Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

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, 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.

If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

High Expectations

Luke 9:28-43a

When I’ve previously preached about this mysterious event called the transfiguration, I have tended to focus on the incomprehensible glory of the moment. And frankly, it is a challenge to preach about things incomprehensible.

I am struck this year by the importance of reading this story in the context of how Jesus reacted to his first encounter with the world once he came down from the mountain. Life is rough and dirty down below. No wonder Peter wanted to go camping on the mountain, lingering as long as possible in the true vision of Christ’s holiness.

Down below remained confusing for Jesus’ closest followers, the ones he had just given “power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1). They were to use that power to declare the presence of the Kingdom of God. But out of the clamoring crowd came a frustrated father whose son the disciples had not been able to help. The boy suffered from what the father described as demon possession, the symptoms looking remarkably like modern-day epilepsy.

Whether the boy’s problem was demonic or simply physical hardly matters. I suspect that once we see in full, we’ll understand that both science and religion were right—the world’s problems have rationally explainable causes, but simultaneously there’s a spiritual world able to pluck the strings of physics and biology.

More to the point, the disciples had been given power to deal with both demons and disease. They couldn’t figure this case out, however.

Jesus’ response to their failure had to sting: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” He called the sick boy to him and performed the healing-exorcism himself.

Well, yeah. He is the Son of God. The transfiguration had just proven that point again. And as Christians, we understand Christ ultimately has to do the work. At the moment of the transfiguration, Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, to crush the power of Satan and his demons, to heal the fractures in creation causing sickness and death, to break the power sin has over us.

We were and are trapped without Jesus. On our own, there’s no way out of the misery at the foot of the mountain.

But here’s what’s remarkable about Jesus’ critique of his disciples. The savior of the universe seems to have high expectations for humanity. Despite our need for him, we are not to be passive recipients of his love and grace. Somehow, in all the mess, we are supposed to find a way to participate in this great work of healing.

I think this is why so many people, when they come to Christ either as serious seekers or new converts, want to know, “What can I do?” They sense there is a new power available. They want to lay a brick or two in the streets of the coming kingdom.

Like the disciples, we can get frustrated when our efforts on behalf of Christ do not go perfectly. We may even sense the sting of rebuke, the feeling we have more in common with a faithless and perverse generation than with the kingdom of God.

But let’s remember the full and complete answer to Jesus’ frustrated question, “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” At the end of Luke and the beginning of its companion document, Acts, we see the promise and arrival of a companion, the Holy Spirit, and we know Jesus never leaves us, even as we struggle.

Jesus also answered the question in another story found at the end of the gospel of Matthew. “I am with you always,” he said, “to the end of the age.”

Reality Show

Mark 9:2-9

In the 1991 movie “Grand Canyon,” a well-to-do white lawyer, played by Kevin Kline, finds himself stranded in a scary part of Los Angeles after his car breaks down on his way home from a Lakers game. He calls for a tow truck, but it’s not long before he finds himself surrounded by a dangerous-looking gang of young men, one of whom is quick to flash the gun tucked in his waistband.

Just as the situation is about to go from bad to worse, the tow truck arrives and backs up to the stranded car. The driver, played by Danny Glover, quickly begins to hook the broken-down car to his truck as the astonished youth try to figure out what’s happening.

An almost philosophical exchange between the tow truck driver and the gang leader ultimately leads to everyone going their separate ways unharmed. During the conversation, the tow truck driver says this:

“Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.”

“Everything is supposed to be different than it is.” That is about as Christian a sentiment as you will find anywhere. There is a higher standard, a higher order to living. But like the young men on the street, we become so immersed in the immediate rules and demands of our world that we begin to perceive what we see as the only reality available to us.

Understand the problem of seen and unseen realities, and the mysterious story we call the transfiguration, recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 2 Peter, likely will begin to make more sense. It is not the story of someone changed so much as it is the story of a greater truth revealed.

Jesus took his three key leaders, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain, where we are told they saw his clothes transformed to a blinding whiteness as he conversed with Elijah and Moses. They also heard a voice pronounce, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It was such a powerful vision, Peter wanted to build a camp site and dwell in it. But very quickly, the vision ended, and the disciples’ world snapped back to what they would call normal, leaving them standing alone with Jesus, awestruck.

Had they comprehended in full what they had seen—read the the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, and you’ll see they didn’t begin to comprehend until after the resurrection—they would not have been able to see their world the same way again.

First of all, the simple religious truth “there is something more” would have better sustained them. It is liberating to realize this life is not the totality of reality; in fact, this life is a mere shadow of what is real.

Last week, I talked about how the Bible reveals an unseen evil at work among us. This week, we need to focus on the really good news: There is unseen good among us, and it represents the true reality, the reality that will remain forever.

I know, it’s easier to cling to what we see, the felt experience, the immediate sensation. Recently I was driving along and saw a billboard that reminded me of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Margaritaville.” I started to sing it to myself. I discovered I can sing it all the way through, with all the variations on the chorus asking whether there’s a woman to blame or if it could be my fault.

To get that out of my head (it’s a song that sticks), I tried to sing “Amazing Grace” all the way through. As familiar as that should be, I could not remember the fourth and fifth verses. A preacher ought to remember the holy song, right? And yet, the world is what sticks.

The world ultimately will not be what sticks, however, not in the long run. We’re told it will vanish like mist, to be replaced by what is permanent and holy.

Here’s the reality of this world: It is a place to see glimpses of God’s greater reality, and to incorporate that blinding holiness into our lives as much as possible. Life knocks us off the mountaintop on a regular basis, but there’s nothing wrong with climbing toward that vision. As we see in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, we do so for the benefit of those who have yet to perceive God’s glory.

Undeniably Holy

Exodus 24:12-182 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

The idea of the transfiguration, depicted in our Matthew text and attested to in our 2 Peter verses, can seem more complicated than it is. Let me begin with a couple of very simple principles that will help.

I first needed eyeglasses in my early twenties, and wore them all through my thirties, until my vision went the other direction and the eye doctor told me to stop wearing them. It was a light prescription; without glasses I could see across a room pretty well, but things would get blurry at about road sign distance.

I never got used to keeping track of my glasses. I suppose this was because I didn’t have them as a child, so I didn’t have my parents’ voices in my head threatening me with the end of the world if I lost or broke them. In fact, I was always putting them down somewhere I shouldn’t, and then I would have to hunt for them.

One morning, I was frantically trying to leave for work, but I could not find my glasses. I looked in the bedroom. I looked in the bathroom. I looked in the living room and the dining room. Finally, I made one of those “aaargh” sounds designed to attract my wife’s assistance. Connie walked into the room and said, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “I’ve got to go to work, and I cannot find my glasses!”

She found them very quickly. “They’re on your face,” she replied.

Principle 1: Sometimes you’re so close to something, it’s hard to see it.

Mentioning my wife reminds me of another story. Connie and I have known each other a very long time, since we were 14.

I still remember the first day she walked into my homeroom class. After the school year had already begun, she was transferred from one homeroom to another. Mostly, I remember how terrified she looked when the teacher led her in and introduced her.

There stood this very tall, awkward girl. Remember, at 14, the girls are often taller than the boys, and she was one of the tall girls. She clutched her books tightly and ran to an empty seat in the back of the room as fast as she could.

“Poor kid,” I thought. And I guess I was right—she did eventually marry a guy who didn’t know whether his glasses were on his face. Love and marriage were to come much later, however.

I also suspect we crossed paths a lot earlier than middle school. We were comparing notes on childhood experiences, and we realized we had a common one. Our stay-at-home mothers both shopped regularly at the Johnson City Publix from the time we were babies. She’s just 41 days older than me, and you know how babies and toddlers notice each other.

How many times did we see each other from our shopping cart perches? Did we wave or smile, not realizing God intended us for each other?

And there we have principle 2: Seeing, even for a long period of time, is not always knowing and understanding.

Now, on to the transfiguration. Jesus took three very close disciples up a mountain. They had been with him from the start of his earthly ministry. They thought they knew him.

He seemed to them like a holy man already; that is, he seemed to reflect the same holy light Moses had brought down from the mountain thousands of years earlier after encountering God. But come to find out, Jesus was the light, the source rather than the mirror.

There even was testimony direct from heaven, the same kind of testimony some had heard at Jesus’ baptism. On the mountain, Jesus’ status was made clear: As Son of God, this man was God among us, holiness amid brokenness and sin.

They wanted to dwell in that light—Peter surely did—but they had to come down from the mountain so Jesus could do his work on the cross. And through that work, even we are made holy.

We may not always see that holiness in each other, even when it’s right in front of us. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.