Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B - February 22, 2009 (Mark 9:2-9)

I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t like to have a story spoiled for me. If there is a movie I know I might see but haven’t had the time yet, I tell my friends who have seen it not to mention anything at all about the story—even if they think the nugget they want to share is not going to spoil the ending. I’ve found that any little detail they might divulge could ruin the effect of the story on me. Likewise, when I’m reading a novel whose plot has really pulled me in and I’m finally in that last twenty or so pages where everything’s going to get resolved, I find that I have to place a piece of paper over the pages I have yet to get to so that my eyes don’t curiously wander over to the end. The pull to ignore what’s happening in the plot now and concentrate on the end is so hard to resist. I want to preserve the effect of the story, but at the same time I have this almost irrepressible urge to know that everything will turn out OK.

Perhaps you’re the same way. Perhaps we’re all the same, especially about things more serious than books and movies. We stand there, like Elisha, gazing at our future as it whizzes out of our grasp, scared for the present and desperate that God will give us in the end what we’ve hoped for. I was speaking recently to a mother who just gave birth her second child four months premature. Inexplicably, her body went into labor after already having announced it to the world, delivering a little baby girl who was too frail and small to survive. Heartbroken and emotionally unmoored, the mother struggled to put her grief into words over the phone. “All I wish,” she said, “is that it were already a year from now.” She knew, almost instinctively, that in a year the pain would be less sharp, the future a little less bleak, her emotions a little less raw. She, like many of us, would rather skip to the final page of that book to glimpse the reality that all will turn out OK.

It occurs to me that the Transfiguration of our Lord—by many accounts one of the odder things that happens to Jesus—is a glimpse at the end of the story, a brief look at the future reality for an assurance that it will all turn out OK. The transfiguration is not simply a biblical version of TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” with Jesus flanked by Elijah and Moses, two Old Testament Clinton and Stacy’s, explaining how the addition of one dazzling white tunic can transform himself and therefore his life. Jesus’ transfiguration is a bright flash of glory and hope—a light at the end of the tunnel, if you will—that serves, in some way, to sustain through the dark days ahead. And those days—those long pages in between—are going to be dark, very dark, especially for Jesus.

According to Mark’s account of this mountaintop experience, Jesus’ transfiguration falls right in between two of his predictions of his death and resurrection. In fact, it is six days prior to this event, in Caesarea Philippi, when, together with all of his disciples, Jesus lowers the boom on them that following along is not going to be all fancy healings and zinging the Pharisees with sharp teachings. There’s sufferin’ in them thar hills, and Jesus means to go there. Those who come along will need to expect to lay down their life, too. And as Peter, James and John come down off the mount of Transfiguration, we overhear their nervous conversation, thanks to Mark: “What in the world does he mean,” they ask, “with all this ‘raising from the dead’ talk?” And they’re thoroughly confused, and they speculate that Elijah may be coming back, and Jesus tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to explain it all again. But before too long, conversation returns to the bits about dying and rising and Jesus spells out once again that the pages in the upcoming chapters will be full of betrayal and violence and murder.

And so, it is not clear from the story whether the disciples realize this glimpse for what it is. What they do see on the mountaintop is surely amazing. Jesus’ figure is somehow altered or changed before their very eyes. It is a mystery exactly what this means—the Greek word is essentially metamorphosis (think: caterpillar to butterfly)—but no matter what happens to his appearance, the disciples are still able to recognize him as Jesus. And his clothes become brighter than any experiment with a Clorox bottle. And the two most significant Old Testament figures—Moses, a stand in for God’s Law, and Elijah, representing all the prophets, appear to confab with him awhile.

It is more than the three former fishermen can take. The white light, the changing appearance of their friend and rabbi, and the unprecedented arrival of two Jewish heroes who disappeared off the planet long ago all leave them speechless. The only thing Peter can think to say is, “Let’s build some tents and camp out awhile here.” And then, before they can put their heads together to come up with a well-thought-out social statement on the matter, to be passed by a simple majority, a cloud covers the whole crowd up and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” On the way down the mountain, Jesus explains that no one should speak a thing. Don’t want to spoil the ending for everyone else, remember?

This is really the first instance in Mark’s gospel where anyone has any idea that Jesus might have something to do with the divine. The thunder of a similar heavenly voice had occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, but at that point, only Jesus had heard it. Up to this point, demons have recognized him as the Son of God, but no human has claimed him thus. And the only thing Jesus has directly mentioned about himself has been…the dark chapters of suffering and dying ahead. Inexplicably, yet totally in-line with the surprising instances of grace a surprising God is prone to visit upon us, the transfiguration becomes a sneak-peak into Christ’s heavenly nature. In Jesus’ transfiguration, God gives Jesus’ followers a grace-filled glimpse of the greater glory that awaits Jesus at the end of the story, when the radiance of the resurrection will show that everything does turn out amazing. There will be white clothes at that point, too—empty grave linens—and also a command about telling others, except this time the command is to spread the news, not to remain silent. Ironically, fear and speechlessness will grip the disciples then, again, but by then the plot will have really been settled, once and for all. Death and darkness and suffering and injustice thought they had conquered. But God had other plans. God ruined the end of that story by raising him up.

So, welcome to the Great Story, James Edwards and Greyson Castle! It’s a good one, but it has its ups and downs. You and your parents look just as unsuspecting as the rest of us today—unsuspecting to those ups and downs that accompany the life of every disciple. As we paraded you down the aisle after your baptism, we couldn’t help but reflect on our own journeys with Jesus: how our days began in the joyful wonder of baptism—happy beginning—and then carry on through who-knows-what. Eventually, there will be death. We often wish it weren’t like this—we often wish we could just pitch a tent in the fun parts and let the world go by—but it’s a fact of redeemed life in a broken world.

As James and Greyson grow in faith and obedience to the will of God, they will likely reach points at which they realize, as you and I have, that following this Jesus guy is no walk in the park. They’ll encounter those days we wish it were already tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. When this happens for them—heck, when it happens for any of us—let us not forget to remind each other of the glory for which we’re bound. Let us not forget that Jesus has stood on the mount, transfigured, with a glory and a story that transfigures you and me. When it is difficult to go forward into the dark days, when we feel our life slipping away despite our every effort to hang on, let the foretaste of that feast be placed in our hand and on our lips to remind us our eyes can, indeed, drift to the end of the story, once again.

Yes, they’ll need to drift over there, gloriously spoiled ending that it is: He is risen. That transfigured guy? Yep, he rises from the dead!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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