We’re back in Mark’s gospel tonight, having been working through it for almost a year now――stopping on those passages where Jesus has something to say, the so-called red-letters of the New Testament. Tonight Jesus not only has something to say, but something to show. Three weeks ago, Jesus finally came clean on his true identity. After asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurted out “you the Christ” and Jesus told him to keep quiet about it (which in Mark is Jesus’ way of saying “you’re right”). Why all the secrecy? His concern, I think, was like the one faced by U2 on Wednesday. Wanting to slip into town to rock out the uncharacteristically cozy confines of the Somerville Theater, U2 had to keep it a secret or a crush of their fans would have made their plan impossible to pull off. As it was, Davis Square was still packed out. Jesus’ celebrity in his day made Bono look like Taylor Hicks. Wanting to slip into the world to save it uncharacteristically by way of a cross, Jesus had to keep it a secret or a crush of his fans would have made his plan impossible to pull off. Had word got out that Jesus really was the celebrity Savior everybody wanted, no way would they have let him be the suffering Savior they needed.
Not even Peter. After recognizing Jesus as the Christ, Jesus then explained what being the Christ entailed. He said that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the religious leaders, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Peter was totally confused. Must be killed? Rise again? What had he signed up for? He didn’t sacrifice his family and job just to have Jesus die on him. Hanging out with Bono and basking in all of the fame and fortune is one thing, especially when you can parlay that fame into doing good stuff for hurting people. But it’s another thing if Bono suddenly says he’s going to start writing American Idol ballads just so that the critics will kill him. Is Bono gone Bozo? Is Jesus the Messiah or just messing with my head? Peter rebuked Jesus for his crazy talk, only to have Jesus turn and call him Satan. That had to hurt, and it had to make things all the more confusing. How nuts are we to follow this guy? And now he wants to hike me up some high mountain? For what?
Dawn and I love hiking up mountains, especially in the fall when the valleys are awash in their autumnal brilliance. However, getting in a hike this past fall was tough with our daughter Violet, since she couldn’t walk yet. Undeterred, we bought one of those baby-backpacks from REI, strapped her in and headed up Monadnock, which I didn’t remember being quite so precarious—probably because I’d not hiked it with my only child on my back before. There a number of places where the trail gives way to granite scrambles, and as I climbed them hikers looked aghast at my apparent recklessness. We overheard one say to a friend, “How nuts is this guy?” Pretty nuts, I guess. But the view on top was awesome. Likewise for the disciples, except for them it wasn’t the view of the valleys that proved so glorious, but rather their view of Jesus. English Bibles call what happened a transfiguration, in Greek a metamorphosis――but it was less of a change than it was an unveiling. The curtain pulled back and Jesus shined with the glory of God. And not only that, but Moses and Elijah showed up too.
Now why Moses and Elijah instead of say, David and Samuel or Adam and Eve? The reasons had to do with those popular Messianic expectations. God had promised that one day he would raise up another savior like Moses, only greater. For the Israelites, this meant another hero to make fools of their enemies and establish Israel as the greatest nation on earth. When Elijah arrived on the scene, he was a whole lot like Moses—meeting God on mountains, walking across parted waters, calling fire down from heaven. But then Elijah just left, carried back to heaven in a fiery chariot, leaving Israel to languish in eventual captivity to the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans. Still, because Elijah did not technically die, everybody expected he would return someday to finish the job. The prophet Malachi closed the end of the Old Testament by telling Israel to remember Moses and look for Elijah. “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Interestingly, rather than using conquest and vengeance language, Malachi talks about repentance making clear that Israel’s biggest enemy was themselves. Elijah would come back alright. He would come back to call back Israel to God. But it would take another Moses to get them there.
So you can imagine the disciples’ awe not only at seeing Jesus shine, but at Moses and Elijah standing alongside. This was huge. Peter (being Peter) suggested turning the mountaintop into a three-ring circus to prolong the experience. (Mark, perhaps embarrassed for Peter, adds that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was so freaked out). God himself puts a stop to the silliness by lowering a tent of his own, just like he did with Moses’ back in the desert. A cloud enveloped them and they heard a voice say regarding Jesus, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah provide their own validation, pointing to Jesus and not to themselves as the One. Jesus was not to be confused with a reconstituted Moses (a political hero to deliver them from their oppression) nor a returning Elijah (a flame-throwing prophet to coerce the religious leaders into faith). Jesus’ victory would come through defeat, coercion by way of love. He would save their lives by losing his own.
Yet if deconstructing expectations was Jesus’ intent, is flashing your power atop mountains the way to do it? Such glorious displays hardly debunk hopes of invincibility and grandeur. And yet, as quickly as God’s glory shone, the lights went off and Jesus was alone with his disciples again, clad as the poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth. The disciples likely now thought Jesus to be merely disguised as a homeless human――Almighty God in cheap clothes. But Jesus debunked this fallacy too by telling them again to keep quiet until after he rose from the dead; thus reminding them that being human meant dying, something that rock star Messiahs aren’t supposed to do.
It was all very confusing, but Peter knew better than to open his mouth. Instead, verse 10, “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” Nobody they knew had done that before. They say nothing for an entire verse, but then they can’t help but display their confusion. Verse 11: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” An odd question even if we are used to the disciples being portrayed as obtuse. Perhaps it would help to imagine the intervening conversation. “Hey James,” Peter asked, “what does he mean rise from the dead?” “I don’t know, Peter, but I do know that nobody rises from the dead until Judgment Day.” “Wait a minute,” John chimed in, “Malachi said that Elijah comes before Judgment Day?” “Well, who do you think that was that was we saw up on the mountaintop?” “Right, but the teachers of the law say that Elijah comes first to restore all things.” “Well that’s not right, things are a mess. Jesus is talking about getting killed, for Christ’s sake.” “It’s all very confusing. We should ask.” Verse 11: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
The idea comes from a passage in the Apocrypha that teaches how Elijah paves the way for the Messiah basically by doing all the dirty work himself. Jesus seems to agree. Verse 12: “To be sure Elijah does come first, and restores all things.” But then he goes on to question that very assumption: “Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” If Elijah does all the dirty work, how can the Messiah suffer and be rejected? It is very confusing. It might help to insert a set of quotation marks in verse 12 before “Elijah” and after “things” (which I can do because punctuation is not inspired). What you then have is Jesus saying something like, “To be sure, the teachers of the law do say that (quote) Elijah comes first and restores all things (end quote). But if Elijah restores all things, then why is it written (in Isaiah for instance) that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” No, verse 13, “I tell you, Elijah has come (just like Malachi said he would, not to restore all things but to preach repentance) and they have done to him everything they wished.” Here Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah to come. John preached repentance alright. And he got killed for doing it.
A suffering Elijah makes way for a suffering Messiah, a second Moses who comes not as a conquering hero but as a crucified criminal. Jesus wins through surrender; he destroys evil by subjecting himself to it; he gets glory by giving it up. The roaring Lion of Judah is the humiliated Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself.
This wasn’t what the disciples expected. And it wasn’t what they wanted either. It wouldn’t be until after Easter, until after God burned it onto their brains at Pentecost, that they would finally get it. But even when you get it, it’s hard to keep it straight. We want the flash and power. We want the celebrity and all the fame and fortune that goes along with that. We want the circus tents. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration in
Author Anne Lamott tells a story of this carpet guy who sold her what she thought was the perfect remnant for her Sunday School class, for only $50. But when she unrolled the carpet on Sunday, it had this big spot of mold in the middle. No problem. She had a receipt. So she took the remnant back to carpet guy. He told her he wouldn’t refund her money because the carpet was molded. “Right,” Anne replied, “it was molded when I bought it.” “How do you know?” the carpet guy asked. “Look,” she said, in her nicest Sunday School teacher voice, “I don’t want to make trouble here. I’m from a church. This rug is for little children—with asthma.” (She added that part.) It didn’t matter. The carpet guy just waved her away like a mosquito.
So she lost it. “Hey buddy,” she fumed, her hands on her hips and her heart racing with as much fury as she ever remembered having. She thought about all those innocent little Sunday School children. Those innocent little asthmatic Sunday School children, scampering about on the mold, seizing up. At least thinking about Sunday School reminded her to pray. Her answer to prayer was to start behaving better and she would feel better. She wrote, “This is what Jesus would want, and he had to be there in the rug store. Maybe he was being embarrassed to tears by me, like when your kid has a tantrum in public. I stared off at a log pile of rugs. I was trembling; you could have cracked walnuts with my self-righteousness. I need to be decent. For Jesus.” So she tried. Even though it killed her to do it. She said to the carpet guy, “C’mon. Let’s work this out.”
And the carpet guy rolled his eyes.
Anne went walnuts. She screamed, “Do you want me to call the police? Huh? How about that?! Or a lawyer? I’ve got a lawyer. You want a lawsuit? Just give me my freaking money, you (bad word we don’t say in church) jerk!” The carpet guy smirked, rolled his eyes again, and pulled out his checkbook. “Sheesh lady,” he said as he wrote her a check for $50.00. “Must be some nice Sunday School you teach.” Anne immediately took the check to the bank. The bank teller slid it back. “I’m sorry. Insufficient funds.”
Anne took her check outside to sit in the sunshine. She prayed this prayer: “Look God. It’s to you, pal. You copy that?” And then, she writes, I started to laugh. “I felt deep inside that I’d gotten it, though I could not quite have said what I’d gotten. I did not get the delicious taste of release I’d been expecting, like when a wrong has been righted, but I got something better, a kind of miracle. The carpet guy had cheated me, but he was also an innocent bystander in a very old story of what happens inside me every time I get humiliated and stiffed. ‘Well,’ I said to God, ‘the eagle has landed. Now what am I supposed to do?’ After a few minutes I knew. I got the nudge in my heart to buy a bouquet of daisies for the carpet guy. I wrote him a note: ‘Here is your check back. I am very sorry for the way I behaved. Anne.” The store was closed when she went by to drop off the note and flowers, so she slid them through the mail slot. The next morning she called the store. “I got your letter,” the carpet guy said. “That was a decent thing.” But then just as Anne began to savor his words, he added, “But you still behaved badly.”
“I behaved badly?” It started all up in her again, but this time, it didn’t take over because something got there first. You want to know how big God’s grace is? The answer is: very big. It is bigger than you are comfortable with. So she replied to the carpet guy, “Yes. I know. I behaved badly.” It was all true and all very confusing.
Jesus says, “if you want to follow me you have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it.” How nuts do you have to be to do that? On some days, pretty nuts. But we do it not because it’s crazy, or because it helps us behave better, or because Jesus is the kind of Savior we want. We follow Jesus because Jesus is the kind of Savior we need. As Peter confessed, as Moses and Elijah confirmed and the Transfiguration illumined, Jesus is the beloved son of God. Listen to him.