Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”
February19, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell
Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO
Mark 9:2-9 – Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
I love the way the church marks time – around the life of Jesus and around the life of the Christian community. I spent my early childhood in a Christian tradition that marked time in this churchy way but then grew up in one that didn’t and as a result now I’m very aware of being in time differently than many of my friends and family. It took me awhile to get used to the liturgical year but I developed a love of this alternative way of moving through the world and moving through time.
The church year begins oh-so-softly with the flicker of candles in Advent, moves into the huge fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, of Emmanuel “God with Us”, followed by the festive 12 days of Christmas and then floods us these last seven weeks of Epiphany with all that Light, Light and more Light of Jesus’ life until we find ourselves here, at his Transfiguration, as Jesus’ very being dazzles on a mountaintop.
Jesus takes us with him and leads us up the mountain with Peter, James and John until we’re by ourselves and he is transfigured before our eyes, becoming dazzling white. And, not only are we with Jesus, we’re with the heavy hitters of the past – Moses and Elijah who are, by their very being, challenging our ways of loving God and loving each other. In the midst of all this, what has become of Peter, James and John? Being there has terrified them because, well, who wouldn’t at least be on edge in this razzle-dazzle, time mash-up, supernatural Light show?
But Peter is reacting in this moment at a deeper level of terror too. He is an observant Jew who celebrates the Feast of Booths, one of the three biblically mandated festivals in the Hebrew Scriptures that he himself celebrates year after year. He is also a good church historian one who is aware of the Jewish expectation laid out in Zechariah. He remembers the temple talk about this “festival that was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom.”
Put more bluntly, Peter is sure that Moses and Elijah being there is a sign of the end of the world as he knows it. A world that God is now going to reclaim fully and completely in one massive, redeeming fell swoop. On top of this mountain, Peter has caught the cosmic shift, and Peter is, quite respectfully, not going to let Moses and Elijah build their own booths for the big event – even if he is terrified!
Listen to what Peter says when he doesn’t know what to say because of his terror, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” I imagine Peter thinking that it’s good to be with Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the same time that it is good to be witnesses to this great cosmic moment in God’s time. I can imagine him thinking that, “it is good to be me in this place with these people because I’ve been prepared to know what’s happening and I know what to do.” I can imagine this because I have felt that clarity of being in the right place at the right time. And I have also felt the longing of wanting to be there. And then I began to wonder how much of Peter’s clarity about it being good to be there is born of Peter’s longing to be in the right place at the right time. And then I began to wonder about how good it is for Peter to be up there on the mountain with the big three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Peter, named by Jesus as the Rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, up there on that mountain in terror and this was good? Peter, the Rock of the Church, terrified.
This Transfiguration story, especially Peter’s terrified role in it, has me wondering about the church in our time. There’s a six-minute video making the rounds on Facebook this week of Diana Butler Bass’ perspective on the church in our uncertain age. She studied and taught American Religious History for many years and has been thinking a lot about being church in the 21st century. The point that I carried away from her interview is that there are many outside of the church that still want to connect with God and still love the tradition of the church in some way but are not finding the connection. She argues that faith is in the longing of everyone around us – us being the church. While I think she and I would have a wonderful conversation about the origin of faith, more importantly in this moment, I want to suggest that we in the church long as well – perhaps similarly to Peter on that mountaintop.
We long for God to fulfill God’s promises – or at least our understanding of them – and we want the traditions of our ancestors to point us in the right direction.
We long for the task at hand to be straightforward and doable. Like Peter, right? – Age of Shalom, Festival of Booths, let’s build some booths!
I hear this longing from pastors about the upcoming bishop election for this synod – that we need to elect someone who can imagine us into a new future for the church and tell us how to get there in a straightforward and doable way.
Let’s check back in on the mountaintop. After Peter’s moment of brilliant clarity, while the terror is still a fresh, metallic taste on his tongue and his words about the good of “being here” hang in awkward silence, the cloud overshadows them – clouding out the vision, the light and Peter’s words – shrouding the small band on the mountain. A cloud with supernatural sound effects no less, as the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And the terror continues as they look around and see only Jesus.
So, like Peter, some in the church are made aware of God’s ultimate freedom to act in ways that dazzle the senses whether on a mountaintop or otherwise. And, like Peter, some in the church are looking around and seeing only Jesus. Jesus, who leads them down from the mountain to a very different hill – one loaded with crosses, and to a very different kind of terror – one loaded with death. And, as church, we join Peter in this tension, caught between God’s dazzling power and God’s death on a cross, wondering what it is that we’re supposed to do now.
And it is right here, smack dab in the middle of that tension, that the Spirit gifts us in the scripture. Jesus is the one who takes Peter, James and John and leads them up the mountain and back down again. And Jesus is the one who tells them they can tell the story only after he has risen from the dead. Jesus’ caution to the disciple teases us with resurrection of Easter but the trip down the mountain also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.” The way to new life is through the cross. I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.” And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.” The cross is the way through. Peter is right. It IS good for us to be here both tethered by tradition and set free…because Jesus is Lord and he unleashes freedom through the cross. Jesus gifts freedom and the Spirit’s inspiration to imagine what might be next for you and for the church including the freedom to fail along the way.
Jesus, God with us full of life and light, stood on a holy precipice, a point of no return on his way to a death that reveals God who relinquished that life so that new life is possible.
Jesus, God with us, reassures us that we do not stand alone when staring downhill at the crosses that would claim us – whether they are ones upon which the church or we ourselves hang.
Jesus’ dazzles when he hangs with us in our terror,
shedding light in our darkest nights,
comforting us when we fall,
revealing the truth of our weakness, and
illuminating our need so that, when the cloud lifts,
we see only Jesus.
 Sarah Heinrich on Working Preacher 2012 for Mark 9:2-9. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012
 Diana Butler Bass on Day1http://day1.org/3655-does_the_church_have_a_future__diana_butler_bass
 Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#