2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
It’s like watching a movie trailer — this reading scripture according to the lectionary. We get glimpses and highlights and teasers, out of order, out of context, out of time, out of the proper sequence of the story in the movie. Last week we read Chapter 2 of Mark, today we jumped to Chapter 9, and next week, for the purposes of Lent, we will go back to Chapter 1. For the sake of the church’s calendar we sacrifice the original sequence and dramatic development of the Gospel of Mark as a carefully crafted piece of literature. Dear St. Mark, please understand.
But the Transfiguration itself is extra-contextual and out of ordinary time. It’s what scholars call a “liminal” experience, it’s at the boundaries — the boundary of consciousness, the boundary of time and space. St. Mark intended that. Last week our seminarian Arin Fisher told you how St. Mark propels the story breathlessly: “and immediately”, “and straightway”, “and immediately”, boom, boom, boom, but in this story those words disappear, and time decelerates as we climb the peak. Is everything stillness up here, a timelessness, or is it rather that we have accelerated so quickly that we are moving at the speed of light and time no longer counts?
I know I am anachronistic here, but I’m going to make a leap, and suggest this was a vision of the future, like we’re looking through a worm-hole in the space-time continuum. But it’s more than a look into the future, it’s like actually being present at the future, like an audience is present at Macbeth. So I don’t see this event as Moses and Elijah coming down from heaven to be with Jesus, or even, as I used to think, that Moses and Elijah zip forward from the deeper past into the middle past to be with Jesus in AD 33. Now I see it as Moses and Elijah and Jesus already in the future we are going to. Time and space are moving us toward them, space-time is the vehicle we’re moving in to get to where God awaits us, and suddenly, today, our long perspective is foreshortened, and for a moment we are present to what will be and what already is ahead of us with God.
This at least is how I imagine it, but I don’t presume to say that this is how St. Mark imagined it (himself not having witnessed it but having been told of it, probably, by St. Peter) or even how you must understand it.
The three disciples did not understand it. I wonder how much even Jesus understood it. Did he know this was going to happen ahead of time? Had he received some sort of message to show up there and then? Or was he surprised? Was he on a retreat, seeking time and space apart, removed, out of context, to consider his future and explore his options, just as the prophet Elijah had done, two stories before the story we read this morning, when he fled to Mt. Sinai, when he was very down, after his miracles of witness had only increased the opposition against him. I can imagine that Jesus climbed this mountain to seek a sign from God, but did he know it would be this? We are not told what Jesus knew or when he knew it.
How did they know that it was Moses and Elijah? We are not told how. (Did Elijah climb out of his fiery chariot? Did Moses have a veil on?) What did they speak about? We are not told what. (Did they question him? “Jesus, what are you doing? Who do you think you are?”) Or did he maybe seek their advice? Did they confirm him and encourage him? Did Moses say, “Yes, my son, Yoshua, I give you my approval, I accept your interpretation of the Torah and I am glad of it.” Did Elijah say, “Yes, my lord, Messiah, take courage, though you be in danger of your life, and the people of God desert you despite the miracles you’ve done, and you feel alone and that God abandons you, take heart and see this through.”
Or am I being too post-modern here? Probably most of the church in history would have Moses and Elijah repeating a canticle, “Tu rex gloriae Christe, tu patris sempiternus es filius, tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem non horruisti virginis uterum.” Something like that (from the Te Deum) is what we might all be singing in the future, with the prophets and apostles and the white-robed army of martyrs.
Maybe it’s better to think of it the opposite, that the foreshortening is like in a Rembrandt painting, with the arm of one of the figures reaching out toward us from the flatness of the canvas. So the future has reached backward into the time of Jesus to touch him with his once and future glory. Because he is not yet the future him, there are no holes as yet within his hands and no deep wound as yet within his side. He’s still here, we’re all still here, but this arm of light is pulling us toward God and to the future which God has for us. Call it a tractor beam, if you will, or call the whole thing a time-warp, let the anachronisms not embarrass us, for the Transfiguration is a gift for our souls and also our imaginations.
Not that it’s imaginary; it is reported as real news, or if you will, a true fact, but it’s another one of those problematic Christian facts that are both singular and impossible to verify, except by the testimony of witnesses, not one of them impartial, whose reliability hangs on their behaviors afterward. It’s another one of those Christian facts which seeks its proof by our response to it, which is verified only by the subsequent behavior of the community of Jesus in our life together in the world. Quite a set-up. The burden of the proof is on us in our common life.
The Transfiguration is another one of those Christian facts which also is a mystery. It’s a mystery which calls for investigation and understanding, but yet which always keeps moving ahead of our understanding, so that we can have it but not hold it. We can love it but not possess it. Did you notice in the story the sudden gap between Jesus and the disciples who tried to follow him? Like when you have a spat with your spouse or your best friend, and you suddenly wonder what happened to the person that you love, who is suddenly beyond your reach. It’s a fearful state, and Simon Peter feels it, and he wants to get Jesus back, and keep him close, and erect a place for him. But Jesus will not be enshrined, and his kingdom will not be kept staked down, or limited by solid definition. Though it is always right at hand, it always keeps ahead of us.
We do not possess it but we are possessed by the desire for it and for him who is its center, who is given to us as the satisfaction of the spirituality which our God has blessed us with. Our spirituality calls us both to future and to history, and we will find our Jesus in both places.
Last July I turned 58, and I’ve been meditating on my seven years remaining as your pastor, God willing. My future is foreshortening, and I think about my future more. The images of the future of my life are undefined, so I depend on my strong commitments. How about you? Do you have any vision for the future of your life?
We have reason to doubt the future of our species. Nuclear weapons, global warming, the next great plague, some other self-destruction, and if we survive, it might not be very nice. This post-modern world is losing its prior confidence in progress as a general constant for the future. And even if our species survives another century or a century of centuries, our psyches cannot tolerate the pace of change which we are living through right now.
There is a comfort for us in the Transfiguration, as well as a judgment. I mean a comfort for this world as well as a judgment on the world. The teachings of Jesus judge our present human occupation of this world with great severity, and when we listen to Jesus, as this God of Jesus tells us to, we learn from him that any global misery is from no fault but our own. At the same time, if there is a God, and if this God is the God of Jesus and his teachings, then this God is more than just the God of Jesus but also the God in Jesus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” That the fullness of the light of God is invested in this living, fleshly human being is hope for the world. It means that God is invested in this world, this world of flesh and nature, that God is committed to this world of history and economy, with an investment that is more costly than our own and a commitment which goes longer than our own.
There is also personal comfort for us in the Transfiguration. The comfort in it for Jesus is the comfort for us. The Transfiguration is the gift to Jesus which is thereby a gift to us. To him it was a confirmation of who he was and pledge of who he yet would be. To us it is a confirmation of our capacity and a image of our future. Look at him, he is a human being. In his light look back at yourself, you are made for more than you can know right now. That’s why you are spiritual, not just for the present, but for the future. You have the capacity to bear more than the self you bear right now. You will be heavier, not lighter. You will be more dense, and have more gravity, you will know more than you imagine now.
But what you will be is beyond your control. It is a gift from him and a result of his resurrection. I invite you to locate your hope for yourself not in your image of yourself, but in the image of the Son of God. His image before you is your comfort and your challenge.
There remains for you a gap between you and your future self, you feel that gap within yourself, sometimes a sudden distance inside you, and you cannot find yourself. And so you are restless and you feel unfinished. That comes with being spiritual. You cannot get to your own future by your evolution but by your transformation, by your own transfiguration. The way will lead you through suffering and loss and death, and then through resurrection. How distant does that feel.
This week I grieved these things, I felt my weakness and my losses and my current incapacity. And on Friday afternoon I found myself on a park bench suddenly crying out to Jesus, “Stay with me, be true to me, don’t abandon me.” And then I had to seek my comfort in the belief that the light on Jesus’ face is the light of the love of God. To be a Christian is not just to believe there is a God, but to believe that God is committed to us and invested in us, because God is love.
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.