Glimpses of glory

Good morning, Friends! You’ve heard me say before, “Today’s scripture is one of the most important stories in the Bible.” But it IS!

Churches all over the world are reading this one this month. It shows up in three of the four gospels. In the Greek Orthodox church, they say that this story is even more important than Christmas.

Actually, they’re all important stories. I wish we could all feel how exciting the Bible is! Let’s read this one together, and try.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2-9

Good morning, Friends! This story is a tough one. I don’t think that we know how to handle it.

Movies keep having more and more special effects. We’re willing to be taken in by what we see in movies, on the internet and TV. But somehow, people close their minds when they read this stuff in the Bible.

Most people don’t really believe in special effects any more. Having people change their appearance. Voices coming out of the clouds. Figures appearing out of nowhere — is that the sort of stuff that happens to you every day? Those are the sort of things that we expect in a science fiction movie. We don’t think of this sort of stuff as being part of the good news of the gospel.

When we talk about Bible as “the good news,” we’re usually talking about the kind of ethical teaching that we’re familiar with from the Sermon on the Mount.

We’re thinking about the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you…”

But a lot of the stories in the Bible are about amazing changes. People being set free. People being forgiven for their mistakes and being reconciled with God and with each other. But in general, they’re stories about people changing their lives, not about visions or hallucinations.

Today’s story deals with a question we meet time after time in the gospels: “Who is this guy Jesus, anyway?” Over and over again, people keep asking that.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, do you remember, it says, “The crowds were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, because he taught them like someone who was in authority, not like the teachers they were used to…”

Jesus taught as if he knew what he was talking about, as if he had been told what to say, as if he had been sent by somebody, like God, who could back up what he was saying.

But people still found it hard to believe in him.

As Jesus went around, from place to place, healing people, they asked each other, “How can he do this sort of thing? Nobody does this. We’ve never even heard of anything like this happening before!”

And when Jesus started talking about forgiving people for their sins, about making broken lives whole again, about really and truly restoring people, the folks on the edge of the crowds all said, “How can he do that? That’s impossible. Nobody forgives sins, but God. Who does he think he is?”

When Jesus came home for a visit, people said to each other, “Don’t we already know this guy? Isn’t he Joseph the carpenter’s kid? Don’t we know his mother Mary, and all the rest of his family?”

They thought they had Jesus all pegged, they thought they had him all figured out. And because they told each other that they knew him already, Jesus could do nothing among them. In his own home town, he could do nothing. He was “a prophet without honor in his own country…”

Well, here in today’s reading, all of that gets turned around.

Jesus and three of his best friends go off camping together for a couple of days, and they climb a mountain.

Now, you can try to make something out of that if you want — maybe it’s supposed to be like Moses climbing Mount Sinai. Or maybe it’s supposed to be like the prophet Elijah climbing the mountain and finding out that God wasn’t in the earthquake, wind or fire, but that God was present in the still, small voice that followed.

People in the Bible climb mountains a lot, and special things usually happen there.

Could be all that it means is that Jesus took his three best friends off to a quiet, isolated place to pray together.

When they were there, it says that Jesus was transfigured before them. Instead of the familiar face and the familiar appearance that the disciples knew, they suddenly saw something else. They saw a radiance, like the sun, clothed in white.

And this is the place where most of us real, down-to-earth people start to get antsy. Because this sure looks like a miracle, and miracles are pretty much outside of our experience.

However you interpret this story, it’s clear that suddenly they saw Jesus differently. Maybe a change came over Jesus. Or maybe the change came over them. Do we ever think about that?
Maybe they finally saw him, the way he really was, all along.

Maybe it was that radiance and glory, that light of God shining through him, that made people listen to Jesus, and trust him, even when they didn’t know who he was.

Maybe that inner light had been there all along, and they finally saw it, up there on the mountain.

If the idea of transfiguration bothers you, I suppose you could call it recognition. They recognized Jesus, not just as the familiar face of the person they knew, but they recognized his glory in a really new and breathtaking way.

There are other moments in the gospels, where that same sort of recognition takes place. You only have to think about Christmas, where a handful of shepherds recognized the Prince of Peace in the birth of an ordinary baby in a back-street stable.

Or think about Easter, where a dying thief and a couple of foreign soldiers finally recognized the Son of God when Jesus died on the Cross.

Or think about the road to Emmaus, when two of Jesus’ friends recognized him in the stranger they’d been talking to, not because of the way he looked, but because of the fire that burned in their hearts as they listened to him.

Maybe those moments of transfiguration and recognition aren’t all that uncommon. Maybe they happen oftener than we admit. A change takes place, even though we think that we know who Jesus is. Suddenly we recognize him, in a deeper and truer way than ever before.
We recognize Christ in the face of a stranger, or in the face of a friend. That happens.

We recognize Christ in the familiar, in some everyday sight that doesn’t normally move us all that much. And suddenly, it seems as if God is much closer to us than before. It’s as though God finally breaks through to us, and we recognize God at last. We realize who Jesus was, all along.

Those moments of recognition can change our lives forever. The world is never the same.

Anyway, it says that Jesus’ three friends suddenly saw Moses and the prophet Elijah standing there with Jesus, talking with him. Before we write that off as fiction or as hallucination, I want us to think for just a minute about what that means.

Moses is the most famous leader that Israel ever had. He was the one who led God’s people out of slavery, through the desert, and into the Promised Land. Moses is the one who brought God’s law down to the people, the law that God said if we kept it, that law or that Torah would lead people to life. So, you’ve got Moses here, chatting away with Jesus.

Elijah is the first and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Elijah is the great reformer, the one who called the nation back to God when they had wandered away. Elijah is the conscience of Israel, the one who spoke with the voice of God when people were too busy to listen to God for themselves.

So to say that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus, is to say that the whole weight of the law and the prophets supported who Jesus was and what Jesus had to say.

Whatever really happened, it was a great moment. It was a mountaintop moment. It was a transforming experience. It was the kind of thing that happens only rarely in our lives, a moment we could wait a lifetime for, and never see.

And Peter, God bless him, like anybody else at a time like that, Peter wanted to try and make the moment last. He didn’t want for it to end.

Peter said, “Wow! Isn’t it great that we’re all here together? Hey, if you want, I’ll put up three tents, three little shelters here, Lord, so that you, and Moses, and Elijah, can all stay here together. . .”

But it doesn’t work that way. Moments on the mountaintop don’t usually last. They’re over. We can’t predict those moments. And we can’t domesticate them

But sometimes, unexpectedly, those mountaintop moments can deepen. Even while they were talking, it says, a great, shining cloud came over them.

And a voice from the cloud — it doesn’t say whether it was a loud, thundering, voice, or whether it was only a silent whisper — a voice said, “This is my Son. This is my Beloved. This is the one with whom I am pleased, who brings Me joy. Listen to him!”

Now, you can understand that cloud and that voice, in whatever way you like. It’s up to us, like everything else in the Bible.

Maybe it’s literally true. Maybe it’s a vision, or maybe it’s just a story. But before we dismiss it, let’s try to understand what the gospel is trying to say.

This is not just an ordinary carpenter, or an ordinary educator, or even just a travelling healer. This is not just another famous religious teacher we’re dealing with.

In a very special way, in a way we can hardly understand, but in a way which we still have to deal with, Jesus is God’s own Son.

I have as much trouble understanding that, as some of you have. It took me a long time, to be able to say it. I’m still not always sure what it means. But I feel a connection between God, and Jesus, which is so close, that I’m not sure any other description will do.

I didn’t see the events of this morning’s reading. I wasn’t a witness to what happened. But this story reminds me that I still have to face the question, “Who is this guy, anyway?”

In the story, it says that Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ best friends, when they heard that voice coming out of the cloud, they threw themselves face down to the earth and they were terrified.

I wonder why it is, that real holiness always scares us? It’s always that way in the Bible. People talk about God and about holiness all the time. But when God really shows up, people don’t just go down reverently on one knee. The authentic, biblical reaction to presence of God always seems to be to yell, “Hit the dirt!”

At least, the authentic, biblical reaction to holiness and the presence of God often seems to be fear. It’s as if we’re so used to playing around, that we can’t take the real thing when it happens.

So the disciples threw themselves face down on the ground. And Jesus, who they had recognized only a moment before as the Son of God, Jesus came over and touched them.

He didn’t try to take away what they’d seen. He didn’t say, “Oh, come on, brush yourselves off, it’s all right!” He didn’t say, “There, there! Nothing really happened!” He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t even tell them how to interpret the experience.

He came over, and he touched them. And he said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid. . .

Some of you have heard me say this before. But I’m going to say it again. At the moments of real holiness in the Bible, when God is nearest to us, we are often confused and terrified. And God always says, “Do not be afraid. . .

That’s what the angel said, to the shepherds at Bethlehem. That’s what Jesus said, to Mary Magdalene, in the garden. It’s what Jesus said to his friends, when he appeard to them, in the upper room. “Do not be afraid. . .

This story is a turning point in the gospel. In a few weeks, it’ll be Easter again. And we’ll be dealing again with all of the mystery of Easter.

We’ll be asking ourselves all of the difficult questions, like why anyone would be willing to die for us, or why Jesus suffered. We’ll be dealing with the almost unimaginable mystery of the Resurrection, which is just as hard for me to believe as it is for the rest of you.

And through it all, I want to you carry the message of today’s reading. Because what boils down to is Jesus asking, “Do you recognize me? Do you still know me?”

You can interpret and try to understand the story of the Transfiguration any way you need to. The Bible leaves figuring it all out, up to you and me.

But try to hold that thought: wherever we meet Jesus, he’s always asking us, “Do you recognize me? Do you know who I am?”

And when we’re at our most scared and confused, just like in this morning’s story, Jesus comes over to us, and touches us, and says, “Get up. It’s me. Don’t be afraid…”

This is all about discovering for yourself who Jesus really is.

Don’t just decide. Let him show you. Let him touch you.

And let him put into your heart, the wild, amazing discovery of who he is, which makes everything else he did make sense.

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