Last Sunday of Epiphany 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 27, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Mark 9:2-9
If I were to make up a religion designed to make people be better than they are otherwise disposed to be, a religion that extolled selflessness, patience, courage, holiness, peaceableness, rule-following, cooperation, and all the other virtues necessary to a good, flourishing, and strong society I might tell a story something like this:
You can overcome all those things which threaten you, those you love, and your community by reaching out to others, learning together, and subduing your own selfish impulses so that everyone can have a fair shot at a flourishing life. With pious moderation and patience the ills of wealth disparity, racism, sexism, violence, environmental disaster, food shortages, drug addiction, loneliness, and all the rest will be put right. In fact the more patiently these ills are endured, the more admirable you will be and soon you will find allies and friends rally around you to fix this small, broken piece of this good world. All it takes is perseverance and our work together will be rewarded with success.
The story of Jesus can be told to achieve a similar end:
Rising up from an obscure provincial town, this itinerant rabble-rousing preacher of love and radial holiness gains a following to pass on his teaching. However the powers that be conspired to murder this teacher so as to preserve the way things are. And yet this teacher seemed to come back from the dead, and all his followers announced that not only was he alive, but that they were going to live by and spread his teaching! By their patient witness these disciples of Jesus won over the Roman world, until even the emperor gave up the old ways and embraced the teaching of the faith.
Therefore, if we will just patiently endure suffering as he did our teaching will be more winsome and compelling to a world fraught with divisions and scarred by conflict.
But this story is just that, a story. It is a fable to give some future hope to a present suffering, and the courage to endure hardship for the sake of the later vindication. It also conveniently provides a means by which to evaluate a past action: If it was successful, then it must have ben right, and if it was not successful then it must have been wrong. The stories we tell are one fo the means by which we navigate our values and priorities in the midst of other competing values and priories.
But the story of Jesus is not like the stories we make up.
Sure, we can find common ground between the story of Jesus and the stories told by and about ten thousand other people.
But the Jesus story isn’t really the story of one solitary individual against the world, who by patient endurance eventually overcomes all adversity to be finally vindicated as the hero in the eyes of the world.
Unlike the story of a hero Jesus doesn’t come from humility, to be tried by suffering to emerge glorious in the third act. His conception was announced by an angel. The skies sang for joy at his birth. Prophets held his infant body and proclaimed him king, the cause of the rising and falling of many. At his Baptism the voice of God thundered approval. This all before his first sermon or miracle.
This is a story stranger than any we could contrive. It is not the story of a person transcending their limits to enter into their truest selves. No it is about the transcendent putting off the eternal to embrace the limits of created beings, that those created beings might become their truest selves. I suppose in that sense it is a hero story after all, but the hero isn’t one of us.
This become shiningly clear in today’s Gospel, when Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John, and shows the glory of his true nature, which had been veiled by the flesh taken on through the Virgin Mary.
Taking his three closest disciples up on this mountain, they see him transform for a moment, even his clothes become so dazzlingly bright as to make them avert their eyes, for the light is unlike any seen on earth. A cloud descends to surround them and from the midst of this cloud a voice is heard: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
A mountain. A cloud. A voice.
We have seen this before.
Moses, who led the people of God out of slavery in Egypt appears amongst them, surrounded by the glory first seen on Mount Sinai when he received the Word of God in the 10 commandments, here talks face to face with the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
And the Prophet Elijah, who when pursued by many enemies even fleeing for his life, upon a mountain was brought comfort and courage by the still, small voice of God, here is not alone, hopeless, on a mountain but is in the luminous and powerful presence of the Almighty.
That Word which was given to Moses to shape the people of God into a royal priesthood to minister to all nations, is revealed here to be Jesus of Nazareth.
That Word which gave a new commission to the lonely prophet is here revealed as Jesus, the carpenter’s son and preacher of Galilee.
The Law and the Prophets find their origin not in history, as though these ancient words are simply religious metaphors for immediate political ends, but here, in this living Word of God.
In the stories we come up with, such a moment of revelation might also be a turning point in the plot, a time where our main character, our Protagonist, who might be St. Peter especially because Mark’s Gospel is likely the eyewitness account of Peter himself, comes to a new understanding and gains special insight which helps him on his journey.
Perhaps after this revelation we’ll see Peter, James, and John emerge from their cloud of confusion to become the brave co-laborers with Christ which he desires them to be. Perhaps this is why Peter, who shortly before this mountaintop experience had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, God’s chosen king, gives his response to this wondrous sight:
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Yes, now is the beginning of something new, the turning point in the plot, when the glory of the ancient of days will be known again on earth, when we will stop having to speculate about what the Law and the Prophets mean, for they dwell amongst us once again, in tents on the mountain, and perhaps they will stay a while with us that we may learn from them those things we need to make it through the challenges of our own day.
But this isn’t the purpose of these guests on the mountain, emerging from the cloud of God’s presence is history to be amongst the people here and now. No they appear to witness to the One from whom the Law and Prophesy flowed, Jesus the Word of God.
This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.
In him you will have all that you need.
The message couldn’t be clearer.
But whatever might have been gained from this revelation seems forgotten soon after. The disciples meet with confusion and resistance Jesus’ own words that he was going to be betrayed, suffer, die, and be raised to life again. James and John, who were almost blinded by the glory of the Lord ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and left side in the Kingdom of Heaven. And Peter, who had sought to welcome this other worldly glory, in the day of decision failed. In the moment of Christ’s suffering, Peter denied ever knowing him,
But they had heard the voice of the Almighty say: This is my beloved son, listen to him.
In the stories we tell, these moments of revelation are usually rather more life-changing. But the story of Jesus is far more honest. It is a story that tells not only the truth about God, but the truth about us too.
Because if the burning mountain and the cloud of glory which overshadowed Moses had not been sufficient for the people of God to keep his law, why should the cloud and the voice on this mountain be any different?
And if that voice of comfort given through the Prophets, in the face of unyielding opposition, could not keep that wandering people from seeking the divine in false idols, then why should we expect Peter to keep true to his word when faced with his own trial?
The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop is remarkable perhaps because of the profound lack of change it wrought in his disciples at the time. It is recorded for us as plainly as his baptism by John, his last supper with the disciples, his betrayal by Judas, his trial by Pilate, his shameful death and his rising in glory at the resurrection.
It is, in some sense, another event of his story, remembered by Peter much later in his Epistle. It is recorded in the Gospel as a part of the testimony because it happened. And in one sense its meaning is clear: It identifies Jesus as the one from whom the Law and the Prophets gain their authority, and the one to whom they point. That this happens long before his suffering and passion, before his resurrection, tells us that Jesus does not earn divinity by the strength of his character in the face of adversity.
That would be a story we would make up. That fits the narrative of a religion we might invent.
But that he can show his glory in this way and still be abandoned and betrayed by his friends, who deny ever knowing him, tells us that there is no amount of hidden knowledge we can uncover which will fundamentally change who we are.
In the light of the glory of Jesus, it is the truth of who we are which is also exposed.
Yet we have a comfort now that Peter did not. For he lived this story without knowing the end. He saw the glory. He turned his back.
And on the say after the Sabbath, on the third day after his death, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome took spices to the tomb where Jesus body had been laid. But the tomb was open and they found a young man sitting there. And he gives the women this charge:
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.
The story as it was being lived must have seemed without any hope at all. He saw the glory. He turned his back. And now the rest of his life will be spent mourning the consequences of his failure.
But what hope is carried by these three women, the announcement of the resurrection. And he called Peter by his name!
Without the resurrection the transfiguration on the mountaintop is a glimpse of what could have been. A missed opportunity. Perhaps a reminder of what we could be if only we were better.
But the resurrection means that this Jesus who is the thundering voice in the burning cloud, and the whisper in the wind to the frightened prophet, beckons us also wherever we have wandered, that the story isn’t over and we don’t have to miss out.
The stories we tell are designed to help us be our best and most virtuous selves. As such they are invariably short on grace and mercy. I thank God that our story isn’t the true story.
The one who stood on the mountaintop aglow with the radiance of the one who spoke light into being, who gave mortals a glimpse beyond the veil into things eternal, has risen from the dead. And to find him we don’t have to strive to be our best selves. No, tends to be that he’ll find us.