“Don’t tell anybody!” we hear Jesus say over and over. It is an incredible humility that would have Jesus say, “Don’t tell anybody who I am.” Then the story moves to the Transfiguration.
And many of us have heard the sermons on Transfiguration Sunday. Some of these sermons are about how Jesus stood with Moses who gave us the law and with Elijah, the prophet, to show that Jesus had come to fulfill both. Well, thanks be to God!
We may have heard the sermon about how we go to the mountaintop to experience God so that we can go back out into the world to serve God, to do justice, to win others for the beloved community of God. Thanks be to God!
And some of these sermons that we have heard on Transfiguration Sunday have to do with staying awake for the experience of God to happen (we get this sermon from Luke’s version of this event where those who are accompanying Jesus fall into a deep sleep). Sometimes I think that the preacher is merely hoping people will stay awake long enough to hear a few minutes of her or his sermon. Well . . . thanks be to God for that sermon as well!
We may have heard all of these sermons before and more. We’ve heard the lectionary passage for this Sunday from Mark 9 and the one’s from Matthew 16 and Luke 9. Ho-hum. And oftentimes, we think we know the answer without really listening to what’s being asked or stated.
It is pretty clear that this is what happens with Peter. Just six days before according to Mark, it is Peter who comes up with the right answer. Six days prior, Jesus and the disciples are on the road, traveling from one town to another. Just imagine this ragtag bunch we call the disciples walking along with Jesus when Jesus asks them, “Who are people saying I am?” “Elijah,” one answered. “A prophet,” says another. “Who do you think that I am,” asks Jesus. Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Good answer Peter, we think to ourselves.
We are glad for Peter, right? We are glad in the way that we too feel glad when we get it right. Sometimes we do say the right thing. Sometimes it is our action in a situation that is the right thing at the right time. We can see Peter, like any one of us, sitting there with his back a little straighter, with an extra-wide grin on his face after he said it. He walked a little taller, stood a little higher, confident in the knowledge that he had gotten it right. So six days after Peter’s right answer, up the mountain we go.
It had probably been a long day of traveling, of preaching, of teaching, of just being around people. Then on top of that, Jesus taps some of his disciples and says, “Hey, let’s go for a hike up this mountain here.” It was just six days ago, in the same conversation where Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, that Jesus talks about what it means to follow him. Jesus says that being with him will be difficult. Maybe that’s what John, James, and Peter are thinking about as they begin to hike up the mountain. Maybe they are replaying in their minds what Jesus had said, “If anyone wants to come with me, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” Jesus had said that he was going be rejected, that he was going to be killed, that on the third day he would be raised. Like the disciples, even when Jesus seems to be crystal clear, we do not listen. So now maybe these three are rethinking whether they want to climb this mountain or not. But on they go, step by step.
Have you ever been hiking? Sure a lot of it is uphill, but some of it is downhill too. Dena and I used to visit the Appalachian Trail with some our friends when we lived in Virginia. We would get out there with our trail maps. We’d have some idea of where we were going; we’d have our supplies of food and water; we’d have our backpacks on tight. We were prepared. All that effort was put into preparation before the hike even began. You get to the trailhead, and off you go. And you walk and you walk and you walk. Sometimes up hills and sometimes down. And every once in a while, you get to a place where the trees have parted and you can see the other mountains from your perch. We would stop and just stand there for a while taking in the breeze, the view of the other mountain next to us, the clouds hovering near enough that it seemed we could touch them. Then it was back to hiking. It was back to going up hills and down hills. Those views of the neighboring mountains through the trees were sporadic and rare . . . and wonderful. Those views may have been the reason we were there.
On one trip, well, let’s say the weather did not want to cooperate with us. It was not long after we began our hike, that the rain decided that it would join us. It was chilly; it was wet; it was miserable, and we were stubborn. So on we went to our campsite where we planned to spend the night. But sometimes it was hard to see each other. Because when you’re walking up and down hills, or turning around corners in the trail, you lose sight of the person in the lead. We had to learn to call out to each other to make sure we were still together. Libby would call out for Dena; Dena’d call out for me; and I’d call out for Nathan. At times the only thing we could do was listen to make sure we were still together.
Surely, while heading up the mountain, there were times that the disciples lost sight of Jesus. There are times on those hikes when we can see more clearly where we are than at other times. Just like those times when the mountains were visible through a break in the trees and those other times when we couldn’t actually see the mountains, Libby, Nathan, Dena and I just knew they were there . . . without being able to see them. It is inevitable that there were bends in the trail leading up the mountain so that sometimes Jesus could not be seen to the disciples. And sometimes the trail must have lead down instead of up.
In our journeys with God, we do lose sight. Sometimes we struggle to see where we are supposed to be headed and just whom we are supposed to be following. And sometimes, we get it wrong.
But Peter was not losing sight this time! His vision was filled with the glory of God. Peter was in awe of what he was seeing before him. There was Moses! There was Elijah! There was Jesus standing with them, and Jesus appeared to be glowing he shone with such light! Peter had been the one to get it right before, so of course he is the one to make a suggestion this time around. “Hey,” Peter said, “Let’s build booths here for Moses, Elijah, and for you Jesus!”
And the author of Mark makes no bones about it—Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Maybe Peter shouldn’t have been talking at all.
In other parts of the Bible, we get all kinds of explanations, in the Bible itself, about why such and such law was practiced. In other passages, the gospel writer gives us an aside about why Jesus said this or said that. But there is not that kind of clarity here in this passage. And maybe there shouldn’t be sermons on the Transfiguration. Maybe we are all guilty of reading this passage and immediately trying to see through the cloud. We all want to understand so badly that we do not take time to be quiet. Maybe we should all sit around on Transfiguration Sunday, listen to this passage and sit in silence, just listening.
So when this event occurs, Peter, like us, tries to draw some conclusions. Peter tries to figure out what he should do next. Peter wants to build something; he desperately wants to capture this event. And that is when the cloud descends on all of them. Mark tells us that they were terrified as they entered the cloud. “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him!’”
And sometimes it is we who have been so busy trying to do the right thing or say the right thing, like Peter, that we miss the sense of awe and wonder that accompany God revealing God’s self to us in Jesus. The voice out of the cloud, the voice out of the grayness, the voice out of our confusion and our struggling says to us, “Listen to him!”