Feb. 11, 2018: Transfiguration Sunday A (English)
Transfiguration Sunday A: Mark 9:2-9
Zion Lutheran Church, February 11, 2018
Pastor Anke Deibler
Grace be to you and peace from God our father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus takes his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a mountain. There on the mountain, amazing things happen: Jesus shines dazzling white; Moses and Elijah appear suddenly and disappear just as suddenly; a cloud covers the mountain and God’s voice booms out of this cloud. What an amazing event.
One would expect the voice of God to say to the disciples: “Hey, guys, watch this!” God is putting on a spectacle here that is sure to get the disciples’ attention. It’s as if God is saying: “Look here, I want to show you something. See this Jesus? See how divine he is? See how he is talking to the greatest prophet and the greatest law-giver ever? See all this? I don’t want you to miss the show.”
However, that is not what God says. He doesn’t say “watch”, he says “listen”. After all the special effects, what God really wants is the disciples’ ears. “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.”
The interesting thing is that in this episode on the mountain, Jesus doesn’t say anything the disciples or we could have heard. Yes, he is talking to Moses and Elijah, but nobody could overhear their conversation. Not until they all walk down the mountain does Jesus say anything, and we don’t get that verbatim; we just get the summary that Jesus wants the disciples to keep mum about what just happened until after Easter.
So when God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, he must mean something Jesus said before and/or after this incident of the mountaintop transfiguration.
This is what happens right before the transfiguration: Jesus asks the disciples who they believe he is. Peter speaks up and confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. He got it right and all the disciples are ecstatic.
The Messiah! All right! They had all been waiting for the messiah to come and restore the glory of Israel. This was going to be great. And as the messiah’s closest friends, life was going to be good for them. Alleluia!
However, before things got too excited, Jesus elaborates on what kind of messiah he came to be: he would undergo great suffering, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Then Jesus launches into a sermon on true discipleship: If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and pick up their cross and follow me.
This is what Jesus says right before the event of the transfiguration. He speaks about the suffering messiah and about the need for all disciples to pick up their crosses, as well. The disciples really struggle with this. In fact, they don’t really seem to hear what Jesus is saying. This talk of crosses and self-denial and suffering goes in one ear and out the other.
The way Mark tells the story, Jesus gives the disciples six days to think about this. Six days! This is the gospel according to Mark, who writes the briefest gospel of them all. In Mark, things happen boom – boom – boom. Every other story begins with “and immediately” Jesus went there, “and immediately” Jesus did that. But now, six days pass before the story continues. Six days to give the disciples time to ponder what Jesus had told them about the suffering messiah and the cost of discipleship.
It would seem that these six days did not accomplish their mission.
For the disciples are still stuck in their expectations of glory. This mountaintop experience is great, so they want to stay there and hold on to it and live in that glory forever. The disciples also still think they can control the role Jesus gets to play in their lives. A few verses ago, Peter confesses Jesus as the messiah. Now he calls him “rabbi”, teacher. After seeing Jesus heal people and walk on water and now shining dazzling white and talking to Moses and Elijah, Peter calls him “rabbi”?! Come on!
So God needs to speak loud and clear. He creates this special moment on the mountain with all these special effects, and when this gets the disciples’ full attention, God speaks.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, the anointed One, the chosen One.” No more of this rabbi talk, please. If you call Jesus rabbi, he becomes harmless, more domesticated, more someone who means well but has no real influence over your life, someone you could walk away from at any moment if you wanted to.
No, Jesus is no rabbi. This is God’s Son, the Beloved. This is the Word of God incarnate. This is the living Word from heaven. This is God walking the earth. You are in the presence of real divine power. Can’t you see it shine?
Then comes the second part of God’s message: Listen to him! Listen to him! Pay attention to what Jesus says. Open your ears and really get it when Jesus talks of suffering and self-denial. Really get it when he talks of dying and rising. Really listen to what kind of messiah he is and what kind of disciples he wants you to be. Listen to him!
Right after they get off the mountain, Jesus will tell the disciples again about his upcoming passion, death, and resurrection. And then he will tell them one more time later on. And still, they won’t really understand this until after Easter. That’s when they finally get the full picture. That’s when they finally listen completely.
Coming at the story from this perspective, I think the gospel of the transfiguration is asking us two questions:
The first question is: How are we trying to control or domesticate Jesus? The disciples do it by calling him rabbi: Oh, Jesus is just a teacher. What are our tools for keeping Jesus at bay? When we only ever call him friend and shepherd, we focus solely on what Jesus can do for us and deny the claim Jesus has on our lives. When we skip the services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and thus go straight from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Alleluias of Easter morning, we gloss right over Jesus’ suffering that confronts us with our guilt and asks us to amend our lives. When we buy into the gospel of prosperity, which proclaims that Jesus wants his followers to be happy and rich, then we turn Jesus in our servant and domesticate him for our purposes. What must we change, so that Jesus can be everything he was sent to be?
The second question is: What does God have to do to get our attention, to make us really listen? For the disciples, it was Jesus shining dazzling white, Moses and Elijah appearing and disappearing, and the cloud of God’s presence surrounding them and speaking to them. What will it take for God to get us to pay attention to him?
At a recent Bible study, we talked about this. Sadly, we found that it seems to take major disasters for people to turn back to God and listen. The last time churches were really full was after 9/11. Before that, it was during the Second World War. Even on the individual level, we remember to tune in to God when something bad happens: a loved one dies, we get diagnosed with a scary illness, we lose our job or our house or our marriage.
When we suffer pain, we suddenly remember Jesus talking about suffering and self-denial, about dying and rising. When we are at the end of our rope, we suddenly crave to let Jesus be God, with the full power of God to save and to heal and to forgive.
How much better would our lives be if only we would pay that kind of attention to Jesus all the time? How can Jesus get us to listen now, and lead us into self-denying discipleship now, and bless us with resurrection hope and power now?
Jesus has many different ways in which he speaks to people. The more we hear the stories of how he spoke to others, the more likely we will be to hear him when to talks to us.
A few years ago in my last synod, I helped to organize and lead a camp for middle school students who think God might be calling them into ministry. During the course of this camp, six different pastors shared their call story. Six stories of Jesus calling people, and they were all different. That’s when I realized how important it is for us to share such stories with each other, so we can learn from each other the many ways in which our savior speaks to us.
The disciples on the mountain heard God speak from a cloud. I know several people who were in the cloud or fog of confusion, of indecisiveness, of feeling overwhelmed, when suddenly a new revelation came to them and changed their lives.
The disciples were on a mountaintop when God spoke to them. I know people who heard Jesus’ call out in nature and experienced the creator’s power in the wild.
Some people find that Jesus is speaking to them in dreams. Some get a new revelation in Bible study. Some feel personally spoken to by a sermon in worship. Some hear Jesus’ voice through the words or actions of family members or friends or Sunday school teachers or even strangers.
Jesus is still among us and is still speaking to us, in scripture, in the sacraments, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. God is still calling us to listen to everything Jesus says, not just the glory part and not just the suffering part, but both parts together. Because both parts together reveal the full extend of Jesus’ love for us. Both parts together show Jesus’ real power to save. Both parts together speak of Jesus’ compassion for our whole human existence, the joys and the sorrows. Both parts together promise that after suffering there is healing, after self-denial there is new fulfillment, after every dying there is a new rising.
The story of the transfiguration calls us to behold Jesus in all his glory while remembering all his suffering. It calls us to let Jesus be God in our lives and follow his call to servanthood. It promises that if we listen to all Jesus has to say, his presence in our lives will have real power and will lead us to eternal life. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.