What a weird, mystical scripture passage. Jesus pulls away from the crowds, away from the preaching and teaching, away from healing everyone and their mother-in-law, away from the people, people, people, work, work, work.
Jesus takes a break.
But he takes along with him three of the disciples. They go waaay up some mountain. If you recall your early theological construction of the universe, you know that the higher the mountain, the closer to God. Where does Moses have his cloud conversations with God? On Mt. Sinai. Where does Elijah go hide in a cave and have an encounter with God? On that mountain. God is supposed to be up.
And if you’ve done much hiking—sat on a few mountaintops—that may make a certain amount of sense. Because from a mountaintop you can look out and see for miles. It can feel awe-inspiring, spiritual. It’s the bird’s-eye view, or what today we might call the view from 30,000 feet, such as you get from an airplane. Jesus didn’t take too many airplane flights in his day, but he did go up the mountain.
And they certainly have this divine encounter, up there closer to God. Jesus is transfigured, transformed. His clothes become whiter than any bleach on earth can make them. He glows; he is radiating light.
And then he’s talking with Moses and Elijah. Moses, who represents the Law. Elijah, who represents the Prophets. Between the two of them, they cover most of the Hebrew scriptures. What does it mean that they, the Law and the Prophets, are talking with Jesus? This is important: it means that Jesus does not reject the Law and the Prophets but rather is adding something new to them. God is still speaking—through Jesus. So our Bible does not toss the Hebrew scriptures; it has the Law, it has the Prophets, and it just adds a New Testament onto them. We take the whole thing, Old and New.
So what are those three disciples doing there? Why do they even need to be there? I have wondered whether this whole transfiguration scene was primarily for their benefit. Did Jesus need it? Do they need it? And why does it come along here, right smack in the middle of the Gospel of Mark? Doesn’t it seem more like a resurrection kind of experience?
Hang on. I just asked a whole pile of questions.
I have a guess as to why the three disciples are there. With Moses and Elijah, we have the past. With Jesus we have the present. And with these three disciples, clueless as they still are, we have the future, the people through whom God will still be speaking—if they will sit still and listen and stop interrupting with ideas about building tents.
Did Jesus need this transfiguration? Maybe so. Because shortly after he comes down from the mountain, he heads to Jerusalem and the last act of his ministry. This transfiguration scene is a profound affirmation of his role, with the refrain “This is my Son, the Beloved,” which we also heard at Jesus’ baptism at the beginning. This is a moment of taking a deep breath before heading into something hard. This is the retreat to get clarity, the rest and spiritual refresher on a mountaintop before plunging into the depths of difficulty and torment.
In most encounters between humans and divine beings, the first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” “Fear not.” Because fear gets in the way of actually being open to what the encounter is all about. We don’t hear those words in this reading, but sure enough, Peter jumps in, babbling in terror about building tents. And this offer is a little less random than it may sound to us. Recall that during the years the Israelites wandered in the desert, they constructed a tent for God. Peter is offering to construct tents or booths for each of these three divine beings. Maybe he’s thinking that they would stay there, and people would make the trek up the mountain to worship them. But he hasn’t listened long enough to grasp that this mountaintop experience is ephemeral, a momentary encounter. The voice in the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Stop babbling and just pay attention. Don’t offer solutions before you understand the situation. It’s not about bringing people to God; it’s about taking the divine down the mountain to meet the people where they are.
If you’ve heard many of my sermons, you may recall that I’m not interested in the question of whether this scene actually happened. That’s not a question we can answer, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. What makes scripture relevant to us today is not whether it actually happened just this way—or happened at all—but what truth this reading holds for us today. What in this reading gets up and walks around this sanctuary on this Sunday morning?
One possible answer is about listening to Jesus. The voice in the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” How do we set up our lives so that we have a practice of listening for the divine built in to our day, our week, our year? Maybe we do that listening on Sunday mornings when we gather together. I hope so. Maybe you have a prayer or meditation practice that provides what the poet Mary Oliver calls “a silence in which / another voice may speak.” [Mary Oliver, “Praying,” Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 37.] Maybe you go and sit on a mountaintop from time to time or find other ways to open yourself to God.
Lent is a good time for listening. We always talk about giving up something for Lent. The whole idea of giving up something is to clear away the clutter that keeps us apart from God. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday this week. We can develop a Lenten practice of listening.
Listening how? Listening for what, exactly? It may be different for each one of us. Mary Oliver has made a practice of sitting outside very still, very quietly, eyes and ears and heart open to whatever comes. You may wish to define some specific questions about your own life and spiritual journey for which you are listening for answers. Dear God, how can I use this gift of life to serve you best? Should I sell the house? Should I take that job offer? And then listen.
Now that my job with the national setting of the UCC has ended, I am in a listening mode. What comes next in my life?
We can listen for God’s call in each other and in our neighbors. John Daugherty and Caitlin Jones spoke last week about what the Social and Environmental Justice Team is up to. We are listening for ways to serve this congregation, this community, this world. Who knows where that may lead us? We can listen for where there are needs in our community, and how we can address both the symptoms as well as the root causes of those needs. It means we have to be bold enough to listen, to come with open ears and open hearts and then to respond as God calls us.
Elijah and Moses. Jesus. Those three disciples. And all who have called themselves followers of Christ ever since then. We are invited to join that long succession of disciples, of leaders, of listeners for that still-speaking God. We begin by listening, watching, paying attention, affirming God’s love for us, opening ourselves to transformation so that we can serve.
We have our mountaintop moments when we experience God. And then we go back into the valley. What is there? Our day-to-day lives, people we love, people in need, work to do. That’s where God could use us.
A few years ago we heard about the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore. This troubled young man was picked up by police, handcuffed, put in the police wagon, and then slung around in that space in such a way that his neck broke and he died. Baltimore erupted with protests. People there were saying that things needed to change for people of color. Lots of people had ideas, but many didn’t know where to begin.
It turned out that two African-American churches had just completed a project of listening to 5,000 people in their communities. They knew exactly where to begin. They knew what was needed, because people had told them: “Our young men of color need jobs.” They also needed job skills, training, self-confidence, alternatives to lives of gangs and violence. They needed to feel loved and accepted for who they were.
These two churches, which had often been in competition with each other, heard a calling. Working together, the churches started offering Tuesdays where Black men could come for workshops, exercise classes, discussion groups, and more. These churches happened to be near Johns Hopkins, which had a 100-year plan to gentrify the neighborhood. “Gentrify” is of course code for “moving out the poor Black people.” Obviously, that posed a problem. So the churches started to buy derelict houses and fix them up. Of course, you need to hire people to do all those renovations. It so happened that the churches knew of a labor pool and were able to provide Black men from the Tuesday groups for the jobs of fixing up these derelict houses. All of a sudden Black men had good-paying jobs and were learning good work skills.
Some of these houses the churches fixed up and sold at market rates. That allowed the churches to buy more houses, which they fixed up and sold as low-income housing at well below market rates. They created a community where people had work to do, where poor and middle class and wealthier people all lived on the same street, where crime rates were coming down. They created life-affirming transformation and opportunities for a just and thriving community. And it all started by listening to people saying, “Our people need jobs.”
You may say, “Well, but that’s not listening to Jesus. That’s listening to the people.” I think it is listening to Jesus. Bishop Tutu said he read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other to figure out God’s to-do list. Because wherever we are listening for the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, we are listening for the word of God.
We are invited to the mountaintop to have an intense and transformative experience of the Divine. We can’t stay there but must take the spiritual nourishment from that encounter back with us to the valley and move that God-is-still-speaking energy out into the world. We get off track by listening to our fears. We stay on track by listening to Jesus, by letting the divine presence be our anchor and our guide.
Come up the mountain. Come and listen. Be transformed. And then let’s get busy. Amen.