Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration is loaded with meaning. Only some of that meaning is as obvious to us today as it would have been to Mark’s original audience of early Christians. For example, they would have understood right away why Jesus was flanked by Moses and Elijah. These two, the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Bible with few competitors, were expected to usher in the new Messianic era. Moses was the one who led the Hebrew people out of slavery and up to the edge of the land of promise. He died on Mount Nebo, overlooking the city of Jericho, but no one knows where he was buried. Elijah was second only to Moses in stature as a prophet. He took on the corrupt rulers of Israel during his day, most famously in a showdown with 400 prophets of the Canaanite god Ba’al on top of Mount Carmel. He passed his mantle of leadership on to Elisha, who watched as Elijah was taken out of sight in a chariot of fire, expected to return just before the Messiah, paving the prophetic way.
Two great leaders of the people of God, both of whom with great mystery surrounding their deaths, both of whom had already met God face-to-face on the mountain top, now stand next to Jesus as his ministry begins its move from teaching and healing in Galilee – beautiful, tranquil Galilee – and on to Jerusalem, the heart of the political and religious empire of the day. Knowing the rest of the story as we do, we know what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem.
So as they stand at this moment of dramatic change in Jesus’ ministry, as if the appearance of Elijah and Moses wasn’t enough of a boost, Jesus also gets an endorsement from on high: “This is my son, marked by my love. Listen to him!”
The whole scene is short-lived. Peter, watching this all unfold before his eyes, speaks for the rest of them: “Let’s build three memorials! Let’s hold on to this moment forever!” And as soon as he says this, it’s over as quickly as it began. Jesus stands alone. So they head back down the mountain and on to Jerusalem.
The story of transfiguration – or as the original Greek would have it, metamorphosis – is really about two dramatic changes. The first is the appearance of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah as his entourage. The second, arguably just as important is the shift in his ministry, from rabbi and teacher and healer to Messiah and savior and Lord. As he leaves the mountain, Jesus will have a showdown with the religious leaders of the day, just as Elijah did before him. And just like the great Moses, he will lead his disciples out of spiritual captivity until they can glimpse their freedom and deliverance. We can only understand this with the benefit of hindsight. And yet, the disciples must have known in their gut how significant a moment it was.
And that’s the moment that connects with us! Peter gets it, even if just for a moment, that this is serious stuff. He knows that it is likely fleeting, and that it is distinctly possible that he may never ever see anything like this again. And that, probably more than anything, explains his desire to preserve the moment, hold onto it forever. After all, once you’ve been on top of the mountain with Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, why would you want to go anywhere else?
Are we really any different? Unlike Peter, we do know what is coming, and that there is purpose to descending the mountain and leaving the moment behind, lingering as a sacred memory. We know that the story is, as of yet, incomplete. And we know that Jerusalem, filled with pain and suffering as it will be, is necessary. But when we are up on the mountain, don’t we want it to last forever?
Have you ever been to a party – great party – and have you been there when the party winds down, and it’s just you and a handful of others? You say to the hosts, “We need to get out of here so you can rest.” And they say, “No, really! We want you to stay.” And somehow, by the way they say it, you know that they’re not just being polite; they mean it. It’s the moment where the party moves from fun to real, where friendships deepen into powerful territory. You wish it could last forever; eventually, though, it’s time to move on. Everyone is tired, and the conversation is starting to drift listlessly. It’s time to leave. But you will always have that moment, and the friendship will remain forever changed.
Or have you ever had that moment where God has moved from a beautiful, but still abstract, idea and into a place of absolute, material reality? Perhaps a conversation with a child that cleaves your heart down the middle with new understandings of divine purpose, or maybe a moment at a loved one’s bedside that illuminates the power of wordless silence? It could be a chance encounter with a complete stranger that reveals a grace or generosity within you that you never knew was possible. Or maybe that encounter has forced you to face something about yourself you wish remained hidden, but you now know there is nothing left to do but seek its healing.
Have you had a moment like that here at OPC? A word from a preacher that lifted or pierced you in ways that have left you forever changed? A note of music that rang in your soul long after your ears could hear it? A prayer or a class or a visit or a card or a hug or a moment of service that split the sky wide open so that heavenly light shone down, blazing and glorious, letting you know that you have been marked by God’s love?
And when these moments happen to us, then aren’t we just like Peter, looking for a way to build memorials, hold onto and preserve them, stay on the mountain top for the rest of our lives?
But is that really the purpose of those moments anyway? Or is there something else at work altogether?
Friends, the kingdom of God is already here. It’s not just an abstract notion that awaits us when we die, some kind of moral carrot that keeps us on the straight and narrow in hopes of some kind of eternal delayed gratification. It’s already here! It’s just not all the way here. Instead, we get glimpses, moments, brushes of it. And in those moments, we know deep down far more about God’s love and mercy – about Christ’s healing and embrace – than we can ever put our finger on.
We ought to see these moments as encouragements – little love notes from God to “keep it up”, and yet also nudges to “keep moving.” Instead, if we spend all of our time trying to capture them and preserve them, we risk overstaying our welcome and calcifying our faith. After all, we gather to worship in churches, not museums.
In a few minutes, we will gather around this table. We will eat bread and drink from the cup. It’s not a magical meal; but it is a taste of what is to come. It’s just a moment. Not enough to fill our stomachs, but food for our spiritual journeys, drink for our souls and hearts. We don’t stay at the table forever. Instead, we taste and see, moving on to what God has in store for us next.