Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
March 5, 2000
II Kings 2:1-14; Mark 9:2-8
"Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind . . ." our Old Testament reading begins. Have you heard this story before? It is one of those great stories in the Old Testament that are wonderful to hear, but rather difficult to turn into a sermon. Among those are the many miracle stories of Elijah and Elisha in the books of I and II Kings. Even so, there is nothing else quite like this morning's text in the rest of the Old Testament. Elijah is the only Old Testament figure to leave this earth in a blaze of glory. He does not die, he is taken up in a whirlwind of fire. It was this story, in large part, that sustained the tradition that Elijah would come again.
Elijah first appears on the scene during the reign of King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel and promoted the worship of Baal. You probably remember him best as the prophet who contended for Yahweh, the LORD, the God of Israel, against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He then retreated into the wilderness, where God found him hiding out in a cave. Elijah is a figure who is larger than life, as he proclaims and demonstrates the power and authority of Yahweh over against the cult of Baal. In the Jewish tradition, he became the greatest of the prophets. Many who anticipated his return apparently viewed him as precursor of the Messiah, whom God would send to liberate the people of Israel from foreign domination and restore the nation to its former glory.
This morning's text from II Kings relates not only Elijah's departure, but the transfer of Elijah's authority and power to Elisha, one of his disciples. In successive stages Elijah and Elisha journey to Bethel, to Jericho, and then to the river Jordan. At each stage along the way, Elijah tells Elisha to wait behind, but each time Elisha insists that he will not leave his master. Finally, after they have crossed the river Jordan, in a manner reminiscent of Moses's parting of the Red Sea, Elijah says to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha responds, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." Elisha is not asking for twice the spirit of Elijah. He is asking for the share that would be given to the first-born son, a share twice as great as that of any other heir. He is asking to be the primary spiritual heir of Elijah, but not his equal. Elijah responds that it is not his to grant such a favor, but Elisha will know that it is granted if he can see Elijah as Elijah is taken from him. Soon they are separated by a chariot of fire and horses of fire, as Elijah is taken up into heaven. But the vision is granted. Elisha mourns the loss of his master, tearing his own clothes in grief. But then he takes up where Elijah left off. The spirit and power are conferred, Elijah's mantle has been passed.
Move from this scene to the scene of our New Testament text. Jesus is with three disciples, those apparently closest to him--Peter and James and John. Together they go up a high mountain, apart, by themselves. The larger context is important here. Just six days before, according to Mark, Jesus had first told his disciples about the coming sufferings and death of the Son of Man. Not only that, says Mark, Jesus had also told them that being his followers meant that they would have to take up their cross and follow him. The timing hardly seems right or ripe for a mountaintop experience. But that is what follows.
Down through the centuries, it should be noted, biblical scholars and theologians have debated the meaning of this account. Some have seen it as a literal historical event. Others have viewed it in symbolic terms. Many have thought it was originally a resurrection appearance story, or even an account of Jesus' ascension. As one biblical scholar has put it, "The Transfiguration is the paradise and the despair of commentators" [D. M. Beck, INTERPRETER'S DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE, Vol. 4, 686]. There simply is no agreement on how we are to understand all that is presented here. It seems clear, nonetheless, that what we call the transfiguration of Jesus is and was intended by Mark to be at the very heart of his Gospel.
What Mark describes is a transformation in the appearance of Jesus, a dazzling whiteness. Mark says that Elijah and Moses also appeared to Jesus' disciples, who see them talking with Jesus. This is a visionary moment. Here are Moses, the great liberator and lawgiver, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, conversing with the man from Galilee. The whole of Jewish teaching could be summarized as the law and the prophets. Moses and Elijah, thus, represent the whole of the tradition, all that Judaism claimed to know about God and the ways of God with humankind. For Jesus to be in this company surely suggests that he has become the bearer of that tradition. He must be, at the least, the successor and heir of Moses and Elijah, the current representative, the true and authentic emissary for the God of Israel.
None of this is said, however. Leave it to Peter to have to say something. "Rabbi," he says--Teacher--"it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." What's this about three dwellings? What is Peter thinking? What would these dwellings be for? What would they represent? This is one of those statements that may have an answer, but it hardly pays to try to figure it out. As Mark explains, Peter "did not know what to say." Peter often appears impulsive, impatient, not one to let things be. One way to deal with anxiety and fear is to try to take charge of a situation, or divert attention, before it overwhelms you.
But then they are overshadowed by a cloud, and from the cloud comes a voice. Just as God spoke from Mt. Sinai through Moses to the people of Israel, so God speaks here. The voice says, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." And suddenly, when the disciples look around, they see "no one with them any more, but only Jesus" [9:8]. The point here could hardly be clearer. Jesus is the one who is being identified here by God. "This" Jesus is the beloved one. He is the true heir. As the author of Hebrews begins his epistle, "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" [1:1].
Now, Christian theology has spent centuries trying to define as precisely and exactly as possible what it means to say that Jesus is God's Son. But there is nothing in scripture or tradition that can finally settle that matter for us. In any event, the point of this transfiguration is not to impose an explanation or an interpretation of the person of Jesus. It is to disclose that he has become the one through whom the God of Moses and Elijah, the God of Israel, now speaks. The bottom line could hardly be clearer or more emphatic: "Listen to him."
It is worth noting that Matthew and Luke also contain an account of the Transfiguration, but John does not. The difference is that in John "the glory of God in Jesus is not centered in one event but is manifested throughout his life, death, and resurrection" [Beck, op. cit.]. What is implicit in most of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but is made explicit here--the special relationship of Jesus to God--is made explicit throughout the Gospel of John. Thus only in John do we find Jesus saying, "If you love me you will keep my commandments" [14:15]. The ultimate thrust of all the New Testament Gospels, therefore, is to bear witness that Jesus is from God, and thus to enjoin us to become his disciples. "Do you love me?" asks Jesus at the end of John's Gospel. "Feed my sheep." Do you want to become my disciples? asks Jesus in Mark and Matthew and Luke. Then take up your cross and follow me. "This," says the voice from the cloud, "is my beloved Son." So what? someone might say. So, "listen to him."
So what does it mean to listen to Jesus? The word "transfigured" is a translation of the verb form of the Greek word for metamorphosis. Basically, to be transfigured means to be transformed. What is in question in the Gospel account of Jesus' transfiguration is not his transformation but our own. It seems possible to encounter this story in this text only to be transfixed, only to be caught up in its drama of mystery and wonder and terror. Or only to get hung up on what actually happened. Clearly we are not talking about an ordinary everyday experience. It also seems possible that if we had been there, camera in hand, we would have wanted to turn the event into a "Kodak moment." I might have whipped out my camera, you might have whipped out yours, and we would have done our best to capture Jesus and Moses and Elijah together. We might have tried to "freeze frame" this vision. Even better if we had had a video camera with an audio track to get down the conversation. By whatever means at hand we might have tried to "fix" the event in memory and history.
Perhaps it is part of the genius of Mark's telling of the story that Peter responds as he does. He may be on the verge of holy terror, but rather than stand there awestruck and speechless, he blurts out his trite observation--"It's a good thing we're here"--then offers his attempt to domesticate the situation. With Peter acting like that, who can remain enthralled by the vision that Mark describes? Rather than being forever enthralled or transfixed by this numinous event, therefore, we are prompted to consider its meaning for us and our lives.
Again, what does it mean to "listen" to Jesus? It means setting aside our agenda, our expectations, our ambitions, in order to hear what he has to say. Mark's account of the Transfiguration follows close upon that exchange with Peter in which Jesus speaks of the suffering and rejection and death that await the Son of Man. Peter, having just declared Jesus to be the Messiah, then rebukes him. That was not what he meant by Messiah!--not suffering, rejection, or death! Jesus rebukes Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" [8:33].
At the very least, Mark would want us to understand that what it means to be God's Messiah is to be found in the way of Jesus, a way that led to the cross, and not in outcomes of great political victory and triumph. To be a follower of Jesus may be to share in his glory, but not without sharing in his cross. Indeed, if there is anything that Mark has to say about the way of Jesus, it is precisely that this way is at odds with the ways of worldly domination and authority and power. To be his faithful disciples, we must be transfigured, we must be transformed.
At the end of the Transfiguration account, as suddenly as the cloud disappears, Jesus' closest disciples look around. They see nothing but Jesus only. Everything is as it was. Only it is not, because now they must know that Jesus in the one whom alone they are supposed to see. They need not look to anyone else, or to anything else, to know what God has in mind and store for them.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink has asked, "What does it matter if we believe in [Jesus as the Christ], if we are not transfigured by the vision ourselves?" [INTERPRETATION, January 1982, 66]. What does it matter, if we are not being changed into his likeness? [cf. II Cor. 3:18]. What does it matter, if we do not follow in his way? What does it matter, if we do not listen to him? What finally matters is not just what we believe about Jesus, but that we look to him, and listen to him. For our lives to be transfigured, we need a focus, a model, a guide, that neither specific theological belief nor vague spirituality can provide. For Christians, there is this person who embodies and manifests for us what it means to be faithful, and what it means to love. That is all too easy to forget and ignore in the ordinary everyday of our lives.
The visionary moment is the moment when we come to see. Without such moments, the religious life has no inner basis for its claims. What we come to see in the visionary moment may be a truth, a reality, or a presence, that has been there all along. What is revealed to be true of Jesus on the mountaintop had also been true back home in Galilee, and would remain true when he and his disciples descended to the valley below. It would be true all the way to the cross and beyond. The disciples surely sensed that there was something about Jesus that made him God's Person, something that beckoned them to become his disciples, but they surely did not understand from the beginning, or even until the end, what it meant that he was the Messiah of God. But now, and precisely in his Person, much of the world has come to see embodied and fulfilled and surpassed the best of the religious intuitions and understandings of the people of Israel.
But even now, though we think we know who this Jesus is, we are still learning what it means to be his disciples. As Mark must have known, one can hardly be too emphatic about what is required for true discipleship. It is not enough that Jesus is transfigured. We must also be transfigured. It is not enough for the voice from the overshadowing cloud to proclaim who Jesus is. The voice also commands, "Listen to him!" AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert