The Transfiguration of our Lord
February 11 2018
2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-10
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
We’re in California. Bill S Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan are outside a store in downtown San Dimas, looking desperately for help.
Ted asks a woman going into the store, “Excuse me, when did the Mongols rule China?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I just work here.”
The wind picks up, and suddenly a phone booth comes out of the sky and lands in front of them. The door opens and, from 700 years in the future, out walks Rufus.
“Greetings, my excellent friends,” he says. “Gentlemen, I’m here to help you with your history report.”
Suddenly another phone booth drops from the sky.
“Bill?” says Ted.
“What?” says Bill.
“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”
In our Gospel today, strange things are afoot on a mountaintop in the Galilee. People dispute which mountain it is. Some say Mount Tabor, others argue for Mount Hermon. The argument is important for tourism but rather misses the point.
Where is not important. What happens there is.
The vehicle through which Mark preaches the good news of our salvation is neither a creed not a confession of faith nor a theological tract. Mark’s vehicle is story. If we think of stories as fit only for children or teenagers we condemn ourselves to misunderstand the thought-world and the literary conventions of the ancient Near East; we also condemn ourselves to miss the subtlety and sophistication of Mark’s Gospel.
Today’s story is read out of the Gospel sequence. We have been labouring for weeks in the foothills of Mark chapter 1, and suddenly our lectionary fast-forwards to chapter 9, takes us up a high mountain apart, and lets us see the view.
Today’s story is best read as a commentary on the one that in Mark’s Gospel precedes it, the story of Caesarea Philippi that we shall only read two Sundays from now.
Here, as so often, the New Testament scholar Tom Wright can help:
“What has happened in the gospel so far? Jesus has, metaphorically speaking, led the disciples up the high mountain of a new view of God’s kingdom. In extraordinary actions and puzzling but profound words he has unveiled for them what God is up to… [T]he disciples are having their eyes opened, so that they can see… the inner reality of God’s kingdom, and the central truth that – even though he doesn’t look like what they might have expected! – Jesus really is the Messiah.”
In the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus finally pops the question: “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter, speaking for all of them, confesses that he is the Christ, only to hear Jesus tell them that being Messiah isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes in Jerusalem, and be killed. This is definitely not what they had in mind.
But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes the disciples literally up a high mountain; and there in an epiphany his words are confirmed.
Listen to Tom Wright again:
“Yes, Jesus really is the Messiah. Yes, the path he is treading – the path that will lead to the cross – really is the right, God-given way by which he must come into his kingdom, by which he will be obedient to the plan of the one who addresses him, as at the baptism, as his beloved son. And yes, all this is happening not… detached from the long and noble tradition of the prophets and the law, but entirely in line with Elijah and with Moses himself.”
There is something more.
In the book of the prophet Malachi, the last book of our Christian Old Testament, the Lord promises to send Elijah back to the people. Elijah will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents and prepare the way for God’s own coming.
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple,” says Malachi. The Lord, in the form of an upstart Galilean the rulers of the temple will find intolerable, When Jesus of Nazareth comes to Jerusalem, God comes, in and as a human being.
To borrow from 2 Corinthians: In the face of Jesus Christ transfigured on the mountaintop, we see the light of the glory of Christ; we see, identically, the light of the glory of God. It’s the same thing.
Let me say a more personal word about our reading from 2 Kings. It begins “with one of the most dramatic openings in the scriptures; casually mentioning that God’s plan to sweep Elijah away to heaven in a whirlwind was already afoot.”
Elisha, aware that his father-prophet is leaving, is reluctant to leave his side. The disciples of the prophets in Bethel and Jericho also know that God is planning to take Elijah. Says Wil Gafney: “Elijah’s ascension was apparently the worst kept secret on this side of heaven.”
Elisha follows his master all the way to the river Jordan, where Elijah parts the waters, as Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, and goes across. Elijah, of course, is going in the wrong direction, away from the land of promise. But here, as so often in his life, Elijah is patterned on Moses. Crossing where he does, he is assumed into heaven in the region of Mount Nebo, where Moses looked across to the land and where Moses died without ever entering it.
I am no Elijah, but as some of you know, I too am leaving – not, to be sure, before Christ has died and risen. Easter will be my last Sunday in Jerusalem.
And what strikes me personally about our Old Testament reading is that behind all the pyrotechnics, behind the chariots of fire and the horses of fire, this is a story of transition. Elijah must ascend so that Elisha can increase; I must go so that my successor may succeed me.
What is true here is true also of our New Testament. Christ dies, Christ rises, Christ will come again. But meantime he hands us the baton and tells us to get on with it. We are not the light, but we are to witness to the light. In the season of Lent, and already today, we can ask ourselves how well we do that.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the 1989 cult movie with which we began, is a fable of redemption, a fairytale for teenagers. My sons liked it even before they were teenagers. Perhaps because I’ve never really stopped being a teenager, I like it still.
The movie begins in Bill’s garage, with Bill and Ted playing their clapped-out guitars and trying hard to become a triumphant super band. They are very bad.
700 years later, however, their music has become the foundation of society. It has helped put an end to war and poverty. It has aligned the planets and brought them into universal harmony, allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life, from extra-terrestrials to common household pets. And it’s excellent for dancing.
Mark’s Gospel this Sunday, Mark’s Gospel every Sunday, is also a tale of redemption. But it’s not a fable or a fairytale, for teens or anyone else.
I said a moment ago that what happens on the mountaintop is more important than where it happens. Now I want to say that what happens is less important than what it means.
The Jesus of our Gospels spends a lot of time complaining that those he addresses are slow to hear and slow to understand. Last week, you might say, I had my own belated epiphany. I noticed that the story of the transfiguration, which falls on the last Sunday after Epiphany, nicely complements the story with which the season begins.
On January 6 in the western Christian tradition, we remember the revealing of Jesus of Nazareth to the gentiles – that is to say, to people like most of us here. The magi, those mysterious wise men from the east, learn in Bethlehem that God is Immanuel – God with us – not triumphantly, as we might expect, but in the form of a vulnerable child.
This Sunday we remember the revealing of Jesus of Nazareth to his disciples – that is to say, to the people we should like to be and sometimes are. The followers of Jesus, who are just as muddled as we, learn on Mark’s mountaintop that God is here, God is Immanuel, not triumphantly but in the form of a vulnerable man on his way to a cross.
We need to hold the two parts of this truth together. Yes, Christ will die, which is not what anyone expects of a proper Messiah. But it is precisely in his life and death and his rising again that God is with us; what begins with Golgotha and an empty tomb will end with his coming again; and in all of this, God is here, with us and among us.
We are still rather obviously making a mess of human history. But God is here to help us with our history report.
Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, Michael Fishbane , eds, The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure script
Wil Gafney, “Commentary on First Reading: 2 Kings 2.1-12”, Working Preacher, February 11 2018
Tom Wright, Lent for Everyone: Mark Year B (London: SPCK, 2012)
Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2001)
Bright the cloud and bright the glory (CH4 353)
O laughing light, O first-born of creation (CH4 135)
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature (CH4 463)
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart (CH4 495)
You, Lord are both lamb and shepherd (CH4 355)
 See Jon D Levenson, “Introduction to Genesis”, The Jewish Study Bible, 8
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 114f
 Tom Wright, Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B, 82f
 Wil Gafney, “Commentary on First Reading: 2 Kings 2.1-12”, Working Preacher, February 11 2018
 The Jewish Study Bible, 728