A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Feb 23, 2020
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.
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 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 a few weeks back who did all the right things? Well, they’ve been replaced with people who lack clarity about their Jesus.
Jesus had fed thousands of people on a hillside with just a few loaves of bread. The disciples were there. They saw 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.
And 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 Jesus doesn’t say “go away from me forever.” He doesn’t tell Peter to get lost. He tells Peter to get behind him. 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.
To see Jesus clearly, we walk behind him as he heads to suffering and death. Take up your cross, and follow me, he says. His followers would not have heard people call them to take up a cross, which wasn’t a symbol of faith in his day, but an actual form of torture and death for political prisoners of Rome. Take up your cross would have been an unfamiliar and troubling call.
His followers would more often have heard calls to “take up your sword and follow me”. I think that is more what Peter had in mind when he called Jesus the Messiah.
To take up one’s cross and follow Jesus is to deny self. Denying yourself doesn’t mean giving up chocolate for Lent, although you can do that if it helps you focus on discipleship. Denying yourself is not about pretending you don’t have needs that matter in the world. Ched Myers, in his commentary on Mark, Say to this Mountain, writes:
The gospel invitation to deny self….challenges the self as the center of the universe. It calls us out of life centered in individualism and self interest and into life according to God’s love. The call to follow, then, is a call to walk in a path of radical love that challenges oppressive power structures.” (p. 106)
It might have been easy for Peter, after he rebuked Jesus and then was soundly rebuked by Jesus in return, to focus on self, and his wounded ego. I can imagine slinking away in shame if Jesus gave me that talking to, no matter how much I deserved it.
But Peter keeps his focus on Jesus’ call to follow behind him, and stays there. And Peter gets to go up the mountain with Jesus, where the transfiguration happens. From seeing Jesus only partly clearly, Peter is there when Jesus is shining like the sun and talking to Moses and Elijah. Maybe the transfiguration was too clear for Peter?
It occurred to me this week that if American Christianity, broadly speaking, were to write this biblical story, we’d reverse it. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds to take up their cross, deny their own self centered goals, and follow him. The big crowds in this story get the hard message. The transfiguration, where God speaks and Jesus shines like the sun, that happens in a really small group, away from the cameras.
American Christianity would be promoting the transfiguration for the crowds. I don’t know how much attention we’d give to the discipleship message at all. —“come to the Arena Saturday night, one night only, and see Jesus like you’ve never seen him before—shiny and talking to dead prophets! God will speak from the rafters! You don’t want to miss this once in a lifetime evangelism rally!”
When Peter, James, and John walked up the mountain with Jesus, the media weren’t there. The politicians didn’t have photo ops. The disciples didn’t record God’s voice so they could sell it later.
Instead, it tells us “He didn’t know what to say, for they were terrified.” I’ve always assumed it was Peter who didn’t know what to say, because he often doesn’t seem to know the right thing to say. But I wonder if it was Jesus who didn’t know what to say, when he saw the terrified faces of his disciples.
I wonder if Jesus saw something more clearly on the mountain too. Maybe he saw the love of Peter, who stayed with him after their rebukes. Maybe he saw how hard it is for humans to clearly see divine glory and to clearly understand divine intentions.
Jesus didn’t know what to say, for they were terrified.
And at that moment, the cloud showed up, and God’s voice chimes in. Jesus didn’t know what to say to his friends, didn’t know how to comfort them, didn’t know how to assuage their fears, but God did.
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him”.
God’s voice hearkens back to Jesus’ baptism, another divine/human encounter that maybe was easier to see for the disciples. God’s voice reminds them to listen to Jesus, reminds them that the person who is teaching them the hard lessons about discipleship now is the person who called them at the beginning of their journey.
I don’t know that hearing God’s voice would completely end my terror, actually, but I do appreciate the gesture. The transfiguration, for me, is a reminder of the divine intention to draw close to humanity in love, to comfort, to bring clarity and understanding.
Lent begins this week. We will gather at 7 pm on Wednesday for Ash Wednesday worship. 6 pm for dinner!
Lent is the season of preparation, approximately six weeks of time to prepare for Easter, where we deny our self-centered concerns and take up God’s call for radical love and justice.
As we prepare to enter a season of Lent, I pray we will listen for how God’s voice is trying to comfort and help us—in prayer, in each other, and throughout the moments of our days.
I pray we will be reminded to listen to God’s beloved child, and to remember our own belovedness that is marked in our baptisms.
I pray we will seek clarity, and give each other grace when it all seems like trees, walking.
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