February 11, 2024

“Listening to Jesus”

Mark 9:2-9

Lent begins next week as we gather to worship this Wednesday at our Ash Wednesday service. At either end of Lent, we have Jesus on a mountain. The first is the Jesus we want- Jesus lit up, surrounded by heroes of faith, God proclaiming him as the son he loves.

The second Jesus is the one we don't really want - hanging on a cross on Golgotha, defeated, surrounded by darkness, heading to be buried in a tomb. Back in seminary, I served as a music director in a congregation where many who attended wanted to skip Lent altogether and move right to celebrating a Risen Messiah. One congregant took me aside after one service and asked why the choir sang all this depressing music in minor keys. "Easter is meant to be happy!" Truth be told, perhaps all of us would rather do that as well. Or maybe, like Peter, we would rather stay on the mountain and savor this gleaming, powerful Jesus.

You may remember from our most recent Dialogue that we'll focus on Peter during Lent. Due to this story on The Transfiguration, we'll start looking at Peter a bit early. Here is this figure in scripture who is both steadfast and unsteady, a dear friend and betrayer, a follower and a wanderer. In Peter, we often see ourselves as we consider our own faith journeys. By following Peter's journey, we can see the story of Jesus unfold through the eyes of an average human being trying to figure it all out, just like us.

Just before the passage, Peter, after seeing Jesus feed thousands and heal others, is starting to figure it all out and understand who is leading the group. When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter responds, "You are the Messiah." Jesus then predicted his suffering and death to Peter and the rest of the disciples.

Now, as Peter, James, and John are on the mountain, they see this image of the Jesus we all want, and Peter, in awe of the moment, wants to prolong it by building some dwelling places for a newly gleaming Jesus and two heroes of the faith- Elijah and Moses. He wants to extend the moment with this Jesus, not head back down the mountain and experience a crucified Jesus who will suffer and die.

Then, a cloud, which most often represents the Holy One in scripture, descends and says, "This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him." The cloud suddenly disappears, as do Elijah and Moses. The disciples and Jesus are left alone on top of Mt. Herman. Mountains are often thin spaces between the eternal and the temporal. That certainly was the case here. As they head down, Jesus tells the three not to say anything about this experience, this encounter with the Holy One, until after he dies and rises from the grave.

I imagine Peter, James, and John were perplexed as they headed down the mountain. What had they just witnessed? Why does Jesus keep talking about death and rising? Where did Elijah and Moses go? What did the voice in the cloud mean? Perhaps we find the whole thing perplexing as well. Let's see what meaning is there for us this morning.

In Mark's Gospel, this is one of three pillar stories about Jesus. The first is his baptism (Mark 1:1-9), then the transfiguration, and finally, the crucifixion story in Mark 15:33-39. Interestingly, we find a similar thread in the Transfiguration recounting Jesus' baptism. When John baptized Jesus, many wondered aloud if he was Elijah in the gospels of Matthew and John. In the story of the transfiguration, Elijah shows up. In the baptism story, a dove descends, and a voice from heaven declares, "You are my son, my beloved. In you, I am greatly pleased." In the transfiguration story, a cloud descends, and the voice of God says something remarkably similar. "This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him."

When we focused on Jesus' baptism last month, the message looked at God's second half of the proclamation, "In you, I am well pleased." The message then was that God was also pleased in each of us.

In this morning's passage, the message is similar but different. God says, "This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him." The target of the voice shifts from Jesus to the disciples. God says THIS is my Son, my Beloved." Then God tells them, "Listen to him." So, one message for us today is to listen to Jesus. Read his teachings. Attend the Historical Jesus seminars with Dr. John Dominic Crossan, Diana Butler Bass, and others. Dive deep this Lenten season into the teachings and life of Jesus. Listen to him. Then, get to work.

In the Transfiguration, the three disciples witness an extraordinary and unspeakable vision. It makes Peter and the others want to stay there, to dwell in that place of wonder with the Jesus they all wanted. Yet God's voice suggests otherwise. Their job is to go back down the mountain, listen to Jesus, and bring God's love, justice, and mercy into the world.

God's message to us today is to listen to Jesus. To follow his teachings to realize our essential work in this world: to accompany Jesus to the cross, to take up our own crosses of faith, die to ourselves and live for others, to be last in order to be first, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to work for God's justice. That is not an easy task. But that leads us to the second message for today. We have help to do such a task, and it has to do with our understanding of the word "transfiguration."

We might use the words "transfigure" and "transform" interchangeably, but there is a helpful distinction to remember. To be transfigured is to be changed in outward form or appearance. Jesus' transfiguration does not alter who he is but gives those who see the changed visage a new understanding of him because they see him outwardly in a different light.

When we speak of transformation, we tend to mean a complete or essential change in composition or structure. Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah is not transformed (changed inwardly) but transfigured before his disciples (shown to be other than assumed). He is not made to have a new essential self but an appearance that conveys his standing in the company of Israel's greatest prophets.

The help we have to go back down the mountain comes from Jesus through his teachings and Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us, "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18)The word for "transformed" in Greek metamorpho, Metamorpho, means "to change into."

This passage tells us that, unlike Jesus, we are not transfigured-changed in outward form or appearance when we encounter and follow Jesus. We are transformed. We become new essential selves. Christ's words, teachings, and Spirit change us in composition and structure. I speak from my own experience. I am not who I was. I am not yet who I shall become. Thanks be to God, who, through Jesus, is transforming you and me from one degree of glory to another.

So our message is twofold for this morning - to listen to the Messiah, Jesus, and get to work in our world, and to realize Christ is transforming us as we do this work. Maybe we'd rather remain in the sanctuary, surrounded by our friends, enjoying the stained glass, music, and atmosphere. Worship can be a bit of a mountaintop experience for us, and like Peter, we might rather prolong the experience than face the world's problems outside the sanctuary doors. (although most Presbyterians, in my experience, get antsy if worship lasts longer than an hour, so perhaps not😉)

I spent many years on a mountaintop at a Christian summer camp known as Westminster Woods. I served four years as a lead counselor and camp coordinator during the summers of 1982-86. The camp was a magical place for faith. Kids often came to camp wanting to make commitments and profound changes in their lives. They felt as if their faiths were stronger at camp than home, back down the mountain. At the end of each camp, many kids wanted to stay because on top of the mountain seemed so ideal. But, like Peter, James, and John, they were all called to return with their faith and get to work.

Jesus doesn't want us to stay here, either. He wants us to go outside those doors and change the world while, at the same time, he is changing US.

Rev. Melinda Quivik, editor of the magazine, "Liturgy" wrote the following about this passage. "The church has a responsibility: to listen to God's Son. That listening does not result in staying aloof where the air is pure, and the view is stunning. The church must listen to the voice of God's Word in our midst so that we follow in a way that leads to the cross. We are not called to have power over others but to rise up as dust that has been formed by the breath of God and give life to others, especially those who are neglected by the powerful."

So, let us go from this place this morning, learning from and listening to our Messiah as he changes us from one degree of glory to another while we change the world around us. Alleluia Amen.