Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Up: Looking Out

Looking Up: Looking Out

copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Mark 9:2-9 – Transfiguration Sunday: February 19, 2012

This passage serves as a gift to the church as we prepare to enter into the season of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday this coming week. At the outset, it is important to realize that this fantastic vision of the transfigured Jesus In Mark’s gospel follows upon the hard prediction Jesus made concerning his own death:

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”[1]

Any of us who have walked through the Lenten season in the church over the years knows that even in the often pale observances in the Protestant traditions, it is not a festive time, but rather a reflective one, somber even. It is a season having to do with the darker issues of human life: betrayal, death, a tomb, fear, goodbyes around the table at a final supper. This is not a season for “Be-happy-attitudes” sermons. It is a season for delving into the fears which are so powerful as to all but disable us in our walk of faith.

So today, on the final Sunday before we enter into the somber season of Lent on Ash Wednesday this week, comes this glorious passage recounting the transfiguring experience the disciples had with Jesus on the mountain. It is a preview of the resurrection to come at the end of our Lenten journey, a gracious glimpse into the final destination of this Lenten way, and in this way it is a gift to the church and to us.

I have to tell you, though, preachers find this passage daunting. We are rational creatures, standing in a rational tradition of exposition, accustomed to rendering living experience into words on a page, one thought following logically upon another, reasoned out in order. And here we have something that defies – or at least stands outside – the capacities of reason.

Not long ago I found myself seated on an airplane next to a man who had obviously glanced over my shoulder as I read my book. The book was clearly something religious in nature, so when I spilled a little of my coffee on my tray table during a moment of turbulence, he took that as the opportune moment to pop the inevitable question for ministers riding on airplanes: “Are you a pastor?” In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was what I took to be some sort of statistician with his own business. He had helped develop an internet web site with a unique purpose. It is a site where people can make contributions to good causes that have captured their attention, where all the money they give will go to the cause they indicate, but where the receiving organization will not know the source. So funds can be given freely, yet no cascade of mailed appeals will follow in the return mail, your address will not be sold to other charitable organizations. At the least, it sounded intriguing to me. Then my new friend went on to tell me that as a secondary purpose, he hoped to use the responses of the people making these contributions through his web site to mathematically prove or disprove the Christian concept of grace. He waited for my response. The only thing I could think to say was, “I predict ambiguous results.” It has not been my experience that grace lends itself to the sorts of controls necessary to be proven or disproven. Like our story of the transfiguration, grace stands outside the capacities of reason.

How can we talk about such things as the transfiguration of Jesus? Our much-valued capacity for reason fails us in light of this report of an unearthly, glowing brilliance, of a visitation from figures long-dead, like some story out of Charles Dickens, of a voice speaking from the clouds. When Peter struggled for an appropriate word to blurt out, it didn’t even merit a response from Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t talk about it, in fact, Mark says he ordered the disciples not to talk about it until after Easter; and since they hadn’t the faintest idea then what Easter was or what it would mean, they pretty much, as Mark says, “kept the matter to themselves.” Wouldn’t you? Jesus didn’t talk about it, the disciples were forbidden to talk about it. And here we are today, challenged to talk about it.

So what are we supposed to do with it? Just let it stand there, maybe, that’s one option. It does speak for itself, really, doesn’t it? All the elements of the story speak volumes without any elaboration from us:

· Moses, who stands there as the living embodiment of the law of Israel, the bringer of commandments from Sinai.

· Elijah, the quintessential prophet of Israel, who, as a solitary voice, once confronted a tyrannical monarch and his false prophets.

· In their company stands Jesus, in garments that glowed so brightly it was – to put it bluntly – unearthly: Jesus, in his person, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

· And in case anyone missed the point, there was the voice from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Clearly, they were in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God.

Coming, as it does, on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, this passage brings into sharp focus a holy moment, made more holy by the very recognition that it shall not last: “Just when we are safest,” poet Robert Browning once wrote, “there is a sunset touch.”[2]

John Killinger, teacher of a generation of preachers, once reflected upon a transfiguring moment in his own life. “... it hit me one day as I was sitting in the chancel of a church, waiting to deliver the guest sermon. A beautiful woman was playing a violin solo. Her lovely hands worked continuously at the strings and the bow, evoking the most soulful music I thought I had ever heard. There was a rose pinned in her exquisitely coiffed hair. I was transported. Then a dark thought crossed my mind, as if it had been a cloud passing between me and the sun. In a few years the woman would become old. The rose in her hair would die. Her soft hands would be gnarled and wrinkled by age. She would stop playing the instrument. She would be confined to a bed or a wheelchair. Then she, too, would die.”[3]

Morbid-sounding isn’t it, this line of thinking? But we all must surely know the moments in our own lives when for an instant the curtain is drawn back and we see the future, come to know what tomorrow holds. It is always transforming to stand, even for just that flash of a second, in the presence of the future.

I used to run for exercise until a torn bit of cartilage in my knee put me out of the running business. But back in those days, I recall that my little daughters used to like to race their dad. It was fun, and of course, I could beat them running backwards or sideways. But I would always keep the race close to prolong the fun. You know what happened. The day dawned – I don’t even recall precisely when it might have been, but the exact date doesn’t matter – the time came when not only could I no longer play this game, but I could not outrun them if I went at it with all my strength. And in my more honest reflections, I realize this is a trend that will not stop. It is a transfiguring thought to acknowledge the passing of time in such a way, to glimpse a future in which we are no longer the strong ones, the competent ones, the robust and healthy ones, but where we become the dependent ones, the weaker ones.

On the high mountain, apart from the present world that crowded in around them, those three disciples, Peter, James and John, knew something of the future, that death would not be the end, no matter how final it seemed. They glimpsed the future of a world in which Jesus is Lord. But they were only granted this vision after first learning that the Messiah must “suffer many things, and be rejected...and be killed.”

I don’t know if you ever talk to people who tell you they have visions, I suspect not many of you do, though I’m willing to be surprised. In our culture we have grown distrustful of otherwise ordinary people who make visionary claims. But pastors get to hear this from time to time, and while I retain as healthy a skepticism as anyone else, I no longer dismiss these reports out of hand. People see things, they recognize things, things come to them in ways neither they nor we would expect, and they sometimes call them visions. That’s OK with me. The key, I believe, is whether their visions are disabling or enabling.

Peter and James and John had their high-mountain vision, they caught that brief glimpse of what the future was to hold, what one preacher called a cracked door “between this world and some other, brighter place...”[4] but then they knew the future had not yet come. They had to descend the mountain, and along the way Jesus told them to keep this little episode to themselves – who could understand it anyway? They could barely figure out what had happened themselves. Down they went, back to a world not-yet redeemed, where that suffering which Jesus predicted for himself – and for them – was still to come. Yet they knew in a way they had not known before that it was not suffering which would have the final word, but glory. The dazzling glory of the Son, the Beloved, the One to whom – if voices from clouds are to be believed – we would do well to listen.

copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved