A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec. March 2, 2003. Mark 9:2-9.
TEXT: "He did not know what to say, for they were terrified."
Some years ago a Canadian woman by the name of Lynn Johnston began to draw a comic strip based around the life of her own family. She called it "For Better or Worse," and it quickly became a favourite for many people, including people at our house. Even today, we continue to read it with enjoyment, and in the characters we recognize aspects of ourselves, our own family, and of life in general. (In fact, we may have a complete collection of the books where her weekend comic strips have been reprinted.) At some point when the daughter Lizy was still an early-adolescent, she became interested in a certain boy in her high school class, and they went out together for the first time. In the final frame, Lizy was stretched out on her bed, eyes very big, thinking valentine thoughts, oblivious to everything else, and saying nothing. Her father was looking on with concern, while her mother explained: "First date."
Now it is a long way from Lynn Johnston's comic strip to the Transfiguration of Jesus, yet I want to suggest that they have something in common. In both cases someone was seen and understood in a new way, so that it was quite apparent who this special person really was and what was the meaning of the encounter. There are, of course, considerable differences, for while Lizy seems to be in love for the first time and that is the reason for her silence, we read that Peter did not know what to say because he and the two other disciples were terrified by what they had seen.
As we consider this unusual Bible passage, let us first agree that there are times when for some good reason, people do not know what to say. There are times when you and I may have some experience that touches us so deeply that words fail us, and we must attend to the silence. There are times for us to pray not with words that we speak, nor even with words that we think, but in the silence of our hearts where deep calls out to deep, and as St. Paul says God's spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. In those times, whether it is because of love or fear, we do not know what to say. Having received a deeper awareness, we stay silent. We do not speak.
Lizy was silent because of "puppy love;" but in the gospel story of the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is more going on than infatuation. This becomes evident when we look at how this story unfolds in the Gospel of Mark. In the gospels it was a common practice to "frame" a passage with ones that helped the readers to understand its meaning. In the chapter before todays lesson, Jesus has taught his disciples that he must experience suffering, rejection and death, and then rise again after three days. Simon Peter took him to task for saying this, but Jesus rebuked Peter and told him that he was not on God's side when he thought as he did. And then he also told the crowd that to follow him meant to take up their own cross that "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Then if we look at the verses immediately after the Transfiguration, we find that there is again a reference to Jesus' suffering and being treated with contempt. So when we see how Mark has framed the Transfiguration story with these teachings about Jesus' suffering and death, then we begin to understand what the Transfiguration meant to those disciples, and why they were terrified and did not know what to say. For when we read that Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, and that his clothes became dazzling white whiter than any earthly person could ever bleach them, we realize what the gospel-writer is telling us namely, that this Jesus was more than some itinerant teacher with a persecution complex. And Mark is also telling us that those disciples realized that this Jesus was truly divine. And, friends, that is surely enough to terrify anyone and take their words away from them.
But, you see, when Mark frames the story of the Transfiguration with these two teachings about Jesus' coming suffering and death, then he is also telling us that part of what it meant for Jesus to be divine was for him to suffer and die. Mark is saying that one reason why those three disciples were terrified was this new awareness of what it really meant to be from God. And now to Simon Peter who always had something to say and who had just rebuked Jesus for saying that he must suffer and die to Simon Peter it became crystal clear that God is glorified in this one who renounces worldly glory and worldly power.
My mentor, Bogie Dunn in his Readers Guide to the Gospel of Mark, says that this is written for those in the church at that time and in every time who believe that it isn't necessary to suffer and be rejected for the sake of the gospel. Rather, he says, "the reality of God ruling shatters all the expectations of human understanding and initiates a radically new experience of glory and power."
We recall that there on the mountain Moses and Elijah were seen with Jesus. Just as God had been revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai and to Elijah on Mount Carmel, so now the two of them are present when Jesus is transfigured before his three disciples on another high mountain another place of revelation. And just as God had been present in the pillar of cloud in the Exodus, so now God speaks from the cloud and says, "This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him." The ministry and teaching of Jesus are confirmed in a similar way and in virtually the same words that were heard at his baptism.
I want to quote Bodie Dunn again. He says,
The Transfiguration of Jesus not only discloses the true identity of Jesus in his relationship to God but also reveals the destiny of the people of God as a new community of witnesses to the Kingdom.
the transfiguration does not remove the scandal of the Kingdom of God, but rather it brightens and intensifies it by declaring that God gets glory in one who renounces all worldly glory and that God reigns in one who rejects all worldly power.
Only those who 'listen to him,' who deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow him, cross over to the other side to be with him in the community of God's reign.
Is it any wonder that Peter did not know what to say? Who would? Who does? And is it any wonder that they were terrified! Yet this was the call to those disciples back then, and it is also the call to everyone who would follow Jesus today. To see him as he is puts us under orders to listen to him and follow him in all things and at all times.
At the beginning I noted that in the comic strip Lizy was silent because she was "in love" for the first time. Now I want to say that in the Transfiguration the three disciples saw and understood the extent of God's love for the first time, and they were terrified. For they realized that God's love extends even to rejection and suffering and death. And that it also includes the requirement that they listen to Jesus, meaning that they obey and follow him, even while knowing that they would have the same destiny.
We too may be fearful even terrified when it is revealed to us who Jesus is and who we are to be. For we too have a cross to bear and a life to spend in his service, and it will surely make large demands on us and take us places where we would not choose to go. When we come face to face with this understanding, there may be a time to be silent. But then there comes a time for us to shoulder the cross of Christ in our own surroundings, and in our speech and our actions to witness to the all-encompassing love of God. Let us do so. Amen.