“The One Constant”
First Reading (2 Kings 2:1-12, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 9:2-9, NRSVUE)
If you thought that our readings from Mark’s Gospel over the last few weeks, with their tales of Jesus performing miraculous healings and exorcisms, were tough to wrap your mind around, then today’s account of Jesus’s Transfiguration is on a different level altogether — and I’m not just saying that because it takes place on top of a mountain; I’m saying that because this story is weird, even by biblical standards.
Jesus takes James, John and Peter on a little climbing trip and, when they arrive at the summit, all sorts of strange things start happening; Jesus’s “clothes bec[o]me dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (what kind of laundry detergent was he using?).
Next, Elijah and Moses — two of the greatest prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures — appear out of nowhere which, understandably, freaks everyone out a bit (well, except for Jesus, that is). Then God shows up in a cloud and speaks, saying in reference to Jesus, “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” (there’s an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, which emphasizes that God was pretty serious about this).
With Peter, James and John now sufficiently stunned, God and the prophets disappear as quickly as they’d arrived (we’re not told whether Jesus, at this point, had stopped glowing). Jesus and the disciples head back down the mountain, with the former swearing the latter to secrecy about all that’s just happened (as if anyone would have believed them anyway), “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (as if the disciples had any idea what Jesus meant by that). And just like that, this wild ride of a story comes to an end.
At some level, it makes sense that Mark chooses to share this event with his readers (as, incidentally, do Matthew and Luke). As we discussed last week, Mark is really concerned with demonstrating Jesus’s authority as the Messiah — and while all the prior healings and exorcisms have definitely gone a long way toward doing that, God’s firsthand endorsement of Jesus here really brings it home. I mean, when God takes the time to drop by in order to tell you, “This is my Son… listen to him!” it’s probably wise to do so.
But the downside of all the razzle-dazzle in the Transfiguration story is that it tends to draw people’s attention away from another really important, albeit far less spectacular, thing that is going on here — something that is still incredibly relevant for us today. It’s in this spirit that I’d like to spend some time considering the disciple known as Peter, the rock upon which Jesus will build his church, the one to whom Jesus will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven, becuase Peter goes through a tranfiguration of sorts here too.
Peter lived in Galilee almost two thousand years ago and wasn’t, at least at this juncture, part of what we’d describe as a “church,” but he’d probably resonate with the experiences of many people in twenty-first century congregations — including, but certainly not limited to, our own.
Peter gets a bad rap due to the way he often comes across in the Gospels, and for good reason, I suppose. He never quite seems to get it, even though he thinks he does; he tends to act instinctively and impulsively, which gets him into trouble; and as Jesus tries to direct the disciples’ eyes ever-forward, Peter always seems to be looking backwards.
I say this because when Peter reaches the summit of Mount Transfiguration, and sees Jesus, well, transfigured, and then beholds Elijah and Moses appearing out of thin air, he does something that, to our modern ears, probably sounds odd for that moment: he proposes constructing dwellings for them. But to a first-century Jew, which Peter was, this would have made a lot more sense.
The dwellings to which Peter refers were (and are still) part of the final and most important festival of the Jewish agricultural year, known as the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Feast of the Booths, or Sukkot in Hebrew. During this seven day-long celebration, the people constructed temporary structures in which to eat and sleep; these humble accomodations also honored the protection God that provided the Israelites during their long journey in the wilderness. Eventually, Sukkot took on additional significance for the Israelites: it became tied not only to the harvest to but also to their hopes for a messiah who would liberate them from their oppressors.
So when Peter sees Jesus all aglow, and comes face-to-face with Elijah and Moses, he rightly senses that this is an important moment. In response, he dips into his faith tradition in order to figure out what to do in commemoration of this event, and he suggests building dwellings simply because that’s a thing his people have done in the past to commemorate important moments.
But there’s one giant problem with Peter’s plan: it’s not actually what Jesus is calling for; it’s not actually what God is calling for.
You see, the disciples are brought up the mountain to receive a revelation from God about who Jesus is and what he’s all about. This isn’t something that happens every day, so God cues up the special effects in order to get the disciples’ attention, and this seems to work, though only up to a point.
God is trying to let the disciples know, in no uncertain terms, that massive change to the order of things is underway, that the entire world is in the process of being upended, that everything is different now. And what is Peter’s reaction to this? He simply proposes doing what he and his people have done for as long as anyone can remember. Think of it like the first-century version of the seven most frequently spoken words in the modern church: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Because God’s initial strategy to get through to the disciples doesn’t exactly go as intended, God changes the plan: “Well, that didn’t work. I guess I’ll have to go talk to them myself.” So God shows up in the clouds and lays it out for them as clearly and as succinctly as possible: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
That’s right — in this pivotal moment for humankind and for all creation, God doesn’t want the disciples to say anything or to build anything or to have a meeting to plan anything; God wants them to do one thing, and only one thing; God wants them to listen — to what Jesus is saying to them now, to what God is saying to them now.
We can look at Peter from our vantage point and shake our heads in judgment and in disbelief at his ineptitude and his lack of understanding; and it’s really easy for us to do this because we know what happens next, we know how this next part of the story is eventually going to end. Poor Peter didn’t have the benefit of hindsight like we do.
But what about the part of the story in which we currenty find ourselves? Because it should be pretty clear that the Church — including, but not limited to, our church — is in a pivotal moment too. So, should we continue doing the things we’ve always done, assuming that they’ll have the results they’ve had in the past, and believing they’re still suited to the current moment? Or should we be considering what God might be asking of us now?
Does God want us to look ever-backwards, to be consumed by our nostalgia for the way things used to be — even though that’s safe and familiar and comfortable? Or is God calling us to look forward to new possibliities — even though that’s scary and uncertain and uncomfortable?
Look, there is nothing wrong with honoring our past, with celebrating our traditions, with remembering what we’ve been through as a community. None of this is a problem until we start using it as a way of hiding from God, as way of putting our hands over our ears to avoid hearing what wants from us today.
Like I said earlier, Peter experiences a transfiguation here too — it may not a spectcular as Jesus’s, but it’s pretty darned important. Right after God speaks, Peter scraps the plans for his building project; he changes his way of seeing things; he listens to Jesus and heads back to the reality of the world below; he follows Jesus to Jerusalem and, eventually, to the cross.
Really Peter’s great act of faith here isn’t following Jesus up the mountain, it’s following him back down the mountain to this mess of a world to tend to the needs of that world.
So, perhaps we should stop reflexively doing what we’ve always done, and start discerning how we can be a part of what God is doing right now.
Perhaps we should stop simply trying to be who we used to be and start figuring out what God is calling us towards in our place and time.
In the United Church of Christ, we like to say that “God is still speaking” — and that’s all well and good. But I wonder how often we stop to consider the real implications of that statement. Because what difference does it make that God is still speaking if we’re not actually listening?
For the next seven weeks, we’re going to be making that journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples, as we do every year about this time. As we hear Jesus’s words to his disicples along the way, I invite you to spend some time considering what they are saying to you about our community and what God is asking of us.
“This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!”