Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 9:2-9
LastEpiphany, Year B
“Transfiguration, take 3”
Our gospel lesson today is the very familiar story of Jesus and three of his disciples having a miraculous encounter with two long-dead prophets on the top of a mountain. And sometimes, when scripture is as familiar as Jesus’ Transfiguration, the inner meaning of the event can elude us.
For instance, was Jesus’ Transfiguration a miraculous mountaintop experience that we all should aspire to have? I myself have preached this, in this very pulpit. Or was this event to assure us that Jesus truly is the Son of God? I was on my way to preaching this today.
But, you know what? This week NO RATIONAL EXPLANATION of Jesus’ Transfiguration worked for me, until I was able to feel Peter’s and James’ and John’s fear. In the middle of Jesus’ mountain-top high of joy and discovery, in the middle of this miracle of understanding who Jesus is, Jesus’ disciples were just plain afraid—beyond afraid, even. So afraid that Peter began babbling about some kind of property redevelopment project.
So let’s latch onto the fear and see where this fear takes us.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he made this trip up a mountain. And a whole gaggle of disciples and disciple-wanna-bes were following Jesus. At the start of this journey Jesus had enigmatically told his followers that they needed to take up their cross and follow him.
What? This cross stuff must have sounded ominous. People DIE on crosses. Who would want to “take up a cross?” Then, along the way, Jesus began to tell them that in Jerusalem he would die. “Ut oh,” I’m sure the disciples thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into? We just wanted healing. We were just hoping for free loaves and fishes. We just wanted to be loved unconditionally. What does he mean, ‘cross’?”
Can’t you just see the crowd around Jesus dwindling day by day?
And then Jesus came to this tall mountain, figuratively speaking. Now don’t misunderstand me; Jesus undoubtedly went up an actual mountain. There were plenty of mountains on the way to Jerusalem. In Mark’s telling, though, he threw in a lot of details that were tweaked a bit to make us remember Moses going up Mount Sinai to talk to God.
We could have had a great time today discussing all the connections between Jesus’ trip up Transfiguration Mountain and Moses’ trip up Mount Sinai. But then you undoubtedly would say, “So what? WE know that Jesus is the Son of God. We don’t need to be convinced of THAT (do we?). What WE want to know is, practically speaking, what difference does this story, this event, make in our lives today?”
Native Americans could teach us something here. Their spiritual practice includes dream quests, where (with fasting and prayer) God reveals something significant beyond the normal realm of human perception. And in our dream-quest today, we glimpse that we each need to make this trip up this holy mountain as we are nearing the terrifying end of our earthly lives. And, while we are on this holy quest, drawing strength and courage for our own end-of-life journey, we get to call on whoever is important to US, just like Jesus called on the great prophets Elijah and Moses.
Were we able to listen in to Jesus’ conversation on that mountain, I wonder if we would hear something like this:
“Yes, Jesus,” Moses might say, “your death MAY hurt, but only for a while. Then you get to meet God, presence to presence. And then your whole being will shine with the glory of God, not just your face.”
“Yes, Jesus,” Elijah might add, “God will lift you right out of death, out of the reality of this present space-time continuum, into a new reality. Forget your physics lessons; they won’t apply any more!”
And, for good measure, Elijah might have reassured Jesus that (like what had happened to his follower Elisha) God would send a huge dose of his Spirit to be with his own followers. God’s Spirit would enable them to overcome their terror and follow him to the end and beyond.
Why do I speculate these conversations at the top of Transfiguration Mountain? Mark tells us that Jesus wasn’t as unaffected by his own coming death as we would like to believe. Jesus prayed. Jesus got consolation from HIS saints Elijah and Moses. And then he moved steadfastly forward in the direction he discerned that God wanted him to go.
For me, this is the point of the Transfiguration story: Jesus left the holy hill and did what God had asked of him—despite the fear, whatever the cost.
I know that some of you think this mountain top experience was hypothetical, metaphorical. That’s OK, because there is plenty of rich metaphor that applies. But, in my experience, metaphor makes a very poor “flotation device” when we are overcome by the despair of our own mortality. Better we should have the radiant image of God, shining through us, to eliminate our terror.
I’ll tell you who among us can attest to the truth of my words today: Stella. For those of you who don’t know Stella, she is a member of our church who lives in Goodwin House. Stella has gotten her final diagnosis: inoperable brain tumors. Stella is in hospice care. She is on that journey to Jerusalem to her destiny with the cross. But Stella is not afraid, and she wants you to know that this is her testimony. If you can, I hope you will visit Stella sometime soon, so that you, too, can visit her on the mountaintop of her life. She is shining with excitement and joy.
Stella has been very generous in sharing her testimony with us, and is willing to share her own Jesus journey with us. She has been Transfigured by God’s love, and glows with an inner light.
Stella says, by the way, that if you are not able to come tell her good bye, that’s all right. She’s asking God to let her be the greeter at the entrance to the New Jerusalem, where pain and sorrow and depression and terror are no more. She hopes to see you there, in the Bye-and-Bye (but not too soon).
With this testimony in mind, we can see how Jesus’ mountaintop experience can transfigure us. Would that God would give US a double helping of his Spirit so that we, like Stella, can shine with the radiance of God’s light along the final phase of the journey of our lives.