The biblical text for this sermon is Mark 9:2-9.
This is what every person of faith hopes for, to brush this close to heaven. Scholars take pains to explain the rich symbolism in the story, for example why Moses and Elijah meet Jesus and not David and Abraham, or what the whole booth thing is about that Peter wants to build. But, you don’t have to be a scholar to understand what happened. Three humans get this close to God, a breath away from heaven. This is a fascinating idea for all of us. I’ve got books on my shelf about near death experiences, following the light, that sort of stuff. We all want to know what heaven looks like, what God sounds like. The disciples hit the jackpot on the mountain that day.
I bet they couldn’t wait to tell everyone else. Oh wait, Jesus in wet blanket mode tells them to keep it a secret. “Do not tell anyone.” Really? No one. Not the other disciples so their faith would be bolstered. Not the crowds so their numbers would grow? Not the temple priests so their enmity would be halted. Not the Romans so they may have second thoughts when cruelly treating the Son of God. No one. How does that help the plan, Jesus?
Maybe Jesus just didn’t want to start a fight at home, right? C’mon, the other disciples would get jealous if they heard about this. “Let us go up the mountain next Jesus and see heaven.” Before you know it, Jesus would be having daily hikes up that mountain and he, they or us would never get to the rest of the story. “Don’t tell the others because you know how insecure they are.”
Or maybe, Peter, James and John were just not supposed to be there. Ever think of that? Maybe, this sort of thing happened for Jesus all the time, you know mid game huddles with some of the coaches on the side line, but Jesus was always by himself. Who has never marked an event on their calendar on the wrong date? If true, the first thing Jesus likely said to Moses and Elijah was, “I thought you said the twelfth, not the eleventh. Sorry, I brought these guys up here for looking for mushrooms.”
I know that sounds unlikely, but think about it, why don’t we ever get to see heaven? Huh? Why are all these near death experiences we read about exactly that, near death, not death itself. Could it be that heaven is so cool that once you see it who wants to slog through the messiness of life? Peter seems to want to build a couple of huts up there and stay for a while. What kind of transformation of creation could be accomplished in Jesus if the Jesus movement becomes a suicide cult to get to the glories of heaven? “Do me a favor guys, don’t tell anyone about this. If everyone saw what you saw, God’s plan would never work out.”
Why would Jesus keep the disciples from telling the coolest thing that ever could have happened to any disciple? Maybe it just wasn’t meant for us. It was their experience and not our experience. The disciples are being transformed on this mountain. I know the point is that Jesus is transformed, transfigured, but really what changes is the disciples. They had a religious experience on that mountain that changed how they would see and understand everything from that moment on. Religious experiences don’t change our physical circumstances as much as they change our perspective.
If Peter, James and John went up poor, they came down poor. If their marriages were shaky that morning, they likely were shaky that evening, too. If their kids were a pain in the you know what, their you know what is likely hurting at the bottom of the hill, too. After seeing heaven, seeing Jesus glorified, seeing so clearly God’s plan, they were never going to be able to see anything else the same again. Love was redefined on that mountain. Don’t you think that is going to make their relationship with their wife and children different? The glories of heaven were laid before them. Don’t you think that is going to put their financial struggle in a new perspective?
They had a religious experience and it transformed them. Maybe, they weren’t asked to keep a secret. Jesus just didn’t think their experience would be pertinent to our life. Maybe, we each have to climb up and have our own mountaintop experience. “Don’t tell anyone, Peter, James and John, because everyone has to get to this mountain themselves.” There is a mountaintop waiting to shake us all up so that we can see our life with God’s eyes.
Scholars have reasons for secret. In the book of Mark you can draw a straight line from the baptism of Jesus to the cross and that line travels through this mountain. Mark’s book opens at the baptism of Jesus and on that day God speaks in a cloud too, saying, “You are my son.” Sound familiar? After some teaching and miracles we get to today’s story on the mountain, with God, a cloud and something similar, “This is my son.” Mark ends on a hill called Golgotha, where these similar words again are spoken, this time are in the mouth of a Roman soldier, a Gentile, after Jesus dies, “Surely, this is God’s Son.”
This structure in Mark indicates that Mark’s theme is to not only identify Jesus as the Son of God, but explain fully what that means. What happened on the mountain had to stay on the mountain until they could see the cross. Jesus glorified, transfigured is only part of the revelation of what it meant it to be God’s son. Before they could preach this sermon, they needed the rest of the story. Jesus tells them to keep this a secret, “Don’t tell anyone because you still don’t know what the entire story is all about.”
Transfiguration Sunday is the pivot point in our church calendar. Epiphany, the season of light has been building to this day, where the light is so bright it is almost frightening. Epiphany ends on a mountaintop with an event that every disciple dreams of taking part. Epiphany ends with a religious experience that like all religious experiences changes Peter, James and John’s perspective forever.
Yet, we don’t move from this mountain to the hill of Golgotha where Jesus is tortured and killed or even to the tomb that is empty. We take our time to get to these events. We take 40 days starting on Wednesday and not counting Sundays. This is time to travel with the disciples down the mountain and discover again what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. We shouldn’t preach this sermon until we are clear what it means, too.
At the end of this service we will ritually bury the Alleluias. This is our promise to keep what we saw under wraps until the rest of the picture comes into focus. This is our promise to be patient to understand God’s cross before we can announce God’s glory. Maybe, in these 40 days, in the rich worship services we have before us, we will have a religious experience comparable to what happened to Peter, James and John that day, something that changes forever how we see the world. Sometimes, if we get quiet as we are called to be in Lent and simply follow Jesus as Peter, James and John did that day, we stumble upon something glorious. Let that be all of our prayer for the next forty days. Amen.