Watch and Listen
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 14, 2021
Transfiguration of the Lord
Our gospel reading for this Transfiguration Sunday invites us into an incredible mountain top experience. Situated squarely in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, accompanied by Peter, James and John, Jesus goes up on the mountain and he is transformed. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could make them. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses appear and begin talking with Jesus. Can this story get any better? Well yes, as a matter of fact, it can. Peter, overwhelmed with emotion, interrupts the happenings saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter’s plan is interrupted when a cloud overshadows them and a voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In other words, “Hush Peter, now is the time to keep silent. You are on holy ground!”
Imagine: Elijah, the representative of the Prophets, and Moses, the representative of the Law, and Jesus, together on the mountaintop. But Jesus will not play the roles of Elisha or Moses. Oh no, something greater is about to happen, for Jesus has come as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Herein, the divinity of Jesus is surely revealed, but if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will realize that his humanity is also on display.
Most people tend to think of Jesus in a one-sided fashion, feeling more comfortable with either his “divinity” or his “humanity.” For those who lean toward the “divine” nature of Jesus, the Transfiguration offers a picture of dazzling light and abounding mystery. For those who lean toward the “human” side of Jesus, the Transfiguration may be a cloudy experience, indeed. If these are our tendencies, if we are more at ease with one or the other way of seeing Jesus, perhaps today’s reading offers the perfect opportunity to expand our way of thinking.
As Presbyterians, we are people of Creeds and Confessions—it’s part of our rich heritage. Throughout church history, the Creeds and Confession bear witness to how Christians have wrestled with the true nature of Jesus. Down through the ages, we have been and continue to be challenged to reject an attitude of either/or and embrace an attitude of both/and for Jesus is both human and divine. Certainly, on the mountaintop, Jesus’ divinity is on full display: dazzling white clothes, chatting with Elijah and Moses like it’s a holy homecoming. But if we look closer, we may wonder if Jesus has come to the mountain for a more human reason. Could it be that the transfiguration is for the benefit of Jesus as much as it is for the disciples?
No doubt, by this point in his ministry, Jesus realizes there are tough days ahead. Because he is human, he is heavy of heart, fearful of what he must face. And who better than Elijah and Moses, pillars of the faith, representatives of the Prophets and the Law, to encourage him at this critical point in his life? In their life on earth, both Elijah and Moses see Yahweh’s plan unfolding in wondrous ways. Both Elijah and Moses, during times of trial, behold the glory of God. Both Elijah and Moses depart this world and enter the next in mysterious God-ordained ways. Who better than Elijah and Moses to mentor Jesus as he faces the greatest challenge of his life for the sake of the world? Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, may well have come to the mountain to be equipped for what lies ahead.
Undeniably, the faith of the disciples is strengthened in the process—which is a good thing—because even though they have the benefit of seeing Jesus in the flesh, they still wrestle with their faith. They are unable to comprehend the magnitude of what Jesus is doing, day in and day out. The gospels, particularly Mark, portray them as missing the point most of the time—like Peter who sees the holy and instead of keeping quiet, chooses to fill the moment with words: “Rabbi, it’s a good thing we’re here—let’s build something.” (My translation, of course.) We don’t know why Peter interrupts this holy experience, but we are told that a word of advice comes from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”
“Listen to him!” In this glorious moment, God enters the story to uncover what has been hidden from human understanding. Yes, “Listen to him,” is a good corrective for the recurring theme of the disciple’s misunderstanding. They do, after all, tend to have their eyes fixed on earthly things. But are we any different? Aren’t our eyes more readily fixed on earthly problems than heavenly solutions? Wouldn’t we have been terrified by the sight of Jesus talking to two dead men and glowing like the sun?
Mountain top experiences or “thin places,” as they are sometimes called, don’t happen very often. Frankly, I think the reason is we couldn’t handle it. Being so close to the glory of God—well, humanity can only stand a glimpse of it. But having such experiences can help us in the dark nights—those times when God seems nowhere present, when we feel lost and alone. Then, in the silence, if we recall the memory of the time that we saw God’s hand moving in circumstances beyond our control, we may regain our footing, regain a sense of God being at work whether or not we can see it…whether or not we can feel it…
In the movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” Christian Bale stars as Moses. It is a fascinating, creative, and artistic telling of the biblical story. At one point in the movie, Moses is exhausted by his ongoing struggle with Pharaoh, which seems to be getting him nowhere. So, Moses climbs a mountain to talk to God—rant is more like it. “I’ve done what you have asked. I’ve done everything I know to do. What else do you want from me?” After a moment of silence, God replies, “Well, for now, you can watch.” For me, that was the best line in the entire movie. “Well, for now, you can watch.” Sometimes our best and most holy work is to watch, listen, and wait. Only then can we truly hear the voice of God. Only then can we truly see the hand of the Holy One moving, changing, preparing.
On a mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured. He is preparing for the days ahead. We, too, need to prepare. Today marks the last Lord’s Day before Lent. Normally, we would gather this week for Ash Wednesday to be marked with ashes and to begin our Lenten journey. Instead, out of an abundance of caution, we will gather virtually. Rather than ashes, I invite you to obtain a small sample of soil from your lawn and mix it with some oil—olive oil, cooking oil, essential oils—whatever you choose. Then, we will meet on Zoom at 5:30 p.m. to mark ourselves or our family members with soil from the earth. “From dust we came; to dust we shall return.” As a community of believers, we will look our humanity squarely in the face, even while we look toward the great day of Resurrection!
On the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured. Then he comes down and returns to the people below who are desperate for his touch. Just as he has been doing, Jesus continues to meet their brokenness and transform their lives. He continues to share the love of his Abba Father—all the way to the Cross! What wondrous love is this! Thanks be to God! Amen.
*Cover Art “Transfiguration” by Alexandr Ivanov, Public Domain