I’ll never forget the first time I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s impossible to describe the layers of feelings–the awe, the fear, the sense of being so small in a vast world, the awareness of eternity. I felt like a pioneer, coming across this vista for the first time, and at the same time, like a visitor from the future, seeing an ancient remnant of a long-gone world. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, a moment when all of time and knowledge seems to exist at once and you can see it all clearly. We might call such a time an epiphany. The story of the Transfiguration, which wraps up the season of Epiphany for us today, is an account of just that sort of mystical moment.
The disciples are beginning to think they’ve come to understand who Jesus is and what he’s about when they suddenly see him–literally–in an amazing new light. He shines in front of them, unexpectedly accompanied now by Moses and Elijah, each revered characters who were said to have seen God face to face. Moses encountered God’s glory in a burning bush, and Elijah 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–a confluence of what was and what will be.
And Peter, God bless him, thinks he understands what’s going on. He is confident that this occasion requires him to build little structures to confine each of the three shining presences. I get Peter’s impulse. He wants to capture the beauty and holiness of this moment–to keep the mountaintop experiencing going on and on. But God will not be limited or squashed into our little tents, our time tables–no matter how much we would sometimes like that. Jesus does not allow the disciples to shut him off from the world he loves.
Jesus wants to make it clear that while he is the continuity of God’s promises through the Law and Prophets, God’s story does not end there. Jesus has not come as a Messiah simply to connect his current followers with ancient Israelite forebears in the faith. NO. His vision is much broader than that. Nor is God content to simply fluff up our pillows in heaven, waiting for us to die and move in. God refuses to be tied down or held up in any dimension of time. The Spirit blows where She will, when She wills. I understand why Peter found that exasperating.
This text is a helpful corrective during 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 in this story: just as Peter is in the midst of laying out his plan for what should happen next, God interrupts him, saying, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” In other words, “Shut up, Peter. This is my Son, the Beloved. Stop talking and listen to him. You are not in charge here.”
And then the dazzling 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 fleetingly as this mountaintop moment was, 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, after Jesus is crucified, 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 with a political agenda. He was the Light of the World. He was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. How much they will need light in those dark, horrible hours between Good Friday and Easter! When voices of guilt and confusion and doubt and fear threaten to overwhelm them, they will need to recall God’s voice on the mountaintop saying, “This is my beloved son! Listen to HIM, not all those other voices.”
When betrayal and suffering come our way, it’s not hard to lose sight of our identities as children of the light. 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 when we can’t see. As in nature, the sun may set at night, but it is not permanently extinguished. The 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’ll hear the echoes of our own callings at our baptisms, assuring us that, as followers of Jesus and heirs of his promise, we are beloved too. It was true once, it remains true now and it will be true in the future.
When we feel like ants on the side of the Grand Canyon, it’s consoling 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 is with us, renewing us, strengthening us, and reviving 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. The heavens, which were ripped open at Jesus’ baptism, 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.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider