Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Today’s readings are full of wonders. Fiery chariots. Dazzling clothes. Magic mantles. Blinding clouds. Elijah ascends to heaven in a spectacular whirlwind. Jesus reveals his divinity on a light-soaked mountain. There is nothing subtle about these stories. Today, at the culmination of the Epiphany season, we stand with undimmed eyes and open ears to witness God’s glory in its fullness. Now we see and hear heaven and earth are woven of the same fabric. Now we see and hear for ourselves what it means to be fully human together.
Many cultures, like that of our ancestors in faith, or like that of Native American peoples, are more welcoming of the nourishing reality of mystery and awe. We, however, can be quick to turn away. Bible epiphanies make modern people wince. New scientific work is beginning to rediscover that awe can be powerfully good medicine for you. Awe is wonderfully protective and overflows with meaning for us.
Yet how can we get there from here? What are we to make of the collection of unbelievable stories our bible has presented us with today? You might be relieved to know that we don’t have comprehend much about mystery and awe to see how these stories function. Look at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration for example. First and foremost, it establishes Jesus’ divine credentials. His glory is revealed. A voice from heaven declares, this man, Jesus, is God’s son. We learn that Jesus’s story is connected to the Hebrew story. Jesus is met by Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the culmination of the law and the prophets. The transfiguration story also clarifies the disciple’s mission. The vision is glorious but divine wonders alone don’t save anyone. The mission is not about the spectacle but about the people in the valley and the cross. It’s about living the resurrection life on earth as in heaven. It’s about becoming fully human (more about that in a moment).
At the transfiguration we are at the threshold. We are quite literally at the hinge point in Mark’s gospel. It marks the end of Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing in Galilee and the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. In Galilee, Jesus attracted large crowds. In Jerusalem, even his closest followers will abandon him. In Galilee, Jesus lived the life of a celebrity. In Jerusalem, Jesus will walk willingly into the jaws of death on a cross.
All of these things about the transfiguration make sense. But we will struggle to become a disciple of Jesus until we take that next step to allow the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the everyday reality of mystery and awe. This can be scary of course. Peter, James, and John, who witness Jesus’s transfiguration, are terrified and just about lose their minds. On the mountain, the unimaginable happened. In this story, told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus changes before their very eyes, becoming at once both fully himself and fully strange. Finally, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen (Mark 9:9).
What’s the purpose of an epiphany if you are sternly warned to keep it a secret? This command isn’t just a one-off. It is a recurring part of the gospel story. It’s even got a name among students of the bible. It’s called the messianic secret. Jesus tells the demons to shut up because they recognize him. He tells those whom he healed to be quiet after they witness his power. Now he orders the disciples not to tell anyone.
What’s the problem here? Aren’t we supposed to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth?
One answer could be the command to secrecy doesn’t come from Jesus at all but from the author of Mark. The messianic secret is a literary device to tell the reader to wait for the cross and for resurrection when the fullness of the message is revealed.
Another answer is that the secret points us toward mystery as a kind of doorway, a threshold. To go through it and enter into mystery we must be changed. On the one hand, we all like a good mystery. Detective novels, True crime, and police dramas fill our bookshelves and television time slots. Mysteries like these may be called investigative mysteries. That is, they have a single answer, which when revealed, ends the mystery. Yet, scripture points at another type of mystery which, even when the answer is finally revealed, still evoke wonder and awe. This may sound strange but upon reflection, not so strange at all. Think of a first kiss, or the birth of a child, learning to ride a bike, or singing in harmony, watching the sunset, standing in an old growth forest, or seeing the milky way for the first time. These are revelatory mysteries. They point, not to a single answer, but to a path. They are an invitation to a way of life— a life we call the resurrection life.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man,” fourteen times in Mark’s Gospel. It comes from the Book of Daniel and refers to the “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). The transfigured Jesus offers us a glimpse of what we are to become when we are fully human.
I invite you to take out and look at the image in your worship folder. It comes from the St. Johns illuminated bible and was done by iconographer Aidan Heart and Donald Jackson. The artist takes us further than our ordinary imagination might. We are likely to imagine three figures, who look the same, but with Jesus in a white robe instead of blue or red. In this illumination of scripture, the artist says no. Jesus is transfigured, his glory is revealed. The blue above evokes the sky, or the sea, the entire cosmos. All at once. Jesus’ robe is not an ordinary garment like those worn by Moses and Elijah. His clothed body is fully there but it is dazzling, shot through with gold and white crosses, a representation of all that is being revealed. Triangles of gold appear on Moses and Elijah too. Are they emanating from Jesus? Or is it that the divine light reveals what was already there—evidence of the divine spark that is already always in us all?
Transfiguration Sunday invites us to embark on a new way of life, equipped by a new way of hearing and seeing. Hear and see the divine spark that is in you. Hear and see that spark in one another. Let it fill you with awe and wonder. Let it unfold and draw you forward. Let Jesus show you what it means to be fully alive, fully aware, fully human.
Today we come to the end of the liturgical season. Having seen the lights of Epiphany, we prepare now for the long shadows of Lent. What thresholds will we encounter? How might God invite us to change, to grow, to cross over? What losses and sorrows will those crossings include? With its wonders, fiery chariots, dazzling clothes, magic mantles, and blinding clouds—if scripture can be trusted to tell us something true about life and faith, then we can trust in the God who invites us to cross over. The Son of Man stands ready to show us what it means to be truly human. Resurrection is ours on the other side. (Debi Thomas, “When Everything Changes,” Journey with Jesus, 2/07/21)