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).
The opening verse of this pericope hints at the focus of the following narrative, reminding the reader that everything that follows must be read in light of the end of the story.
This story ends by suggesting that Israel is at a moment of great transition. The great prophet Elijah will be taken up into the heavens, perhaps suggesting to the reader an end. But the text is quick to point out that power of the prophetic office does not disappear with the chariot and horses that stampede out of sight. To the contrary, the text affirms that the power of this prophetic office remains firmly in place in the life of Elisha.
Important also to this narrative is the subtext. The narrator has gone to great lengths in portraying Elijah and Elisha as a type of Moses and Joshua. The events associated with Moses and Joshua are replicated in the events rehearsed in this text. Joshua was clearly the chosen one of God meant to succeed to Moses, the greatest prophet, and so too is Elisha depicted as the chosen one of God meant to succeed Elijah, the great prophet of Israel.
As Elijah makes his rounds to Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho, he requests that Elisha remain behind. Yet each time, Elisha demonstrates a tenacious commitment to remain with his “father” until the end. Even the bands of prophets at each site appear to understand the events that are to follow. In the Hebrew text, their statement to Elisha has a double edge. Literally they say to him, “Do you know that today the Lord is taking your master from over your head?” Clearly by the end of the story, Elijah will no longer the be the “head” over his disciple Elisha, but such a phrase is more than metaphorical in that Elijah will in fact be taken “over the head” of Elisha in the whirlwind.
On the way to crossing the Jordan river, Elijah parts the Jordan, bringing to mind vividly the activities of Moses at the Red Sea and Joshua at the Jordan. Elijah rolls up his mantle, perhaps suggesting to the reader the image of a rod (Moses’ rod, no doubt). When Elijah struck the water, the waters parted and they walked through on dry land (cf. Exodus 14). Having departed from Jericho and having crossed the Jordan River, they now stand literally in the region where Moses had died (Deuteronomy 34). Just as Moses died opposite Jericho with Joshua prepared to enter into the land, so too is Elijah taken up, with Elisha prepared to return to the land.
Before Elijah is taken up, Elisha asks for a “hard thing”: to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Clearly Elisha is using inheritance language, which states that the rightful heir receives a double portion of the inheritance. At this point, Elisha has given up in his efforts to hold on to Elijah, as he had earlier as they trekked around Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. As they stand on the “other side,” perhaps things look differently from there. Perhaps Elisha now sees that his task is not one of holding on, but of carrying on.
The separation was no doubt a grievous moment for Elisha; he rips his garments in two. Worth noting is verse 11 in which the narrator explains the Elisha is taken up in a whirlwind. Ironically in most art work depicting this scene, Elisha is depicted as riding or standing in a chariot (see Elijah Taken up in a Chariot of Fire, Giuseppe Angeli, [c. 1740-55]). Yet the image depicted is much more complex; it is a whirlwind coupled with raiding chariots and horses. The former suggests the presence of God, while the latter borrows from Holy War imagery. The former suggests that Elijah’s future is secure with God, and the latter perhaps suggests Elisha’s future is secure with that same God. Much of Elisha’s career will revolve around stories of Israel’s war.1
Although outside the bounds of the lectionary reading this week, the subsequent verses suggest that Elisha does in fact carry on. He picks up the mantle that had first been thrown upon him in 1 Kings 19, struck the water of the Jordan, and parted it. He reentered the land, as Joshua had done in a much earlier time.
The reader may be enamored with the trappings of this story, and for good reason. Yet, the thrust of this story is not about what happened to Elijah but what happens to the prophetic voice of God carried on by figures like Elijah. The story suggests that the prophetic office does not end with the death or even ascension of one particular figure, but it is available for all who choose to carry on that tradition. In some sense, every community of faith stands opposite Jericho with a mantle before it. Occasionally, in rare moments, those who have glimpsed upward and seen the whirlwind of God are compelled to bend down and pick up that mantle, believing that now is the moment for them to strike the waters. The voice of the prophet is rare indeed these days, not because all of the prophets have ascended into the heavens, but because few choose to see the whirlwind, and fewer still choose to live as though it has changed us.
1Choon-Leong Seow, “1 and 2 Kings,” (NIB III: Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 177.
How do you respond to the words, “The boss would like to set up a meeting with you?”
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, “Oh 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.
Third in a series of lectionary texts which at first blush appear to consist of insider-trading for homileticians, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 wrestles, in what is just small part, with what is a huge issue for the church:
What do we make of those who have heard the gospel, and yet do not believe? This one issue is enough for any text, be it little or big, but there is more here as well which flows out of this question.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that it is the Spirit which quickens the heart to faith. “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith” (Luther’s explanation to the Third Article). As I read Philippians 2:13, Paul would agree. This raises the question, what about those who do not believe? Are they without the Spirit? Are they left to muddle through on their own, spiritless, punchless or faithless? Or worse, do they suffer the fate of Saul, being afflicted by an evil spirit? Paul seems to suggest just this.
At the beginning of this little passage, Paul addresses the question of whether or not the gospel that Paul preaches is “veiled.” The word “veiled” used by Paul here is kekalymmenon, from the Greek verb kaluptō, a word to which we will return shortly. Paul’s conclusion is that if the gospel is veiled — hidden, obscured, unknown — it is only veiled to those who have been blinded by the “god of this world.” Two things are particularly troubling here. First, Paul calls someone (presumably Satan) the god of this world. In other parts of the New Testament, reference is made to the “ruler (archōn) of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), the “wisdom (sophia) of this world” (1 Corinthians 3:19), and following the “course of this world” which is laid out by a spirit that urges disobedience (Ephesians 2:2). Only here in 2 Corinthians 4:4 is Satan called the “god (theos) of this world.” While Paul does not address dualism directly, this “god of this world” would seem to be at odds with, and, in some real way, in serious competition to the God of Heaven. And it is this “god” that veils the gospel and obscures it from the eyes of some.
The second difficulty here is the possibility that the gospel can be veiled. Is the gospel not the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16)? Is the gospel not the life-line for those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18)? Does the gospel not protect us (1 Peter 1:5)? What is Paul playing at here?
Paul suggests that it is the intent of the “god” of this world to blind unbelievers — whether to keep them blinded or to make them unbelievers — and prevent them from seeing the light of the gospel. But Paul does not leave this dualistic conundrum to sit; he launches immediately into the matter of our proclamation. It is our proclamation in this world that is the answer to its would-be “god.” We proclaim Christ — not ourselves but ourselves as slaves to Christ. The light of creation, Paul says, the light which God first spoke into being to blaze in the empty darkness of a void and formless universe is the same light that shines now in our hearts. It is this light which we proclaim, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” and in so proclaiming it shine that light into the darkness cast by Satan’s veiling. And here we come once more to that word veil (kaluptō). This “veil” is no match for the light of God and the light of Christ. As Jesus says in the Gospels, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up (kekalymmenon) that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Matthew 10:26); and “No one after lighting a lamp hides (kaluptei) it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 8:16).
Everything that is at stake in this little passage – veils and “gods” of this world and the problem of those who do not believe – points to our big calling to proclaim the glory of Christ, to speak light into darkness and proclaim the knowledge of the glory of God that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ. As Paul writes at the end of the third chapter of 2 Corinthians, the passage that most directly precedes this one: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).