Comments and Observations:
“This is my Son, whom I love. Look at him. Isn’t this display something! I mean, just get a load of this light show!”
That’s what I’d expect God the Father to say.
But he doesn’t.
At the Super Bowl recently singer Katy Perry led the now typical halftime spectacular, pulling out all the stops to create a visual spectacle designed to take people’s breath away with lights, explosions, smoke, and then even more lights, usually extending to the whole stadium as each fan in the seats is given a light to shine at some pre-arranged moment in the show.
It’s not the kind of thing designed for radio.
So how odd it would be to hear the producer of the halftime Super Bowl show to say to reporters in the run-up to the event, “People will be amazed to hear this—it will be great even on the radio!!”
No, no, that’s not right.
And yet, in Mark 9 at the climax of one of the Bible’s grandest visual light shows of glory, God the Father comes and advises not that the disciples look at Jesus. Nope, what we get is: “Listen to him.”
Listen to him??
Listen? Did they hear that voice from the cloud right? It reminds me of a scene from the rather quirky film, Forrest Gump. At one point in the movie Forrest’s erstwhile childhood sweetheart (and future wife, as it turns out) is trying to launch a singing career, but the only gig she can secure is one that requires her to appear on stage wearing nothing but her guitar. Perched on a stool naked as the day she was born, she finds it powerfully difficult to get the audience to listen to her singing and guitar playing. The men in the audience had come to look, not listen, and the figure on the stage was ensuring that looking was what it was going to be all about no matter how well she tried to also sing.
Listen to him. It’s not what we expected to be the bottom line of this exceedingly striking event up on that mountaintop. And yet at this juncture in the Gospel of Mark, that is exactly the message that needed to be conveyed.
After all, even though Mark tells us that this incident took place some six days after the preceding story that rounds out Mark 8, we as readers are brought directly from Jesus’ words about death, suffering, and cross-bearing to this moment on the mountaintop. And that’s key because what Jesus had just said had not set well with the disciples and principally with Peter at that. Peter had recently correctly identified Jesus as the Christ of God, and although Mark does not record this part of that famous incident, the other gospels assure us that Peter was mightily blessed by Jesus on account of knowing the answer to that linchpin question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter got the answer right but behind his good answer was a whole lot of confused thinking and wrong-headed definitions as to what constituted Christhood / Messiahship. Peter had stars in his eyes—or at least in the eyes of his imagination—as he confirmed Jesus as the Christ. Peter and the others could already envision the posts of honor and glory they’d occupy when Jesus brought in his kingdom by chasing out the Romans and re-establishing the halcyon days of David and Solomon to the people of Israel.
So when, without missing a beat, Jesus then went on to talk about suffering many things, getting rejected by the very people of Israel, and then dying . . . well, the roar in Peter’s ears was so great that he did not even hear the part about “after three days rise again” because everything within him was raging against the first part of what Jesus had said. For Peter the formula was a simple as basic arithmetic: Jesus + Christ = Glory.
So, seeing as he was feeling like he was on a roll, Peter took it on himself to teach Jesus this basic theological formula, rebuking Jesus for this doom-and-gloom talk. Jesus has to wheel on Peter, label him Satan’s little helper, and then go on to explain the real dynamic of the gospel. It’s an upside-down, counterintuitive world that Jesus goes on to sketch. It’s a world where living under the sentence of death, giving up oneself, losing one’s very life, are all the ticket to the top (or to the top by way of the bottom).
It’s been six days since Jesus said that, and you have the feeling that the passage of time has not helped Peter and the others make peace with any of it. We’re not told what their reaction to Jesus’ words were, but subsequent arguments among the disciples as to who is the greatest among them (cf. Mark 9:33ff) and then James and John’s request for the top two cabinet posts in the upcoming Jesus Administration (cf. Mark 10:35ff) tell us that they had not listened to Jesus’ words (or if they had listened, they had not taken the words seriously, much less to heart).
So God himself puts in an appearance, throws in some divine razzle-dazzle, brings in two heavyweights from Israel’s past, and he really does do all of that not for the sake of the visual spectacle per se but to back up everything Jesus has ever said, including what Jesus had just said at the end of what we now call Mark 8.
In fact, not long after this incident, the disciples would see something else before which they’d cower and tremble: they’d see their friend Jesus impaled on a spit of wood at the Place of the Skull. But even on that dark day the key activity would be the same: don’t go with what your eyes show you. Listen to him.
“It is accomplished!”
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
I know I can approach things from a quirky angle sometimes (or so I’m told!) but I’ve always wondered: How did the disciples know it was Moses and Elijah? It’s a cinch Peter, James, and John had never seen photos of these two men from Israel’s history. And I suspect oil paintings of them likewise did not hang in some “Saints of Renown” gallery in the Temple. They had never had their faces plastered onto $5 bills or stamped onto a denarius or something. And you likewise suspect they were not donning some “Hi My Name Is ______” sticky badges on their chests.
So how did they know?
Maybe as good Jews these three had been sufficiently well schooled in the belief that Moses and Elijah would have something to do with the coming of the Messiah that they were able immediately to surmise who they were. There were just enough clues on display as to maybe even make it a cinch they’d figure it out.
In February each year in the United States we celebrate what is known as “Presidents Day” (and in fact, in 2015 Presidents Day is the day after Transfiguration Sunday). So if this year some editorial cartoon around the time of that day depicted Barack Obama flanked by two figures completely in silhouette, the cartoonist would need to include only a bare minimum of little details in order to immediately let most any educated American know that the two flanking figures were Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The outlines of a powdered wig on the one figure and a stovepipe hat atop the head of the other figure would be more than enough to do the trick.
Maybe it was like that for Peter, James, and John. Given who they figured Jesus was, what other two ancient figures could possibly appear next to him at such a startling moment except Moses and Elijah!?
Of course, the easy answer to the question “How did they know?” is that the Holy Spirit revealed it to their hearts and minds, and that is no doubt part of the answer, too. But however it was they knew, Peter at least was enthused enough by the gathering as to want to bottle it and keep it going. Maybe he thought the eschaton had come, that heaven had come down to earth and so it was time to just settle in to the glorious reality. Maybe he thought that heaven had come just for them and the rest of the world was on its own but he at least was going to make sure he snagged his own portion of the glory.
Whatever his thinking—or perhaps better said whatever his lack of thinking given the dazzlement of it all—he suggests to Jesus that they build three “shelters.” The actual Greek word is skenas, which is the same word used in the LXX for “tabernacle” and is the root of the verb form John used in John 1:14 when he told us that the Word made flesh “tabernacled/tented” among us.
The Tabernacle in ancient Israel, of course, had been the temporary—and highly moveable—home of Yahweh prior to the formal establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Maybe Mark’s use of that word in Mark 9:5 was not meant to carry this much theological freight but there may be a sense in which Peter wanted to capture the glory of God in Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in a kind of latter-day tabernacle right there on that mountaintop. It looked like something worth preserving, after all. Maybe over time the glory of it all would radiate out from that mountaintop and begin to fill the whole earth. Maybe they could move those latter-day tabernacles much like the Israelites used to pack up and move the original Tabernacle—glory and Ark of the Covenant and presence of Yahweh and all—to a new place. Maybe they could eventually cart the glory of those little tabernacles all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem and infuse it with the glory of the Christ, ushering in the kingdom of God once and for all.
Maybe. Or maybe he just didn’t know what he was saying. (I am pretty sure I would have been tongue-tied had I been there so we can give old Peter a break here!)
But here is a curious point: if the apostle John was later right to say in his own gospel that the Word made flesh lived in a skene or a “tabernacle” of flesh, maybe he was himself harking back to this very incident on that mountain. Because as quickly as the Transfiguration had begun, it ended and the disciples were left with just Jesus. Peter did not get to build his little tents to hold in the glory of it all but then, if John was right years later when composing his own gospel account, neither did Peter need to build that tent. The real tabernacle containing the glory of God was still right in front of him.
And from the overflow of that humble tent of glory, the whole earth really would eventually become filled with the knowledge of the glory of God!
It’s interesting that verse 2 says that when Jesus took the three disciples up onto a high mountain “they were all alone” (monos in the Greek). Then in verse 8, after the cloud lifts, the disciple see “Jesus alone” (again, monos). Perhaps there is nothing to this, but it’s curious that this incident is bracketed by the sense of being “alone.” Perhaps one idea that can be drawn from the Transfiguration is that it reveals how when you are with Jesus, you are never really alone—you are always in the company of a great host, a great cloud of witnesses (no pun intended on the cloud in this story!). In the end, they see Jesus alone, standing by himself again. But when it is Jesus you’re talking about, you never have just him all by himself. The Father and Spirit are always with him and great glory is never far away.
In his fanciful “Theological ABCs” book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing” (Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
In one sense Buechner here is maybe rendering the actual Transfiguration of Jesus a bit too mundane, a bit too much like what could happen to us on most any given afternoon while riding the bus or walking down a sidewalk. But on the other hand, he may be on to something, and I would add to his musings this one: Even on all kinds of days when the disciples and Jesus were by no means having a mountaintop experience and when dazzling garments whiter than white were nowhere to be seen, even then when Jesus smiled kindly at lepers, looked pained to see a “sinner” being shunned by the Temple establishment, or looked winsome after telling a hurting prostitute to go in peace because her sins were forgiven, there was sense in which the disciples were seeing the face of the divine transfigured in also those ordinary moments. They were seeing hints of glory. They were seeing true God of true God, vividly and surprisingly and, yes, dazzlingly on display in God’s One and Only Son, full of grace and truth.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Mark 9:2-9 Commentary