Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 9:2-9
LastEpiphany, Year B
Even first-year Greek students can tell that the text of Mark’s gospel is not sophisticated. In fact, the text is rather rudimentary. And the narrative reads like a travelogue, with the sentences all strung together in a rush with a one-word transition: “immediately.”
These features, and our fixation on reading texts, let Christians overlook for a long time what those in oral cultures had long grasped: Mark is constructed brilliantly, constructed to be heard, not read. And when scholars graphed the action in Mark, they discovered that the whole narrative is built in stepped pairs—called chiasms. If we are told someone goes in, for example, we are later told that they go out. The thing about chiasms is that they attune our ears to what goes on in the middle, and the action in the middle of a chiasm is the most important.
Mark’s gospel is full of chiasms. In fact, Mark’s whole gospel IS a chiasm. The gospel both begins and ends with the message, “Jesus is the Son of God.” At the beginning Mark’s gospel starts with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” At the original end we hear, “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
Well, guess what’s in the MIDDLE of Mark’s gospel? A quiz by Jesus on who he is. Jesus asked his disciples to name his identity. No one said “Son of God.” Instead, they guessed John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets (think Moses here, the most revered of the prophets). There they all failed the test, all except Peter, who was only partially right: Jesus IS the Messiah, yes, but one who rules by serving, a Messiah who must die.
Our gospel lesson for today comes shortly after this identity quiz. Jesus went up on a tall mountain (like Moses). Although Luke-the-historian says that Jesus went up the mountain after eight days, Mark and Matthew say that Jesus went up “after six days” (just like Moses, who had waited six days to go up Mount Sinai to talk to God). Jesus took with him Peter and James and John (where was Andrew? But wait, Moses had only taken three people up the mountain with him). And Jesus’ clothes became dazzlingly white (not his face, like Moses’ when he talked to God, but like the supposed radiant garment of Adam, lusterless since his fall from grace, to be restored—Jews thought—to the Messiah when he appeared).
Is this a dream, or what? Peter is all confused. He says he is happy to be there (maybe he confused the mountain top with heaven, since Elijah and Moses were in heaven; but how did Peter even KNOW they were Elijah and Moses?) Peter said he was happy to be there, but the text says he was actually terrified (so terrified he babbled about starting a building project on top of the mountain).
Then, to make matters more confusing, there was a cloud (like the one that covered Moses on Mount Sinai). And a voice from heaven boomed approval of Jesus (just like on both Mount Sinai and at Jesus’ baptism), but now the voice ordered them to listen to Jesus. Then poof, Elijah and Moses disappeared, just like they had done before. (Well, Elijah was taken by God up into heaven after God gave a double dose of Elijah’s spirit to his successor Elisha. Moses actually died here on earth, according to scripture. But, like Elvis in our day, in Jesus’ day some thought Moses hadn’t actually died.)
I didn’t think of all these connects between the Transfiguration experience and other parts of scripture; a famous Markan scholar named Joel Marcus collected them from a lot of different people’s work. But I wanted you to know how this story relates to the rest of our God story. Without these connection, how would we know what this experience evoked in the minds of Jesus’ first-century followers? All their illusions were stripped away: Jesus definitely was and is the Messiah.
This certainty would have been very important to Jesus’ earliest followers, especially these followers. They were following Jesus to Jerusalem, and on the way he kept telling them he was going there to die. And, just like Elisha who followed his master Elijah to his departure from this earth, Jesus’ disciples wondered if they also would die. The disciples kept saying they could drink from Jesus’ cup, but they were terrified that they might have to do so.
I’ve connected Mark’s description of Jesus’ mountaintop Transfiguration with Moses’ trip up Mount Sinai. Our Old Testament lesson today connects Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem be crucified with Elijah’s trip to be taken up into heaven by God. Our Old Testament lesson points to the differences between Elijah’s follower Elisha and Jesus’ disciples. Elisha asked for a double portion of his master’s spirit. Peter asked for houses, but we know that he and the other disciples somehow got Jesus’ Spirit, too, not by their own merit, but by God’s grace.
Many commentaries suggest that Jesus’ Transfiguration was a foretelling, a
fore-sharing of his coming crucifixion. I won’t connect those dots for you, but there ARE many symbolic similarities between Jesus’ Transfiguration and his crucifixion. The most important similarity is this: Jesus came down from the mountain, just as he came down from the cross, to do God’s work on this earth.
Can you imagine how much being on the mountaintop with Jesus must have strengthened the disciples’ faith, strengthened their resolve to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, and beyond? Being human, the disciples faltered along the way, but in the end they did, indeed, share Jesus’ cup—both in suffering deaths like his, and by being Transfigured like him to be with him throughout eternity.
Surely, if Jesus was talking with Elijah and Moses on that mountaintop, we too know that Elijah and Moses lived on beyond their time on this earth. This gives ME comfort and hope. Knowing that Elijah and Moses somehow strengthened Jesus for his coming crucifixion and resurrection strengthens me for my own coming death, gives me eternal hope.
Somehow, that the original disciples didn’t “get” things right away also gives ME hope. I believe that a scriptural genius—the author of scripture himself —would have been required to have made up this complex a story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. We simply couldn’t have imagined all the details that would have to have been matched. But, by Peter and James and John having seen what happened on that mountaintop, we can see this event also.
I wonder. Aren’t we all—each and every one of us, individually and collectively—on a journey with Jesus to the end of our lives here on earth? Would that Jesus would give US each a double portion of his Spirit, so that the love of God, and the light of God, shines through us.