February 11, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
There was a little boy whose absolute favorite show in the whole wide world was Captain Kangaroo. And his second absolute favorite show in the whole wide world was Mister Rodgers Neighborhood. Well, one day, he saw an advertisement for a very special show in which Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rodgers were both going to appear together on the same program. This was his dream come true. His two favorites in the same place at the same time. For weeks and weeks it was all he could talk about. The night before the show was going to air he was so excited he had trouble falling asleep, and the next morning when the day had finally arrived he popped out of bed in a whirlwind of enthusiasm. He got his chores done early so that nothing could possibly get in the way of this moment. Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rodgers! He sat in his favorite chair and his parents turned on the TV for him and finally it began. His parents left the room and were standing the kitchen. Then a few minutes later the boy walked into the kitchen with tears in his eyes. His father asked, “Is everything, okay?” He nodded his head. His mother asked, “Why are you crying?” And the boy answered, “It’s just too good!” It’s just too good.[i]
Our scripture lesson this morning is one of those moments. One of those high and holy moments from Jesus’ life that feels just too good. So good that our words fail us. This story, of Jesus’ Transfiguration, or Transformation, is one of four big moments in the gospel of Mark. Mark’s story begins with the big holy moment of Jesus’ baptism and ends with his death and resurrection. But right smack in the middle, at the turning point of the gospel comes this moment of glory.
In the story, Jesus takes them and he leads them to a high and holy place, a mountain top. And if we’ve been paying attention throughout our Bible we will recognize that important events happen on mountains, it is a location of divine encounter. So too in our lives, does Jesus sometimes take us and lead us to a place that we don’t expect to encounter and experience something we can’t exactly put to the words. This man, whom the disciples have been listening to and learning from—this teacher and healer and miracle worker—this poor wayfaring stranger with no place to lay his head—over the last few days he’s started to sound a little weird. He’s started talking about how much he is going to suffer and how necessary his death will be. The disciples have tried to shush him, to ignore and not listen to these crazy words.
Now, suddenly, on this mountain top, he is transformed before their eyes into something that can only be described as heaven on earth. His clothes change, but that’s just the beginning. His face, his countenance, his whole body begins to shine brighter than the noonday sun. The disciples, and us, get to see here in this moment a glimpse into heaven, a glimpse into the future, a glimpse into the fully glorified truth of who this Jesus really is, the eternal, divine, Son of God.
And as if that weren’t enough, we also see that he is talking with two people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Moses, the great liberator and lawgiver. Elijah, the quintessential prophet and holy hero. These two are biblical all-stars, hall of famers in fact, and here they are with Jesus chatting together, it’s like Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rodgers—“it’s just too good!”
We see just how good it is when Peter opens his mouth. Now, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap in sermons and Bible studies. He is often caricatured as a rash, foolish, headstrong fellow. Maybe he is a little of that, but the truth is he’s also an awful lot of us. He speaks the words we would say if we had been there. He does the things we would probably do if we were in his shoes. Notice what he does here. In this holy moment that is too good to be true—heaven and earth coming together; past, present, and future colliding in a cosmic explosion of glory—in this moment, Peter hopes his mouth and says, “It is good for us to be here.” This is too good. Let us make some dwelling, one for you, Jesus, and a couple more for your friends Moses and Elijah. This is just too good! I don’t ever want to leave. Let’s guild houses, dwelling places, so that we can stay here forever, here in this holy place, here in this glory day!
Then, in the next verse, after Peter shuts his mouth the narrator inserts a very helpful explanation for Peter’s words: “He did not know what to say.” Peter did not know what to say. All that talk about building houses on the mountaintop is nonsense. Peter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He did not know what to say. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in our own lives we could have such a helpful explanation from the narrator on high to qualify our words or someone else’s? In the middle of an argument when we lose our temper and say something we will regret—“He did not know what to say.” After an awkward turn of phrase that didn’t come out right on a first date—“He did not know what to say.” After reading an immature, foolish tweet or a senseless Facebook post only trying to bait us into a debate—“He did not know what to say.” When we go visit someone who is grieving the death of a loved one, and we put our foot in our mouth trying to say something nice and it come out like “Well, they’re in a better place” or “It must be part of God’s plan”—“He did not know what to say.” Peter was so overwhelmed with the glory of this moment that he did not know what to say.
I get it. It happens to us all. Earlier this week I was in Atlanta for the ten-year reunion of my graduating class from Columbia Seminary. I got to see old friends and catch up on how their ministries are going in churches around the country. And I also got to see some of my favorite professors. There were three in particular, three teachers that I loved to learn from and made sure to take every class I could from. One of them is retired now. One has moved on to another call. And one of them is currently on sabbatical. So, none of them should have been there on campus. But all three of them were there. Not only that, but at one point they were outside the library talking together, and I was standing there, and it was wonderful. Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rodgers! I just stood there, soaking in the moment in all of my nerdiness. I found myself without words (which you know is pretty rare). I just stood there. Then, when I did venture to speak, I wasn’t actually contributing the conversation, I was reliving memories. “Do you remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?” I was soaking the moment, but in reality, I was caught up in a wave of nostalgia—wanting to relive the past, go back to the glory days.
That’s the great temptation of holy moments on the mountaintops of our lives. We want to stay there. There as some days that are just too good, and we wish we could just pitch our tent there forever, build some dwellings and keep the gang all together. That’s Peter’s temptation, to crystalize the holy moment and make it permanent, to dwell in the past, to idealize what was.
You know that Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days”—it’s all about grown ups mentally stuck in adolescence, imaginations permanently trapped in high school. At the end of the song he sings:
“I hope when I get old I don’t sit around talking about it, but I probably will.
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of,
Well time slips away and leaves you with noting mister, but boring stories of glory days.
They’ll pass you by. Glory days…”[ii]
That is Peter. That is us—wanting to capture and recapture glory days, even though they are passing us by. Because life is hard. It’s tough. It’s full of disappointment and suffering and loss and pain and death. And sometimes we, like Peter, want to dwell in the days that were good, just too good. We don’t know what to say or think or hope or dream. But we know we want to stay on those few mountaintop moments that we get in life.
Peter wasn’t to stay on the bright, bright mountainside, but then a cloud rolls in and overshadows the moment of glory. That’s life, isn’t it? Just when we get a little bit of light, the darkness rolls in and shadows over everything. But this is no ordinary cloud—from it booms a heavenly voice, God’s own voice. Now, this is important really important, notice that God does not speak in the rays of the glory days but from the shadow of darkness. God does not speak from the brightness but from the shadow. On the dark nights of our lives, this is truth we cannot forget!
God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” Listen! Listen! The verb is in the imperative: Listen! Don’t just look at him, transfigured and shining bright. Listen to him! Listen to all those things he said about having to suffer, having to die. Listen to him as he leads you to Jerusalem, where he will be executed by the state. Listen too him as he is betrayed and arrested, denied, condemned, and crucified. Listen to the world you don’t want to hear. Listen, and obey, and follow![iii]
This story is all about Jesus’ glory, but it ends in darkness and foreboding foreshadowing. It juxtaposes the glory that we see and the suffering that we hear. We’d rather live in and be distracted by glory days when we don’t go through hardship and pain, but that is not the way we are called to follow. We’d rather not face the cold harshness of death, both our own and those of ones we love, but the truth of the gospel is that there cannot be resurrection without life. The world will not be transformed by us sitting idly by, refusing to risk ourselves, our lives, our comforts, our security, our church. We cannot hope to help the suffering of our brothers and sisters, both here in Mobile and around the globe, without entering into their pain and sorrow and suffering ourselves. No, there cannot be Easter Sunday without Good Friday. There cannot be glory, real glory, without the cross and the tomb. And that is where Jesus is going. And that is where he calls us to follow. And the voice of God says, “Listen to him!”
In this Apocalyptic moment, God break into the story of creation, right into the middle of the gospel, right into the middle of our lives. God breaks in through the darkness and times of not knowing. God break into your story, and my story, and our story, the story of all creation to reveal to us who this Jesus really is and to command us to listen and follow wherever he goes.[iv] We are called to go with him down from the mountain, down into the valley of the shadow of death—to go down, all the way to the end…and then to the new beginning, to the true glory of resurrection life that will be “just too good!”
To God alone be the glory.
[i] Thanks to Kim Long for the story.
[ii] Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days,” on Born in the U.S.A., 1984.
[iii] Stan Saunders, “Mark 9: 2-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, 455.
[iv] Ibid., 453.