Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
My daughter Gloria was a very precautious toddler. Nobody who knows her is ever surprised to hear that. By the time she was 2 or 3, she was using words like “sincerely” and “conscientious.” And she was tiny for her age, which made it seem even more incredible to hear these giant words coming from such a little child. But aside from using enormous words, she would tell these crazy stories that seemed to have nothing to do with reality. They would have some roots in what had actually happened in the day, but they took wild diversions from what actually happened and they became fantastic fairy tales that made almost no sense whatsoever.
There are some narratives in the Bible that just make you go, “What?!” And sometimes we blow them off like they are a toddler’s fancy story – rooted a bit in reality, but wildly exaggerated and blown out of proportion. The story of the transfiguration is one of those that tends to get the short end of the stick.
That’s not always the case - many of us were raised in the church and we were steeped in this stuff, so we take it at face value. It did happen. But others of us have a harder time dealing with wild and crazy passages like this. When we nitpick about the historical fact of this passage, we totally miss the point. And when we allow ourselves to get too used to these wild and wonderful accounts of what Jesus did, we also tend to miss the point.
Part of why we want to get to the “facts” of stories like this is because it’s terrifying to allow that there are things we don’t understand. It’s comforting to know that the disciples were terrified of things they didn’t understand, just as we are. They couldn’t figure out if what was happening was real and they were seeing it with their own eyes! Peter offers to build some little houses because he feels like he has to do or say something, he just can’t figure out what!
Even though they aren’t quite sure what to make of what’s happened, the disciples know one thing: they needed to be there. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Says Peter. He’s ready to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so it’s clear he doesn’t realize that this a foreshadowing or revelation of what is coming, but he knows that it’s important. He calls Jesus “Rabbi” here in Mark, but in Matthew he calls him “Lord” and in Luke, “Master.” There is something here about Jesus being known for more than just teaching now. Up until now, the disciples have known that there is something special and different about Jesus, but this is the moment when the weight of everything that’s happening really starts to sink in. In fact, this moment is so important it makes it into three of the four gospels – even Jesus’ birth story isn’t recounted in that many of them.
Jesus was a great teacher, that much is certain. Jesus was a very good person – to make a gross understatement. But we can’t leave it there. Jesus didn’t leave it there. We don’t worship a tame or domesticated savior – some nice person who lived a good life and got a promotion from God because of it. He wasn’t just the nice guy who was selected as the gruesome sacrifice to appease an angry God. When we ignore or breeze past these weird passages like the transfiguration because we are so used to them or because we find them unbelievable, we forget who Jesus is. We make Jesus just a rabbi or teacher and we leave him on the cross forever. Or we make him just a symbol of God on this earth.
This Wednesday we begin the church season of Lent. During Lent, we look inward at our own need for salvation. We prepare ourselves to realize the full weight of what Jesus did in his death and resurrection. We have special days to commemorate the last supper – we call this one Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ death on the cross – Good Friday, and his resurrection from the dead – Easter. This Sunday we look at the transfiguration because it is a clue to what this is all about. It reveals to us who Jesus is and what it is that’s going on in all of this.
The transfiguration helps us to pull these pieces together. It shows us Jesus – both human and God. Sacrifice on the cross and resurrected King! All resurrection and no cross gives us a god who is only mildly interested in the human experience. All cross and no resurrection gives us a human who is slightly more involved with God than the rest of the humans. We need to stop reducing Jesus to moments or sayings.
Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.” It wasn’t good that they were there because Jesus needed them there. It wasn’t good for them to be there so that they could consider themselves more worthy than those who weren’t. It was good for them to be there because they needed to know in the days ahead that the master they were following – their teacher – their Lord – was more than just teacher. They needed to know the importance of the cross and of the resurrection. They had to experience the power of both Jesus’ life and death, of his humanity and his divinity.
So important was it that they were there, that they know this, that God spoke aloud proclaiming that “This is my Son! Listen to him!”
This is a story of God encountering mankind. It harkens back to experiences that Abraham, Moses, and the prophets have. Jesus’ divinity is revealed physically to the disciples in this moment. The appearance of Moses and Elijah shows us a glimpse of the relationship that Jesus has with these saints. They are talking together as friends. Jesus will be bodily taken to heaven with them. He is human. This is highlighting both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. It is a difficult, but important balance to strike when we think of Jesus – especially as we prepare our hearts to remember what it is that he gave for us.
Like the disciples, we won’t always have this all figured out. There is much about God that we don’t understand. John Calvin talks in his books about how God talks to us in something like baby talk so we can understand at least a little bit. Sometimes, we even find God frightening. That doesn’t mean our faith is weaker, that doesn’t mean that our faith isn’t good enough. It’s ok to not have all the answers.
We too are on a process of discovery like Peter, James, and John were. Not all of the disciples were in on the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, just like not all of us are at the same place in our journey today. The other nine disciples didn’t realize the full power of who Jesus is until much later in the journey. Some of us grew up in the church, some came along later in life. But the revelation of Jesus – totally God and totally human – is offered to all who are willing to step into the wild and wonderful imaginative fullness of life that comes with that revelation of Jesus.
Friends, think about the difference it makes – what is changes – when we refuse to let the images of our Messiah – the ways we talk about, think about, sing about, make art about, write about, and praise him – when we refuse to let those be watered down. What would our churches and worship services look like if we were to stop taming Jesus to make him a friendly, cardigan wearing teacher or putting him up in the clouds as though he was never actually a person?
We aren’t here to simply try to behave ourselves and stay out of trouble. We aren’t meant to leave Jesus on the cross and suffer with him. We aren’t supposed to make little huts – to do something just to be doing something because we feel like we should be doing something. We sit here this morning and worship together because God has interfered in our lives! God interfered in each of our individual lives in ways that sat us down in this beautiful little sanctuary together this morning. And God interfered in the history of all humanity by becoming human – by experiencing being human in all the suffering and mortality and annoyance of being human. That’s what the this crazy moment on the mountain is – it’s God announcing loudly that because we are beloved, God sent Jesus.
My dear friends, it is good for us to be here! None of us are any more clever or faithful or better behaved than Peter. Sometimes, we just want to build some huts because we don’t understand what exactly God is doing right now. Even the best of us miss the point of this more often than not. So as a church, we remind one another that this is no tame teacher that we serve and follow. This Jesus fellow we talk so much about is more than just a fellow – he’s God! Jesus is God saying, “Humanity matters!” Jesus is God choosing to love us enough to become one of us and join us in our history and in our present and in our future.
So as a church, we must keep our eyes open for visions of Jesus around us. We must listen for the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son! Right here! Listen to him!”