Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
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.
How good it is for us to be here in worship on this Sunday with our church family. And how appropriate it is that, as we transition from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent, we we would hear and reflect on the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. In Epiphany, we celebrated the appearance of Jesus to us, the Gentiles, through the most unlikely characters: magicians from the East. Throughout the following weeks, we considered what the early part of Jesus’s ministry means for us: the wedding at Cana, the casting out of evil, and the spread of the Good News.
How good it is, then, to be here on the mountaintop with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, along with Elijah and Moses in this time between Christmas and Easter.
Looking at the story Mark has told us so far in his Gospel about Jesus, we can see how crucial this moment is. From the very first verses, Mark has been arguing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, that he is the Lord, and that he is the one who brings the kingdom of God to earth.
We, the reader, know all of this. After all, we heard about the baptism of Jesus in chapter 1, when the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. But the disciples were not there. They didn’t see that moment. Throughout these first 8 chapters of Mark, the disciples are on a quest to discover the fullness of Jesus’s identity.
And in chapter 8, we think that Peter’s figured it out. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples attested that some thought he was some reincarnation of John the Baptist. After all, John had been brutally murdered by Herod. He had quite the following, with many coming to be baptized by him and many ardent disciples, so it’s no wonder that many hoped for John’s return. Others thought Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets. They had been looking for signs of the one who would prepare the way for God’s return to the people of Israel.
Peter knew better. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah. But he didn’t know all of what that would mean for Jesus. When Jesus began to teach the disciples, for the first time, about what would come at the end of his journey on earth, Peter rebuked him. Peter knew that the Messiah couldn’t die, because he thought it was the Messiah’s job to lead a great revolt against Rome. But, as Jesus said, this was a human rather than a divine expectation.
And so, Jesus gave a teaching to his disciples that will come to be the orientation of our season of Lent: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Reading the Gospel of Mark, I’m beginning to think that Peter just plugs his ears during those teaching moments. It’s quite clear, when we get to the moment of Jesus’s transfiguration, that Peter still doesn’t want to believe that Jesus will die.
When Peter gets up to the top of that mountain, he sees what he wants to see. He sees Jesus in his glory, surrounded by the great prophets of the past, and knows that the time for liberation is near. He knows that the time for God’s kingdom has come. And he is equally certain that the Messiah who brings in that kingdom cannot die.
Confident in his own reading of the event, Peter opens his mouth. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” lets pitch some tents and stay awhile.
Peter, having seen his beliefs confirmed, doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay in this spiritual ecstasy for as long as possible. He wants to bathe in the presence and knowledge of his spiritual mentors.
But the rest of the story betrays the confidence of Peter’s voice. Verse 6 tells us that Peter was babbling because he, along with James and John, was terrified.
Peter was just like a helpless deer, caught in the headlights of God’s glory, with legs locked up and shaking with fear.
But Peter wasn’t just afraid because he was in the presence of God. He was afraid because, deep down inside, he knew what Jesus had said days earlier was true: Jesus, along with his disciples, were about to face death. The only thing he could think to do was sheepishly insist that they stay put, away from trouble.
How often do we do the same thing in the face of trouble? How often do we tell Jesus, “yes, it is good for us to be here. Let’s build a booth,” convinced that we should stay where we are on the mountaintop.
We may have gone to the top of that mountaintop years ago, experiencing the sort of spiritual closeness that Peter experienced, and stayed there. While we’ve been waiting in that same place, we haven’t realized that Jesus has left and gone somewhere else.
We may come to worship because it was once a place where we encountered God, but we assume that Jesus is only present on this mountain where there are pews, hymnals, and bulletins. We haven’t ever gone to see what lies at the bottom of the mountain or what we might find on the next mountain.
We may hold onto particular beliefs and oversimplified answers to complicated questions so tightly that we stop looking for Jesus. We may rely so strongly on other spiritual leaders in our lives that we stop praying, stop reading Scripture, stop doing good deeds for our neighbor. We think we’re still on that mountain, that we’re still faithful Christians, but we’ve so insulated ourselves that we can no longer see Jesus.
In the face of our human failings and inability to understand, Jesus tells Peter and us to “follow me.”
Would we dare tell Jesus that we are not willing to go to the place he is going? Instead, we’re likely to say, “you don’t really mean that Jesus. You’re not really going there.”
One way or another, Jesus is going to the cross, to the place we’re hesitant to go. Either we follow him there, with all the pain and difficulty that involves, or we’re stuck on that mountain in spiritual blindness.
How good it is for us to be here. Sure, Peter, it is. It’s a wonderful thing to see the glory of God in its fullness. But we must remember that Jesus is on the move, on a journey to the cross, and we are called to go with him.
It is in Lent, this season of confession and renunciation of sin, that we respond to the epiphany we have experienced in this season after Christmas. It is in Lent that our spiritual mettle is put to the test.
Going into this season, we have a choice. We can either rest in the truth we have seen, or we can trust in the greater glory of God that we cannot yet see! We can remain in our individual spiritual experience, or follow Jesus to the cross. We can hold onto the baggage of personal and corporate sins, or we can admit what we have done and respond by giving up our lives, our biases, and our hatred for the sake of the Gospel.
We are here in worship because we have seen Jesus, but are you willing to follow him wherever he leads? As the popular hymn answers in the affirmative, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back. Though none go with me, still I will follow, no turning back. The world behind me, the cross before me, no turning back, no turning back.”
May God grant us the grace to go from this mountain onto the road that leads to Golgotha. No turning back. Amen.