From Epiphanies to Wilderness

Today mark’s the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is sometimes called “Transfiguration Sunday” because our appointed gospel lesson always retells Jesus’ transfiguration on the high mountain with Peter, James and John. It’s familiar enough to us that I suspect some of you might be able to hit the highlights if you were put on the spot. But this story doesn’t stand in isolation from the rest of Mark’s gospel. In fact he hints at just that when we begin our reading today: “Six days later,” he writes, “Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain.” You have to ask: what happened six days before? To answer that I want to flip back a page to the previous chapter to help lay out what Jesus and the boys were doing before they donned their day packs for that hike.

The week before they had all been together in the villages of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked the Twelve, “Who do people say that I am?” They started answering popcorn style. “Elijah,” one of them shouted out. “John the Baptist raised from the dead,” said another. And then a bunch of them responded simultaneously speaking over each other with a name of one Israel’s great prophets from days long past; messengers who had declare the word of the Lord. Jesus then says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Silence fills the room as the disciples ponder that. They’ve been with him for some time now. They’ve seen him heal the sick, and feed massive crowds, and raise a little girl from the dead. They recall his teachings about prayer, his parables about the kingdom of God, and the way he pushes back against the religious elite to recenter their focus from harsh rules to God’s love. It’s Peter who speaks first, “You are the Messiah,” he says. The Christ. The one who had been promised long ago to bring salvation and deliverance to the people of Israel. Jesus simply tells them to keep that quiet, not to tell anyone.

And then he tells them the truth about what’s to come. How he would be rejected and undergo tremendous suffering. How he would be killed, and that he would rise again after three days. This is a little much for them. Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him to stop saying such awful things, that all this couldn’t happen, he was the one to bring them deliverance. Jesus harshly rebukes Peter, telling him that he doesn’t understand divine things, that he’s only thinking about this from an earthly perspective.

Jesus then goes on to teach them that if they truly want to be his disciples, they need to deny themselves, take up a cross, and follow him. If you want to save your life, he explains, then you need to lose it. And if you lose your life, for his sake and the sake of his good news, well then you’ll save it. What will you gain if you obtain the entire world, but forfeit your life, your soul?”

Which brings us to our reading today. Six days after these things, Jesus heads up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Six days is a long time to let all that simmer in your mind. It’s not like the disciples had a smart tv and could start binge watching a Netflix show to take their minds off all that Jesus had said. They didn’t have Twitter to distract them with videos of legal proceedings on Zoom with the cat filter turned on. They just had uninterrupted time to turn over those words and their meanings and try to grasp how you can lose your life only to gain it. How if they truly wanted to follow Jesus that they would need to pick up the local means of execution and carry it with them as they journeyed. That even if they were able to store up all the resources from the whole world it wouldn’t mean a thing if it cost them their very souls to get it.

With all of that in the background, Jesus, James, John and Peter head up the mountain by themselves. And while they were there Jesus was transfigured before them—his whole countenance changed. His clothes became whiter then anything you could ever bleach on earth, and everything about him dazzled brilliantly. And then Elijah and Moses—names on that list of prophets that people thought Jesus might be—appeared. The three of them began talking with one another. John, Peter and James are just stunned by it all—confused, overwhelmed, unsure—until Peter finally says, “It’s good for us to be here. Should we build dwellings for you?” He uses the word sukkoth or booth, linking this encounter to the Festival of Sukkoth, the harvest festival, when the prophets of old thought God might intervene in the lives of God’s people. And then a cloud came down and out of the mist came a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 

And then instantaneously everything goes back to the way it was before: Jesus’ clothes return to their normal color in their more muted, non-dazzley simplicity. Moses and Elijah are no where to be found, and the fog has dissipated too. It’s just Jesus. He simply turns to go back down the mountain, and his three disciples follow him. As they hike down the trail, he says, “Don’t say anything about this, until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

What Jesus does up on that mountain top with Peter, James and John is to let them see without any doubt who he truly is. Peter was spot on; Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And, as the voice of God proclaimed from the cloud, they should listen to him. His teachings are truthful, they are life giving. Those teachings he gave before this event described losing your life to save it, of taking up a cross to follow Jesus.

Some days it’s hard to follow Jesus. There are times when I wish he could be the Messiah I want him to be, to make things right in our world, for there to be peace in our nation and in our homes. I want him to be what I imagine, which I suspect is exactly what Peter wanted too. He doesn’t want Jesus to have to die, nor does he want to pick up anything remotely close to a cross either. Couldn’t Jesus just claim earthly power and set things straight once and for all? And, oh by the way, make me semi-powerful too? Couldn’t I gain both the whole world and my soul? Does it really have to be one or the other?

But that’s just me dwelling on earthly things rather than divine things, of course. That’s just me wanting to put up a dwelling when Jesus is there in all his resplendent glory so we can stay there forever. But if I heed the words spoken from the cloud, then I have to listen, I have to truly hear the words of Jesus and put them in to practice. I need to follow him down the difficult way of the cross. I need to see that the peacemakers are blessed, and that the poor will see God. I need to keep on asking and seeking and knocking when I’d rather throw in the towel. I have to keep forgiving the person who wrongs me another dozen times, even if that person is myself. I need to not sit distracted on the couch by a world of that wants me to forget about life for awhile, so that I can spend time meditating about what it means to follow Jesus. I need to remember that the mountaintop experiences with their awe-inspiring views provide restoration to my soul so that I can journey on. 

I’m not sure where this way of Jesus leads for me or for you, but I do know this: his way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. His is the way I want to travel even if it’s hard. His are the teachings I want to model my life after although they will require sacrifice. He is the one I want to follow no matter what, no matter where. He is indeed the beloved Son of God. He is the Messiah, the Christ, who has come to set us free. 

So friends as we head down from the mountaintop of epiphanies to the wilderness of Lent, may we know that Jesus has trod that way before. May we keep learning from his teachings. May we keep exploring how we can lose our lives for the sake of the gospel only to find our truest lives along the way. Let us do the hard work of picking up a cross—our cross—to follow him. He is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Let us listen to him.

Image by Epic Images from Pixabay.

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