The Holy Gospel According to Mark 9:2-9
We are standing smack dab at the end of this season in the church year- the time after Epiphany. We’ve been here for seven weeks, seven weeks we have been celebrating light and stars and magi and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Today we will close that season, as we begin another on Wednesday, when we mark our faces with ashes, and begin the five weeks of Lent, all of them leading up to Holy Week, to the last supper Jesus shares with his disciples, to the death of our God on a cross, and to the hopeful waiting that leads up to Easter Sunday. This Sunday, Transfiguration, is a middle day, a day caught between these two season, a time that is frozen between the seven weeks that were and the five that will be.
Time, is, of course, a scientific measure. A minute is always a minute. A second is always a second. They are no longer and no shorter, they are exactly what they are no matter where we are. But, I think that many of us know that even if time is constant, it never feels that way. Sometimes it goes so fast, sometimes so slow. When you are six and a half years old and waiting for those next six months to pass so that you can be finally be seven, time moves so slowly it feels as if it will never get here. When you are waiting for the birth of a child, the waiting in those last weeks can feel like forever, waiting and wondering when this new life will come into the world. And yet, ask any parent, and they will tell you how fast time flew, how quickly those little babies were in high school, in college. When I have sat vigil with someone who is dying, the days can stretch on and on and feel as if they never end. Yet, almost always, when that last moment comes, it is as if it has come so quickly no one was ready.
Time might be constant, but in life, it never feels that way. Some days it feels as if it just slips through your fingers, as if life passes you by so much faster than you could have dreamed. Other days it feels like it drags, as you wait and wonder and anticipate something that continues to be far on the horizon.
On a day like today, Transfiguration Sunday, time might just stand still for a moment. Maybe just for a breath. Because we are right in the middle, right in the space between what was and what will be.
There are two versions of time here, first, the slow journey of Elisha and Elijah to Gilgal. Elisha is the understudy, the student of Elijah, this great teacher. And when that time comes that the student will no longer have his teacher, Elisha hangs on for dear life. Elijah tries to leave him at Bethel, and then at Jericho, then they cross the river Jordan, and Elijah tries to leave Elisha on the banks. Elisha just won’t let go, again and again repeating, “as the lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha is no fool, at every stop on their journey he is surrounded by a chorus of prophets coming to ask him, “do you know today is the day, do you know Elijah is going to be taken away from you?” I can hear the anxiety in their voices, and Elisha silences them. Perhaps that tension is too much for him to bear, the knowledge that something big was about to happen. When Elijah is gone, Elisha will be the teacher. He will be the great prophet, he will bear the responsibility alone. All the time before has prepared him for this new identity, but as it becomes clear that Elijah is leaving, time simply moves too quickly for Elisha.
The time comes for Elijah. He rolls up his mantle and strikes the river Jordan, and it parts. He and Elisha walk across it like dry land. They stand on the other side, and Elijah asks Elisha what he wants before they are separated. Elisha asks for a double portion of his spirit. That is the inheritance of a firstborn son- and Elijah tells him this hard thing will be his. As those chariots swing low coming to carry Elijah home, Elisha sees it all. He cries out, he tears his clothes, he makes all the signs of mourning. That’s all we hear of the story. We are left with his mourning, left with his request. But time moves on, and we miss the rest of the story, the part that happens after the whirlwind and the chariots and the horsemen. We miss the continuation of the promise, the answer to the anxiety of that chorus of prophets and Elisha himself. Because after the mourning, after the tearing of garments, after the tears and the pain and the loss, Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah. He rolls up the mantle of his teacher, and taking it in his hand, he strikes the river Jordan, the same river Elijah struck. He stands at the bank, no longer the student, now he is the continuation of that great line of prophets. He strikes the waters and they part. He walks across them, alone this time. And he goes on to honor the legacy of Elijah, to heal, to do miracles, to speak for God. The time when he didn’t feel ready is the time when he becomes fully who God has called him to be.
Next we find Jesus taking a few of his disciples up a mountain. We don’t know what mountain it is, but we do know he has with him Peter, James and John. Our text tells us that it is six days later, but six days later than what? It is six days after Jesus told the disciples exactly what they didn’t want to hear, that the future was not going to look like what they had imagined, that time was short, that he was going to Jerusalem, and when he got there, he was going to be handed over to the chief priests and he was going to die. It is six days after Peter took Jesus aside and told him not to talk like that anymore, that such a thing could not and would not happen. It is six days after Jesus told Peter that what he was imagining for the future was not divine, and that the best Peter could do is get out of the way.
So, six days later, three disciples and Jesus trudge up that mountain. I can imagine that Peter, who never knows what to say and always says something anyway, is carrying up that mountain some deep uncertainty about the future that is going to unfold for them. The Messiah they were waiting for was one who would overthrow an oppressive regime, free the people from under the thumb of the empire, set right all the things that were wrong. This Messiah was not supposed to die, let alone walk into the face of death as if it there are no other options.
These four get to the top of the mountain, and suddenly, there is light and bright white clothes, and two figures appearing with Jesus, who must be Elijah and Moses. Peter, James and John are terrified. They don’t know what to say, but, Peter pipes up- it is good for us to be here, let’s make some dwelling places. Three, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Right there, as the light takes over, as prophets from the past appear with Jesus, Peter does what any of us would do, he wants to just stop time. Right there. Stand firmly in that place between what was and what will be and just stop.
Our text tells us that they were all terrified. They didn’t know what to say. There are plenty of moments like this one in scripture, when God suddenly appears on the scene, or angels shine among humans, or a voice booms out of the clouds. It would be terrifying. And yet, there is something wonderful and miraculous and sacred happening at the very same time. People these disciples had only heard about were appearing right in front of them. Jesus was shining and dazzling with clothes whiter than any washing with bleach. It makes sense that in that very moment, time ought to have frozen, just stopped. In his fear and uncertainty knowing that what was happening was both scary and miraculous, Peter was ready to press pause and just stay.
Because it sounds like time was moving a little slow on the way up that mountain. Healing, preaching, teaching, Jesus was showing a little of this Kingdom of God that had come near. Demons were being cast out, the sick were being healed, time was being restored to what it should have been. And yet, once they start back down that mountain, Jesus has told them that time is going to go faster than they have bargained for. They are heading to Jerusalem, there will be plots and rumors, violence and vengeance, Jesus will not be with them anymore, the end is coming and it is coming much too fast. So on that mountain, between the slowness of time and the rapid unraveling, there is this moment that we call the Transfiguration.
It is a somewhat confusing pause in the action of our text. Ask most folks and I don’t think they would even be able to define the word. But here it is. It is a little preview of what is going to be on the other side of time that will move so fast. With the white clothes and the light and the shining Jesus it is a glimpse into Easter Sunday, when the tomb will be opened and all the stuff that happened before will make sense.
And wouldn’t it be good to stay there? Wouldn’t it be good to be a people who only know Easter? And yet, this is not the God we have. We have a God who will come back down that mountain, who will come back down into the political squabbles and the confused disciples, the angry religious leaders and the desperate common folk, we have a God who does not fear the coming Good Friday, but comes right on down into the fear and the vengeance, the calls for him to save them and the calls for him to be crucified. This is the God we have, one who is both on the cross and risen from the grave, in the darkness and shining with the most dazzling of light.
I think there is some comfort in knowing that chronological time is not always the way we will find God. A minute is not always a minute, sometimes we get a glimpse of a fuller time, a longer time, a divine time. In that we see both death and life, beginnings and endings, what was and what will be. This kind of time will sneak up on you, like it did for Peter, perhaps in the waters of baptism, when we hear a baby cry and we can almost see the promises of God and the future that is in store. It can feel that way when you imagine the future of this church, think of the beginning of a new pastor and the end of the ministry of another, and you, the people of this congregation who carry on no matter who the pastoral leader is. It can happen when we stand vigil with a friend who is transitioning from this life to the next, when we can recall how quickly everything went before, and yet how each moment that is left weighs so much more.
So Transfiguration is a reminder for us, a reminder that however time moves, quickly or slowly, full or empty, underneath it, around it, in it, there is a divine footprint. A God who is with us, who breaks into the time around us, who makes what might be ordinary to some, miraculous to us. Amen and thanks be to God.