Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. The text is in chapter nine, verses 2-9.

The word “transfiguration” describes what happened to Jesus when he took three of his disciples up a high mountain.

Jesus son of Mary, Jesus of the line of King David, Jesus the carpenter, preacher, miracle-worker, brought with him Peter, and James and John.

He kept these three men close to him. They were the only ones with him when he raised a girl from the dead and when he agonized in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest and trial.

As I’ve said before, Mark often uses the word “immediately” to move on to the next story in the chain of stories about Jesus which he has assembled for us.[1]

But this time, he doesn’t say “immediately.” This time, he says the next story in his account, the journey up the mount of transfiguration began “after six days.”

What happened six days earlier? We read it at the end of the previous chapter. Six days earlier, Jesus had spoken about the suffering he had to endure. He said that he would be rejected by his own and killed. He also said that he would be resurrected.

The disciples were shocked. They knew only of a general resurrection, a resurrection of all mankind together, for judgment. They knew nothing of resurrection of one person.

Peter tried to talk “sense” into Jesus – just as he had tried to get Jesus to remain in Capernaum after the healings and exorcisms he’d done there drew large crowds – as I pointed out in my discussion of last week’s reading.

Jesus responded “Get behind me, Satan. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

But Peter didn’t rush off in a huff. And Jesus didn’t reject Peter. No. Jesus kept Peter by his side. He did more.

Jesus took Peter up the mountain. With James and John, brothers with their own agenda. They, through their mother, had even asked to be Jesus’ closest associates when he took his kingly throne. You can read about it in chapter 20 of the gospel according to Matthew.

What Jesus said to them six days earlier simply didn’t make sense to them. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the promised deliverer, the king. Why would he be killed? But he had been insistent. This put them in deep shock. For six days. Was Jesus really the Messiah?

And this is the purpose of the transfiguration. The transfiguration was for their benefit. To encourage them in their faith in Jesus. They would see Jesus as they never had. They would see Jesus in his glory.

The number of days, “six,” is also very important to Mark. It recalls the six days of preparation of Moses before he went up high Mount Sinai, to meet God. Moses glowed so brightly after that experience that he had to cover himself in the presence of others so as not to blind them.

So, what happened on that mountain? Mark tells us seven things:

One, Jesus was transfigured, became radiant, intensely white.

Two, Elijah and Moses – two of the godliest men in the Bible – appeared and spoke with Jesus.

Three, a cloud came over them. And a voice, from the cloud, said:

“This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

Note that the words are addressed to the threesome. Note that just as God appeared in a cloud on Mount Sinai when Moses went up, God appeared in a cloud on a mountain when Jesus went up.

Four, they were all terrified. We would be too, if we knew we were with God, the Holy One – in whose presence all who are impure burn.

Five, Peter said to Jesus “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter must’ve remembered the teaching of the scribes that at the right time, God would dwell among the Israelites again, as he had in the Tabernacle of old – to protect them and to provide for them.

Peter, and James and John, still didn’t get it. They still didn’t get that Jesus is the new tabernacle, Immanuel, God with us.

Six, it was all over in a flash.

Seven, Jesus, referring to himself as the Son of Man, told the threesome to tell no one what they had seen, until he had risen from the dead. This confirms that the purpose of the transfiguration was to enable the disciples to accept that Jesus must suffer and die. And that he would be resurrected.

Now it’s time to ask what the transfiguration means for us today.

The disciples didn’t seek it. God planned it for them. He planned it for them to strengthen their faith. To enable them to accept that the ways of God during the period in which he establishes his kingdom are unlike human expectations. To show them that the way of God, even for his own precious Son, included rejection and suffering.

They knew it was a meeting with God, the Holy One, because of the terror they felt. Feeling terror is integral to any meeting with God. There is a paradox here: we know God as both love and terror.

But it’s because we know him as terror that we can endure much terror at the hands of others. As much as the Apostle Paul, who listened to God’s beloved Son. And wrote of the consequences for his own life:

“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)

We endure terrors because we want our neighbours to be spared the terror of meeting God unprepared. We want them to meet God clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. We want all mankind to repent of their sins, to turn to God, to follow Jesus who was rejected, mocked, killed, so that they might not burn in God’s presence, so that they might become acceptable to God, so that they might become God’s co-workers.

The German Pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was martyred at 39 years of age by Hitler, describes the purpose of the transfiguration in these words:

“Before Jesus leads his disciples into suffering, humiliation, disgrace, and disdain, he summons them and shows himself to them as the Lord in God’s glory.  Before the disciples must descend with Jesus into the abyss of human guilt, malice, and hatred, Jesus leads them onto a high mountain from which they are to receive help.  Before Jesus’ face is beaten and spit upon, before his cloak is torn and splattered with blood, the disciples are to see him in his divine glory.  His face shines like the face of God, and light is the garment he wears.”

Peace be with you.

[1] Mark stresses immediacy in his account of Jesus. 35 times he uses the word “immediately.” Compare this with 28 times, which is the number of times the word is used by the three other gospel writers combined. (link)

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