We say a lot of things in church that we can’t really explain. In the ordinary world, we could never get away with this line from the communion liturgy: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” In ordinary life, one might ask, logically: which one is it? Christ was or is or is to come, but how can Christ be all three? That’s the beauty of church—here we acknowledge the mystery that God is beyond our chronological and scientific boundaries. The past and present and future all simultaneously rest in God’s hand, even if we can’t see or explain that.
Every once in a great while, however, there is an extraordinary moment in time when we see not only the present moment, but also capture the hidden dimensions of the future and the shadows of the past. It might be a bit foggy, but all of time and knowledge seems to exist at once—such moments might be called epiphanies. The story of the Transfiguration is a story about just that sort of mystical moment.
It’s not a mistake that Mark has set today’s events on a mountaintop. A mountaintop is the perfect symbol of the divine meeting the earthly. If a person ever expected to encounter God, a mountaintop—away from the crowds and the noise and the everyday bustle of life—is the kind of place one might expect it. And it’s not a mistake that this bizarre event happens when it does in Mark’s Gospel either. Mark’s a great story-teller. In perfect literary style, Mark began telling us the story of Jesus on a day when the heavens were ripped open, and God’s voice boomed out, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” The dove-shaped image of the divine came down to meet humanity, resting on a mortal Jesus. And we know that Mark’s story will end with a tomb of earth being ripped open, unable to contain the heavenly anymore. The vibrancy of God’s life and love, must always press further and further outward, downward, upward.
Knowing that this tale begins with the heavens being ripped open, and ends with the earth being ripped open, today we are at the midway point. In this halfway point, the boundaries between heaven and earth are a fuzzy and diffuse as light through a fog. What is mortal and what is holy combine a blaze of light and glory.
The disciples, who think they’ve come to understand who Jesus is and what he’s about suddenly see him—literally—in a new and amazing light. He shines in front of them, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, each revered for having seen God face to face. One had encountered God’s glory in a burning bush, the other in a fiery chariot. One represents the Law, and one the prophets. They flank Jesus in this startling, brilliant moment of heaven encountering earth, past encountering present, atop a mountain.
And Peter, God bless him, thinks he understands what’s going on. He is sure he knows how to respond, offering to build little structures to confine each of the three. And I understand Peter’s impulse. All this holiness cannot be meant to be fleeting. It must be contained, captured.
But God will not be limited–even though we would sometimes like that. Jesus does not allow the disciples to shut him off from the world he loves. Jesus knows that God’s story is not simply one of communion with our ancient Israelite forebears in the faith. And he knows that God is not simply fluffing up our pillows in heaven, waiting for us to die and move in. God is unwilling to be tied down or held up in any dimension of time. The Spirit blows where it will.
Maybe this text is meant for those times when we are tempted think we are absolutely sure of who God is and what God is up to. When people proclaim, “God wants this” or “God doesn’t want that,” let’s remember what happens next in this story: God interrupts Peter in the midst of his plan. God says, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” In other words, “Shut up, Peter. You are not in charge here. This is my Son, the Beloved. Stop talking and listen to him.”
And then, almost as soon as it appears, this vision of light ends! And though our lesson today doesn’t go that far, what happens next in Mark’s story is that Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain where both believers and demons await them. The first people they meet are a man and his sick son. Jesus, dear beloved Jesus, God’s chosen one who gleams with a divine light that cannot be understood, descends from the peak of glory in order to reach out in compassion to touch a troubled child. To bring peace both to him and to his father.
As fleeting as this mountaintop moment is, my guess is that both Jesus and the disciples needed it. They all needed to remember Jesus’ baptism, his commissioning for ministry, his status in God’s heart. In the days and weeks to come, when all the voices around Jesus in Jerusalem are screaming that he is a heretic and a threat to civil society, he will need to hear the echoes of his true identity: God’s son, the beloved.
And the disciples will need to hear that echo too. Peter and James and John will need to remember, as they hide in the upper room with all the doors locked, that the Jesus they saw bleed and die was not just another religious radical. Not just the carpenter’s son. He was the Light of the World. He was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. How much they will need light in the dark, horrible hours between Good Friday and Easter! When voices of guilt and confusion and doubt and fear threaten to overwhelm them, how much they will need to recall that Jesus was the one that they were instructed to listen to.
We can all lose sight of our identities as children of the light when the bleakness of betrayal and suffering surround us. One of the reasons we have a story like this one is to remind us that we do not stop being children of the light just because we can’t see it anymore. The sun may set, but it is not extinguished. Light will return. When it gets dark, and we start to lose our way, we can cling to the reminder that once Light suffused a whole mountaintop. Once God’s voice boomed out that Jesus was beloved and we should listen to him. And we, as followers of Jesus and heirs of his promise, are beloved too. It was true once, it remains true now and it will be true in the future.
No matter how often we hear it, we thrill to hear again that we matter. We are forgiven, redeemed, and part of God’s family, no matter what. When we cannot see the light, we can still taste in our mouths and feel with our hands the truth that God renews us and strengthens us and revives us. No matter how alone we feel, we’re in this together.
Jesus could have stayed up on that mountaintop, reveling in the divine light and holy recognition of his true nature. But love would not let him stay away from us. Hold on to this thread: though death approaches, there will be another moment when the division between earth and heaven becomes filmy and permeable, like fog on a mountaintop. The heavens, which were ripped open at Jesus’ baptism, have never closed up again. The absolute promise of God is this: no matter how dark it gets, the story ends with resurrection and new life, for Jesus and for us, every single time.
Since that is the case, look to the light. Live in the light. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live and love like Jesus. We don’t get to stay on top of the mountain, away from the pain of this world. But we can walk straight and tall, even as we come down the mountain and into the face of illness and death (or whatever threatens our well-being) because Jesus walks beside us, leading us from darkness into light. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Thanks be to God! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider