The previous Sundays of Epiphany have essentially followed the opening chapter of Mark's Gospel.
That narrative begins in 1:1 with the announcement that this story will be the story of the good news of Jesus the Messiah. In Mark 1:14-15, after his baptism by John, Jesus announces that the reign of God is already at hand. He calls hearers to a life of repentance and faith in power of this good news. As illustration of the reality of this power Jesus calls some fisher folk who immediately respond to his call and follow him as he launches a dynamic ministry of preaching and healing that testifies to the present power of God.
Now in this lesson assigned for Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany, we make a sudden leap over important portions of this continuing story. Jesus has sent these disciples out in mission with the promise that the secret of the kingdom has been given to them and that this secret is about to be revealed (Mark 4:10-12). Yet, as the story unfolds and these disciples return from their successful mission assignments, they seem to progress to less and less understanding until Jesus can even speak disappointedly of their hardness of heart (Mark 8:17).
Perhaps more fittingly than for any of the other gospels, Mark's transfiguration story stands as a transition between the Sundays of Epiphany, with the progressive revelation of the power and presence of the good news of God's kingdom in this Jesus, and the season of Lent, with its progressive focus on the journey of Jesus to suffering and the cross. This is where this story will take us. It is important for the preacher on this Sunday to note this transition and link, so as not to get bogged down in the strange and somewhat mysteriously hidden imagery and allusion which belong to the transfiguration accounts. The question in this story is whether these same disciples, who have apparently abandoned everything to follow Jesus, and now wonder as to where, how and whether this following is all that it seemed to promise. In the same way, the question for hearers today is whether we who have heard Jesus' call and followed him through these series of "epiphanies" will be just as eager to follow him where he leads us on this way to the cross.
Clearly, this point of Mark's transfiguration story pulls back the curtain a bit, allowing a glimpse of where this story is going, and in so doing invites us to experience both the climax and crisis of hearing that good news. More than any of the gospels, Mark's story makes clear that if there is to be any transformation of us hearers into disciples and followers, new life will be connected to the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah that now unfolds in his subsequent story.
Mark's story makes this clear in several ways. One way is the particular location and structuring of this story within Mark's narrative. Readers of Mark have long noted how the author has carefully and intentionally structured three announcements by Jesus of his coming suffering, death and resurrection as preludes to the actual narrative of the passion. The transfiguration story stands immediately following the first of these announcements and Jesus' attendant teaching on discipleship. The "six days later" of Mark 9:2 explicitly links this story to the summary of that teaching and Jesus' promise: "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will never taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has already come with power" (Mark 9:1). It is important for the preacher to note this placement. It underscores that this story and its call to discipleship is to be understood in terms of the promise of the kingdom and power of God, and the way in which that kingdom is signed and present in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
That understanding is emphasized in yet several more ways in Mark's narrative. First, it is noted in the command of Jesus with which this lesson concludes and which, when joined to Mark 9:1, forms an important framing for the transfiguration story. "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" (Mark 9:9). More telling is the way this story is constructed as a reminiscence of Jesus' baptism (Mark 1:11). Similar to the baptism narrative, a voice now speaks from the cloud about "my beloved Son." But here there are several important changes. Whereas there, the address was directly to Jesus ("You are my beloved Son"), now the address is open and public ("This is my beloved Son"). In addition, in place of the private personal address ("in you I am well pleased"), now there comes a command addressed ostensibly to all hearers: "Listen to him." When one adds to this Mark's unique linking of Jesus' baptism with his suffering and death (Mark 10:38; "the cup that he is to drink"), the impression of the importance of this story for linking together Jesus' whole ministry from baptism to death and for understanding discipleship in light of Jesus' death and resurrection is compelling.
There are also a number of things which are unclear in this story. It will be important for the preacher not to allow the ambiguity and uncertainty of these matters to overshadow the focus that has been stated above. Clearly, the mountain, the dazzling appearance of Jesus, the conversation with Moses and Elijah, the presence of the cloud, the "now you see it, now you don't" features of the narrative and the clear allusion to Old Testament stories and imagery all provide important aspects of the setting and contribute to the sense of awe and mystery. In some ways, some things are revealed here. In some ways, the story simply raises more questions as to the precise meaning of these features. Some things remain hidden. It might even be helpful to read verse 10 as part of the lesson for this Sunday, at least insofar as it points to the disciples' continuing questions about what "resurrection from the dead" talk is supposed to indicate.
At some points in the walk of discipleship, we will have to be content with mere glimpses or a foretaste of what is to come. Our understanding of the reality and nature of the promise of Jesus' death and resurrection is always at risk in our lives. To be invited as hearers and observers to see this transfigured Jesus is to be invited into the story, to be sure, but also to be invited into a story in which discipleship means to live with ambiguity; living by faith while trusting the one who promises. For disciples, the promise of the kingdom is not a matter of control or security, but of the persuasive power of the promise of God that in Jesus we meet and follow one who goes to suffering and death and resurrection and then calls all of us who wait for his return to live in watchful confidence that the kingdom has already come among us in power (9:1; see 13:32-37).