A sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]
2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
St. Mary’s Hospital down the road here has a beautiful chapel that happens to be under renovation at the moment. I don’t know what they’re doing to it or how long it will take, but they’ve got that whole area around the doors boarded off. There’s no telling what’s really going on behind there. In the meantime, however, the hospital authorities have taken a plain-old, ordinary board room, and fancied it up a little with some religious decoration. They’ve set up chairs in rows all facing one direction sort of like pews, and there is a table in the front that looks like it is standing in as an altar. They’ve got a sign on the wall outside the door that welcomes people in and lets them know that although at first glance it appears to be a plain-old ordinary board room, it is actually the place where daily mass and the prayers of the Rosary occur. Clearly someone has gone to some lengths to make it feel like a place where someone could connect with God.
The hospital calls it—get this—the Temporary Chapel, and all over the first floor of the hospital there is very well-placed and easy-to-read signage that points you to it in case you find yourself needing a moment of solitude and prayer. But they want you to know it is just the Temporary Chapel. It’s not the real chapel, but it will do for now. It’s not anything close to what the final version of the hospital’s chapel will look like or feel like, but it is a promise they are working on it. It is nice enough for the purpose it needs to serve, but it is also a reminder that not too far down the road there will be something better.
The transfiguration of Jesus is like a temporary chapel. Jesus is changed before the disciples’ eyes into something glorious, but it is not the final version of his glory. The transfiguration is a powerful moment where the disciples connect with Jesus’ divine identity but it is not anywhere close to what they will eventually experience in him. And it is a nice enough gathering for now, this dazzling moment of wonder and awe, but the transfiguration is never meant to be the end of the journey. It is only meant to be temporary, a plain-old ordinary mountaintop briefly transformed into a holy space for the disciples to be reminded that there’s going to be something better.
And that’s why Peter’s idea to stay there, to build some tents and camp out there, ultimately makes no sense. No one is going to set up shop in the Temporary Chapel at St. Mary’s or change the official floorplans and the blueprints of the building because they’ll eventually be moving back into the renovated one. Likewise, Jesus does not bring the disciples up the mount of transfiguration as the final stop on his journey as the Son of God. It is a moment of glory that somehow points to the final one. Just like people often go to the top of a mountain in order to get a better lay of the land, to see farther afield, Peter, James, and John are brought to the top of the mountain to see what lies in Jesus’ distant future.
Of course, then, the whole point of the transfiguration is to look at it. It’s not clear that they’re supposed to understand it when it happens, but they disciples are supposed to use their eyes and see it. Jesus’ clothes become bright white, his appearance changes, and there’s the arrival of Israel’s two all-time greatest historical figures, the prophets Moses and Elijah. These are all things that they pick up on through their sense of sight.
I often think that for modern folks like us this event, which is told in three of the four gospels, sounds a bit too much to believe. The other night we were watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and I kept having a hard time believing that what I was seeing on my screen was real. At one point, the announcers even slipped in that people in the stadium were actually not seeing everything we were seeing on our televisions. Some of the graphics and computer animations were designed to be visible only through the camera and broadcast this to those in their homes. The announcer had a word for it. She called it “augmented reality.”
For us the transfiguration has this quality of being augmented reality, something that is told to us that may not have been experienced exactly like that for the people who were there. Regardless, the early Christians took this seriously. It was a key event for them because they were fighting against a distorted form of Christianity known as Gnosticism (which we’re still fighting now) that taught and thought that God could only be experienced through things like meditation and reading certain secret books and learning special sayings. As dreamy as the transfiguration may sound to us nowadays, it was actually a sign that God had a visible representative here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Looking at him, no matter how perplexing and overwhelming it may be sometimes, will be vital to understanding God.
That’s similar to what Elisha goes through as he forces himself to watch his mentor and companion Elijah leave him. It’s clearly painful and uncomfortable for him to go through with it, even though it is ultimately to his benefit. He will gain a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. It’s often how we talk about the difficulty of watching a loved one die. Sometimes we’ll even say we don’t want to go visit grandma or our parents in the hospital or nursing home because we don’t want to see them in that state. We’ll say, “I don’t go visit much because I can’t bear to see her like that,” or even, “I don’t want to look at her because that’s not my grandma anymore,” as if she’s somehow left a look-alike there in the bed and slipped out to another room. I know that when I went to visit my 99-year-old grandmother back at Thanksgiving she was very different from the sprightly woman I grew up knowing. She didn’t even know who we all were gathered in her nursing home room. But it was no less her. It’s painful to see someone leave us, painful to think of being left utterly alone, painful to miss the old times and yet there’s something deeply healthy for us about watching that transformation occur, even as we lose them. God still teaches us and speaks to us even in those final moments that are so hard to live through.
And that’s exactly what Peter, James, and John are going to have to go through, too. As important as it is for them to look at Jesus on during that transfiguration and learn that God’s own Son can actually be seen and therefore followed, the most important part of watching Jesus comes after they’re down the mountain. The disciples must watch as Jesus slowly, gradually, leaves them, involving himself more and more in his mission to suffer and die.
Everything up until this point has been winning for Jesus. He’s cast out demons, he’s healed sick people, even those on the edge of death. He’s won arguments with his opponents, he’s exercised miraculous power over nature. Now he begins what looks like losing. He will lose himself to the powers of darkness and evil. He will lose himself to the visions of grandeur and militaristic discipleship that the disciples have. And he will lose himself completely on the cross. Everything he is and everything he has will be snuffed out like a candle.
And so this is a temporary chapel, right here on the mountain. We cannot stay here, but we learn it is good for us to look at Jesus now because it will not seem to match with what comes next. Maybe that’s why the voice from God says to listen to him. When we don’t know what to do, like Peter, when we find it hard to watch God or even find him in the story of our lives, we can at least listen to him. When we find it too difficult to see the glory of God in our world because things are too broken, we can always hear him speaking. We can hear him in the words of Scripture. We can still hear him calling to us in the lyrics of hymns. We can hear him as we gather around the table: “This is my body, given for you.” Given for us…even as he loses himself for us.
When Elisha finishes watching Elijah disappear into heaven and the sweet chariot swings low to carry him home, Elisha is left alone. He tears his clothes in sorrow and anguish. But the disciples are never left alone. After the glory of the transfiguration fades and the cloud disappears, there he is: only Jesus. He walks down the mountain with them into the valleys and towns below. And on to Golgotha, where it’s only Jesus. And even on the Sunday after he is crucified, after the clouds of Good Friday roll away, there he is…only Jesus!
As disciples, we are called into the service therefore of one who never really leaves us. Although the road can get rough and wind its way through scenes of endless renovation, the Spirit calls us to stare into the dark places and not avert our eyes, to venture into the struggle of the human condition and not despair. Jesus calls us to address the needs of the world without short-circuiting the work that God’s Spirit can accomplish in suffering.
For one day the real chapel will be finished, fully renovated according to God’s design. Oh, you, who are walking through the dark, meandering hallways of life, you who long to see your dear ones’ faces and not just in your mind’s memory…one day the gleaming Chapel will be finished, and he will gather us there. The one whose blood and tears have put it together will call out, and we will hear his voice and listen. The light that shines in our hearts now, that light which pierces the world’s shadows through our acts of love and mercy and kindness—that light is his light and one day it will be all we see.
And it will be good for us to be there. So good. Best.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.