Elusive Glory

February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration/Mark 9:2-9


I love to garden, so several years ago when an area nursery was looking for staff, that seemed like a cool thing to do.  Spend time outside all day, surrounded by trees and shrubs, perennials and herbs, watching them change and grow through the seasons and getting first dibs on plants new to the market.

It turned out to be physically demanding work.  Yes, being around the plants was wonderful, but being outside everyday meant being outside in all kinds of weather.  I grew quite adept at dressing for frigid cold, pouring rain, and sizzling heat.

The physical rigor was worth it in the spring when trucks rolled onto the yard loaded with colorful annuals, lush flowering plants, and endless types of herbs.  It was fun displaying plants to show off their best features, recommending just the right plant to curious customers, and of course, hauling the latest plants home for my own garden.

One day as I reorganized a display, I noticed that the parsley was covered with tiny little spots.  Butterflies had covered the leaves with eggs that were just waiting to morph into tiny caterpillars that would devour the plants.  Rather than kill the eggs or toss the plants in the dumpster, I called a friend who managed the butterfly garden at Roper Mountain Science Center.  She was thrilled!  These tiny eggs promised a bumper crop of new butterflies to flit around the garden.

For most of us, I suspect butterflies were our teachers about a process called metamorphosis.  That fancy word originated in Greek, and it literally means “a change in form or nature into something completely different, often suddenly.”  In the course of some 30 to 40 days, a butterfly can lay hundreds of eggs that will hatch into caterpillars, eventually sealing themselves away in chrysalis from which they will emerge as mature butterflies.  Only one month to move from insignificant egg to beautiful butterfly, and then to death.

When Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to join him on a hike up the mountain, they had no idea they were about to witness a metamorphosis.  But there on the mountaintop, they watched as the very human Jesus with whom they had spent so much time was changed right before their eyes.  Suddenly, his clothing became dazzling white.  Divine light infused Jesus as God transfigured him, and “a heavenly voice [revealed] Jesus’ true identity.”[1]  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

In an instant, Jesus was changed, and something of the holy mystery of God was revealed to the three men.  And they were terrified.  Mark writes that Peter did not know what to say.  In typical Peter fashion, he blathered on about building tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  Only six days earlier, Jesus had revealed to his disciples his coming suffering and death and resurrection.  The message had not been well received.  Peter had rebuked Jesus, only to suffer Jesus’ rebuke of him.  Even though Peter had recognized in Jesus the promised Messiah, he could not comprehend the idea of a messiah who would suffer and die.  Now, with Jesus’ divinity plainly revealed, with God’s own voice ordering them to listen to him, Peter remained focused on notions of glory rather than understanding the suffering that must precede that glory.  “Perhaps Peter [wanted] to prolong an experience that is meant to be temporary.  But the disciples cannot ‘stay on the mountain’; they must return to the world and there suffer with and for their Lord.”[2]

After it was all over, after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples must have reflected back on this day, a time when “God’s glory [touched] the earth. … In the gospel, Jesus not only walks the earth as the embodiment of God’s glory, but also reveals a glimpse of that glory in his transfiguration.”[3]  Years afterward, the writer of Mark and his readers “would understand the scene as a glimpse into the future, a revelation of Jesus as Son of God and Son of man whose imminent coming in glory would consummate the end-time he had announced and inaugurated in his ministry.”[4]

This mountaintop experience would mark the second of three confessions of Jesus as the Son of God.  The first was marked by the voice of God claiming Jesus as Son at his baptism, and the last will come at the crucifixion in the words of a Roman centurion who witnesses Jesus’ “[5]dying in utter abandonment to the will of God. … The first of these is full of radiant promise, the last a witness to steadfastness in despair.”[6]  This text “combines glory and suffering to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty.”[7]

Like Peter, we have those rare occasions when we experience “the elusive presence” of God.  And like Peter, what we most want is “to prolong or commemorate” those moments.  “Peter rejects the suffering that lies ahead, but he is all too eager to welcome the glory!”[8]  But the divine light fades away, and Jesus the man is left standing before his disciples and us.  What we must understand is “that Jesus is both the Son of God, powerful agent of healing and subject of dazzling glory, and the Son of Man, who will be betrayed and persecuted and crucified.  The disciples, [like] many Christians throughout the church’s life, want to have the glory that they can see without the message that they must hear, but the two cannot be separated. … The suffering will yield to triumph, but the triumph cannot be had without the price of the cross.”[9]

We long for the beauty of a metamorphosis.  We observe the enmity and hatred and bitterness between people, and we long for a metamorphosis of the heart.  We watch evil explode in the form of violent crime and mass murder statistics, and we long for a metamorphosis of the spirit.  We pass the homeless and the sick and the mentally destitute and we long for a metamorphosis of the systems that care for others.

On Wednesday, we will enter the long days of Lent.  We will mark ashes on our foreheads as a reminder that our days are numbered, that all of us return to dust.  We will accompany Jesus on the path from the mountaintop to the dusty road into Jerusalem and the long walk to the cross.  “The way that the Lenten journey will follow is a way out of comfort, complacency and self-aggrandizement, through risk, all the way to the resurrection.”[10]  Just as “Jesus and the disciples will leave the mountain and its glory behind and descend into the brokenness of the world to live out their callings,”[11] we will be asked to heed the call to discipleship in a hurting world.

[1] Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, 103

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wil Gafney, “Light and Shadow,” Sojourners, February 2018, 44

[4] Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark, 159

[5] Ibid., 162

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Walter Brueggemann et. al., Texts for Preaching Year B, 180

[9] Ibid., 181

[10] Donald Booz, Feasting on the Word B/1, 457

[11] Gafney

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