Sanhedrin? But this is not an act for the world. It is a revelation for the faithful. These three particularly will need to see this: Peter, the rock upon which the church will be built, he must be the witness to these things in all the pastoral work to come; James, who would be martyred, he must have the assurance as he goes to his death; and John, the one most beloved by Jesus, he must know Jesus’ nature first hand as he writes the sweeping prose most revealing our Lord’s intimate thoughts. These would be the three to accompany Jesus on the long vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane, and they would be the first after the faithful women to find the empty tomb. Jesus would have you and me in that inner circle too, if we will have it. He seeks to commune with us, as he did them. Each of us has challenging moments in life, and a purpose for life that will go better if he is our vision, and his presence and will is our passion.
So Jesus took them to a high mountain set apart. We could ask, why here in this place; on this mountaintop? Where better than on a high mountain? Consider how we so often refer to our encounters with the living Christ as “Mountain-top” experiences; so many of us have encountered the Lord on mountain-tops. Perhaps that is because, as our passage suggests, they are by nature places set apart. On them we are removed physically from the din of all the distracting voices and invasions of life that demand constant attention elsewhere, away from the God who speaks in silence. If we are to know this God in intimate conversation, then each of us is to provide a time and space in our daily lives that is set apart; a mountaintop within us, if you will. A place within where the Lord who meets in secret and speaks in silence is not hidden from view or drowned out of ear shot by the distractions of daily life.
Now comes the moment of high drama. Jesus is transfigured before them. Consider the overwhelming awe that overtook the Disciples. Here was their teacher, whom they knew so well now after three years together on the road; a man just as them in nature. A good, kind face, often full of joy and laughter, but just as often overshadowed with the sorrows of the world. As they look up in their bewilderment in the deep of the night, he stands before them, glowing bright as light itself; his clothing glistening whiter than snow-capped peaks, his whole person radiating out in clear relief against the dark night like lightening in a stormy sky. Years later, Peter, writing of this event, would speak of being an eyewitness to the Lord’s majesty. That word, majesty, means splendor, overwhelming beauty and glory of such power that the human mind is captured away from its lesser purposes and is compelled to adoration and worship.
Here was the Jesus they knew, everything that constituted his identity in face and form was there, but raised to a new power; possessed by a higher force now released through him so that he shone and glowed. Changed, but the same; as Moses’ bush, burning yet not consumed. As Matthew tells us, his face glowed like the sun; a radiance exquisitely bright.
By his side is Elijah the Prophet and Moses the Lawgiver, the two greatest names on Israel’s roll of honor. They spoke to Jesus alone; of what? Luke informs us that it was of Jesus’ coming departure, literally, his exodus from Jerusalem; Jesus’ coming crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. What the disciples had refused to consider, what they had been willing to cut off communication with Jesus over rather than have to think about, they now heard openly discussed by the glorified Messiah, and the greatest of the greats of Heaven itself. Though in the days to come they could try to avoid discussing it, though troubled every time Jesus would speak of it, they could no longer debate Jesus’ purpose and will. Heaven itself had spoken, and God the Father had spoken his benediction with the command to them all to listen.
How often we seek to confine the Lord. How often we seek to control his action in our lives and keep his full will at arms length from us. We define him, what we think he ought to will, what we think he should empower us to do, how he should act and be; instead of letting him define us, who we are to be and what we are to do and will. Thus we keep tight hold on our little agendas and vendettas and failings, letting them wreak havoc while all the while his power to transform us is bound by our willful ignorance, our rages, and fears.
You see, the Transfiguration was not just to strengthen Jesus; preparing him for his Passion to come. Nor was it just to corral and humble the rebellious disciples. The transfiguration is also meant for you and me. Christ means to transfigure our souls and our lives. And his method is seen in those last words of our story, in verses eight and nine. “’This is my beloved son, listen to him.’…when they looked around, they saw no one…but Jesus only.’” If we are willing to meet him in a place and time set apart; if we are willing to listen even to what we think we might not wish to hear, he will meet us there. We will hear him, and we will come to know him.
In those moments of high communion with Christ, when we willingly surrender ourselves in time and space set apart for deep prayer, the Holy Spirit sets to work on our souls like a catalyst, to begin the process of transfiguring the whole inner core of our beings. It is the great spiritual blessing of prayer that changes our minds and hearts, and thus our lives.
Lent is upon us. As we prepare now for it, make a meeting space – a place within– to listen; and make it for Jesus alone.