… 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
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.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
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. (Mark 9:2-9*)
Quite a bizarre story, isn’t it? Although it doesn’t start out that way. Jesus and his three closest followers—Peter, James, and John—climb up a high mountain. Nothing out of the ordinary about that, really. Jesus often retired to remote locations in order to draw close to his Father in prayer, and it was not unusual for him to take his friends with him, on occasion. But on this occasion … suddenly he is … transfigured. Transformed. Exalted. Changed. His clothing assumes an unearthly luminescence. Then they are joined by Elijah and Moses—two figures from Israel’s distant past, both of them dead for hundreds of years by this time.
The Bible tells us the three disciples are scared out of their wits—and who can blame them? James and John, apparently, are dumbstruck. But Peter—being Peter—starts to babble. He proposes building three little houses there, so Jesus, Elijah, and Moses can open a mountaintop retreat centre … or something … I can hear him, can’t you?
“We could call it ‘The Three Amigos Ashram’ … maybe put in a Starbuck’s…”
Then … as if heaven itself is offended by that suggestion (‘cuz it shoulda been a Timmy’s) …
As if heaven is offended, a cloud overshadows them, and the voice of God booms from above, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And then—suddenly—everything is back to normal. No voice. No cloud. No Elijah or Moses. No glowing robe. No nothing. No wonder—in verse 10 of this chapter—Mark tells us that the three disciples “kept the matter to themselves.”
I guess so! This is not the sort of thing you bring up at the office around the water cooler, or casually mention over coffee after church. Sure, talk about the weather. Talk about the price of gasoline. Or the latest Donald Trump story.
But who’s going to talk about something like this?
“They kept the matter to themselves.”
And you know, if it hadn’t been for the fact that there were three of them—three witnesses to this incredible occurrence—I wonder whether we would ever have heard the Transfiguration story. I mean, if there had been only one witness … Well, I think that person could be forgiven if, the next morning, he woke up thinking the whole thing was just a weird dream.
Certainly, many have noted the dream-like quality of this passage. It does sound like a dream, doesn’t it? You know how dreams are—the details not always making much sense. Jesus’ clothes turning dazzlingly white—as brilliant as a model’s smile in a toothpaste commercial. Then these two Old Testament figures show up unannounced. And how did the disciples know it was them, anyway? Do you think they had name tags, like at a conference? “Hello! My name is Moses!”
Moses and Elijah. How did Peter, James and John recognize them?
Let’s face it: this Transfiguration story is more than a little odd. If it wasn’t a dream—or a group hallucination—what are we supposed to make of it?
Well, we are given some clues within the story itself. There are two parts to this account: first, what happens on the mountain (strange as it is); and, second, the discussion about it as they come down from the mountain.
Did you notice? In verse nine, Mark tells us what Jesus has to say about it all: “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.”
So … what?
I think Jesus’ admonition is significant. I think it’s telling. Let me explain why.
To me, it’s like watching a movie on DVD—where you can choose those “special features.” You know what I mean? Like watching it in French, or out-takes and deleted scenes … that kind of thing. Only in this case, it’s like Mark has provided the “director’s commentary.” We see the story unfold, but we also get interpretive clues.
That’s what we have here in Mark’s Gospel; it’s the director’s commentary on the plot of Mark. On Transfiguration Sunday—the last Sunday before Lent begins—we are given a glimpse of the big picture. You see, in Mark’s Gospel there are three major confessions of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God: the first one is at his baptism, when the heavenly voice announces: “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11). It’s a scene of glory. The last one is on the cross, when—after Jesus’ death—a Roman centurion declares: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)
A scene of glory, and a scene of agony. In between those two is this one, which we hear today: “This is my Son; listen to him!” … “Tell no one what you’ve seen, until after I have risen from the dead.”
Here, Christ’s glory is tied to his suffering. Peter wants to build three shrines on the mountaintop. But the only shrine will be a cross atop a hill.
None of us really want to go through Lent to get to Easter. Right? That’s why we scarf down pancakes on Shrove Tuesday … but skip the Lenten fast. We want the delight, but not the deprivation. Can’t we omit the ashes and sackcloth? Can’t we be done with winter, and have spring … right now? Can’t we just sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” and ignore the “Sacred Head, Now Wounded”?
The disciples felt the same way. “Can’t we just overthrow the Romans—right now—and crown Jesus as our king?”
Those of you folks actually read your Bibles will surely know that, in the gospels, the disciples don’t always come off looking so good. That’s especially true with Mark’s gospel, which often portrays the disciples as being kind of slow on the uptake.
In Mark, anytime you read that the disciples are afraid, you can probably substitute the word “confused.” It’s almost like the Greek term for “terrified” is “duh.” Peter didn’t know what to say, writes Mark, “for they were terrified.”
Truth to tell, the Lenten journey can be terrifying. It begins with ashes (even if only figuratively) and leads to death upon a cross. That’s the plain truth.
But it’s not the whole truth. If my “DVD theory” holds water; if the Transfiguration is the “director’s commentary”—if this is a glimpse of “the real story”… take note of Jesus’ words of admonition. He comes down from the mountain and warns them not to say anything about what just happened—until after he is raised from the dead.
Someone has said of the Lenten season that it begins with ashes and finishes with dust—the dust of a body sealed in a grave. Except it doesn’t, really. Because Lent finishes—Lent is ended by—an empty tomb. After the nightmare of Good Friday and Black Sabbath comes the ecstatic vision of Easter morning. As Christians, we dare to dream that this is true—that Jesus has in fact been raised. Along with God, we dare to dream of a world where love wins—where peace lasts, and war doesn’t; where disease is overcome by healing; where no child ever goes hungry, or is exploited by an abuser.
We dare to dream that the private pain we carry with us will one day be subdued. We dare to imagine a different way of being in the world. We dare to believe that our loved ones who have died in Christ will also be raised in Christ.
The dream ends something like this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7*)
Now, tell me, who—other than God—could dream a dream like that? Imagine it. No more death. No more pain. A world transformed—transfigured—as Christ the King ascends his throne. This is our Christian hope. I pray that you know it is the truth … even if, for now, it seems like … only … a dream.
* The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.