Summary: In Jesus' transfiguration, we learn that listening to God (no matter what form that may take) marks a life of faith that can navigate uncertainty when our vision is clouded over.
“I’ll believe it when I see it!”
How many times have you said that in your life? Or heard it?
So much of how we believe and operate is based on our ability to see tangible evidence. The whole field of science and medicine is all about our desire to have proof that explains the things we see happening in the world around us. And that spills over into everything we do. I don’t think I could tell you how many times Mary Ellen has argued with Ken and I about what clothes she should wear to school on a winter day. She’ll come into the room asking if she can wear a t-shirt or even shorts sometimes. Ken or I will explain that it’s below freezing and she needs to put on a sweater. She’ll insist that it’s warm in her classroom and she’ll be just fine in a t-shirt. We’ll go back and forth and back and forth until she finally realizes she’s not making any progress and goes to put on a sweater. And don’t you know it, the minute we walk out the door to the car, she comments about how cold it is and she’s glad she’s wearing a sweater!
So much of what happens in our society tells us that we need proof before we can begin to believe. And that spills over into our faith as well. In our increasingly proof-driven and visual culture, it is easy to think that faith comes by seeing, but as we see in our scripture reading this morning, sometimes even sight is a fleeting thing, and what we see can be easily confused with what God intends to reveal to us.
This morning, we come to Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration, his mountaintop transformation. Just before the transfiguration, Jesus is traveling with his disciples, and he asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell him that some say he is John the Baptist or Elijah, while others say he is a prophet. So then Jesus asks the men, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Now, in the transfiguration, we, along with Peter, James, and John, get to see what that means. What the transfiguration tells about Jesus, though, is probably much more significant than we realize because this vision is so fleeting. The vision that Peter, James, and John are given is quickly taken away: “Then a cloud overshadowed them.” Mark tells us. And that cloud is a powerful symbol, something to which most of us can probably relate. Because here’s the thing, even though we long for visual proof, living the life of faith is often more like navigating in a cloud.
Certainly as Peter, James, and John watched Jesus’ transfiguration unfold before them, they were stunned. They knew the role and significance of Moses and Elijah in Jewish history; to have seen them standing before them would have been amazing enough, but what they also see is Jesus, now clothed in dazzling white, conversing with the ancient Jewish prophets. But just as quickly as this scene appears, it is gone again, hidden by a cloud. And isn’t that so much like our life of faith? We spend months and years struggling to understand the significance of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection for our own lives, or to discern God’s will for us. Then, one day, there is this “ah-ha” moment, a sudden instance of clarity, but as soon as we understand what is happening, it is gone again, leaving us with more questions than answers. And so a new round of questioning and wondering begins. Really, this is the norm in the life of faith. There are more questions than answers. And, I think it’s fair to say that growing in faith means that, to a great degree, we become more and more comfortable with the uncertainty, with God’s hiddenness.
Indeed, Jesus’ dramatic mountaintop transformation is a moment of great significance. It is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, even bathed in, the love, power, and kingdom of God, such that it transforms his whole being. This transfiguration is the physical sign of God’s message spoken just moments later, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him.” But the real question is, did the disciples then, and do we today, really see this transformation for what it is, or is our vision and understanding still clouded over?
It’s easy enough to dismiss such events as some sort of odd hallucination. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this; when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing “inside” to the reality of the situation is drawn back, such that we can catch a glimpse of the greater reality. And indeed, that is what happens in this moment high atop what was probably Mount Hermon, just north of Caesarea Philippi. But this glimpse of reality is sudden and unexpected, and it likely scared the disciples. As they watch Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, Peter also begins to speak, blurting out the first thing that comes to mind as he tries to make sense of the whole scene by tying it to the prominent Jewish festival, the Feast of Booths. According to some Jewish expectation, God would usher in the new age, the “Day of the Lord,” during the Feast of Booths. Peter’s speculation at that moment, it turns out was wrong. And God’s voice from the cloud sounds like a very pointed rebuke to Peter’s speaking-without-knowing: “Listen to him.”