A PEAK BEHIND THE CURTAIN
A sermon on Mark 9:2-10
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 14, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jesus led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them…
Today is “Transfiguration Sunday” on the church calendar. It is the last Sunday of the season known as Epiphany and the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins.
The Transfiguration is one of those stories in the gospels that does not garner a lot of attention when it comes around each year. Christmas, with its joyful stories of angels singing to shepherds on a hillside and the birth of the Christ Child to an unwed mother in an out-of-the-way place like Bethlehem, is a high point in the church calendar each year with special services and observations. Palm Sunday, with its parade of palm branch waving people, is certainly unique in the church calendar. Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the grave and his victory over the powers of death, is considered the most important of the church’s annual worship with its glorious music and a sanctuary filled with beautiful Easter lilies. Pentecost remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon the followers of Jesus and is considered really the birthday of the church. Lent is a 40 day period of reflection and penitence that serves as a prelude to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday that also usually includes special observances.
But Transfiguration Sunday? Not so much enthusiasm in the church for that day. In fact, I have learned that a lot of pastors would honestly prefer not to preach the Transfiguration texts when they come around each year. In fact, the lectionary calendar recognizes that by actually providing two different sets of scriptures for Transfiguration Sunday. That does not often happen in the yearly lectionary cycle. I suppose that the reasoning is that it increases the preacher’s options for choosing an alternative text to preach from rather than the standard Transfiguration texts.
I get that. Let’s be honest: The story of the Transfiguration is probably the strangest story recorded in all of the gospels. It does not fit in any of our easy categories. It defies logic. This is mysterious. It describes a supernatural event that makes some people squirm uncomfortably. It’s a blatant invasion of the world of the Spirit into the world of flesh and matter. And frankly, it is one of those passages which raises more questions than it gives answers as to its meaning and what it teaches us about Jesus. But let’s not be swayed by all of those considerations. For better or for worse, we will spend the next few minutes thinking about this baffling story and hopefully gain some insight into the heart of the Jesus story…
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Mark begins by telling us the Jesus took three of his disciples up a high mountain with him. These disciples were Simon Peter, James and John. Once they got to the top, it is difficult to know exactly what happened next. It is said that Jesus was “transfigured” right before the very eyes of the astonished disciples. And his clothes became dazzlingly white, such as no one on earth could have ever made them.
“Transfigured” is not a word that we come across very much nowadays, is it? My guess is that it is a word that tries to describe something for which no language is totally inadequate. It is a translation of the Greek word metamorphoō. It is the same word from which we get our English word “metamorphosis.” No doubt y’all remember what metamorphosis is from your days in middle school science class…
Metamorphosis is the natural process whereby a caterpillar weaves a cocoon around itself, and some time later, emerges from the cocoon completely transformed into a butterfly. That which was once earthbound is now able to fly with wings that were only potentially present before. In the New Testament, metamorphoō is used in two other places, both of which describe the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit in transforming the life of the Christian. In Romans 12:2, it says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The other place is 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness…”
And if that were not enough, Mark tells us that Elijah and Moses appeared and spent their time talking over things with Jesus in his transformed state. We are not told how it is that the disciples (or the gospel writer Mark, for that matter) recognized the two men talking with Jesus. Both Elijah and Moses had been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years, so it was not as if they had met them before. But in any event, the disciples were awestruck. Feeling like they needed to do something, Peter suggested that shelters be built for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. He was just babbling at this point because he did not know how to respond to what he was witnessing.
And then, to top it all off, a cloud enveloped the mountain. And from the cloud, the disciples heard a voice from heaven declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then, when they looked around, it was all over as quickly and as unexpectedly as it had happened. The cloud was gone. Elijah was gone. Moses was gone. Only Jesus was still with them and he appeared like he usually did. And as they went down the mountain to rejoin the other disciples, Jesus sternly warned them not to tell anyone what they had just witnessed until after he had risen from the dead. And so they so they kept this strange story to themselves, as Jesus had commanded them…
So what exactly happened on the mountain? Well, one preacher that I heard as a teenager described it like this: Jesus was wholly human and wholly God at the same time. In his own inimitable way, he said that it was like the God part of Jesus could only be bottled up in his human body for just so long before it had to come gushing out. He likened it to what happens if you take a bottle of Coke, shake it up for a minute or two, and then open it up. You all know what will happen. The contents of the bottle
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will come spewing out of it all over the place. And that is what happened to Jesus—the God part came all spewing out…I’m not sure that was the point of the story because I do not think that Jesus’ transfiguration was any accident.
Jesus allowed himself to be transfigured in the sight of these three disciples to give them courage for the road ahead. This transfiguration story in the gospel of Mark is exactly halfway through the book. Jesus and disciples were on the road to Jerusalem where Jesus would first be welcomed into the city by the crowd, and then be betrayed by one of his followers, railroaded through a farce of a trial, turned on by the crowd, and then gruesomely executed by being crucified outside the city gate. In the previous chapter (Mark 8), Jesus had already explicitly warned his disciples of what awaited him (and them) in Jerusalem. But they were appalled by what he said and refused to believe him. I think that, on some level, Jesus gave these three disciples a glimpse of his glorified self to strengthen them for the journey that lay before them. He had, if you will, given the three disciples a peak behind the curtain as to his identity as God’s Son for their benefit.
Did the disciples know what to do with this incredible demonstration of Jesus’ power on top of the mountain? Not really. Jesus would remind them that he was going to suffer and die at least two more times before they reached Jerusalem. And yet, for all of that, the disciples—including the three on the mountain of Transfiguration with Jesus who had witnessed the events described today—seemed to be genuinely stunned and shocked when the events of Holy Week played out the way that they did. They thought that Jesus would be the conquering hero who would deliver the Jews from the oppression of the Romans and reinstate the ancient dynasty of King David. And as his followers, they themselves would rule over Israel. But that is not what happened. Instead, Jesus would be put to death by everything that society deemed to be respectable—government authority, religious leaders, and the democracy of the crowd. Jesus, God’s suffering servant, would give his life for the redemption of the whole world in ways that they could not fathom at the time…
As the last part of their experience on the mountain, the disciples heard a voice coming from within the cloud that overshadowed them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Take note of what the voice says. The voice did not say, “Follow him.” The voice did not say “Watch what he does.” The voice did not say, “Remember what you have seen and heard here on this mountain.” No. Instead, the voice said, “Listen to him.”
How surprising that is! Hadn’t they been doing that all along? Hadn’t they been listening to Jesus the last couple of years as they traveled around Galilee together with him? Hadn’t they heard Jesus command sicknesses and diseases to leave those who were afflicted? Hadn’t they heard him speak as he drove out demons? Hadn’t they heard our Lord contend with his enemies as he taught about the new principles of God’s kingdom? Hadn’t they listened as Jesus told parables about how the kingdom of God was like a farmer sowing seed and how the kingdom was like seed growing in a field? Hadn’t they listened when they watched Jesus stand up in the boat and tell the waves and the wind of the storm to be quiet and still?
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No—apparently not. They had heard Jesus speak and they had heard his teaching. But they had not really listened to him.
And that’s the crux of the issue. The only true listening that the Bible knows anything about is obedient listening. In the New Testament, and especially in the first chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is described as The Word of God. There it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
Words are important. Words can change lives. But they only have that power when they are heard and obeyed. James 1:22-24 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”
The voice from the cloud called out, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.” As the sermon draws to a close, the question for you (and for me) is how we respond to that voice. Are we listening to the voice of Jesus in our lives and following what he says? Or are we hearing his voice…and continuing to go our own way…doing what seems prudent to us…following our own inclinations and desires. If we are going to follow the Word, we must not only listen to it, but we also must do what it tells us to do. Otherwise we may be just hearing…but not really listening.
What is it that you need to do to hear the voice more clearly and more distinctly? And what is it that you should do so that those words do not fall on ears that hear…but don’t really listen?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
A PEAK BEHIND THE CURTAIN