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On the Mountaintop

"The Transfiguration" by Raphael

Have you ever experienced sensory overload? I have told you before about flying over the Alps in a helicopter. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and had glass all around me, including under my feet. There was so much beauty to see, it was almost too much to take in. That was a sensory overload for the eyes.
Like many of you, I attended my share of rock concerts when I was young. I remember standing by a huge bank of speakers and just reveling in the sensory overload of sound. I imagine my hearing has never been the same since.
When I was nine years old my parents took me on a trip to San Francisco. While we were there we enjoyed a meal at an Italian restaurant that used to supply Mickey Cohen’s food for him while he was incarcerated on Alcatraz. Because we were friends of Mickey, the Paolis treated us like royalty. We didn’t order anything off the menu. They just brought us one dish after another to try. There must have been seven courses. That was a sensory overload for the palate.
When we lived in the mountains of Virginia, we had to drive an hour or an hour and a half to get to a decent grocery store. One of our trips would take us right through a farm where the smell of manure was particularly potent. We often wondered how people could stand to live with that smell day in and day out. Then we learned that for people who do live around manure all the time, they no longer smell it. That’s an experience of sensory overload for the nose.
Today, we are going to read a story from Mark’s Gospel that tells of an experience of visual sensory overload for Jesus’ disciples. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 9:1-13….
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with[a] power.”
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one[b] on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[d] listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”
This story begins with a bit of a mystery. You may remember that chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel ended with a very negative statement. Jesus says, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This is one of those places where it is important to remember that the Scriptures did not originally have chapters and verses. Those were added later to aid the reader in finding certain sections or statements he or she might be looking for. Thus, we must remember that Jesus’ negative statement is immediately followed by a positive one: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

The question is: to what time or event was Jesus referring in this statement? Some have suggested that Jesus was talking about the Second Coming. But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer because all of his disciples died before he came to earth a second time. In fact, 2000 years have come and gone, and we still haven’t seen the Second Coming of Christ.

Secondly, some people think that Jesus is referring here to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church. That was certainly an experience of the kingdom of God coming in power.

And yet, it has always seemed to me, that by putting this statement of Jesus right before the Transfiguration, Mark must be trying to tell us that the Transfiguration was, in its own way, an experience of the kingdom of God coming in power.

So much for that mystery. Now let’s look at another one. People often ask, “What exactly is Mark talking about here?” Is he talking about an historical event? Or is he simply giving us a story with a spiritual message?

The fact that we even ask questions like this reveals that we are inheritors of a Greek way of thinking. The Greeks loved to parse things out. They tended to separate the spiritual and the physical. Not so with the Jewish people of the first century. They had a much more holistic view of life.

Thus, it seems to me that we have in this story of the Transfiguration something that is at once physical and historical as well as something spiritual. That Mark thinks he is telling the story of something that really happened in history is without doubt. Mark says this event took place “six days later”. That is to say, this event happened six days, or about a week, after Jesus posed his important question to the disciples in Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” Thus, it also seems likely that this event took place on Mount Hermon, the highest peak in modern day Syria, close by to the ancient town of Caesarea Philippi.

Another reason for thinking that Mark is relating a historical event is because of the mixture of the spiritual with the extremely earthly in this story. Who would have invented a spiritual story like this where one of the main characters, Peter, seems to babble on in such an incoherent manner? And what a homely way Mark has of telling us how white Jesus’ clothes became, whiter than any laundry on earth could make them!

We must also remember that the early church believed that Mark’s source for his Gospel was the preaching and teaching of his Uncle Peter. If that is true, then what we have in this story is an eyewitness account as it was remembered by a close family member of one of the participants.

Be that as it may, what is Mark trying to describe here? What is the Transfiguration? The word that is used in Greek is one that has passed on into English: metamorphosis. Jesus’ outward form was changed before the eyes of three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John.

Now, before we jump to the conclusion that this is very strange indeed, let us remember that we have all experienced something like this. We have all seen people’s outward form change. I think of watching my sons grow over the past 25 years from tiny infants into big, strapping men. Their outward form changed before my eyes, albeit gradually. Or think of someone who loses weight. I once lost fifty pounds through diet and exercise. Unfortunately, I have gained it all back again. At any rate, my outward form was transfigured, more than once, before the watching eyes of my family.

What makes Jesus’ metamorphosis so amazing is that it happens all in an instant and he is transformed from an earthly form to some kind of heavenly form in which his clothes become dazzlingly bright. However, should this surprise us all that much? After all, there have been countless stories, even in modern times, of near-death experiences and the like in which people who see a spiritual or heavenly realm all uniformly report a bright light. And that is precisely what we have in this story.

Furthermore, mystics of various religions talk about “thin places” in the world. Locations where the veil between this earthly realm and a more spiritual one is very thin and often momentarily drawn back. For some people, a natural setting can become such a “thin place”. Others go looking in church buildings and other religious structures in search of such an encounter with the divine. For me there is one such place in England. It is a tiny parish church outside of Oxford called St. Margaret’s. There is a holy well outside and ancient graves in the churchyard. When one walks through the Norman archway that forms the only entrance to the church, one is stepping onto holy ground where people have worshipped for at least the last eight hundred years.

I like what Tom Wright says about this account in Mark:

It’s easy enough (and they themselves must have known this) to dismiss such an experience as a hallucination, albeit a very odd one. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this, when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing the ‘inside’ of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller reality is disclosed. Most of us don’t have experiences like this (nor did most early Christians, so far as we can tell); but unless we allow sceptics to bully us we should be free to affirm that this sort of thing has indeed happened to some people (usually completely unexpectedly), and that such people usually regard it as hugely important and life-changing.

Of course, the other interesting feature of this story is that Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with Jesus. One question this raises for me almost immediately is: How did Peter, James and John recognize these two people who appeared and spoke with Jesus? Remember, the Jewish people did not make graven images of other human beings. Peter, James and John didn’t have iPhones on which they could look up popular images of Moses and Elijah and go, “Yep, that’s them!”

Did Moses and Elijah announce their names? Did Jesus mention their names in conversation? Moreover, what did Jesus, Moses and Elijah talk about?

We simply do not know, because Mark does not tell us. Again, we have more mystery.

However, there is one thing that should be clear to anyone who has read the Bible as one complete story, namely, what Moses and Elijah represent. Moses was the great giver of the Law to God’s people. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time often referred to their Scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets”. Thus, if nothing else, in the appearance of Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus we have a very powerful symbol reminding us that the law and the prophets point to Jesus as the Messiah.

I am reminded of the Grunewald altarpiece, one of the most famous medieval altarpieces. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century had a photograph of this altarpiece in his study to remind himself of his job as a theologian. In this very striking painting we have many symbols. I wish to focus on one of them. In the center of the painting we have Jesus hanging on the cross. To Jesus’ left stands a man holding a book, with a lamb at his feet, and he is pointing a crooked finger at Jesus. The man is John the Baptist, a second Elijah according to the conversation that Jesus has with Peter, James, and John at the end of Mark 8. But what is John the Baptist doing in the Grunewald altarpiece? He is simply pointing to Jesus.

That is what Moses and Elijah do in this story. They point us to Jesus. That is what every Christian theologian like Karl Barth ought to be doing with their endless tomes. That is what every Christian preacher should be doing with every sermon, whether short or long. That is my goal as a pastor and a person, simply to point others to Jesus.

Of course, one reason we do not know how the disciples identified Moses and Elijah is because no sooner do Moses and Elijah appear, then Peter starts babbling: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Mark adds that Peter did not know what to say, for Peter, James and John were terrified. No kidding!

Why does Peter say what he does here? Actually, I think we have a very common human experience unfolding in this story. What we have here is a true, mountaintop, spiritual experience. When I was growing up, I often went on retreats with my church to the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. People would often talk about “mountaintop” experiences. At the time, I thought they simply meant that one could have a wonderful spiritual experience at a Christian camp or retreat. Little did I know then, that such expressions find their source in this story. The Transfiguration was, for Peter, James and John, the ultimate mountaintop experience.

Of course, the trouble with such spiritual highs is that they are often followed by spiritual lows. We will look at this more next week. However, for now, it is enough to notice that Peter has some inkling of this law of undulation; he has some idea that spiritual highs are usually followed by spiritual lows. Thus, like every human being, Peter wants to prolong the high. He basically says to Jesus: “I’m just glad to be here. Let’s build camp so we can all stay here forever.”
Though this is a common human strategy in life, it never works. Next week, we will see why.

The next part of this story is perhaps the most important, at least in my mind. A cloud overshadows them. This is reminiscent of the glory cloud, the Shekinah glory, that led the Israelites on their journey through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. Remember, they were led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Of course, a cloud overshadowing the gathered assembly in this story is another sign of mystery—the numinous.

Most significantly, after the cloud descends, a voice speaks out of the cloud: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This is the moment that the entire story has been building towards.

It occurs to me that it’s hard to listen while one’s mouth is moving. The words of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are lost to us because Peter started running over at the mouth. It is almost as if God interrupts Peter and says: “Be quiet. Just listen.”

This is the seventh time that the word “listen” appears in Mark’s Gospel. Back in Mark 4:3 we heard Jesus say, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” More than once, after telling a story, Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (4:9) Jesus quotes Isaiah, “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; to that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” (4:12)

What a warning! If we look but fail to perceive, if we listen, but without understanding, we may miss two of God’s greatest gifts—turning (repentance) and forgiveness. Mark has told us the story of Herod, who liked to listen to John the Baptist, but who failed to understand and positively act upon what John was preaching. (Mark 6:20) I don’t think any of us really want to be like Herod, do we?

In the previous chapter, Mark records Jesus as saying to the crowd, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand.”

This story raises for me the question: How do we listen to Jesus today?

Personally, I think there are many ways we can listen to Jesus today, but all of them start with Scripture. We must start with the Gospels. The four Gospels of the New Testament are the closest echo we have to the voice of the historical Jesus. If you want to get to know what he was like, what he said, what he did, who he was, then you have to read these books. If you soak yourself in the Gospels then you will be able to recognize Jesus’ voice when you are in prayer. Yes, I believe Jesus speaks to us through prayer today. If you soak yourself in the Gospels, then you will be able to recognize the voice of Jesus speaking through a friend, speaking through a book, speaking through a song, speaking through the circumstances of your everyday life.

In fact, I believe that learning to recognize the voice of Jesus is one of the most important spiritual skills that we can acquire.

A new favorite writer of mine is Barbara Brown Taylor. And in one of her books she says,

In Palestine today, it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago, that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together—eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call—a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a particular reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd's voice, and it is the only one they will follow.

I hope that by God’s grace we are each getting to know the voice of our shepherd and furthermore I hope that we are listening, understanding, and beginning to put into action what that voice is telling us….


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