Mark 9:2-8 | Transfiguration | February 15, 2015
A Little Distance
I once heard the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson talking about how scholars decide whether and to what extent stories from the Gospels are likely to reflect actual events in the life of Jesus. He explained that for decades, one of the assumptions about gospel traditions has been that if a story can be dated as early, it is more likely to be historically accurate, and if it originated later, people suspect that it was less so. So something you can date to the year AD 60 is probably more reflective of Jesus than something that dates to AD 90.
But Johnson wanted to cast doubt on that way of playing the historical Jesus game, and he did it by saying something like this: “My mother died 25 years ago. I think I understand her better today than I did the year she died. I think my recollections of her today would actually offer a more accurate picture of who she was than stories I would have told even 10 or 20 years ago.”
The comment stuck with me, probably because it is true that often we need some time to speak with understanding about an experience or a person. With the Transfiguration story, it is as if the disciples need some distance from the event to figure out what it means.
Of course, as far as the reported incident, what happened on the mountaintop is clear enough. Everything points in the same direction: location, lighting, the cast of characters from Israel’s past, the clouds, and the voice from heaven. Together, they lead to the conclusion that we are looking at a manifestation of God’s glory, at the center of which is Jesus Christ. OK, but what does that mean? Figuring that out takes a little more time.
It is especially complicated to figure out what all that light means during this particular week for us. Like many of you, I imagine, I listened this week to the Story Corps recording made by Yusor Abu-Salha, one of the Muslim students shot and killed in Chapel Hill. Last summer, this young woman, in her 20s, recorded an interview with her elementary school teacher, thanking the woman for all she learned from her over the years. She talked about what a blessing it had been to grow up in America. She was going to be a dentist. Now Yusor and her husband and sister are all dead.
Closer to home, the family and friends of Mike Duckworth are suffering a different but also completely unexpected loss. Mike is the young father who died in a one-vehicle car crash Sunday night between Hendersonville and Brevard. He leaves behind a partner and a 14-month old daughter.
Light in the Darkness
In the context of violence and suffering like that so near to us this week, it might seem irrelevant or escapist to dwell on the light of the Transfiguration. But the Transfiguration itself, in the life of Jesus, is set right in the middle of violence and suffering. This story is set in the gospel closer to its halfway point than its ending. On one side of it is the violence of John the Baptist’s murder at the hands of Herod. On the other side of the story is the violence of the cross itself and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus.
Just before the story is Peter’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and his statement that the suffering Jesus predicts for himself “must never happen to you!” Immediately following the Transfiguration is the suffering of a boy with seizures and the inability of the disciples who had been left at the foot of the mountain to heal the boy.
The event of the Transfiguration is surrounded by the darkness of the world we live in. Jesus is not an escape from the world but light shining within it. Throughout the story of the real-world Jesus, light and darkness will continue to exist side by side. “The light shines in the darkness,” John will say, and try as it might, the darkness could not get it.
Second Chances in Discipleship
The Transfiguration also illustrates that even the most straightforward religious experience does not necessarily mean you are able to make sense of your life and God’s claim and calling to you. The disciples of Jesus are vain, envious, boastful, impatient, cowardly, and intellectually slow. Jesus does not choose them because they are competent, and their close association with him does not make them courageous—at least it doesn’t while he is alive.
Peter, James, and John are left puzzled and frightened by the Transfiguration. It may be an unintended lesson, but one of the things the disciples teach us is that if they can be called to follow Jesus, then it is a pretty safe bet that anybody can! When I was a teenager, one of our pastors was a dull preacher. As a high school student considering ordained ministry, I remember thinking, “I may not be great at preaching, but I couldn’t be any worse than this guy.” It was arrogant, yes, but there you have it: the mediocrity of someone in the ministry was part of the way I heard God’s call to me.
In the same way, the disciples who are terrified at the Transfiguration and terrified again in the Garden of Gethsemane—and who are mostly just confused in between the one occurrence of blinding light and the other occurrence of deep darkness—demonstrate that following Jesus is a way of life open to people who will often get it wrong. We pray to be faithful followers, but at the same time, since we have watched disciples like Peter, James and John, we are not surprised by our own need for direction, correction, and forgiveness.
“Listen to Him”
In the midst of the light shining in the darkness, and to disciples who are not that great at following instructions, the voice from heaven says about Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
“Listen to him” can mean different things. Maybe it means, “Stop talking, Peter, and listen to him.” Maybe it means, “Listen to him, not to all the other voices that will be vying for your attention the closer you get to Jerusalem.”
This week I heard the command a third way. A pastor who is a friend of mine was talking about his congregation, and he said, “We are discovering that we do not have to ‘fix’ each other.” I was intrigued. I grew up hoping to make the world a better place, and most of the time I feel like I’m not making a lot of headway. I would like to fix at least one or two people a week—just to show progress. My friend said that, where he lives, people in the congregation have begun to talk to each other like this: they will say, “I’m not telling you this so that you can fix it. I’m telling you this so I have company in it.” Listening like that is an act of accompaniment and friendship.
So in the Transfiguration, I imagine God as Parent to Son Jesus, proud of him and concerned. So the Parent says to the Son’s friends, “Where he is going, he is going to need you. Listen to him. Don’t try to fix things so he doesn’t suffer; in a world where the powerful are unfaithful, faithfulness will lead to suffering. Don’t try to fix him at all. Accompany him. Listen to him. Watch and pray with him, and he will not be alone—and neither will you.” Of course, the disciples do not get this right either, but again, even their negative example can be instructive for us.
Light for Us
The Transfiguration proclaims that the light of Christ shines brightly, not as an escape from darkness but in the midst of it. The disciples who witness it are themselves a witness to the wideness of God’s mercy and the long-suffering nature of God’s Son. Still, he offers marginal disciples the joy of his company and the chance to listen to him. His Transfiguration is a vision of the light of the world for all of us in the world to take with us into the fray.