Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Turning Point

February 15th, 2015                      “The Turning Point”                 Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 9:2-9

          Transfiguration, metamorphosis, a change in appearance or being.  In our gospel reading for this morning Jesus is transfigured, he is changed.  This moment marks the center of Jesus’ life and ministry in the gospel of Mark.  It also marks a center of sorts in our church year as we are about to embark on our Lenten journey.  This morning’s reading is rich, but its language and imagery are of a culture far distant from ours.  Today I want to dig deeper into the text, in order to better understand its significance within the gospel and within our own lives.

          The story begins with Jesus separating himself from the crowds for prayer.  As you know we find him often doing just that.  We talked last week about Jesus knowing his own need to connect with God, and setting an example for all of us.  It is often in prayer where Jesus reveals the most about his true nature.  Prayer in the river Jordan at his baptism, prayer on the mountain at his transfiguration, and prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, all serve to show us and the disciples who Jesus really is. 

On this occasion he has left the majority of disciples behind, and has taken only his inner circle; Peter, James, and John.  It was this group of men who left behind successful fishing careers to follow Jesus, and we have seen him separate his disciples into this inner circle before for healings among other things.  Today we might imagine that he took these three with him to witness the transfiguration and to tell others about it later.  Or, perhaps he simply took them as emotional back up. 

          When they arrive on the mountaintop Jesus begins to shine.  His clothes, his face, his entire appearance seem to radiate light.  He has been changed, transfigured.  The disciples see two men with Jesus; Moses and Elijah.  These two figures in particular are very significant.  Both of them encountered God on a mountain top, Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Horeb, and both of them were known to have special relationships with God.  Perhaps most important to the gospel writer is the Jewish tradition of Moses and Elijah, in which both of them were associated with the Messianic age.  Their presence together with Jesus on the mountaintop would serve to confirm to the disciples, and more importantly to readers of the gospel, that Jesus is in fact the promised Messiah.  

          Peter says “Master, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”  Peter wants to hold on to the moment, to celebrate it in stone and mud and to make it last.  The gospel writer apologizes for Peter, saying that he was afraid and he didn’t know what he was saying.  We might wonder why this apology is necessary, but Peter’s statement shows that he doesn’t understand what is going on.  He has forgotten that Moses and Elijah already dwell with God.  He has forgotten that Christ has already told him that he will soon suffer and die.  He seems to think that this moment can last forever.  His lack of understanding could be embarrassing to the gospel writer, or could simply be another example of Jesus’ disciples once again missing the mark of his teachings.

          While Peter is speaking a great cloud comes and overshadows everyone.  Not only is this cloud above them, it begins to surround them, to overtake them and the disciples are hidden in the cloud.  Again, this is not the first time people have experienced God in a cloud.  God spoke to Moses on Sinai through a cloud and a cloud led the Israelites many a day in the desert.  Regardless of their academic knowledge of God clouds in the history of Israel, to experience the real thing makes the disciples understandably afraid. 

          From within the cloud comes a strong voice, a powerful voice, a frightening voice, the voice of the Lord, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Readers have heard the voice from the cloud once before at Jesus’ baptism.  At that time the voice identified Jesus as the son of God.  “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus begins his ministry following this voice from heaven, and now the voice further identifies Jesus before the disciples and sends him now to his ministry in Jerusalem.

          It seems that as quickly as the cloud appeared it was gone.  Jesus and the disciples are suddenly alone, the moment is over.  The disciples are stunned into silence by this experience, by this supernatural encounter with God, and they tell no one of it.  This moment is the center of the story for Mark and a turning point of sorts.  From now on Jesus will turn toward Jerusalem and the conflict and death that await him there.  From this moment on, Jesus’ mission and journey will lead him to the cross.  For Jesus, the transfiguration confirmed who he was, and assured that the path before him was not only according to the law and the prophets but was also the will of God.  For the disciples, the transfiguration told them that Jesus truly was God’s Son, and that he was to be followed even on the way to Jerusalem and certain death.

          The question remains, just what does this story have to do with us?  As believers, we find in the transfiguration the moment when Jesus is recognized for who he is.  This is the time when Jesus is clearly identified as the Son of God and the one to whom we should be listening.  In the church year it is important to mark the moment when Jesus turns toward Jerusalem, as we ourselves begin the journey of Lent.

          Like the disciples’ moments with Jesus, our relationship with God covers both the ups and downs of our lives.  When we have strong encounters with God, at a special worship service or on a retreat we often feel something like a spiritual high.  We experience things becoming clear and we seem to better understand God and our own mission.  In those moments we know for certain that God is with us in all that we do.  Oftentimes we are like Peter, wanting to build some dwellings and to remain with God on the mountaintop forever, but that cannot be so.  Eventually, those spiritual highs fade and we are back into the doldrums of our everyday lives.

          In many ways, the church year is a reflection of our lives.  We have celebrations such as Christmas, we have moments of revelation such as Epiphany, and we have moments of crystal clear understanding such as the Baptism of Christ and this, his Transfiguration.  But invariably our lives will enter darker times, times when we experience suffering and loss, times when we wonder if God is really there at all.  In the church year, we mark these low moments of our lives through the season of Lent, the season of darkness.

The transfiguration marks the change, a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, just as its celebration marks a change in our church year.  Along with Jesus, this is the moment when we turn our faces toward Jerusalem.  Like most people, we don’t want to be sad and we don’t want to talk about sad things and we certainly don’t want to go to Jerusalem and the cross.  Many modern churches skip over the season of Lent because they don’t want to bum people out.  Even the disciples rejected the path that Jesus was laying before them, I think that is part of why the transfiguration was needed.  Both the disciples and us need to be reminded that this one who will lead us into suffering is worth listening to.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

Beginning with our Ash Wednesday service this week, collectively as a church we are embarking on a 40 day journey.  This will be a time of reflection for us as individuals, and together as a community here in worship.  This is the time to consider the down moments in our faith life, and to journey with Christ to the cross.  This is a turning point in our life as a church.  For the next few weeks we will commit ourselves to walking together that lonesome valley of death with our Savior.

          But for now, for now we can enjoy this moment of glory.  Christ has been transfigured, changed before our eyes.  We have beheld his glory.  We have heard the voice from heaven.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Let that be our message for this morning and as we embark on our journey through Lent.  Jesus is God’s Son; let us do our best to listen to, and to follow wherever he may lead us, even if we aren’t sure we want to go there.  Amen.

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