A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
February 7, 2016
Mark 8:22 to 9:8
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Each year, before we enter the Season of Lent, and as we leave the season of epiphany, we spend some time looking at the texts of Jesus’ transfiguration—when he takes a few of his disciples and goes up on the mountainside. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story a little differently, and this year, the Narrative Lectionary gives us Mark’s account.
For Mark, this story is about identity. Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying he is.
“Some say Moses, some say Elijah”, they tell him.
“But who do you say I am?”
Peter says, “You are the Messiah”.
Awareness of Jesus’ identity is growing for the disciples, but they don’t fully understand this Messiah they are following yet.
Then we have the religious authorities, who have no idea who Jesus really is, but they’ve seen enough to decide they want to kill him, to silence his calls for justice and inclusion.
And who do we say that Jesus is?
It is as if Mark is following along in our minds and knows that the readers are asking those questions too—who do we say that he is?
Mark puts the transfiguration smack dab in the center of his gospel, ready to give us the clearest image yet of who Jesus is—and for Mark, Jesus is standing in the long line of prophets who have been persecuted by the Powers that be.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
That may be an easy question for you to answer. I know there are many people who can give an easy and straight answer to that question without even having to think about it. And if you’re one of those people, that’s great.
The world needs people who can clearly share their faith in ways that is hopeful and loving.
For many of us, though, I know it is a much more complicated answer. Maybe we love Jesus, but we don’t quite know what to do with some of his followers, which makes us wonder if we’re on the right track.
Or maybe we think we have a handle on the whole identity of Jesus one week, and then we hear a different bible story and feel like we’re back at square one.
If you ever find yourself as a doubter, or a questioner, or a skeptic, or even a cynic, this biblical passage is for you.
Because the only thing in it that seems to clear to me is that clarity about Jesus is a process.
Nobody in this passage gets it all figured out the first time.
First, we have the story of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. People often talk about this story as if Jesus makes a mistake or somehow doesn’t know what he’s doing when he tries to heal him the first time.
I’m all for Jesus being fully human, but because of all of the other verses all around this story, I don’t think this is a scenario where Jesus didn’t know what he was doing.
In the story right before it, the disciples—remember those super heroes from last week who did all the right things? Well, they’ve been replaced with people who lack clarity about their Jesus.
Jesus feeds thousands of people on a hillside with just a few loaves of bread. The disciples see it. And almost immediately, we’re told they are in a boat and nobody remembered to bring bread and they’re wondering how they will eat.
And Jesus says, “for real? Were you not just with me on the hillside? Do you not remember?!”
Their clarity about who Jesus is seems to come in and out of focus, like trees walking.
After they meet the man from Bethsaida, Jesus asks his disciples, who do you say that I am?
Peter gives the right answer. You are the Messiah. He has some ability to see Jesus.
And then Jesus starts teaching them about what Messiahship looks like. Suffering. Rejection. Death. Resurrection.
Peter rebukes Jesus.
This description does not fit with what he wants/expected/hoped Messiah would mean.
Jesus seems to realize Peter can only see him like trees, walking. Get behind me, Satan, he says.
I always hear that as a harsh thing. The last thing I ever want Jesus to say to me.
But in my Bible study this week, my friend Ken pointed out that Jesus doesn’t say “go away from me forever.” He doesn’t tell Peter to get lost. He tells Peter to get behind him. And we then wondered if that means that Jesus recognizes that Peter doesn’t have true clarity about Jesus yet. He needs to keep on following. “If anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
If we really want clarity about Jesus, we have to keep on following him. Because just when we think he has come into focus, he looks like a tree, walking. And so we heed his call to get behind him, and keep on following.
Lent begins this week. We will gather at 7 pm on Wednesday for Ash Wednesday worship, and then again Saturday night for a Sabbath Saturday of Lent.
Lent is the season of preparation, approximately six weeks of time to prepare for Easter. The session is encouraging committees and groups to set aside some of the usual “work” you do most weeks, and use Lent as a time of prayer and study and story sharing.
One of the things I love the most about new member classes is that the new members share with me a bit of their story, telling why they want to join Southminster and how their journey has brought them to us. And I think in the quest to see Jesus more clearly, it can help to share each other’s stories.
Sometimes, we hear someone’s story and find a resonance—a place of commonality across the difference of our experience. Other times, someone’s story gives us clarity about an important difference in our own faith journey. Too often, I think, we come to church and the only stories you hear are mine. Or whoever happens to be in the pulpit. And that’s too bad. Because there are powerful and wonderful stories of faith all around this room.
We will be doing more sharing of personal faith stories in the weeks to come, because in the regular course of our life together, we get busy with other things, or we assume we can tell what’s going on in someone’s life by the way they appear on the outside, or we don’t take time to listen or to ask.
Here’s the video with which we started worship today, about sharing of stories:
When Peter, James, and John walked up the mountain with Jesus, I trust there was lots of time to talk, to share stories. And once they got up to the top, they had a moment of clarity, when Jesus spoke with the prophets of old. After that, God’s voice called out, “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 we prepare to enter a season of Lent, I pray we will listen for God’s voice—in prayer, in each other, and throughout the moments of our days. And our journey now is down the mountain, following Jesus, headed for the cross, and on our journey of discipleship. Grateful to be on this journey with you. Amen
(Later in the service, as people came forward for communion, they were given a question and invited to ask someone in church, who they maybe don’t know very well, their question.)