John’s Gospel begins with a description of Jesus as light shining in the darkness, a light no darkness can overcome. Later John has Jesus announcing that he is the Light of the World. Mark’s Gospel has none of that poetic language; instead Mark tries to communicate the idea of God’s glory through images and stories like this one—with Jesus shining brightly on a mountaintop in the middle of the day, flanked by Moses and Elijah. There are no words for the divine splendor he longs to convey, any more than there are words to communicate the beauty of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, or a new baby’s cry, or the smell of your favorite dish being cooked by someone who loves you. If you’ve ever had a moment when everything was so magnificent that words failed you, then you understand this story of the Transfiguration as much as anyone can. It’s no wonder Peter exclaims, “It is good to be here!”
I could elaborate how Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, respectively, and how Jesus, standing in their company, is the fulfillment of all the Jewish scriptures. What feels more urgent to me to address about this story at this time in our lives and at this point in the liturgical year, is how this story points us toward God’s radiant glory. We could use some radiance right about now, couldn’t we?
Throughout the season of Epiphany we’ve heard lessons that glimmered with flashes of God’s kingdom in our midst—stories of Jesus bringing healing, belonging, and release from demons—along with messages of God’s grace and forgiveness. And this ministry began when we heard God’s voice announcing to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now, on the precipice of Lent, we hear a variation on that same phrase: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Before, the message was directed at Jesus from God. Now it is announced for the gathered disciples. At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the echo of these words will come from a Roman centurion who recognizes, too late, who it is they’ve crucified: “Surely this man was God’s son.”
As fleeting as this mountaintop moment is for Jesus and his disciples, it’s important. My guess is that 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 the echoes of God’s voice proclaiming his true identity: God’s son, the beloved. And the disciples will need that echo too. Peter and James and John will need to remember, as they hide in the upper room with all the doors locked after Jesus is crucified, 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 His 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 saying, “This is my beloved son! Listen to HIM, not all those other voices.”
And we need that reminder too, for those moments when we are all too aware of where following Jesus will inevitably lead us. How can we proceed when we feel like we’re in a dark place? 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 the stock market or our sports teams disappoint us, when our wallets are thin and our patience is short, when our families and our government seem beyond salvaging, when heartbreak and abuse and injustice and death seem to be the order of the day. When it gets dark, and we start to lose our way, we cling to the reminder too how, once, Light suffused the whole mountaintop. Once God’s voice boomed out that Jesus was God’s beloved and we should listen to him. And in that reminder 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 tiny droplets of water in the Pacific Ocean it’s consoling to hear that we matter—that we are forgiven, redeemed, and always part of God’s family, no matter what.
But that is not all. Our choseness by God is just the beginning, not the end. As God’s claiming inaugurated Jesus’ path to public ministry, and the Transfiguration renewed his position of blessedness, that same calling led Jesus forward, down the mountainside, toward Jerusalem. It is good to be on the mountain with Jesus, but being named God’s beloved children also propels us forward to manifest the Kingdom of God in our time and our place. 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. He disregarded Peter’s suggestion that they stay where everything was solid and lovely because he had work to do. We cannot stay where we are either, even though it is safe and lovely here.
Like the disciples, we are called to follow Jesus down the mountain and into a future that we cannot imagine or control. As Jesus was transfigured, so we followers of Jesus must be transfigured as well. What we have seen and heard in glorious moments of God’s revelation of grace and forgiveness and hope and inclusion must be taken from the mountaintop to all the people in the valley below. The light we’ve received throughout Epiphany must be shared with others who need it. We cannot predict what that endeavor will look like or what will be asked of us, following the way of the cross. But even when picking up our crosses and following Jesus takes us where all hope is lost, all paths lead to darkness, and all goodness seems beyond our grasp, Jesus, the Light of the World, will not abandon us or forsake us. After Moses and Elijah disappear in today’s story, the disciples are left with Jesus alone. And Jesus alone is all we need. Our sustenance, as we walk through Lent and beyond, is this little glimpse of heaven, this flash of light that promises God is walking with us everywhere we go. We cannot describe or even imagine what that means, but it will be enough.
And for that we say, Thanks be to God! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider