Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines: Transfiguration 2021

Jesus draws back the curtain and shows us the whole picture.

One of my pastoral colleagues raised two Ethiopian boys as foster sons. Their home had been engulfed in civil war and famine. The boys ran cross country in high school and track for the University of Nebraska.

The foster sons never lost touch with their Ethiopian parents and family. One of the boys got married to an American woman, and the couple had a baby. My colleague asked if I would have the baptism. I said an enthusiastic yes!

Ten minutes before worship, my colleague introduced me to one of the Ethiopian grandfathers. He was a small, unassuming and very serious man. He was also the president of the Mekane Jesus Church in Ethiopia. This was the fastest growing Lutheran community in the world, with nearly seven million members.

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I was about to baptize his first grandchild.

I am not easily rattled when leading worship. But that was an exception. It all went very well. It went well because the grandfather was a kind, gentle and gracious man. We all rejoiced in God’s grace that day.

Two weeks later, I saw him on television. He had addressed a meeting of international political and church leaders and received a standing ovation. That was when I really began to sweat about my preaching two weeks before.

On television the curtain was drawn back for a moment. I saw the power and wisdom, the courage and strength of the man who had sat in our pews.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. That’s my first thought today.

Today we remember the Transfiguration of Our Lord. We see the full glory of Jesus, the Messiah. Along with the disciples, we might be scared witless. The Greek word for “terrified” means “to be beyond ourselves with fear.”

Jesus is God’s beloved and chosen Son. In Jesus God launches the project to take the world back from sin, death and evil. So Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the Lord of All Creation. He is the human face of God, and the Divine face of humanity. In him, as we read in Colossians 1, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. Through him, God speaks words of grace and mercy and hope to a world enslaved to law and vengeance and despair.

For a moment, we get to see Jesus in the light of his glory. This prepares us for the Lenten journey back into the Valley of the Shadow. We get this vision so we can go forward, not so we can stay put.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain.

This is a preview of Easter. But this preview is about encouragement, not entitlement. I once stood in the crowd waiting for the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The geyser is supposed to erupt on a strict schedule. Apparently it was some seconds later this time. The man next to me glanced at his watch.  “It’s late, Mabel,” he said in disgust. “Let’s get a postcard and go.”

The Transfiguration isn’t a preview for our convenience. But it is about encouragement. Jesus shines with the light of God’s grace and love. That light is given to us in our baptism. It comes to us as a gift. We have the privilege of letting that light shine through us to others. “Let your light so shine,” Jesus says to us, “that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain.

He does that in our Gospel reading. And he wants to do that through you. He wants to do that every time you serve someone with his love. He wants to do that every time you speak his name to someone in despair. He wants to do that every time you invite someone to be part of your church family.

The Transfiguration is the last Sunday in Epiphany. “Epiphany” means that something or someone has been revealed. We see Jesus for a moment as he really is. We are invited to follow him on his journey into the world.

When the Big World crashes into our little worlds, we have two choices. We can retreat in fear. We can make our little world (and our little god) even smaller. We can stop the journey and pitch a tent. That is Peter’s choice on the mountain.

Or we can let the world (and our God) get bigger. We can allow Jesus to enlarge our empathy. We can engage in compassion practice. We can go down the hill and back into the world.

Will we satisfied with things as they are now?  Perhaps we want God to just shut up and be satisfied. Will we just pitch our tents on the Mountain of Mediocrity? Or will we go back down the hill? Will we pull in and close the flap? Or will we push out and dare to be great?

The tent is a slow and sleepy end, but it is death nonetheless. The adventure passes through a cross, but on the other side is the New Creation. Will we choose the tents or the trials? Will we choose rest or risk?

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. And he wants the light to shine through us.

Some years ago we hosted a visitor from Tanzania in our home for a weekend. Frederick Shoo was an assistant bishop in one of the smaller dioceses in the Lutheran church in Tanzania. He preached at worship and spoke at our adult forum.

We spent the following Monday afternoon hunting souvenirs for his family. He was headed back on Tuesday, and his shopping was far from finished. Frederick had specific orders from his wife, Janet, and his teen-aged daughters, to return with some nice American shoes. My spouse was working that day, so we were on our own.

Off we went to the Kohl’s in south Lincoln. Frederick pulled out a pair of purple pumps and said, “What do you think?” What I thought was, “You’re asking me? You can’t be serious!” What I did was call my spouse to seek expert fashion advice. After a few additional phone calls, we sent Frederick home with fashionable footwear for the family.

This is my clearest memory of my friend, Frederick Shoo—two bumbling males, lost in the wilderness of feminine footwear. Now let me tell you who Frederick really is. The Reverend Doctor Shoo is the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, with a membership of over six and a half million.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. It’s important to see the whole picture.

With the disciples we watch as Jesus is revealed for who and what he truly is—Messiah of Israel, Redeemer of the Universe and Lord of all Creation. We hear an echo of the words spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.

God says, “Pay attention. Look deeper. See the whole picture.” This is who and what Jesus truly is.

The Transfiguration is a renewal of Jesus’ baptismal vocation. But wait–there’s more! Now the words are directed to his disciples (and anyone else who might be in earshot. “Listen to him.”

Soon we’ll all head back down the mountain into the murky mundane. On Wednesday we begin our Lenten journey together. It’s good to get renewed, re-called. It’s good to get a peek at the peak!

Now we come down the mountain for the deep and reflective journey of Lent. I look forward to that time of reflection and prayer with you. And I am grateful for this peek at the peak that launches us into the journey.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. It’s important to see the whole picture.

Let’s pray.

Text study for Mark 9:1-29, part 2: Transfiguration B 2021

Part Two: Disciples Go Down

As the Transfiguration party goes back down the mountain, Jesus orders them to keep the story to themselves “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (verse 9). They complied with the order, but they discussed and argued among themselves (the NRSV “questioned” seems a bit non-specific here) “what this rising from the dead could mean.” In fact, the word for “questioned” could just as easily be translated as “seized upon.” They are doing more than wondering about what Jesus intended.

Were the disciples unfamiliar with the idea of resurrection from the dead? No, that can’t be the case. The common expectation of the time was that there would be some sort of resurrection at “the end of the age,” whenever that might be. This was, obviously, a live issue for theological debate in Second Temple Judaism and certainly in the first century.

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We know that the Sadducees did not believe in any sort of postmortem resurrection, since they were sure such an idea could not be found in the Torah. They engage Jesus in this debate later in the synoptic accounts. We know that Martha expected a general resurrection at the end of the age that would include her brother, Lazarus. We can see the developing expectation of a resurrection of, at least, the “just” in the account of the martyred brothers in 2 Maccabees. So, the disciples had plenty of data to frame their conversation.

It wasn’t the resurrection of the dead that caused the arguments. It certainly must have been the mystery surrounding the resurrection of the “Son of Man.” Apparently, this individual resurrection was going to happen at a time when it would be appropriate and useful to tell people about the Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of that resurrection. That was, for the disciples, a real theological head-scratcher.

“No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead,” N. T. Wright notes in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “Nobody would have thought of saying, ‘I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead’” (page 25). It’s no wonder the disciples are puzzled by Jesus’ command.

For Christians, as Wright puts it, the Resurrection has been “split” into two parts – Jesus’ resurrection in the middle of history, and resurrection for the rest at the end of the age. “Mark, clearly, intends his readers to recognize that they share with hindsight the knowledge that Jesus seemed to have in advance,” Wright says. “The reader understands what was, for the disciples at the time, still a puzzle” (Resurrection of the Son of God, page 415).

We get the substance of the disciples’ debate in verses eleven through thirteen. The disciples know that Elijah is the predicted forerunner of the Messiah. In a veiled reference, Jesus points to John the Baptist as Elijah, just as Mark did in his description of the Baptist in chapter 1. “But I tell you that Elijah has come,” Jesus assures them, “and they did to him whatever they pleased…” In fact, they executed John for speaking the truth, and Jesus prepares the disciples to expect the same for him.

It’s a funny thing about resurrection – you have to die first. Was that part of the shock that smacked the disciples upside the head as they made their way down the mountain? If it hadn’t occurred to them before, Jesus makes it clear. “How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” It’s not clear what scripture Jesus references here, but it is clear that he brings together the Davidic Messiah and the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah.

The Transfiguration party has barely gotten off the mountain and they find themselves under the shadow of the cross. Welcome to the disciplined journey of Lent!

Jesus comes down the mountain to find things in an uproar, just as Moses did in Exodus 32. Hurtado notes that listeners to Mark’s gospel experience resistant teachers of the law, powerless disciples, and Jesus, “who both meets the needs before him and calls his followers to more faithful obedience to him” (page 147).  He draws a parallel between the resurrection prefiguring of the Transfiguration and the similarities between this scene and the life of the post-resurrection church. “Implicit in the account is that Jesus’ followers are expected to have full faith in his power,” Hurtado writes, “even when he is not with them as he was with the Twelve, and that they must continue his ministry in the same power that he manifested” (page 148).

Critical in Mark’s account is the conversation between Jesus and the father of the demon-possessed boy. This is one of the pivotal scenes in Mark’s gospel. I don’t know if Mark intends this or not, but in this scene, we have one “Beloved Son” healing another. We have one loving Father sending help to another loving father. The voice from heaven tells the disciples to “listen to him!” The verb for “listen” has in the sense of “obey.” That will be the call to the father who wants his son set free.

The struggling disciple dad doubts whether Jesus can conquer the demon, since his disciples could not. Jesus’ response to the father’s request seems harsh to our ears. “Something in the father’s statement of the problem, in the crowd’s prurient but faithless interest, and in the disciples’ inability to deal with it all, says to him that whatever is going on it isn’t faith,” suggests N. T. Wright. He concludes, “That sad reflection confirms him in his belief, announced already at Caesarea Philippi, that he must now himself go the way of sorrow, the way of the cross, the path of his redeeming vocation” (page 150).

The father, as a struggling and doubtful disciple, makes his request again. But he clearly has doubts about Jesus’ power to anything about the situation. He murmurs, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus sounds offended or incredulous at this lukewarm response. “Of course, I’m able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father then cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Hurtado suggests that this cry of desperation “was no doubt intended by Mark to depict the need of his readers to trust in Christ more fully and intelligently” (page 150).

This is the situation of all disciples who follow Jesus from the resurrection into the world. N. T. Wright notes that the father’s words were, “shouted out in the mixture of despair and trust that so often seems to characterize our prayers when things are tough…” (Location 2202). We dare not cease trusting in him for our life and mission.

When that happens, resurrection takes place. Jesus lifts the boy to his feet, an image of resurrection. “Jesus, the beloved son on his way to his own death and resurrection, rebukes the spirit,” notes N. T. Wright, “it leaves the boy apparently dead, but Jesus (in Mark’s words) ‘raises him up, and he arises’ (both words are regular resurrection words in the New Testament)” (Location 2203). “And we have the promise, Hurtado suggests, of Jesus’ power available to us “by faith to meet any need that arises in the course of ministering in his name” (page 150).

“And when faced with crises ourselves,” wonders N. T. Wright, “do we know how to pray with whatever faith we may have? ‘I believe; help me in my unbelief!’ When we find ourselves at that point,” he suggests, “the only thing to do is to put the first foot on the ladder, ask for help and start to climb” (Location 2210). This must have been a moving challenge to our baptismal candidate shivering in the dark of Easter eve on the brink of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

Hurtado offers this summary. “In the same way that the disciples are brought back into Jesus’ earthly mission here after the transfiguration that prefigures and symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, so Mark’s readers were to realize that they, after the resurrection of Christ, were called still to an earthly mission of faith and of proclamation of Christ against the forces of evil” (page 149). This is the final exorcism in Mark’s gospel and draws together all the ways in which Jesus triumphs over sin, death and the devil in his life, death, and resurrection.

Following this preview of resurrection, we get Jesus’ second Passion Prediction in Mark, followed by his discourse on the nature of discipleship in the balance of chapter nine and the whole of chapter ten. We learn that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). We sit with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who regains his sight and immediately follows Jesus on the way. The way leads to Holy Week and the cross.

But, hold on for a bit. Lent doesn’t start until Wednesday.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Skinner, Matt.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Mark 9: (1) 2-9 (10-29), Transfiguration B, 2021

Part One: a Glimpse of Gory

I think the text requires that we read through 9:29 in order to get Mark’s full understanding of the significance of the Transfiguration. Verses ten through twenty-nine do not make an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary. The events related there come through other gospel accounts. So, let’s read them today.

If time is a concern in that regard, I would omit the first reading for the day. So, I will spend at least a couple of posts on the Mark text and related accounts and omit comments on the first reading for this day. We will have plenty of references from the Hebrew scriptures to help us make sense of what Mark portrays here.

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We began Epiphany with the Baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven. In Mark, that voice spoke only to Jesus. Now we come to the other end of that divine uncovering. “The Transfiguration is a very different kind of a revealing, however,” writes Matt Skinner in his comments. “Jesus becomes a beacon, like a lighthouse planted in the middle of the desert. The heavenly voice addresses all the witnesses: Peter, James, and John. On this Sunday, there is a promise that Jesus can and will be noticed. Epiphanies aren’t always subtle.”

It is noteworthy that the Transfiguration leads to the second Passion prediction, and that the disciples did not understand second passion prediction and were afraid to ask Jesus to explain it. The Transfiguration is not just a light show to dazzle the disciples. It is a glimpse of Jesus’ glory to sustain them on the journey to and through the cross on Golgotha.

The lectionary text is framed by the first and second passion predictions. The lead-in to this reading in 9:1. Jesus tells the disciples, “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.” I think it might be best to read this verse as well, if we’re adding.

This verse is “one of the most difficult in Mark,” Hurtado writes, “and has attracted a number of suggestions” (page 139). What does Jesus mean that some “will not taste death” before they “see that the kingdom of God has come with power”?

“It has been fashionable,” N. T. Wright observes, “to take Mark 9.1 as a classic example of misplaced hope, with Jesus and the early Christians looking for the end of the space-time world and the establishment of a totally different existence. But,” he asserts, “that’s not what Jewish language like this means” (Location 2062). Instead, Jesus expects that his mission will be fulfilled during the lifetimes of at least some of those present. “Jesus seems to think that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come,” Wright concludes, “precisely through his own suffering and death” (Location 2065).

It could be, as Hurtado notes, that Jesus got it wrong. That seems unlikely, however, at least in how the Synoptic writers report it. Mark, writing perhaps forty years after the events recorded here, “would have realized that no such complete transformation of the world had happened yet.”

This report is carried in modified forms into both the Matthew and Luke accounts. “It seems unlikely that the Gospel writers would have recorded a saying of Jesus that they and their readers understood to be a flat error,” Hurtado continues. “This means that the Gospel writers must have understood the saying” in a different fashion (page 139).

The Transfiguration account is the follow-up to Jesus’ cryptic words. “This suggests,” Hurtado notes, “that each of the gospel writers saw the prediction as fulfilled in the transfiguration and what it in turn signified and prefigured…the resurrection of Jesus as Lord and Christ” (page 140). Hurtado suggests that for Mark, this verse means that Jesus’ contemporaries would not die before his mission was confirmed and completed in the cross and resurrection. The Transfiguration is a preview of and preparation for that completion.

Hurtado describes the connection between the first passion prediction and the Transfiguration as “balancing a foreshadowing of Christ’s glory to come with the emphasis upon humiliation and obedience” (page 140). The Transfiguration is a glimpse of that glory followed by a deeper descent into the humiliation.

In Mark, the Transfiguration takes place six days after the first Passion prediction, while in Luke it takes place after “about eight days.” Since I’m preaching on the narrative lectionary reading from Luke on February 14, I will take the opportunity to compare the two accounts at a few points. This comparison is often helpful in discerning the outlines of the understandings of the various Synoptic writers.

For Mark, this glorious epiphany on the mountain is a final act before the great Sabbath of the crucifixion. This will help us to understand Mark’s account of the last week of Jesus’ life as a descent from the heights of Palm Sunday to the depths of Good Friday. Hurtado notes that Mark’s reference may be to Exodus 24:15, “where after six days, Moses is summoned to a mountaintop and is given a revelation of God.” He suggests that Mark wants us to see that “a new revelation is given that therefore surpasses the former one to Moses” (page 144).

“The bright light of the Transfiguration affirms life, a light that shines ahead into Lent to keep that season in perspective, never without hope and confidence,” writes Matt Skinner. “This light speaks a promise that God is here. And that God is knowable. God seeks relationship. Because God is life.”

Luke emphasizes the resurrection reverberations of the Transfiguration and focuses us on the first day of the New Creation, the eighth day, the day of that first Easter. Luke also uses different terminology regarding the change in Jesus’ appearance. Both Mark and Matthew use a word that is the root of our English word, “metamorphosis” (which literally means to have another form). Luke says that Jesus’ appearance became “other.” Witherington and Levine suggest that Luke is trying to avoid any accidental connection with stories of Greek mythology and divinities by making this change.

Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain with Jesus in his glory. Hurtado connects Moses’ presence to the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15, which we read not long ago, that a prophet like Moses would bring the Reign of God. “Moses’ appearance in the vision of the disciples meant that he was endorsing Jesus as the one he had promised,” Hurtado writes, “the one who now bore all the authority of Moses in speaking for God.” Hurtado points to the fact that the command to “listen to him” is a quote from Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 (page 145).

The prophet, Elijah, also brings a vote of confidence for Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Earlier in Mark (chapter 6:14-15), we read that Elijah is expected as the forerunner of the Messiah. Mark begins the gospel by identifying John the Baptizer in that role, especially through John’s clothing and diet. The appearance of Elijah as the forerunner will be discussed in Mark 9:11-13. The disciples somehow don’t get that Elijah has in fact appeared in a couple of guises, so Jesus has to make it clearer in those verses. Matthew leaves no doubt as to the identification between John and Elijah, not trusting readers to make the connection themselves.

Mark makes clear in his account that Jesus is the Messiah. He also includes features to show that Jesus is the Son of God, that is the presence of God among us. Hurtado reminds us that the dazzling white clothing takes us to Daniel 7:9, a vision of God. The disciples, Hurtado notes, are viewing a theophany, a Divine appearing like that experienced by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. So Jesus is not “just the Messiah, an especially godly human chosen to rule in God’s name,” Hurtado writes, “he is himself ‘clothed’ in divine glory” (page 145).

The voice from heaven repeats part of the declaration made to Jesus at his baptism. Here at the Transfiguration, that declaration becomes more public. As God’s “Beloved Son,” Jesus is superior to all the “sons of God” who have come before him. “Jesus is superior to them all,” Hurtado writes. “Together with the transfigured appearance of Jesus, this statement shows that there rests upon him,” he continues, “unparalleled glory and divine favor” (page 146).

The cloud reminds us of the cloud leading Israel in the wilderness and descending on the mountain to envelope Moses in the theophany at Sinai. There is no doubt that the voice is God’s voice. “The voice from heaven not only recognizes Jesus as the Son of God but also commands the disciples to pay attention to what he is telling them about the task and the suffering that lie ahead,” Hurtado notes, “both for Jesus and for them” ( page 146).

The disciples can’t and won’t get this fully until after the Resurrection, and we as the readers understand this. The command to keep quiet about what they have seen and heard” means that it is only in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’ true person can be understood,” Hurtado continues, “for he is not just a wonderful visitor from heaven or an especially favored man given mystic glory but the one called to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45).” The fact that our imagined baptismal candidate won’t understand it all until the end of the story is affirmed as the prototypical experience of any and every disciple.

“The lesson for the reader,” Hurtado says, “is that any intelligent talk of the glory of Jesus cannot be done apart from emphasis upon his death and resurrection, and that any Christian preaching and devotion that is not centered on the meaning of these events is shallow and confused” (page 147).

More on this text in the next post.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Skinner, Matt.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.