Here is a draft of a message on Mark 9:2-9:
NRSV Mk. 9:2 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. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 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.
Surfing is a sport that confounds popular wisdom. Most outsiders can marvel at the beauty of the ocean and the obvious joy that riding waves brings to the sport’s enthusiasts. But to most outsiders surfing seems inherently too dangerous. The most common question asked of surfers: Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked by a shark? Most surfers laugh at this question. Of course no surfer desires to experience a shark bite. Most surfers would prefer to not even see a shark! But the bottom line is this: surfers don’t worry about sharks because they are in the water to ride waves. If you interview a few surfers, you discover the secret of these aquatic daredevils. They will confess that catching their first wave served as a life-changing event. The moment that they caught their first wave they were forever transformed. When a surfer catches a wave, she has a mystical experience in which she becomes one with the ocean. The board lifts up, the wind rushes through the ears, time stands still, and the surfer feels as though she is flying. This initial experience keeps every surfer coming back to the beach for more.
Our biblical text describes a life changing, paradigm shifting, high altitude encounter with the divine that forever shaped Jesus’ disciples into world changers. Mark 9:2-9 narrates a glimpse into the future resurrection of Jesus. Christ followers remember this moment as Transfiguration Sunday.
Our text follows on the heels of Jesus’ sublime conversation with his disciples at Caesaria Philippi. For the first time, the disciples openly started to grasp the identity of Jesus. Moreover, Jesus began to teach them about the necessity of his death and resurrection for God’s mission to bring wholeness and salvation to humanity. Jesus ups the stakes of discipleship by declaring that only those who embrace a life of unbridled commitment to God may be reckoned as his true followers. This commitment involves a willingness to risk even life itself for the sake of the Gospel. The good news about Jesus centers on his death on the cross. In fact, Jesus cannot be understood apart from his crucifixion, but neither can discipleship. Following Jesus is thus fundamentally a call to die to self and embrace a sacrificial existence so that God can deploy us in the world for the sake of his mission.
High Altitude Encounters are Purposeful
Since the Gospel is clearly not for the faint of heart or for the lukewarm, Jesus offers his disciples a glimpse into the full truth of his identity by inviting a representative group to accompany him up to the top of a high mountain. He selects Peter, James and John. These men were the leaders among Jesus’ earliest band of followers.
Jesus takes them to the top of a mountain because for the ancients mountains represented the abode of the divine. The gods and goddesses of old inhabited holy or cosmic mountains. Moreover as the God of the Scriptures began to reveal himself to God’s people in Israel’s scriptures many significant encounters occurred on mountains. Abraham had taken Isaac to the top of mount Moriah in anticipation of sacrificing him. Moses received the Ten Commandments and many of the laws of the Torah at mount Sinai. Elijah returned there centuries later to find rejuvenated faith. Mountains were places of revelation and commissioning for God’s service.
Once Jesus, Peter, James, and John reach the pinnacle of the mountain something astonishing happens. Before their eyes, Jesus shifts in appearance from an earthly one to a heavenly one. Jesus glistens with a supernatural glow. Our text is unable to describe it with human language, but it is obvious to the disciples that they are in the presence of someone who is no mere man. Moreover, they also discover that they are no longer alone with Jesus. Moses and Elijah are conversing with him. These are two towering figures of the Old Testament Scriptures. Moses was the mediator through whom God revealed the Torah for God’s people; Elijah was greatest of the prophets.
The disciples are dumbfounded and scared by the experience. But it is not over. There is one more addition to the gathering on the mountaintop. Suddenly a cloud envelopes them and they hear a voice, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” Though unstated, this is the distinct voice of God. The words here echo the words spoken by God at the baptism of Jesus. God’s affirmation about Jesus alludes to Old Testament Scripture and declares the true nature of Jesus’ identity. This affirmation by God informs the disciples that Jesus is indeed God’s agent to make manifest the Kingdom of God on earth. As son, Jesus is the long-awaited, heaven sent, and spirit empowered figure to declare God’s salvation to the world.
Reflect for a few moments on the multi-sensory experience of the transfiguration. The disciples saw the transformation of Jesus, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, and the arrival of the cloud. They felt the change in temperature and probably the mist present when the cloud enveloped them. And they heard the voices of Moses, Elijah, and of God himself. The experience at the top of the mountain was indeed a high-altitude encounter with the divine. But there is more!
Notice what is added to God’s words that were not present at Jesus’ baptism. God adds an exhortation: Listen to him! If we miss the significance of the exhortation, we will misunderstand the Transfiguration. The experience of the disciples is revelatory about Jesus but more importantly it is prescriptive for their lives. The defining moment of the Transfiguration is found in God’s call to obedience. The true meaning of Jesus is to move beyond recognizing his identity and to realign our lives around his words and life. Every experience that we have with God is a reminder of the necessity of a moment-by-moment walk with Jesus as we follow him into the world on mission.
Don’t Chase Religious Experiences as Ends of Themselves
The response of Peter to the Transfiguration is humorous. Peter suggests that he build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Peter and disciples learned a valuable lesson. The experience ends as quickly as it began. There was to be no lingering on the mountain. Jesus leads them back down the hill and back into the real world in which he begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
This move from the mountain top back into the valleys of life is a crucial lesson for us. Too often we face the temptation of trying to re-experience past encounters with God by returning to past places or practices. Or our highest vision for a life with God is one in which we pursue one religious experience after another as ends in themselves. Jesus ordered his disciples to remain quiet about what they experienced until after his resurrection. There was work to do and a mission to fulfill.
The lesson is clear. Every new experience of God’s grace is a propellant for our going into the world to share the good news. When we are blessed with a time on the mountain top, let us hasten back into the valleys of life to bring a hopeful message to those who are hurting and desperate to hear a voice of hope.
Mountain Top Experiences Prepare Us for the Future
Jesus’ first disciples had a mission to fulfill; so do we. It is a high calling. Ultimately Jesus is not calling us merely to work to make a difference in the world. The call of Jesus is more radical. Jesus is calling us to give ourselves fully to God’s mission of making a different world.
Surfers keep going back into the water because they can remember their first wave. That memory drives them back into the oceans of the world despite the dangers implicit in surfing: sharks, undertow, powerful waves and the like. It is no coincidence that the Transfiguration marks a milestone in the Gospel of Jesus. When the disciples faced the adversity and dangers of living as Jesus’ people in the world, they could look back on defining mountain top experiences to find strength, courage and purpose for the future that God invited them to shape. Our own experiences of God serve in the same way. We can live courageously in the present based on our past mountain top experiences in anticipation of the good future that God promises.
How is God calling you to engage the world outside the walls of this place in the community where you live? It is in your daily life that you will see the fruit of any high altitude encounter with God that you may have. This is the Jesus way.
What do you think?