Summary: For Transfiguration Sunday. God gives us defining, dazzling moments, perhaps only a few; but they empower us for the self-giving times and never need to be renewed.
For many people, life peaks early, and then they seem to run downhill all the way thereafter. There are many people who do well early in life -- they have a happy childhood, they do well in school, they launch their careers, all in their early years. But then something goes wrong. Something goes a little sour. And a life which showed great promise of success peaks early and then appears to decline. The heady wine of the early years just turns into sour grapes, and you wonder what happened. Just what stalls these folks?
We’ve just finished with the Winter Olympics. Some of the people who starred in the Games four years ago were no longer around in Albertville. And some others who were gold medallists before can barely stay in the competition now. What happened? In addition to the aging factor, what happened to the promise of the early years? Some people seem to peak early and then go into decline.
Some of us when we were in school used to sit around and dream about our careers. We used to elect "most likely to succeed" candidates and envy one another’s job offers. Now, a few years later, "most likely to succeed" has disappeared into obscurity, and you wonder whatever happened to the promise of those early years.
I’m going to suggest to you this morning that what seems like decline may in fact be more spiritually satisfying and more successful than what most of us think of as success. I’m going to ask you to inventory the pattern of your own life, and I’m going to ask you to consider, if you have gone from a mountaintop, successful early experience into what seems like disappointment and decline in your middle and later years. I’m going to ask you to consider whether it may be that God has led you into this new experience, just as He led you in the glory days, and I’m going to ask you to consider whether, in the end, what you’re experiencing now could be more meaningful, more satisfying, than those earlier, more spectacular successes.
As the Gospel writers tell the story, Jesus spent the first few months of his ministry in Galilee, on his home turf, preaching, teaching, and healing. Despite some controversies and despite some doubts in his hometown, you would have to say that it was an early success. He seemed to be getting somewhere. He had healed a great many sick people – one passage says that in Capernaum they brought to him everyone who was sick and that he spent the whole night healing them. An exhilarating experience! And another passage tells us that huge numbers of people came to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, hoping for His healing touch. Any place you look in the first eight chapters of Mark’s Gospel, you see Jesus being adored by large crowds. He is the darling of the moment. He is the man of the hour. His work is peaking at its very outset.
And so when you come to the ninth chapter of Mark, it is no surprise when you read the gripping story of His transfiguration. To see Jesus on a mountaintop, surrounded with the very glory of God, acclaimed and approved – it seems only right. It seems like just the latest and best in a string of successes. The story of the transfiguration – and by the way, don’t get hung up on that long word, it just means that his appearance was changed, it means that for a moment his appearance was more than human, more than ordinary – the story of the transfiguration seems to say, "Well, the successful get even more successful, the rich get richer, the beautiful get more beautiful." Successful Jesus is being acclaimed one more time.
But as I read the story, I ask you to see, underlying this peak experience, this mountaintop success experience, a different theme. I ask you to hear that in this very moment of dazzling success, there is another and more somber note, and that is that this Jesus must die. He must go from the dazzling mountain to the dying mountain, from the peak of success to apparent failure. What does that mean? Listen for it:
"It is written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt … They questioned what this rising from the dead could mean." Jesus’ life seemed to be at peak. This has been a great moment for him, climaxing many other fine moments. Why would anybody speak of suffering and death at a time like that?
But remember, I am asking you to consider whether if you and I go into eclipse, if we seem to disappear, if we think we are going into decline – I am asking you to consider whether that is not potentially more spiritually satisfying than all the success we thought we had achieved early on.