This week, we’re skipping forward in the gospel of Mark to chapter 9. Every year, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we tell this same story of transfiguration—of a strange moment on a mountain that only three of Jesus’ disciples witnessed. As we look towards the somewhat somber season of Lent, where we will practice some introspection and follow Jesus as he journeys toward the cross, this story offers us a preview of the resurrection glory that is to come.
Scripture: Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Jesus has just shown them the unfiltered, unmediated glory of God.
The barrier between eternity and this mortal world has broken down, just for a little while.
Peter, James, and John have seen the mightiest prophets, and they have heard the very voice of God.
And they still aren’t sure what’s going on.
And I love this—because these very human, very confused disciples are the same ones who will later be leaders and evangelists for this new group of Jesus-followers, who will eventually be called ‘Christians.’
This moment, even though it doesn’t make any sense to them right now, is one giant Easter spoiler.
If our liturgical calendar is meant to take us on a journey with Jesus, to sweep us up in this grand narrative, then today is a turning point. It’s the day we start to turn our attention away from cute baby Jesus in a manger, away from the nice teacher Jesus, and turn our attention to the prophet Jesus—the Jesus who asks something of us.
There is so much symbolism here, so much resonance with the Old Testament, but one of the reasons Moses and Elijah appear is to show the disciples that Jesus stands as the greatest in a long line of prophets that began with Moses and continued with Elijah.
Peter is seemingly desperate to know the reason he’s witnessing this terrifying conversation, and so he interrupts it to say “please just let me do something.”
Instead, he’s enveloped by a cloud and hears the voice of God say “this is my beloved Son—listen to him.”
I find this a really curious way to tell Peter to hold his horses, because Jesus doesn’t say anything immediately afterwards. They just go down the mountain, and he tells them not to tell anyone what they saw until he’s raised from the dead. God isn’t telling Peter to listen to a specific thing Jesus has to say—but apparently to everything Jesus has to say.
This is particularly curious because in the story right before this, Jesus is talking quite plainly about his upcoming death, and inviting his disciples to share in it. Peter tries to change the subject, to tell him “stop talking like that.”
But Peter gets rebuked himself instead, and Jesus continues: “if anyone wishes to follow me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow me.”
That is a hard word indeed, because for the disciples this wasn’t about giving up chocolate for a few weeks—in that moment, Jesus meant that literally. Most of those who were listening got the hint, at that point, that they were not likely to live long and quiet lives if they continued to follow him.
Knowing this, then, we can see that the Transfiguration serves as a reminder that there is life to be had beyond the dying. This moment is a signpost that assures us that the glory of God cannot be conquered—not even by death itself.
This experience is a mustard seed, planted in the hearts of these three disciples, that can only be broken open by the heartbreak of grief and fear, but will eventually grow into a faith that they can rest and rejoice in.
In the meantime, though, they have this invitation to pay close attention to Jesus’ words, and they have to decide what to do with it. They have to decide how and when they’re going to listen—not just hear, but listen.
Igor Stravinsky, the composer and pianist, said:
“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”
Parents and teachers, in particular, can tell us the difference between hearing and listening.
As these disciples are already learning, it’s one thing to admire the Messiah; to obey him is something else.
“Follow me” (Mark 1:17).
“Do not be afraid” (5:36; 6:50).
“You give them something to eat” (6:37).
“It is what comes out of a person that defiles” (7:20).
“Deny [yourself] and take up [your cross] and follow me” (8:34).
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31).
“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” (11:25).
That’s only from Mark; Matthew, Luke, and John offer many, many more.
Lent is our opportunity to focus our hearts and minds and time on listening to Jesus in this way. To experiment with different, more difficult–with new ways of hearing, obeying, and following. We set aside a whole season for this listening, not only to prepare us for the joy of Easter resurrection, but also so that we can practice the disciplines that would be too hard for us to maintain year-round.
That’s why, this year, for Lent, we’re going to use the sermon space in worship to practice some of those practices. Each week, we’ll set aside this time to listen to scripture in different ways, to encounter God in some tangible and perhaps challenging ways—and each week, you’ll go home with a particular challenge or discipline to practice for that week.
All that God asks of us today is to witness. To see, to hear, to marvel in the glory of God—to be content but curious with what we don’t yet understand.
One of my very favorite quotes comes from the poet, Rainer Marie Rilke:
“I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Beloved people of God, let us listen together to the beloved Son of God.