“Jesus Came Down”
February 19, 2012
Professor McGonagall is the transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans like me, you already know this. But whether you are a Potter fan or not, this may be one of the few references we find to transfiguration outside of this particular story in the gospels.
Transfiguration in the Harry Potter stories means changing one thing into something else. So the students practice turning one object into another. I believe in the movie, they try to turn rats into teacups. It’s not an easy magical skill to master as you can imagine.
According to J.K. Rowling’s understanding of the word, transfiguration means to change from one thing into something totally different. But is that what’s going on in our scripture passage? Let’s hold on to that question.
The Greek word that is translated as transfiguration is metamorpho. Our word metamorphosis also comes from this. I learned the word metamorphosis when I was a sophomore in high school. My German teacher talked about it in class one day and suggested a book called The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It tells the story of a man, Gregor Samsa, who goes to sleep one night as a man and wakes up the next morning as a large insect. He is still Gregor. He know who he is, has the same awareness he did the night before, but he is completely different. He is metamorphosed into an entirely new creature.
Is that what happens in Mark’s telling of the transfiguration of Jesus?
Does the human Jesus change into an entirely different creation when he goes up on that mountaintop? Or is just that his true nature shines forth in that moment? Mark’s text is not exactly overflowing with details that help us understand what happens.
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John. Every biblical scholar I’ve read refers to these disciples as the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. They were the ones who were closest to Jesus. However last summer at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies Synod School, Anna Carter Florence, the keynote speaker for the week and an amazing preacher and teacher of preaching, made the comment that perhaps they weren’t the inner circle as much as they were the remedial group.
Maybe they weren’t so much favored by Jesus as they were in need of some extra help, some extra understanding. And this makes sense to some degree because our text starts off with the words “six days later.” Six days later from what? What happened six days earlier? Six days earlier Jesus had begun to teach the disciples that being the Messiah, the Son of Man wasn’t what any of them expected it to be. It meant that the Messiah would suffer. It meant that the Son of Man would be rejected by all the religious authorities. It meant that the Messiah would die and after three days of really being dead, would rise again. According to Mark, Jesus tells them this quite openly.
Jesus tells them all this because of an answer Peter gave to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am.”
Six days before our text today Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, but the minute he heard the rest of it, the cost of it, he told Jesus to stop talking such nonsense.
Now, six days later, Jesus brings Peter, James and John up a mountain. And there he is transfigured before them. Mark gives us no other explanation as to what that means other than Jesus’ clothes turn a dazzling white, whiter than any human made bleach could make them. In other gospel accounts, Jesus’ face shines. There are a few more clues as to the transfiguration of his countenance as well as his clothes. But this is what we have in Mark. Jesus is transfigured before them. And while he is transfigured, he is joined by Elijah and Moses. The disciples see these two great figures of their faith, their history, talking with them.
They are terrified, which I think is a reasonable response. I probably would have been terrified too. Peter, out of his terror, wants to respond somehow, so he offers to build booths for them to stay in. Just as he makes this offer to Jesus they are overshadowed by a great cloud. And out of that cloud a voice speaks.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
The voice that only Jesus heard at his baptism is now audible to these three disciples as well. Although I’m sure the numinous atmosphere must have felt dreamlike to the bewildered, terrified disciples, it wasn’t a dream. It was real. They witnessed, at least for a moment, the human Jesus that they knew transfigured into the divine Jesus that was also his true nature. For just a moment they witnessed glory.
I realize that this doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding exactly what happened in that transfiguration. But I’m not sure that it serves our purposes to know. Maybe it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand it. We just have to trust that something happened to Jesus on that mountaintop that gave the disciples, inner circle or remedial group, a glimpse of the fullness of who Jesus was – his humanity and his divinity all together, all at once.
And while they were in the power of that moment Peter expressed what I suspect all of them were feeling, the desire to stay there, to stay in that moment. Which isn’t surprising either. When it came to Jesus, the moments when the disciples “got it" were few and far between. Actually, in Mark’s gospel, they never really get it. They never fully understand who Jesus is and what he came to do and fulfill. So it makes sense to me that when they are confronted with his glory, when they have his Sonship confirmed by a terrible, wonderful voice from a cloud, it was natural that they want to stick around. Staying on the mountain keeps what they’ve seen and heard real. When they go back down the mountain, the glory is going to fade, the voice is going to become distant, the edges of the moment will start to dull and blur.
Because that’s what happens, isn’t it? We have what is referred to as a mountaintop experience, and we want to stay in it. When I was a young Senior High youth advisor, I went with my youth group to the Montreat Conference Center outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Every summer Montreat hosts several weeks of youth events for Senior Highs. It is a life changing experience for everyone who has the opportunity to go. The conference itself is amazing. Friends are made, bonds are formed. It’s incredible for youth and adults alike. And you are actually on top of a mountain. So when I say it was a mountaintop experience for me, I mean that literally and figuratively.
Yet once the week was over, we had to go back down the mountain. We had to go home, back to the daily grind of our lives. We had to go back down and reenter reality once more. I remember feeling so joyous while I was on the mountain, so alive and ready to be a better disciple, a better person, but once I left the mountain that feeling of joy, of zeal was hard to sustain.
Maybe the disciples suspected this would be true as well. Maybe they didn’t. But either way, they went back down. More importantly, I think, Jesus went back down. We never think about what it may have meant to Jesus to be transfigured. Did he know exactly what would happen to him when he took the disciples up the mountain? Did he discern a call from God to climb that peak that day? Or did he just have a gut sense that going up the mountain was the right thing to do, for the disciples and for him?
Regardless, Jesus went up. And Jesus came down.
I wonder if going down the mountain was even harder for Jesus than it was for the disciples. I wonder that because Jesus had to have known what he was he was descending to. He went back down to so much pain, so much need. Yet Jesus came down.
Jesus came down.
He came down because staying on the mountain was not what he was there to do. He was called to a broken world, and that broken world was in the valley below. There he was called to be, to preach, to teach, to heal, to proclaim the kingdom of heaven.
Staying on the mountaintop, basking in God’s glory is a wonderful thing. And we are indeed called to glorify God. But if there is a danger in descending because we may forget our moment with God, then there is an equal danger in staying because we forget the world that needs our witness.
Staying on the mountaintop is equivalent for me to the many contemporary praise songs I hear. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with contemporary praise music, nor the need to praise and glorify. But what bothers me about these kinds of songs is that often they become more about the person doing the praise, then about the One who is praised. They become, as my friend Kristen memorably put it, “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of songs. Or maybe for some of you, they become Jesus is my buddy songs. Jesus is not my best bud. Jesus is the One who came down. Who went willingly into darkness to bring about the Light with a capital L. Jesus crossed that threshold from the mountain to the valley because he was faithful to God and the narrow way he was called to travel. Jesus crossed that threshold. Jesus came down.
Transfiguration Sunday is our threshold. It is the threshold between Ordinary Time and Lent. It is a glimpse of glory before we cross into the darkest time the world has ever known. So just like Jesus and the disciples, we are called to come down from the mountain and to walk through the valley that awaits us. But even as we walk that valley, let us cling to the memory of the mountain, the memory of God that lives in us. Jesus came back down and so do we, to bear witness to the glory of God that illumines not just a mountain but the whole world, whether we can see it or not. Alleluia. Amen.