Most congregations would drown in this text’s cascade of details. “Six days later.” “A high mountain apart.” “Elijah with Moses.” “Let’s make three dwellings.” “A cloud overshadowed them.”
Each of these items chimes with the Old Testament. In earlier eras preachers were expected to explain everything. We are not Aquinas or Luther or Wesley; our audiences do not live in the thirteenth, sixteenth, or eighteenth centuries. My advice is to bracket out, at most brush over, most of these allusions. Save them for an hour of solid Christian education. This Sunday find your focus and hold it tight. Mark’s climax, I believe, lies in 9:7: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
“This is my Son”: the second of three decisive acclamations of Jesus’ unique identity in Mark. The first is at his baptism (1:11); the last, at his death (15:39). In all three episodes the atmosphere is apocalyptic in the strict sense: revelatory. The curtain is drawn away from normal appearances, allowing us a glimpse of God behind them. Of these epiphanies Mark 9:2-8 may be the weirdest. It is the least public, farthest removed from the commonplace (9:2). Events are literally beclouded (9:7). Jesus — he alone (contrast Luke 9:30-31) — is “transfigured”: metamorphosed in raiment that is “dazzling white” (Mark 9:3). No one on earth looks like this: such radiance, kabod, is God’s very essence (Exodus 16:10; Numbers 14:10b; Psalm 63:2). Only those judged righteous “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43; see also Daniel 12:3; Philippians 3:21). Here Mark is dramatizing what the Fourth Gospel claims of Jesus: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5; also 8:12; 9:5; 12:46).
“This is my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 9:7). The speaker is God (1:11; see also Deuteronomy 4:36; 2 Samuel 22:14; John 12:28; Acts 11:9). In Mark no one else is designated “God’s Son.” Not Moses. Not Elijah. Not John the baptizer. None of Galilee’s other itinerant preachers or exorcists (Mark 6:7, 12-13; 9:38). Only Jesus is the beloved (agapetos) Son, as Isaac was to Abraham (Genesis 22:2, 12, 16): “unique,” “one-of-a-kind.” A father’s love for such a son is fathomless, precisely because there is no other.
“Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). For the first and only time in Mark, the voice from heaven orders Jesus’ disciples. This command recollects Moses’ directive: Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Deuteronomy 18:15). In Jesus, God has done this; Israel’s successors should respond appropriately. To what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything in Mark that Jesus says and does. Immediately it refers to God’s design for the Son of Man’s suffering and vindication (Mark 8:31), the adoption of cross-bearing discipleship (8:34-35), keeping mum about what has been seen until after the resurrection (9:9), and assurance that all proceeds according to the divine plan (9:11-13). These are the very things that his disciples find so hard to understand, to accept, and to obey (9:31-34; 10:32-37; 14:26-31, 50, 66-72; 16:1-8). As suddenly as it struck, the mountaintop vision fades: a handful of disciples are alone with Jesus (9:8).
From this point the preacher must decide what theological issue most needs development this Sunday for this congregation. Here are only three from among many possibilities.
Whatever direction your sermon takes, invite your listeners into its mystery. Like Christmas and Easter, Jesus’ transfiguration is uncanny. Well-placed wonder is in short supply. Peter and his confrères were terrified and tongue-tied (Mark 9:6). When we stand before God, that’s a proper response.
Second Kings 2 begins with one of the most dramatic openings in the scriptures; casually mentioning that God’s plan to sweep Elijah away to heaven in a whirlwind was already afoot.
The story looms large with the miraculous and the impossible, bearing witness to the limitless power of God. The account may intentionally build upon the ancestral account of Enoch and his previously unparalleled ascent to heaven in Genesis 5:24. Underneath all of the supernatural occurrences is a narrative about the continuity of the community after a transition of leadership, particularly after a great and incomparable leader.
It is not clear whether Elijah knew of his impending fate; however, his disciple, Elisha, is aware that his father-prophet is leaving and is reluctant to leave his side. (Elijah and Elisha will both be addressed by the title “father” in the community of prophets sometimes known as the children — meaning disciples — of the prophets, see 2 Kings 13:4 and the prophet Deborah as a mother in Israel in Judges 5:7.) The prophets of Bethel (2 Kings 2:3) and Jericho (2 Kings 2:5) also knew that God was planning to take Elijah. Elijah’s ascension was apparently the worst kept secret on this side of heaven.
Elijah and Elisha are miracle-working prophets and their exploits will have no equal until the miracles of Jesus. Jewish readings see Elijah and Elisha as one of the pairs of great men who lead each generation from Moses and Aaron to the time of rabbinic period. Indeed, Moses is Elijah’s miracle-working forbear. Elijah demonstrates his connection to Moses by parting the waters of the Jordan as Moses did the Sea of Reeds, traditionally called the Red Sea. (Joshua, Moses’s successor in the tradition, did the same in Joshua 3:7-17; Caleb is regarded as his partner in leadership.) Some Christian readings see Jesus and John in that tradition with one of the proofs of Jesus’s divinity that he performs or exceeds all of Elijah’s miracles. Both of these traditions are likely at play in the gospel accounts of the transfiguration with which this text is linked thematically and in the lectionary, (see Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36).
A growing crowd accompanies Elijah and Elisha. It seems that prophets from Bethel and Jericho join them. Elijah’s extraordinary ministry has come to an end and not necessarily at a time of his choosing. The community knows the time for change has come. They accompany the outgoing leader and his newly appointed successor through the transition. Elisha is not quite ready to let go. Life transitions are difficult, even when they are joyous on their face, like getting a new job or promotion, moving, or starting life with a (new) partner.
In this transition the outgoing leader offers his successor the benefit of his wisdom and experience. Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him before God takes him in 2 Kings 2:9, evoking God’s invitation to Solomon to “Ask what I should give you” in 1 Kings 3:5. Their responses are comparable, focusing on the spiritual and intellectual capacities to fulfill their vocations, wisdom for Solomon, and a double portion of Elijah’s spirit for Elisha; however, Eljiah’s bequest is conditional. If Elisha can watch what God will do with and to Elijah, then he will receive what he has asked. The lectionary portion does not reveal the bestowal of Elijah’s spirit on Elisha; subsequent verses demonstrate the scope of Elisha’s powers.
The lection ends with Elijah’s ascent. One moment he is walking and talking with his companion-turned-successor, the next he is in the whirlwind. Elisha’s cry, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” has been traditionally understood to mean that he saw chariots of fire associated with the whirlwind. This is supported by Elisha’s later vision of the chariots in 2 Kings 6:17 where he prays that his servant’s eyes be opened to see the chariots.
Elisha is left in a new role with the larger-than-life legacy of his predecessor looming over him. If he is daunted by it, he shows no sign. This lesson is read as a companion text to the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. Here, Elisha has his own transfiguration. He becomes the senior prophet of his community, empowered by the gifts of the prophet who nurtured his own gifts. We for whom these texts are scripture may not see the whirlwind or chariots of God, but we will watch senior leaders pass on and step down and live through transitions of our own. Those transitions will change us and our communities and can, if navigated in the gifts of the spirit, produce leaders whose gifts we could not have imagined.
How do you respond to the words, “The boss would like to set up a meeting with you?”1
Depending upon both your relationship with the boss and your recent performance at work, you may be one who is encouraged by this imminent meeting. “Finally, a raise!” Or you may get that proverbial pit in the stomach which screams, “Uh oh!”
The announcement that God is approaching as judge yields contrasting responses as well. Not unlike the way we talk about law and gospel in preaching (that is, the very same word can be heard as law to some and gospel to others), the effect of this announcement depends upon the stance of the recipient of such news. For some, the announcement that the mighty one, God the Lord, will appear is a longed-for event. Yet, for others, it is the impetus for trembling. Yes, it is clear that judgment takes center stage in the beginning of this Psalm, but is this welcomed or undesirable judgment? Of course, that depends upon what we know about who is doing the judging and, secondly, who is being judged.
Before exploring these two areas (who is doing the judging and who is being judged), it is important to be aware that the remaining seventeen verses of Psalm 50 contain a speech made by God. Prior to God’s actual speech, however, there is an introduction to the keynote speaker. The pericope we have before us this week (verses 1-6) is the introduction. From this introduction alone, what do we find out about the one who is doing the judging?
We discover right away that the one who is about to speak is mighty. Also, one cannot miss the point that God is being introduced as one who is extremely verbal. In these few verses alone, we discover that God speaks, summons, does not keep silent, and calls. This is not a God who wishes to speak through others or remain distant. Rather, God brings news directly. God is God’s own herald.
In addition, there are two other characteristics of the forthcoming speaker worthy of the preacher’s exploration. First, God comes out of the perfection of beauty, and second, God comes with some special effects; surrounded by devouring fire and encircled by a mighty tempest. Because the reputation and character of the one who speaks makes a difference in how that one is heard, it is worth exploring these characteristics. Even more, consider the extent to which these characteristics of God are consistent with the characteristics you or others in your congregation would highlight when introducing God. (That is assuming God is the planned keynote speaker for this Transfiguration Sunday!)
Not only do these characteristics speak of who God is, but the heavens chime in to put in their good word. One cannot find a more trustworthy witness. The one who is about to speak comes with stellar recommendations. The forthcoming theophany is not to be missed; indeed, cannot be missed.
Another way to discover whether or not the impending judgment is welcome or undesirable is by examining who is being judged. First, we hear that God summons the whole earth. Interestingly, the breadth of this summons is not described (as some translations would suggest) in spatial terms, but temporal. God does not beckon people from the East and West, North and South, but instead, all people for all time, past, present, and future, from the rising of the sun to its setting. Therefore, immediately in the Psalm, we in the twenty-first century are drawn into this text. The stage is being set for a broadcast in its broadest sense, for no one is excluded or exempt from the forthcoming judgment.
Eventually, however, we find that the intended audience is narrowed (verse 5). God appears to be calling specifically to God’s faithful ones, the ones who made a covenant with God by sacrifice. We still do not know whether or not God’s people have been faithful in their covenant with God. (It is worth noting, however, that God did not call them “unfaithful ones.”) All we know is that the hearers being summoned will have one role, and that role will be to listen.
If Psalm 50 were to be the focal point for the Sunday sermon, the Psalm would have to be treated in its entirety. It seems, however, that Transfiguration Sunday calls for this pericope to serve the sermon as it does the remainder of the Psalm. In other words, it acts as an introduction to a forthcoming appearance by God. Not only is Psalm 50:1-6 a suitable precursor to the theophany in Mark 9, the questions and concerns that arise out of this text might be appropriated in order to explore the Transfiguration of Jesus.
1 Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 22, 2009.
Today’s reading, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, gives us profound insight into how we are transfigured by a double manifestation — of the Messiah’s glory as the image of God and of God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah.
Our clue for interpreting this text is found in the preceding verses. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul speaks about how — through the Spirit of the Lord — all of us, with “unveiled faces,” can “behold” and “reflect” the glory of the Lord as in a mirror. (The Greek kataprizomai can mean both “to behold” and “to reflect.”) As this happens, we are “transformed” into that image, from one degree of glory to another.
The divine mercy we experience through this mirroring gives us courage. We can renounce the shame we would rather hide. We can refuse to appropriate God’s word in ways that disguise our self-interest at the expense of others. And we can boldly manifest the truth of who we are — through the gospel that shines through us — to everyone we encounter, wherever we might be (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
Seeing and shining the Messiah’s glory, the image of God
But how does all this actually happen — especially amidst the suffering in our lives. We are vulnerable. Our bodies are unpredictable and other people affect us. Does this pathos disclose or veil the truth of the gospel in our lives?
“The god of this age” blinds us by deluding us into thinking that God is manifest solely as wealth, power, and a self-governed wisdom impervious to all that does not serve its interest (see also 10:17; Jeremiah 9:23). But this, for Paul, is a false understanding of God — one we can use to mask our shame and to promote our egos at the expense of others. It only leads to destruction, both within us and in the effect we have on others (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
What this false god keeps us from seeing (and shining) is the light the gospel discloses. (Like kataprizomai, the Greek augazo can mean both “to see” and “to shine.”) And what the light of the gospel manifests is the glory of a crucified Messiah: His overflowing pathos for us — his dying for all that all might live — is the very Wisdom of God and thus is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7:26; see also 1 Corinthians 1:30). But this means that our seeing and shining this light takes place amidst a surplus of vulnerability — and not in some transcendent space we might project to hide our shame or disguise our exploitation of others.
Hearts transformed by God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah
This light can so transform us that what we promote when we present ourselves to others is not our own (or someone else’s) interests but the announcement that Jesus the Messiah is Lord (the Greek kurios translates the Hebrew YHWH) — a proclamation that inextricably binds us as slaves to others for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).
This stands in sharp contrast to those Paul describes as “super-apostles” in a later chapter. Blinded by the god of this age, who disguises himself as an angel of light, these super-apostles also disguise themselves, as “apostles of the Messiah.” But in fact their appropriation of god-talk — about transcendent ideas and supernatural experiences — serves only to mask the way they enslave the Corinthians, and abuse and use them as pawns for their own agendas (2 Corinthians 10:13-20).
Unlike the false god who blinds, the true God speaks, “Let shine out of darkness” (see also Genesis 1:3; Psalm 112:4; Isaiah 9:2). And this divine speaking brings about metamorphosis — a new creation. God “shines” in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). (The Greek word here is lampo, which simply means “to shine.”)
Moreover, if the light of the “gospel” enables us to see and shine with the glory of the Messiah — the very image of God — then the reverse is also true. What this image discloses is the light of the “knowledge” of glory of God, which shines in the face of Jesus the Messiah (2 Corinthians 4:6). God shines (and thus is known) in our hearts in the “face” of Jesus the Messiah (his personal presence within and among us), which takes the form of a surplus of sufferings for us and consolation through us that, in turn, overflows in our sharing in others’ suffering and consoling and being consoled by them.
Implications for Transfiguration Sunday
So, what insights might we glean from this text, especially in view of its selection for Transfiguration Sunday? Ostensibly, it tells us something about who Jesus is. The light of Jesus the Messiah’s glory discloses the very Wisdom of God — the mirror, reflection, and image through which God creates the world. But this also implies the converse: the very light of God’s glory shines in the face of this crucified Messiah.
Yet what this text says about Jesus also says something about who become in him. Since the light of the gospel always entails both seeing and shining, we not only “behold” the image of God in the Messiah’s face, but also “reflect” its glory and in this way, likewise, mirror that shining as we encounter others’ faces. This is how we are transformed — indeed are “transfigured” — by the light of God shining in our hearts in the “face” of Jesus the Messiah.
But all this does not occur in some transcendent space, abstracted from our messy and all too human bodies and relationships. It takes place precisely as we share in the overflow of the Messiah’s sufferings for us — precisely as we too are “always carrying the death of Jesus in the body, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in our bodies… death in us, but life for you” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11). As in the ancient world, this confounds any “super-apostle” among us — or within us — who might be tempted to appropriate god-talk as a means to hide shame or disguise the distorted self-interest that uses others merely as pawns.