Mark 9:2-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 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. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. The season of Carnival - Mardi Gras - has begun. On Wednesday, Lent begins. From today until Easter we will be walking with Jesus to Easter through the words of Mark’s Gospel.
Previously, in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus fed thousands of people - twice! - then told the Pharisees he wouldn’t be performing any signs or wonders for them. He restored sight to a blind man and told him not to tell anyone who it was that healed him. He was named “Messiah” by Peter, and later rebuked him when Peter said he shouldn’t talk about his death and resurrection in front of people. Naturally, all of this confused the disciples.
Six days later Peter, James, and John witnessed something amazing, more amazing than all of the healings and casting out of demons and feedings of thousands. Right before their eyes Jesus was transfigured, so changed that even his clothes became whiter than humanly possible. Moses and Elijah were there with him. Peter, ever a practical man, wanted to build them all houses to stay in. He really didn’t know what else to say. I mean, what do you say when the man you had been wandering around the countryside with suddenly begins glowing like the moon with gleaming white clothes, and standing with him are the two greatest people from your history? Before Jesus had a chance to say anything, a voice from above cried out, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” When they looked around they saw Jesus looking just as he always did. Moses and Elijah are gone. He said not to tell anyone what they had seen, not until after the resurrection of the Son of Man. And again, the disciples are confused.
Frankly, I don’t blame them. All of that would have confused me too, I think. Among other things, there was the whole question of the resurrection. The belief of the Jews is that resurrection will happen for everyone at the same time, on the last day. So what’s all this Jesus was saying about resurrection after three days? The only people who would not be resurrected on that day are Moses and Elijah, who had both, it was believed, been taken directly into God’s presence at the end of their lives - the very same two who appeared on the mountain with Jesus. So you can see there was a lot to talk about and to wonder about.
It seems that no matter how much time the disciples spend with Jesus, they just don’t seem to change. They don’t learn from their exposure to him. They don’t learn from his example. They don’t even learn from his preaching. And now they have seen him change, right in front of them . . . and still, nothing changes.
Of course, the change in Jesus wasn’t a real change. It was more cosmetic than anything. As he stood on that mountaintop alongside Moses and Elijah we, with the benefit of hindsight, can imagine that Jesus took on the appearance he would have later, after his ascension into heaven. He was still the same person he had been before, the same person he would be after. The ones I really would expect to change are Peter, James and John. They are the ones who experienced this event. They are the ones who heard that voice coming out of heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” They are the ones who had a God moment - an experience of God actually breaking into their lives and speaking to them. They are the ones who were standing on holy ground without even knowing it.
We all have God moments. We lift them up here on Sunday mornings. They aren’t ordinary celebrations. Rather they are moments when we can see God’s hand acting in our lives, when we can hear God’s voice speaking to us, directing our way, opening our eyes to possibilities.
At the beginning of my time as a student chaplain at the Indiana State Mental Hospital we had a conversation with the chief of psychiatric services. As we went through our directions for the use of the DSM IV - the most important of which was, do NOT use the book to self-diagnose, as everyone has some quirks that can be symptomatic of some disorder or other - he described some of the more common disorders we would be encountering. When we got to schizophrenics and how they heard voices that they often thought came from God, we all looked at each other. One of my braver classmates pointed out that each one of us in the group believed God had spoken to us at one time or another, and the doctor said, “IF the voice you hear tells you to do good, it is most likely God. If it tells you to hurt someone, you need medication.”
Change is a really difficult thing for most people. Much of the change that we do is more exterior than anything deep and significant, sort of like the way the coloring of the Valspar chameleon pictured here changes to match the paint chip closest to her. For example, over the years I have lost lots of weight, but it won’t stay lost until I change my lifestyle - until healthy eating and exercise are not just something I do for a result, but become a way of living that I embrace whole-heartedly. Simplifying and de-cluttering our lives won’t make any real difference unless we do more than just get rid of stuff. We also have to get rid of the desire to acquire stuff. That’s not to say that those things aren’t good for us, because they are. They simply won’t have a lasting result until we embrace them with our hearts as well as our intellect.
There has been a saying circulating on Facebook lately: Religion says God will love us if we change. The Gospel says God’s love changes us. And I have to say that’s true. I grew up with the idea that I had to become perfect or awfully dang close before God would love me. I was pretty sure I could never live up to God’s standards, so I gave up. For a long time I lived with the belief that God would never love me, and that it didn’t matter what I did because I would never ever be good enough. After 25 years of drug and alcohol use I knew I had to change or die - when I woke up one morning knowing that I had to do something different because I felt dead inside - I embarked on a journey that would lead me to a different understanding of God. I remember clearly the first time I started to believe that God would love me - even me! That God would forgive me for everything I had done . . that God had already, in fact, forgiven me for everything I had done. I remember crying tears of joy when I really began to grasp the idea that God loved me just the way I am - that no changes were necessary for God to love me. That is the day I began wanting to change - to really change. Not just quit using drugs and alcohol and food and money and people and work to make me feel better - but really, actually change the way I approach life.
I would challenge the wording of that Facebook post though. Because you see, God loves us all, all the time. But I didn’t know that, and so even after I stopped using, nothing really changed in my life. It wasn’t until I began to understand that God is a God of love and compassion that I began to make significant changes in my life. I think it is the knowledge of God’s love that really changes us - that opens our hearts to deep, spiritual transformation.
The Elders here at First Christian make a practice of studying a book each year. This year they have chosen If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. At the very beginning the authors make it clear that grace is not “an attitude that ignores differences and tolerates every idea. . . [rather] grace is a commitment to the most difficult and demanding of human acts—engaging and loving those who think and behave in ways we find unacceptable.” (pg. 7)
Sadly, we see the lack of grace every time we turn on the TV or open Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. If this one disagrees with that one, there is no polite discourse. There is only name calling, accusation and recrimination. If this person won then obviously they cheated. If that one succeeded they must have done something underhanded in order to get there. There is very little respect or courtesy extended by our leaders to one another, and because of that there is less and less courtesy and kindness apparent in the way all the rest of us treat one another. Even the most popular TV programs tend to be about how to cheat, manipulate others, and lie in order to Survive and win a gazillion dollars. Grace doesn’t seem to be a very popular commodity these days.
And all I can think is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Without knowledge of God’s love, I would most likely be there among them. Even with that knowledge, it’s hard not to judge others. It’s hard to engage those with whom I disagree without feeling like I’m going into battle in order to convince someone to change. And yet, if I am to take God’s love seriously, and try my best to live out that love in all my dealings with others, then surely I will continue to change. I will find it easier to deal lovingly with those I find most difficult to accept.
“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” Jesus told us to love one another - that the world would know we are his followers because of our love. That love he calls us to, that true transformation into people who truly love one another, is possible only inasmuch as we understand God’s love for us, for each one of us individually, and for all of us collectively. The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that God loves us - God’s grace enfolds us - God’s forgiveness lifts us out of the mire into the light. May we come to truly believe in God’s love for us, so that we may be changed, transformed by it and enabled to truly love one another, even as Jesus was transfigured on that mountain. May we come to resemble the Christ, whose love for us is our salvation.