Sermon: Listen to Him Mark 9:2-8
The Bible and Hollywood….That’s one way to allow Great Stories to be told. Good News calls out to be heard and seen. Some people in the news, this last week, both Christian pastors and the news media, are saying this will be the Year of the Bible. The Movie “Noah” premieres this week, and soon to follow are “Son of God” and soon to come “Moses.” That is a lot of money being both spent on production and I am sure they hope, on tickets. The Christians involved in all this, and there have been many consultants involved, hope the stories told well will bring people to faith. You can guess what the Hollywood side is after! We have had other movies depicting the great events of the Bible, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” with Charleston Heston comes to mind, as does Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” You can even see YouTube videos where there are scenes from various movies, even scenes depicting the Transfiguration of Jesus. Clearly what the Bible has to offer still captures the attention of thousands. But seeing and believing are very different things. The truth of the Bible can be very dangerous, really. It can both do harm and bring life. The real question is how close are you willing to get to the real story?
In the history of mental health, people who hear God’s voice and see apparitions of angelic figures illuminating the darkness are crowned, not Oscar nominees or Golden Globe recipients, but delusional, paranoid or religious fanatics. Well brothers and sisters, welcome to the looney bin! The story of the Transfiguration before us today stands smack in the center of a collection of such events with such borderline personalities than can be found in the biblical literature. We will have to deal with the monomaniac Moses, deliverer of the people of Israel from 400+ years of slavery in Egypt. He too spent time on a mountain and really heard the voice of God! You remember the 10 Commandments… We will have to deal with emotional Elijah who is ordered to Mt Horeb where there is a tornado in the wind, rocks breaking to pieces and the presence of God in the still small voice. He’s the guy who pour water over an alter before calling down fire from heaven to burn it up! And it happened! We will ultimately have to deal with Jesus who stands side by side with Satan on a high mountain and declares “Away with you Satan, Worship the Lord your God and Serve only Him!” He’s the guy who clothes shone brighter than any bleach could possibly get them at the Transfiguration, and we confess that He is God Incarnate.
Moses, Elijah and Jesus share in a common reality; they have believed, they have known, and they have felt the power of God. We on the other hand are more like the disciples in many of these stories, we may feel the earth move, we may hear the rumble of thunder and we may even see a flash of divine light from time to time, but for the most part we are left not seeing what can be seen, not hearing what can be heard, not feeling what can be felt, and not knowing what can be known…. And yet simply and humbly believing and praying for more somehow.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is spell binding, but well to often not preached. It is a radical event in the life of Jesus. In modern kid speak, it is Epic! This event will do three things for us; 1) it will define who Jesus is, 2) it will identify who Jesus is, and 3) it will verify who Jesus is.
The gospel of Mark is no stranger to the human challenges of seeing, hearing, knowing and believe who Jesus is. In fact, the story of the Transfiguration appears directly in the center of a larger section, constructed by Mark to highlight the nature of our blindness to the power and presence of God. Mark wants you to know something about Jesus, the Son of God! Mark probably learned the craft of weaving Jesus stories together from listening to St Peter preach. Remember, Peter was there! Peter saw the Transfiguration! And the early church fathers tell us that Mark was a student of Peters. And in Peter’s second letter he writes “We weren’t, you know, just wishing on a star when we laid the facts out before you regarding the powerful return of our Master, Jesus Christ. We were there for the preview! We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: ‘This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.’ We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears.” Can you imagine! How do you capture that in 3D, surround sound and available on BluRay in 3weeks… So Mark, graciously and carefully aligned a number of stories from Jesus life into a living narrative which helps us to understand the real challenges of seeing and believing things not so easily treated as true.
Let me lead you on a brief overview of what I call the “Blindness” section of Mark’s gospel. This will be a way of helping you see the meaning of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The section spans from Mark 8 to Mark 11. In chapter 8, after the feeding of the four thousand, the disciples are struggling to understand what Jesus is doing, what he means and certainly who He is. He says this to them; “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
The answer to that more than rhetorical question comes in the next story. Mark loves answering a question in one section with the story in the next. So there is a blind man sitting by the side of a road and Jesus sees him and touches his eyes two times. After the first touch the man sees but men look like blurry trees walking. Jesus touches him a second time and the text says, “And he saw everything clearly!” Here’s our opening introduction. Maybe, just maybe, Mark is telling us something about how our blindness can be removed. Jesus, touch us twice if need be, once may not be enough!
Jesus and the disciples travel on and while walking he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” Like nowadays, there are more than enough answers to that question, mostly missing the mark! In seminary there was a joke posted on a campus bulletin board. It showed two cartoon frames. In the first there is Jesus asking his disciples this same question with their response in a text bubble over their heads. It read, “You are the eschatological ground of all being, the ultimate concern for the anthropic meaning and purpose of our souls journey, the quintessential expression of the dialectical reality of our human experience.” Or something like that…. In the second frame Jesus has a single word in his text bubble. “What?!”
The disciples, who thankfully are less grounded in European intellectual history and philosophy and more rooted in the Old Testament Bible could respond “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others one the prophets.” That was certainly a more reasonable response, but still wide of the mark. So Jesus presses them further with a personal question, “Who do you say that I am.” To which question Peter, moved by a deeper and more profound understanding than he was aware of, shouts out impetuously, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” One of the other gospels tells us it was God who helped Peter say that. Nevertheless, I can imagine Peter’s face just after his outburst. WOW! I said that! But here is the kicker. Even though Peter could and did say that, even though it was true as an inspired statement, it was not true in Peters own thinking and feeling. We know that because, when Jesus begins define himself and to fill the language of Peter’s confession with content, saying things like, “The Son of Man will be handed over, condemned to death, mocked, flogged and killed and then rise again,” Peters sees only trees walking. This cannot possibly be true! Peter’s principles, his philosophy, his hopes and dreams are a blurred picture of the reality Jesus presents. And for this Peter is rebuked. Jesus is the only one, save One, who can define himself for us and help us with the answer to Who He Is.
Mark weaves in a number of other stories where Jesus fills in the answer to the question and further defines himself. He does this a total of three times. The section on how blindness can be healed ends with this story in chap 11. The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, is sitting by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is approaching, and in his blindness he sees and in his poverty his life is rich with anticipation of Israel’s hope and redemption… He calls out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stops and asks a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Wow, what a question. Not, what can you do for yourself. Not, Jesus can you give us power and might in your kingdom. Certainly not, what can you do for God. But what do you want JESUS to do for you? And the response is as simple as it is insightful as a closure of this Marcan section. “My teacher Rabboni, let me see again.” Let me know, let me understand, let me feel, let me hope, let me believe again in God’s deliverance, in God’s deliver, the Messiah!!!!
“Go, your faith has made you well” says Jesus and Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus….
But Paul, you will say, this was supposed to be a sermon about the Transfiguration; that oddly placed story of Jesus shining on the mountain with some old dead guys.…. Ah yes! So it is! Mark knew in the Spirit what he was doing by placing that story in the midst of these stories. Jesus takes the disciples, blind and uncertain, up the mountain. It is a several days hike up Mt Hermon (over 9k feet if you go to the top), snowcapped, windy and rugged. Wherever they finally camped, you hikers know they had a right to be tired. Jesus says “pray with me.” If my humanity and yours are anything alike, prayer time and being tired don’t mix. I am not surprised Peter, James and John dozed off. Jesus touches them and wakes them, and who do they see in intimate conversation with Jesus, this Son of David, this healer, this man who feeds thousands, who teaches with authority, who himself raises the dead? Yea, some old dead guys, Moses and Elijah.
We are not told how they knew it was Elijah and Moses, maybe it was the things of which they spoke. The other gospels tell us Elijah and Moses were discussing with Jesus his “deliverance” or in Greek, his “Exodus.” As the Covenant was chronicled and passed on by Moses, as it was fortified and protected by Elijah, so Jesus now stands united with the prophet and the lawgiver, standing in the continuity with the history of the God of the People of God, aligned with the Covenant of Grace and the Word of Truth, in compassion with the struggle for obedience in faithful following of God Almighty. Jesus is identified as the Messianic fulfillment of the ministries of Moses and Elijah. Jesus is identified by Moses and Elijah as Peter proleptically said of Him, you are “The Christ, The Messiah, the Son of God.” Here stands Jesus as the Messianic fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of the people of God, as the fulfillment of the inner meaning of the Law and the prophetic word of the prophets. He has been announced and identified by John the Baptist who came in the Spirit of Elijah to deliver the people from captivity and despair. Moses himself had said at the end of his own life, in Deuteronomy 18, “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.”
Mark wants to press us to see what God is doing. Mark wants to pull back the blindness that keeps us limping along the road and begging for spiritual handouts. Mark wants us to see Jesus for who he is, in all His Glory, not as we want him to be. But along with that is the continuity in this story with the presence of God revealed in the OT. There are so many allusions to the OT in this one event. The Glory of the Lord, the place of the cloud as the Presence of God with His people, the role of the prophetic Word of God, and the future promises of a restoration and arrival of the Son of Man. An entire course like Jodie King is teaching is needed to fill our contemporary, let alone NT understanding with the fabric of OT images and realities. The Transfiguration is the merging of the language and image of the Word of God in the OT with the Word of God in the New. There we have promise, here we have fulfillment. We would do well to linger here.
There is only One final imprimatur needed here. One more Visitor on the mountain needed to verify the confession and provide the revelatory clarity of sight and sound to mark this event. Peter attempts to prolong the moment by offering modest covering for the greater-than-life guests, but like seeing trees walking, the text says “he did not know what to say.” But in that moment, what must be said, what can be said, should be said and finally is said, but not from the human perspective, not as a summary of human wisdom and insight, not out of a cathedral let alone a spiritual place we have defined, but from Heaven itself! God himself Speaks! Yes, I have said it, the text says it! Welcome to the looney bin! God has spoken! This is my beloved Son! Listen to Him! OMG!!! Yes, indeed OMG. God verifies for us who this Jesus is. You want to know who Jesus is, God knows. You want to know why Jesus came, God knows. You want to know in life whom to follow, God knows. You want to know in life who you should listen to, God knows. You want to know what it means to Love without remainder, to forgive unconditionally, to sacrifice all that you hold beloved for the sake of what you have created in love, God knows. And it is all there in the biblical witness.
The Transfiguration of Jesus stands in the center, like the Lamb in the middle of the throne room in Revelation 5, or the Spirit in the Center of Ezekiel’s vision of the Wheel, or the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple, or the Ark of the Covenant in the center of Israel camped and waiting for God to lead them… and in the simple words of Psalm 9:7 “God holds the high center, he sees and sets the world’s mess right.”
And now we are called again to the center, to the Lord’s table. The Bread and the Cup of the Lord await…. Who do you see, who are you here to serve, who do you know, and in whom do you believe….. Listen to Him….. Amen.