By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 9:2-9
If you were here last week, you might recall that my sermon ended with the story of Tommy, a young, developmentally handicapped man in the first church I ever pastored. I shared the story of how, initially, I was fond of Tommy – he was very loving and enthusiastic – but I didn’t see him as a particularly enormous asset to the congregation because Tommy wasn’t able to chair a committee or lead a ministry; he didn’t have any deep biblical knowledge; it was even difficult for him to clearly follow instructions as a volunteer. Yet my impressions changed the day that Tommy enthusiastically – and much to the surprise of all of us – seized an opportunity to serve Holy Communion to his church family. That day, I suddenly saw Tommy in a different way. In a church where people frequently jockeyed for position and power, Tommy’s actions revealed the kind of humble and joyful servanthood at the heart of the gospel. Tommy was truly a servant leader.
While Britt and I were pastoring that congregation, I began to watch my first and still all-time favorite Sci-Fi series, Babylon Five. The challenges of that congregation and what I was learning as an impressionable young pastor seared forever on my mind a scene from the first season. In the scene, a character named J’Kar – who initially seems cagey and self-serving – has taken steps to preserve the life of another character, Sakai. In light of J’Kar’s reputation, she questions his motivation. And he replies with these words: “No one here is entirely what they appear. If I surprised you, all the better. Good day, Ms. Sakai.”
This morning we conclude a season the church calls Epiphany; a word meaning revelation. An epiphany is when things are seen for what they truly are; when we go beyond appearance to get to the heart of the matter.
The season of Epiphany begins after Christmas on the Sunday when the story of Jesus’ baptism is read. In Mark’s version of that story, as Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn open and hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”
This morning – as I’ve already noted – concludes the season of Epiphany. This Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – the season of Lent begins. And this morning, on this final Sunday of the season of Epiphany, we find ourselves – once again – hearing that heavenly voice proclaim that Jesus is God’s Son and it is the remainder of Mark’s gospel (and the season of Lent) that will reveal what that really means and it will not be what many expect.
I’ve often told people that – even those who are not Christians – ought to appreciate the literary genius of our biblical gospels. This morning’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration comes at the center of Mark’s gospel and, although it is a glorious and beautiful story, it (and the verses immediately preceding it) marks a dramatic turn in the narrative. Up ‘til now, Mark’s gospel has told us story after story of Jesus’ miraculous power. Jesus, the Son of God, sets people free from demons. He heals people of their sickness and restores them to their honorable place in society. He cleanses lepers and sets them free from stigma and social isolation. He makes the lame walk and declares sins forgiven. He reveals a power and an authority that none can rival. His miracles are referred to with the Greek word dunamis, the origin of our English word dynamite. Jesus is a rock story, a power player.
But not so fast; remember: no one here is entirely what they appear… entirely what we might expect. Expect to be surprised.
This morning’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration comes at the center of Mark’s gospel. It, as I’ve already mentioned, marks a turning point in the narrative. It is immediately – immediately – preceded by the story of Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Playing it safe, they first tell Jesus what others have said. A popular, evasive strategy to this day: give someone else’s answer; that way if it’s wrong, you won’t be to blame. But Jesus isn’t going to let them off the hook. He pushes; what about you, who do you – my disciples – say I am. Peter musters the courage and gives the right answer: “You are the messiah.”
But what does that mean? How is that going to appear? What should we expect?
Well, the disciples likely had great expectations about what the messiah of God should be and do: a king, a warrior, an esteemed teacher of wisdom. But Jesus shatters them all. He begins to tell them what it means for him to be God’s messiah, God’s Son. He is headed to Jerusalem with them and there, he will be put to death by the religious authorities. And it is a fate he is willing and ready to embrace because what looks like the way of death is really the way to life. Though Peter initially objects to Jesus’ answer, by the conclusion of Jesus’ speech
I mean, everything had started out so well. When Jesus’ ministry first began, people seemed so delighted by what he had to say and even more delighted by what he did. Jesus, God’s Son, was mightier than demons, mightier than disease, mightier than sin. And now, he’s going to die. How is this gospel? Is this supposed to be good news?
So this morning’s story begins: “Six days later…” Six days after this brutal, painful epiphany that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die, his dazed inner-circle of disciples follow him up the mountain where, before their very eyes, he is transfigured (his God given glory is clearly visible) and he is standing in the presence of Judaism’s most famous characters, Moses and Elijah. And then, there it is again: that voice from heaven. But this time it is not only Jesus who hears the voice; his disciples hear it also. “This is my Son,” the voice says, “listen to him.” In other words, maybe this isn’t what you expected, maybe from your perspective it appears all wrong; but wait and watch, listen and learn; for you are in for a big surprise.
Friends: there are churches that will tell you that, if you just pray hard enough – if you say the right words and convince yourself, then God will spare you from any sorrow and suffering in this world. People told me that. They told me that when my mother had cancer. She would be cured. We just needed to pray and believe. And then she died. I’m sure you’ve been there too. We live in a broken world and death and sorrow are inescapable. Friends: there are churches that will tell you that you just need to transcend life in this world. You know, just focus on “pie in the sky by and by when you die” and don’t let yourself be impacted by all the awful stuff in this world.
But that’s not really gospel because Jesus tells us and shows us otherwise. He tells us that there’s no avoiding the sorrow and suffering of this world and that the best path to follow will lead us to and through Jerusalem. He says that whoever wants to be first must actually be last. He tells us that his heavenly Father’s kingdom ultimately belongs to those who are the weakest and the most vulnerable. He tells us that, if we frantically try to secure our own lives, we’re just going to wind up losing them. In fact, the way to salvation is to pick up our cross and to willingly and purposefully lay down our lives for the good of others. Like it or not, that is the gospel; that is the good – and the honest – news.
We all want life in this world to be rainbows and unicorns every day. And some people in this world tell us that it can be: if we pay enough, if we learn enough, if we acquire enough, if we control enough, if we pray enough. But we know better, don’t we. We’ve lived it; we know. We know that Lent is real. But we also know that Easter is coming; but only if we are willing to make the journey to Jerusalem; if we are committed to humbly serving and laying aside our own rights and privileges for the well-being of others.
Jesus wasn’t the Messiah people expected. Truth be told, he still isn’t. His 21st century disciples are just as scared of his message as Peter, James and John were coming down the mountain. They didn’t want to return to the valley and we don’t want to walk in the valley either. It’s going to be painful and make us all look like a bunch of losers.
But, if we accept the message of Jesus, we can take those around us by surprise. In a modern cynical world, our appearance as Jesus’ disciples might not be what they expect. You see, Christianity isn’t meant to be an escape hatch from this world. To follow Jesus means to enter in to all the messiness and suffering of this world in ways that bring redemption and new life.
By the grace of Jesus, we can walk the valley; we can surrender our own rights and demands for the well-being of others; we can act in ways that honor the least, the last and the lost; we can choose to go to the back of the line and move the forgotten and exploited to the front. And that will be gospel – the good news of Jesus – proclaimed through the life of you and me. And the very appearance of it will bring light where there is darkness, glory where there is ugliness and life where there is death.
One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes of Jesus’ transfiguration:
[I]f we believe in this story about Jesus then we live in a different world from people who do not. We live in a world where glory is possible, where light may break through at any moment… Earth and flesh, comfort and sorrow, are terribly important to us, but they are not of primary importance. The world is not made out of flesh and sorrow. The world is made out of the light of God's glory, straining against the skin of the world even as we speak. You never know when a face may begin to shine – including your own, but even when we cannot see the light, we believe in it because we have heard the gospel story. We know that God’s glory is pulsing just beneath the surface of things, with power to transfigure even the darkest of our days.
Friends: Lent has never been very popular. But this morning I want to encourage you: don’t avoid the season of Lent: embrace it, walk it, live it. And believe that is always ends with Easter.
Season 1, episode 6; Director: Bruce Seth Green;
Writer/Creator: J. Michael Straczynski.
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