Tuesday, March 14, 2006

From the mountaintop

The lessons for the second Sunday in Lent are:

  • Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
  • Psalm 116:10+15, 16-17, 18-19
  • Romans 8:31b-34
  • Mark 9:2-10
When you or I go off on vacation or retreat, and have some intense and memorable experience that seems to reveal meaning about the rest of our lives, we tend to call it a "peak" or "mountaintop" experience. The Gospel lesson today recounts such a experience, known as the Transfiguration, and we need to explore together why such a peak experience is important for us during Lent. To do that, we need to look at more than just this story by itself, we should look at why Mark put this story where it is in the Gospel record.

The lectionary takes the Sunday Gospel lessons this year generally from the Gospel of Mark, and during the year we will cover much of this book. During Lent, however, we are zooming in on particular stories concerning our own journey to the cross and Easter. The lesson last week, the first Sunday in Lent, was from the first chapter, immediately after Jesus is baptized and we experience God confirming Jesus's ministry. In that lesson Jesus is then driven out into the desert where he is tempted and returns proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This week we jump to the middle of Mark, from the first to the ninth chapter, and there are only 16 chapters in this, the shortest, simplest, and probably oldest of the Gospels.

The eighth chapter, the one just before our lesson this week, contains the "hinge" of the Gospel of Mark. Just before the story of the Transfiguration, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach of the suffering and resurrection to come, and Jesus rejects Peter's attempt to turn him away from that path. For the first time, Jesus teaches not only that the Kingdom is at hand, but the way to the Kingdom also leads to the cross. From this point forward, Mark is telling about the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, and Golgotha.

The very next thing to happen is the Transfiguration:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; 4 then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
For just a moment, on top of this mountain, the reality of just who Jesus is becomes visible. We again, just as at Jesus's baptism, hear the Father declare Jesus his son. By appearing with both Elijah and Moses, Jesus is revealed truly as the anointed one of God, the Messiah. And the change in appearance foreshadows the change that will come with his resurrection and ascention.

The disciples present are terrified — and who can blame them? In just a few days their world has been turned upside down again. In answering Jesus's call, they have already left behind much. But now they discover their new path will take them places they never dreamed about. This is not just some good teacher or intinerant miracle worker, Jesus is the One foretold by the prophets. This is not a matter of incremental change, becoming better, more moral, nicer people. These disciples were just told that nothing short of complete commitment, complete transformation will do. And now, this mountaintop experience confirms that.

And that is where we are today, this Lent. We often prefer a more rational, more reasonable Jesus. A wise teacher whose words we can ponder, and carefully apply to our lives where feasible. We want God to be on our terms, in a way that we can understand. We must be reminded, again and again, that nothing short of our whole lives, cast before the Son of God, will suffice. And we must learn again, as these disciples learned, that we must follow him, even to the Cross. That is the journey we are on this Lent.

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