Not Merely Great – God!
Mark 9.2-9 – The Transfiguration
Rev. Andy Ferguson
Everyone knows that the action-hero Spiderman is really the very ordinary Peter Parker underneath that cool costume and all his spider skills. One of the tensions that runs through the Spiderman movies and comics is who should know his true identity. While WE know from the beginning that Peter and Spiderman are the same person, we are invited to watch this tension work its way out in the course of each story.
+Surely, Spiderman would not intentionally make himself known to his enemies. That would leave him and those close to him vulnerable to attack.
+Peter Parker’s boss at the newspaper is always criticizing Spiderman. He is not worthy to have such a secret.
+But, what about Peter’s girlfriends? And specifically, what about Mary Jane, who became his wife? Getting close to someone means being honest and open about who you are. When should he reveal his true identity to her?
When someone asks for our trust, then it only seems fair that we trust them in return. Trust doesn’t really matter with the guys at the carwash or the clerk at the corner store where you buy milk on your way home. But, trust is a necessary ingredient in marriage. In limited ways, it is important with our business associates and even with the political candidates who ask for our votes. Trust works both ways or it does not work at all.
The fear in Peter’s mind was that Mary Jane could not commit herself to a guy who climbs walls in the middle of the night, whose personal quest is to fight crime alone. What if she does not want such a life with him? What if she walks away? Would it be better to keep the secret even from her?
But the fact is that Peter is much more than Mary Jane has seen. He wants her to know and to commit herself to the whole package.
By the way, when Spiderman got around to talking with Mary Jane about his true identity as Peter Parker, she already knew. She had seen him as Spiderman crawling out of Peter’s bedroom window one night and put it all together. Still, even though she had figured it out, she wanted Peter to tell her himself. His telling was important to her.
In the chapter leading up to the Transfiguration story in Mark 9, Jesus has just fed the 4000; then he cured the Blindman and gave him his sight. Reading the Gospel, it is pretty clear that Jesus is something special. In the midst of these miracles, the Pharisees come to Jesus and demand a sign to prove his identity. But, Jesus rejects their demand; they are too much like Spiderman’s boss at the newspaper. They don’t want to believe in him; they just want more ammunition to attack him. Jesus has nothing for the Pharisees.
Still, it is time for Jesus to reveal himself. He chooses the disciples for this conversation. Unlike the Pharisees, the disciples have shown their willingness to follow him. Jesus begins by asking what they believe about him and what they trust him to be for them.
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" 28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:27-29.)
To this point in the experience of his disciples, Jesus has appeared to be an ordinary human being. Sure, he can teach with power. And he can work miracles of healing, feeding, and cleansing. At his command the storm will cease. These are important, but so far Jesus has presented himself as nothing more than a human being who is called and gifted for God’s service. Moses, Elijah and others did as much. At Jesus’ initiative, Peter has said aloud what he sees in Jesus. He has all the evidence so far. If he had stopped at this point, we would respect Jesus as any great, charismatic leader that the world has produced:
+and Sojourner Truth are several examples.
Each of them did some remarkable things and inspired others to remarkable feats in turn.
Now, in response to Simon’s confession, Jesus goes further, revealing himself to be more than a gifted human being; he reveals himself to be God among them. Or as the *Prologue of John* puts it: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). It will be a huge leap in their understanding.
The Transfiguration happened this way:
2 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, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them (Mark 9:2-3.)
I. Let’s look at the details of the transfiguration:
B. Visually, this was a powerful experience. His clothes became dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them. Jesus was recognizable, but he did not look the same. They saw Jesus in a whole new light as they had never seen him before. And they saw “glory” – that was most important.
The word “Transfigured” literally means “changed in one’s form.” This is more than putting on a different suit of clothes; he was entirely changed. He temporarily exchanged the normal human form he had during this earthly life for the unique glorious form He would possess after he was exalted to heaven as the risen Christ. But, the glory they see in the Transfiguration goes further: they see the glory of Jesus that is already at work in him. Until now, they have seen Jesus as an especially gifted human being who does amazing acts of healing, teaching, and feeding. Because of the Transfiguration, they see that he is so much more: he is in fact God among them doing all of these things – and promising so much more that God alone can do.
C. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Now, Elijah and Moses were important. The last verses of the Old Testament were written by the Prophet Malachi. There, 400 years before Christ, he said:
4 Remember the teaching of my servant MOSES… 5 Lo, I will send you the prophet ELIJAH before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents (Malachi 4).
Because of this prophecy, people in Jesus’ day believed that Moses and Elijah would return to mark the coming of the Messiah and the Day of the Lord. Mark understands, as he writes his Gospel, that this is no minor detail from the event. It is confirmation that the ancient prophecy of Malachi was fulfilled in the life of Jesus on the day of his Transfiguration.
E. Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
This is not blind terror in the face of the unknown. This is the beautiful and reverent, holy fear that comes over a person in the presence-of and in full awareness-of God. How many times have we come to this place in the story and wanted such a spine-tingling experience of God for ourselves?
F. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
Clearly, God was not at a loss for words. These are the same words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism. “Listen to him!” It is a direct command – not only for Peter, but also for every Christian. Listen to Jesus – to his teachings, to his commands, to his heart.
G. 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
Just as suddenly, they are alone again with Jesus. And even this moment has its message. At the height of the Transfiguration, Elijah and Moses were necessary to make the point of Jesus’ divinity. But, now they are gone, and only Jesus is all they need, so he remains. Thus, Jesus fulfills and carries forward all that Elijah and Moses brought. As I heard so many times in seminary, “When you have seen the face of Jesus, you have seen the face of God.”
II. We have come to the end of the passage, explaining all the details that can be explained. My sense has always been that the story and the event to which it points is greater than our explanations.
[CRADDOCK] The outstanding teacher of preachers, Dr. Fred Craddock, suggests that it is better to "hold this text before the listeners in (its) full extraordinariness rather than reduce (it) to fit the contour of our experiences. It is better to be led to the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration, to be helped to sense its significance on Jesus and three apostles, and to be left there for awhile in awe of its mystery and power.
He seems to be saying, "Tell the story, but don't worry about illustrations; Jesus is Jesus, and we are, after all, just us" (2).
Well, all of our explanations are finished. We have explored this rich passage in its context, and we have explained the details within it. But, it is not enough that we dissect it – that we hold it in our hands like an interesting rock that we have found along the path. The scriptures are not given just to pique our curiosity or serve merely as an object of our exploration. The scriptures are given to lead us to the same place they led the disciples. Jesus carefully prepared His disciples for the moment they would step forward in faith and trust. So, through the scripture this morning, we too have been prepared to step forward in faith and trust. What now do you say to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Don’t tell him what others have said; that is interesting but beside the point. It is time for our commitment, our trust, our faith in Christ to be spoken aloud. It is time for our faith in Christ to be lived aloud. Who do you say He is?
And the Good News, for each one who comes to Christ in trust and faith, is that to such as these – and only for such as these -- He will reveal himself in all his glory. He is so much more. Jesus is not merely great; he is God among us!
Come now: what do you say?
2. Adapted from Fred B. Craddock, Luke [Atlanta: John Knox Press] 1990, pp. 132f