Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2024

Mark 9:2-9 Commentary

We transition towards Lent with the Transfiguration. Similar to Matthew and Luke’s account, the Transfiguration event takes place after Jesus prophesies his future suffering. In fact, it’s this suffering speech (in Matthew) that leads Peter to try to rebuke Jesus, and to be subsequently told by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Though we can’t know for certainty how much of that conversation is stuck in Peter’s head six days later, it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s forgotten all about it. But he, James and John are about to go out of the lion’s den and into the fire when it comes to revelations about Jesus the Christ.

Because up on that mountaintop, Jesus inexplicably changes before their very eyes. We’re specifically told that he changes in such a way that nobody on earth could have been involved. The clothes are just too white for anything of this world. What they are seeing is a glimpse of God’s glory. Jesus himself told them, as part of his suffering, that the Son of Man would come “in the glory of his Father and with the angels.” (8.38) There is a long tradition of interpretation, especially among the early church fathers (before the split into East and West) that Jesus is revealing the godhead to the disciples. (See Homily 21 by Chrysostom and Homily 34 by Gregory Palamas.) Remember that Jesus shining is an image from Revelation as well: a promise that there will be no need for sun or moon or stars because Jesus will shine as the only light needed.

So maybe what Jesus is doing here is giving these three disciples in particular a gift of affirmation. A sign that helps them see what has been said in its proper context—especially as they will have to carry their faith through witnessing Jesus’s suffering. It is the glory of God’s very self, alive in Christ, that will sustain him through the suffering.

For theologians of the Reformed tradition, everything God does is for God’s glory; and in that sense, his suffering is for his glory because of what it accomplishes for us—a very Lutheran conviction as well. (Perhaps your tradition holds to similar ideas? Lutheranism and Calvinism are the ones I’m most familiar with.) But, given how difficult it was (and is) to grasp this upside-down sense of glory, Jesus is giving them first-hand data.

But we’re not done yet. Powerhouse Jewish forefathers, Moses and Elijah, also appear and start talking with Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell us what they are talking about like Luke does, so we won’t focus much here. Except to say that their presence is also what terrifies Peter, James and John. How is it possible that these two are before them?

Peter’s terror seems to send him into fawn mode, saying how good it is that they are there to witness the scene. And by offering to erect three tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, Peter seems to be implying that it is good for the three disciples to be there so that they can serve these larger-than-life figures of the faith. While it is good that they are there—seeing God is the prize of the Christian life, is it not?—what is wrong with the offer to build three tents?

Having read multiple commentaries from the history of Christian tradition, William Placher argues in the Belief Series commentary on Mark that it’s been thought to be wrong for two reasons. First, some have read it as yet another tactic on Peter’s part to try to keep Jesus from going through with his suffering plans. Second, and given the context in Mark, this one bears a little more theological weight: Peter’s offer to build three tents means he’s missed the point about Jesus’s greatness. By making three tents, he’s treating Jesus as being on the same level as Moses and Elijah.

But as John the Baptist said about Jesus, he is the Greater One. The cloud from heaven makes it abundantly clear, telling James, John, and Peter, “This is my son, the beloved; LISTEN to him.” Not to Moses, not to Elijah… listen to Jesus. These are the same words that God spoke to Jesus himself at his baptism (minus the command to listen, of course), but now we don’t have to wonder who heard them; we hear them ourselves.

Interestingly, the experience itself is also an affirmation of the message. Remember that in Exodus Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting to be with God because the cloud had descended upon it. Now, the cloud of God’s presence descends and surrounds them all and proclaims Jesus as the beloved. And then, just like that, it’s gone and Moses and Elijah with it.

Aren’t you so curious as to how they transitioned and headed down the mountain again? Did Jesus just start walking, leaving the three with no choice but to follow? In any case, as they are walking down, Jesus tells them to keep this experience to themselves “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (verse 9) It’s further confirmation of the theory that Jesus is revealing a sign about the glory of the Son of Man.

But it’s also a reminder that experiences of God’s very presence can take a very long time to understand, and to be able to share in a way that is actually useful to the community of faith.

Textual Point

James, John and Peter are a special group of three within the disciples. In the Gospel of Mark alone, they are singled out as being with Jesus on four different occasions: 5.37, here in 9.2, 13.3, and 14.33. (My thanks goes to Craig Evans in his Word Biblical Commentary on Mark for pointing these instances out.) That last instance is especially significant; it is when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. When we remember that they were told to listen to Jesus here at the Transfiguration, their inability to stay awake—Jesus’s only request—weighs a little heavier.

Illustration Idea

Many of us are at least slightly familiar with Julian of Norwich’s visions (“All will be well…”, etc.). But if you haven’t read her texts, then you might not know that Julian first recorded the series of visions and prayer experiences she had in short form near the time she had them. She then spent twenty years living as an anchoress (alone) in a small, secluded room off of St. Julian’s church. It was over these twenty years that she continued to ponder what the Lord had shone her, leading her to write a longer version of all of the “showings” or “revelations” for the church’s benefit. (You can find the two sets printed together in the Classics of Western Christian Spirituality Series.)


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