February 14, 2021
It’s Transfiguration Sunday… again… and I admit I have a bad history of making fun of this special day on the church calendar. You are hard pressed to find any Transfiguration Sunday cards from Hallmark. I’m not sure just what an appropriate Transfiguration Sunday gift would be for that special person in your life. If you were all here singing these Transfiguration hymns… I know from experience there would be lots of groans. No one asks about your favorite Transfiguration Sunday hymn. There are no albums celebrating the music of the Transfiguration. And, of course, to top it all off… today is also Valentine’s Day. So guess which holiday is going to take precedence in people’s hearts and minds. The final indignity. Saints, it’s not easy being Transfiguration Sunday.
But… be that as it may… we are still going to read the story of the Transfiguration today from the gospel of Mark chapter 9… starting with verse 2. Listen for the Word of God as it continues speaking to you today.
READ Mark 9:2-9
It’s a pretty common narrative device today in movies and such to have a messianic character. The one. That person spoken of in prophecy… or that somehow possesses just the right exact skill or power to defeat the evil that is plaguing the fictional world. The one who is going to save everyone. The one who was born for this one thing. And sometimes this one gives their life… sacrifices themselves to fulfill their destiny. These stories love the idea of destiny… or fate… or whatever it is they want to call that inexplicable power that is shaping events… that is ensuring that ultimately good will defeat evil. There are dramatic setbacks along the way… the messianic hero doubts or tries to walk away from their destiny… some important object is lost so that the messianic hero must discover that they had within them what they needed all along to save the day. The hero has helpers along the journey, but in the end it is usually the one… the one and the one alone.
So anyway… like I said… sometimes the messianic figure in these stories dies. I feel like more often they live and are rewarded through their victory. There’s a happy ending where the final victory justifies everything that happened along the way. The victory is worth the cost… which everyone seems to instantly forget. The messianic figure gets to rule the kingdom. They get the love interest in the story. They finally realize the fullness of their own power and are able to rule the world with their own benign goodness… now having the power to enforce their will upon everyone else. But they are the one… so it’s all ok… that’s how it was always supposed to be. The one in the end.
It’s easy with these messianic stories to throw some of those same traits back onto Jesus… back on the one we call Messiah… Anointed… Christ. There’s the whole special birth stories of Christmas that make him different from others around him. The sense of destiny that hangs over his life. He was born for this one thing. There is the power that gets displayed along the way that sets Jesus apart from everyone else… marking how special he is… how different he is. He is able to heal people. He casts out demons. The man can even walk on water and magically multiply loaves and fishes. He’s a superhero. All the pieces are there for us to think about Jesus as the Messiah in this way. The lone figure who does it all on our behalf… the individual who uses his special powers to defeat the evil that plagues us all. The hero. The one. The one on the movie poster standing on top of the mountain in victory… arm outstretched…glowing white… drawing all eyes to him. Christianity as hero worship. We all look to the one and the one will make everything alright.
Maybe having Transfiguration Sunday come up every year… maybe what this Sunday does is help us to move away from such ideas about the Messiah. I mean… six days before this story takes place… six days earlier Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And the answers reveal not only how people see Jesus… but reveal how they understand who the Messiah will be… what the Messiah is going to do… how the Messiah will be revealed to be the one. So when Jesus turns the question on his disciples… who do you say that I am… we learn real quick how Peter can say the right words… but what he means by those words… his expectations that fill those words… “You are the Messiah”… well, they are way off from what all this means. Because when Jesus starts to talk about the cross… and what will happen when they reach Jerusalem… that’s too far away from Peter’s vision of the heroic one. And Peter rejects that image of the Messiah Jesus presents in favor of his own… taking Jesus aside and rebuking him… telling him clearly that he needs to get this right. This is the time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus looks Peter square in the eye and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Perhaps Peter saw Jesus as the lone heroic figure whose actions alone defeats or frees or ushers in this kingdom of God he kept talking about. Again… words that perhaps meant something different in Peter’s mind than what Jesus had actually been saying. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” On this Transfiguration Sunday every year, we are reminded that Jesus as Messiah… he’s not unique. He’s not meant to be the lone hero. How does that feel to you when I say that? The story never has Jesus saying how he’s the only one… with that special power that no one else has. He’s not that kind of Messiah. He doesn’t have the special ring or whatever superhero type power that you might imagine that only he can employ at just the right time to save the day. Jesus is anointed in the waters of baptism and is filled with the Holy Spirit. So are we all. In a sense, as the messiah, Jesus is more the key that unlocks what is already there… what God has already placed in all of us. The Holy Spirit surrounds us. The Spirit fills us. The waters of baptism show God’s claim upon us as God’s own children. Jesus even tells his own followers to take up their cross… so not even that cross is special or unique… there are plenty to go round. Even the coming resurrection… that isn’t unique. Jesus is the first born of the dead… raised by God and not through some special resurrection power that Jesus alone possesses. We believe in the resurrection of the body… not just Jesus’ body but all our bodies. It’s there in the Apostles’ Creed. It’s not about the one… alone. It’s more about all of us together… together in the kingdom of God… together in the Spirit… made one… together.
So up on the mountain… Moses shows up. Elijah shows up. God appears overshadowing them all. Jesus is fulfillment. He’s the convergence… the lens that brings law, prophet, and the sovereignty of God into focus. The bright dazzling light comes less from within the one himself… but is more a reflection of everything of truth there on that mountaintop. It all comes together and the one light bursts forth.
Moses is the symbolic representation of the Law. And while there was critique over the interpretation and the use of the Law in these stories with Jesus… Law is necessary. Law gives order. Law sets boundaries. Jesus has no interest in abolishing the Law, but is more intent on freeing the Law to be true to its Godly creation. How many times in the gospel stories does Jesus direct people back to the heart of the Law… and how many times does he give definition to the common words we use through the Law… highlighting what we might call the God revealing aspect of the Law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. A power we all possess. The Law centers there… expounds and tries to understand justice in an age of grace… works to find the balance of accountability and mercy… Law struggles with the natural dignity that comes from being children of God... with the new order that is created from an empty cross that breaks the unholy alliance of might and right. Law tames the will and calls for our submission… the taking up of our cross… the servant who puts others before the self. This Messiah on the mountain… this isn’t the Messiah who follows his own whims… we are not followers who do whatever we think our vision of Jesus would want us to do in the moment… with the sure accountability of the Law the ethic is never the ends justify the means. The Law is represented… and take away the Law and our messianic understanding suffers.
Elijah represents the prophetic. The prophets give us aspirations… visions… that something greater than ourselves to strive for… work for… the prophetic unshackles the heart so that we can dare to love as we are loved. The prophetic is that part of our faith that bends the back to take up our cross… remembering those who are weak… those who are oppressed… remembering and working to see grace, mercy, love in action every single day of our lives… that these are holy words for all and not for some. The prophetic keeps the heart discontented so that it is never satisfied with the needs of the self alone… never is satisfied with good enough. The poison and pollution of that stream may not affect me directly, but it does affect someone… so there is work to be done. The rigged system may not be against me, but it does affect someone… so there is work to be done. This is the message of the prophets time and again… the important critique that they level at all times in all places… while you may be content, while you may be satisfied with the way things are, while you may be prospering… do not think you do not have a responsibility to those who are not. No child of God is disposable. No child of God is to be used up and thrown away so that your privilege and place can be maintained and undisturbed.
The Law and the Prophets work together. One without the other leads to trouble. Cut out both and you are left with nothing. Jesus without either Law and Prophet… that Jesus doesn’t shine. There is a reason why these are the symbols of Transfiguration Sunday. And overshadowing them all is God… the absolute sovereignty of God bringing it all together. Unlike so many in our messianic stories of today… Jesus never points to himself. Jesus is always leading… always pointing… always staying connected to God. God is always the center… always the engine driving everything. Whatever we do we do to the glory of God. We get sidelined from that idea apparently pretty easily as shiny idols sparkle around us… we get fooled and distracted with the sovereignty of the believer… with putting the self at the center… becoming self-righteous… being blinded by our own self-centeredness and acting solely on those motivations alone. We get distracted by our small, flawed messianic heroes… pale imitations that again say more about our sinful selves than anything else.
God is put far, far away and out of reach where God’s presence isn’t so terrifyingly real like it was on that mountaintop. The overshadowing absolute sovereignty of God has one message for us on this Transfiguration Sunday… “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Listen to him who is lit up by the Law and the Prophets working together… being fulfilled through him… listen to him… let him tell you what his words mean… let him reveal to you what my Messiah is all about… listen to him and follow him and his ways because his ways are my ways… because it is my Holy Spirit that fills him… because between me and him there is no separation… there is no sin. Listen to him.
Transfiguration Sunday. The Sunday before the beginning of Lent… a season where we are to shut our mouths… open our ears… and listen intently once again to… to try to see with the vision Christ gives. Where for forty days we try to loosen the grip of our distractions… silence the cloying voices of our idols… let go of ourselves… and come under the accountability of the Law of love… reconnect with the visions of the prophets… and bow to the sovereignty of God. Amen.