A sermon given February 14, 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily on Mark 9:2-9…
Today we find ourselves at the last Sunday of Epiphany – the season in the church year when we celebrate the revelation of God in Christ. Throughout this season, our gospel readings have portrayed events and proclamations during Jesus’ life and ministry that reveal his divinity. We’ve heard about healing after healing. But the two most dramatic revelations we hear about during this season are the Baptism of Christ and the Transfiguration. They bracket or form the bookends of Epiphany; they are celebrated on the first and the last Sunday of the season.
All the healings, exorcisms, and miracles that Christ performs during his life seem to be straightforward signs that Jesus is the Son of God. But up until the eighth chapter in the gospel of Mark, the disciples don’t seem to grasp who Jesus is. All the demons that Jesus casts out know that he’s the Son of God. But the disciples don’t seem to get it. When Jesus calms the stormy sea, the disciples say to one another: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and then four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish in the gospel. But when the disciples find themselves in a boat with only one loaf of bread, they start worrying that they don’t have enough. Jesus reprimands them, saying “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” But by the eighth chapter, the gaps in the disciples’ understanding are beginning to be filled in.
Just before today’s gospel reading, Peter finally blurts out that Jesus is the Messiah. Immediately after Peter says those words, Jesus tells the disciples what will happen during their time in Jerusalem – about the suffering and death he will undergo. He also speaks to them of his resurrection and his returning in glory; still, it’s not exactly the image of a Messiah that the disciples had always dreamed of. They’re beginning to see that the kingdom of God and the salvation it brings comes with a cost.
It’s in this context that Mark recounts the Transfiguration. Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples up a high mountain, and Peter and James and John experience a shocking, face-to-face encounter with the glory of Christ. His clothes become dazzling white, and the voice of God booms from the cloud above (just as it had at his baptism): “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It’s a terrifying experience. As the vision fades, the disciples look up to find Jesus just as he was before. But everything has changed, because this experience of his glory and power will remain etched in their minds as they travel the road to Jerusalem. They’ve received a taste of the glory that will transform the world, and that glimpse will become the lens through which they will interpret (even if only in retrospect) all that lies ahead.
From this point on, Jesus sets his face in the direction of Jerusalem and his coming passion. This close juxtaposition of Jesus’ suffering and Transfiguration – the foretelling of his death and the revelation of his glory – makes the cross all the more scandalous and confusing. Jesus will undergo suffering and death; but through that suffering and death, Jesus will redeem and transfigure the world. Jesus’ suffering and his glory are not opposed or contradictory; instead, through his suffering, through his passion, we glimpse what real power is. We see that the power of Christ is very different from what the world calls power. The power of Christ isn’t about coercion, oppression, wealth, or the strength of an empire; the power of Christ is the power of a love so strong that one is willing to lay down his life for his friends. In fact, it is precisely because divine power and divine love are always one and the same that divine power sometimes looks to the world like weakness. But the Transfiguration reminds us that the passion of Christ will not take place despite God’s glory, but because of it.
The disciples have come face-to-face with God’s glory in the person of Christ. And coming close to the glory of God is no safe experience, because to take part in the glory of Christ is to take part in his suffering also. The disciples already know that the difficult road that lies ahead for Jesus is theirs as well. Jesus has already, in no uncertain terms, laid out the cost of discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.” That the path to God’s glory takes us through the cross as well is a difficult pill to swallow.
I’m reminded of a conversation that takes place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the four Pevensie children who have found their way into Narnia. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are talking with excitement about Aslan being on the move in Narnia:
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan. “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” (146).
Following Jesus isn’t always safe, but it is good. Yes, the disciples will witness the death of Jesus and subsequently his resurrection, and they will also have their own trials and sufferings. But they have seen the glory of God in all its transforming power, and they know that they are not alone. Jesus comes down the mountain with them; Jesus will always be with them.
We all have crosses to bear – some of our bodies carry scars that tell of struggles with illness, our psyches are inevitably marred by loss, and the anxieties of this life weigh on us. We’re called to bear the crosses of others as well, and to make them our own – the poverty that hits our eyes at almost every intersection in larger cities, the poverty that is more hidden but just as pervasive in our own town, the pain that we see in the faces of those who live in war-torn countries, the lack of proper health care for the many uninsured in this country, and those are to name just a few. The task is daunting; and it’s easy to become weary. But the glory of God is revealed to us again and again, if we take the time to truly look at the world around us. And that revelation lets us dare to hope for transformation in our own lives and in the world.
With the vision of the Transfiguration etched deeply in our own minds, we now turn our faces toward the season of Lent, to our own Jerusalems, and to transformation – trusting that while the journey of discipleship may not always seem safe, it is good. And so as we pray in the collect for today, this Lent “may we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance and his glory, be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory” (Book of Common Prayer 217).