Mark 9: 2-9
There are days - more days than I care to count, in fact, when I have to admit that I dwell in a state of confusion. I read recently that “confusion” is something like the 51st state, after Alaska and Hawaii, of course, and, truth be told, I suspect it is a heavily-populated state, where I have plenty of company.
Now, confusion of the kind in which I dwell has no relationship to intelligence. I know that, because I recently took one of those internet tests meant to reveal how well you would fare on a test given today to typical 5th graders. You know the ones I mean? I am proud to say that I passed with flying colors. To be honest, I had been a little concerned about that, but apparently, in the realm of fifth graders, I’m like a genius, or something.
No, the kind of confusion that I’m talking about has no connection to intelligence. Instead, it is the result of confronting the unexpected, the mysterious – or that with which one has little or no experience.
I suppose you could say it is because of my own familiarity with that state of confusion, that I feel particularly compassionate toward Peter. Perhaps I identify – a little too closely for comfort – with the disciple who is perpetually demonstrating his own state of confusion.
In the gospel of Mark, poor, confused Peter really doesn’t come off very well at times. It might be said that this disciple of Jesus is not the “sharpest crayon in the box.” But then again, in Mark’s telling of the gospel, none of the disciples come off as being very astute.
For example, although they had witnessed Jesus healing many people and driving away legions of demons, they often lacked understanding of the point and the power of Jesus’ teaching, they misunderstood the meaning of his words, and they tragically failed Jesus at times. They frustrated even Jesus, who at one point, asked them, “are you so dull?”
Even after Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, the disciples despaired, uncertain what to do when just four thousand needed to be fed. Then right after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, he rebuked him when Jesus made his first passion prediction in the verses just before these we read today. Dull. Confused. Foolish.
The events in today’s gospel happen some six days after Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he would suffer, die, and rise again. Then, he takes Peter, James and John along with him, for their own mountaintop experience. There, Jesus will reveal his divinity to them in ways that can leave no doubt as to his identity.
And there, atop that mountain, God’s glory is manifest before these startled disciples. Jesus is transfigured before them.
The transfiguration the disciples witnessed wasn’t some cheap parlor trick; Jesus didn’t just stand there with his face glowing and his clothes lit up. There was no magic mirror, no hidden battery-pack.
Unlike anything we can imagine, in this transfiguration, the entire bodily essence of Jesus is transformed. It is changed not only in appearance but in substance. It has taken on an unearthly appearance, radiance and form.
Jesus stood, transfigured, before these disciples with clothes brilliant, radiant, dazzling white, and they understood: this is clearly the face of the divine upon which they gaze. It can be no other.
And suddenly, their entire world view is shaken. It is as if everything they have ever known or assumed about God is mixed up, confused, confounded, as God reveals Godself –to them! - in Jesus.
Then, as if this isn’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear before them, too.
Peter, James and John aren’t just confused. No one has ever looked upon the divine and lived, and yet Jesus, clearly divine, has just been transfigured before them, within their full sight; these humble fishermen and disciples have looked with their own eyes upon a dazzling scene wholly outside of the realm of their experience, totally mysterious; this is a scene which they cannot fully comprehend, cannot fully explain,
How would you react to such a sight, to such an experience?
I know that when I am befuddled, confused, or shocked, I usually do one of two things. Either I clam up, totally speechless and paralyzed, or I ramble. I talk too much, and adrenaline keeps me acting, doing, moving, even if just in circles, because I can’t be still.
And so, I recognize myself in Peter’s reaction: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here,” he begins.
“Rabbi, let’s stop what we’re doing and build three dwellings,” he rambles.
Rabbi, let’s keep busy, let’s not think too hard on this unbelievable, confusing, wonderful thing.
Rabbi, let’s just freeze this moment in time.
Rabbi, let’s just do something, anything, until this world stops spinning so dizzyingly out of control.
Now, a cloud overshadows them as a cloud had once overshadowed that mountain which Moses had ascended. A voice declares, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him!” And just as suddenly as it began, it is over.
The mountaintop experience is done. They are alone again, just Peter, James and John with their beloved Jesus, returned again to his former state. In the blink of an eye, the glorious moment is gone, the brilliance is gone, the Lord stands before them as before, and the disciples trudge back down to the valley with Jesus as he orders them not to tell anyone about the experience. Talk about a state of confusion!
These disciples are puzzled by the whole experience, and by Jesus’ bidding to keep it to themselves. But they are also transformed by it because no one can encounter the presence of God and remain unchanged. Peter, James and John have witnessed something confounding, something they cannot fully appreciate or comprehend, but something they will never, ever forget.
We may not all get to have a mountaintop experience like Peter, James and John did, but we do have experiences in which God is revealed to us: perhaps through the unexpected generosity of another person, or by miraculous moments in our days. Perhaps it is when we are the recipients of forgiveness or we see God’s face in the face of a child, the words of a friend, or the eyes of a stranger. God reveals Godself in myriad ways, and invites us into relationship with him through the manifestation of his love, Jesus Christ, this one of whom God declares,
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” We’ve heard those words before. Not long ago, at the beginning of Epiphany, we heard these words. At the start of this season of Epiphany at Jesus’ baptism, remember that the heavens were torn open and a dove descended on our Lord and we heard these very words addressed to him,
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
On this Transfiguration Sunday, this story leads us to the threshold of Lent, as we encounter these words again, and are reminded that God never stops revealing Godself to us. Jesus Christ, the light and life of all the world, is the embodiment of the mercy, grace, and love of God.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
The bright light of the Transfiguration serves as a light that shines ahead into Lent. This transforming light helps us to keep that season in perspective, with our eyes looking ahead to the cross, yet never without hope and confidence.
This light speaks a promise that God is here. Through Jesus, the revelation of the divine, the mysterious God is yet knowable. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through his life, his ministry, and all the way to the cross, the God who is revealed to us is a God seeks relationship – with us. Often confused, sometimes dull, and frequently foolish, us.
God knows that we need to experience the light of the Transfiguration here and now, as we search for the transcendent. God knows that we yearn to touch and be touched by the holy, the something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder.
God knows, we seek the answers to our confusion. We seek the reassurance that the divine understands our fears and will calm them. We seek living waters that will quench our thirst for the confounding points of life and what relationship to the divine might be like.
Isn’t that what Peter longs for? Isn’t that what he, in his confused state, tries to cling to? And wouldn’t we want to capture the feeling of that mountaintop experience if we were in Peter’s shoes?
I think that much of the search for meaning which we experience in the world around us is indicative of the deep human need for transformation, conversion, and even, metamorphosis. We seek answers to so many questions – deep, existential questions and the revelation of Jesus in the midst of our own questions can be downright confusing. Mysterious. Unexpected.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
As we embark on the Lenten season here at Grace, we will begin to ponder how God’s revelation in Jesus transforms hearts. Through devotions and prayer, we will examine how it is that God can and does “Create in Me a New Heart.” We will seek to understand how God’s love is made manifest and comes to us anew in and through the cross. We will contemplate how the Messiah, the Son of God, meets us and indeed creates in us new hearts, new possibilities and new understanding to God’s love which is at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
Confusing and mysterious, yet very real and essential to our lives, let us consider, these next forty days, how God is creating in each of us a new heart.
The equivalent of a mountaintop experience? Perhaps not. However, in the deep, quiet moments of contemplation and prayer, may the Spirit of God speak to us in ways that profoundly reveal the true nature of God’s inexhaustible love and grace for each of us, and for the world, as carried out through Jesus Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Let it be so.