February 15, 2015 Mark 9: 2-9 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6
Rev. Catherine Purves
Do you remember being told as a child, “Never look directly at the sun.”? This, of course, made you want to do precisely that. “You’ll hurt your eyes.” “You may even blind yourself.” All sorts of warnings and threats were repeated in an effort to keep you from focusing your eyes on the sun’s glory. Even the reflected brilliance of the sun on snow or on water is sometimes so strong that we have to shade our eyes. Such glory is too much for us. We must look away, or put on sunglasses, or go into the house.
The Bible has many, many references to God’s glory. In the Hebrew tradition, it is even given a name, the Shekinah. This is the overwhelming brightness of God’s presence, a pure, piercing light which made visible all of the power and righteousness of God. There are a number of stories in the Old Testament about people averting their eyes or somehow being shielded from the overpowering potency of God’s glory. It was said that you could not look on the face of God and live (Exodus 33: 20). I’m not suggesting that you should go outside and look directly at the sun, but if you did, that would not even come close to the experience of gazing at God’s glory.
How, then, can we know God in all his glory? That impossibility is made possible in Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the Colossians says, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 2: 19). In the familiar words of John’s Gospel we read, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 14). And, a few verses later, John confirms that, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1: 18). Jesus is the Shekinah, the full and overpowering glory of God, clothed in human flesh, so that God could dwell with us, and so that we could see his glory.
Most of the time, Jesus didn’t look very glorious. Whenever his power was revealed in mighty acts, healings, words of wisdom, and miracles, people were shocked and surprised. Remember what the people of Nazareth said about him: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13: 54-55). Jesus did not glow in the dark. His true glory was very much cloaked in human flesh, so that he looked – dare we say it? – he looked ordinary. He was not a thinly disguised deity. His holiness was completely hidden in his humanness, until that day when Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a mountain.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is quite remarkable and unique. It occurs at that point in Jesus’ ministry when he had just begun to prepare his disciples for what was going to happen to him. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection three times before he was arrested. It was a hard teaching for the disciples to understand and accept. Matthew tells us that the first time Jesus said it, Peter rejected the whole idea, “God forbid it, Lord!” he said, “This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16: 22). They just couldn’t get it, and part of their inability to understand was rooted in the fact that they still didn’t really perceive fully who Jesus was.
The event of the transfiguration completely interrupts the slowly unfolding gospel story of who Jesus was. The disciples had gradually begun to see Jesus in new ways. He was obviously a teacher, a healer, a wonder-worker. He could deal with demons and he could take on the religious authorities. They were even beginning to think of him as the Messiah. But none of that prepared them for what Peter, James, and John saw on that mountain when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes.
The Greek word that is translated as ‘transfigured’ is the same root for our English word ‘metamorphosis’ which communicates better the totality of the transformation that the disciples saw before their eyes. This was a caterpillar to butterfly kind of change. This was a human flesh to Shekinah glory kind of change. It’s not surprising that Mark tells us that the disciples were terrified. It is a little curious that Peter would suggest that they prolong the experience by building three dwellings. That was an interesting word for him to use, ‘dwellings’, because it is also the word for tabernacle which was where God’s glory dwelled during the years of Israel’s wilderness wandering. The word Shekinah is actually related to the word for tabernacle or dwelling. As Mark is retelling this story, is he implying that the glory of God had found a home among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as difficult as that would have been for the disciples to comprehend?
What did the disciples see revealed on that mountaintop? Was it a preview of the future glory of Jesus? Was it a snapshot of the resurrected Lord? Was it a vision of the kingdom of God? Was it a picture of what eternal life in the presence of God would be like for them? Maybe it was all of those things. But whatever the disciples saw in the transfiguration, it was over in a matter of moments. They were suddenly overshadowed by a cloud, an image often identified with God’s Shekinah glory, and the voice of God announced, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
In the midst of all of the visual pyrotechnics, we might miss that last important command. “Listen to him!” If we are to make sense of what we see in the person and life of Jesus, we will have to dwell with him and listen to him. For many, many people the glory of Jesus is veiled. They just can’t see it. It makes no sense to them. This was true when Jesus was living with his disciples in Galilee, and it is certainly true today. Paul recognized this when he was writing to the early Christians in Corinth. He put it this way, “…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Blinded minds cannot see glory.
It sounds like he’s mixing metaphors, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it be blinded eyes? Then again, if all we needed to do was see, why the command to listen? The disciples saw God’s glory revealed in Jesus, but they then had to continue to look and listen and learn from him. They heard him proclaimed to be God’s own Son, but they would have to understand why and how he would end his life on a cross. The fact that Jesus had been revealed to them in all his glory at the transfiguration made the cross even harder to understand. So, they were told, “Listen to him!” As they continued to journey with Jesus to the cross, he would repeat again and again that he must suffer and die and be resurrected. It was and is a hard lesson to learn.
We always read the story of the transfiguration just before the beginning of Lent. Before the long hard trek to the cross, we too are given this vision of the glory of God revealed in Jesus. It is a powerful promise of what is to come. But, like the disciples, we too must come down off the mountain. Through these 40 days of Lent we can bring to mind that picture of Jesus that radiates with the Shekinah of God, but then we must also listen to him as he explains to us the mystery of his sacrifice and suffering. We too must have the eyes of our minds enlightened. This is the work to which we are called in the season of Lent.
I do hope that many of you will join us for our Lenten study on Wednesday evenings this year. We’ll be reading and discussing A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly, and I think it will help us continue to see the glory of God and the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The first chapter of that book is called “The Light Within” and it invites us to encounter the living Christ in all his glory through prayer and meditation. If we embark on that journey of looking and listening and dwelling with Jesus, then, as Holy Week approaches, we may be able to affirm with the Apostle Paul that, “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” What do you see in the man Jesus, in his life, in his teaching, in his death and resurrection? What do you see?