2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
So we have this story of the Transfiguration of Christ, where Christ goes up on a mountain, gets all shiny, Moses and Elijah start talking to him, and Peter says something weird about building tents for everyone there. Honestly, it’s a strange story and it’s kind of hard to see the meaning in it. But it makes a little more sense when we see it in context.
We’ve been spending a lot of time in the Gospel of Mark this year, haven’t we? This year in the Lectionary spends a lot of time in Mark’s Gospel, and Mark is nothing if not a storyteller. The Gospel really reads like a great unified story, so especially here, you can’t really take anything out of context without taking away the meaning. So to really get at the meaning in this passage, we have to see where this story of Christ’s transfiguration falls in the overall story of the Gospel of Mark
Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been having a bit of a hard time with his disciples. Jesus had asked them who they thought he was, and Peter said that Jesus is the Christ. Which sounds great, but that idea had some baggage with it.
The word Christ comes from the Greek christos and means Anointed One, the same as Messiah. And in first-century Jewish culture, the Messiah was someone who was going to come in, kick out the Roman overlords, and reestablish Jewish dominance and earthly power, a new Jewish kingdom.
So Jesus hears this behind Peter’s confession and sees that the disciples don’t get it. So he then begins to teach them about how he has to suffer, be rejected by all of the religious authorities and eventually die. But on the third day, he would rise again. Peter hears this and he tries to get Jesus to shut up about all of that, no you don’t have to suffer and die and be disgraced like this.
And now we see the other side of who they believed Jesus was. Not only was Jesus as the Messiah going to rule the kingdom, he was going to bring the disciples with him and make them powerful as well. So Peter hears Jesus saying all of this and he sees that slipping through his fingers. But Jesus doesn’t let him talk like that. He says that famous line “Get behind me Satan!” Peter, you have no idea how God works. You want this for your own agenda so that you can get rich and famous, but you are getting in the way.
And then Jesus starts teaching them and a crowd about what it really means to follow Him. And he says “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want, to get as powerful you want, and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul, the real You, for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading and the way I’m going about this mission, if any of you think that I should be going about this differently, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.
So after Jesus says this, he lets the disciples stew about this for a week, and we come to the Gospel passage for today. Six days after all of that happened, Jesus got Peter, James and John to go with him up a mountain. They’re probably still mad because Jesus totally called them out in front of a crowd and said that they’re completely wrong. So they’re probably still kind of mad. But Jesus brings them up this mountain to where they were all alone.
And what happens next is the mysterious part. Mark’s Gospel just says that Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became super-white, whiter than you could ever bleach them. And Elijah, the most famous prophet in Israel’s history, and Moses, the giver of the law that governed all of Jewish society appeared there and were talking with Jesus.
When Peter sees this, he starts talking about how they should put up three shelters, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Now that part doesn’t really make much sense, why in the world is that the first thing that you think of when you see the rabbi you’ve been following turn bright white and shiny and have two of the most famous people from Jewish history talking to him? Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense, because Mark even says that Peter did not know what to say because he was so frightened.
But I read it as Peter saying “Let’s make tabernacles,” not just tents. Do you remember what the tabernacle was? When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, the tabernacle was where they met with God. It was the precursor to the Temple. It was basically a big fancy tent that was made to be easy to move around, since they were wandering in the desert for a while after they left Egypt. And just like the temple, the people could not just go and meet with God at the tabernacle, they had to go through the priests, they were the mediators between the people and God. So when Peter says this line about making tents for them after Jesus has been transformed and his full power shown, maybe he’s really saying something like this: “Finally! This is the power I’ve been expecting from Jesus, this is the power that I’ll have someday!” Maybe he’s saying that they should build tabernacles so that he, Peter, can make sure that the Kingdom of God as he’s picturing it will come about. Remember, you had to go through a priest to meet with God at the tabernacle. So if Peter builds these tabernacles, he will be putting this power that he sees from Jesus under his own control. Peter could be the mediator between the people and Jesus and become the gatekeeper of the Kingdom of God so that Peter can make sure it will come about like he’s picturing it, with all of the earthly power and glory that he wants. With the tabernacle, Peter and the disciples would be able to take this power down from the mountain and decide who gets to participate in this glory and who does not-they would be the keeper of the keys. They would be domesticating Jesus and bringing this power and glory that they see in the Transfiguration under their own control.
But as soon as Peter says this, a cloud came around them and covered them and there’s a voice from the cloud that we could probably assume is God’s that says “This is my Son. I love him. Listen to him!” Get rid of all of these ideas. Following this guy will not get you earthly power. It won’t make you famous and rich, it won’t kick the Romans out of your country, it won’t make you the assistants to the king of Israel. This is not what Jesus came to do. This is the Son of God, you just saw him shining like that and you just saw him standing there with the two most important figures in Jewish history, the two people I have used to shape your religion, what more proof do you need that Jesus is the Son of God? So stop making this Jesus in your image and start following Jesus for who Jesus is.
The crazy thing about this is that we do this all the time. We make Jesus in our own image all the time. See, this isn’t just a message to Jesus’ disciples, it’s a message to us. Paul talked about it in the passage from 2 Corinthians. Paul calls it “veiling the Gospel.” We’re not just making Jesus in our own image-that’s bad enough. We are obscuring and covering up the Gospel message. If we make Jesus in our own image, if we domesticate Jesus, then that’s the Gospel that people get when they talk to us, so not only are we hurting ourselves, we are preventing others from hearing the Gospel message.
So what does this all mean for us? I want to point us all back to our Old Testament reading for today. It talks about the prophet Elijah, right? The same Elijah who appeared with Moses when Jesus was transfigured. And we heard in that story about Elijah passing his ministry onto his follower Elisha after he is taken up to heaven in these big fiery chariots. Now this story deserves a sermon of its own, but I want to point out a small part of it that I think is crucial to the theme today.
Elijah and Elisha are walking around. Elijah has tried to get Elisha to leave so that he doesn’t have to see it, but Elisha refuses to leave. So they both know that Elijah is going to be taken away. And right before the chariots of fire come for Elijah, Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him before he’s taken away. And Elisha says “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” Elisha knows that he is going to be taking over the huge ministry of Elijah, the most famous prophet in Jewish history. He knows that he has already been named for that. And I think that scares him a little bit. Or a lot. This is big, important, dangerous work, being a prophet in the style of Elijah could get him killed. He knows that he can’t do this on his own, so he asks for the power to carry out this mission that God has given him.
Have we as a church truly reflected on what it means to inherit Jesus’ ministry? This is exactly what has happened to us, we have inherited the ministry of Jesus and have received a double portion of the Spirit so that we can actually do it. So this means that we need to stop making Jesus in our own image. So often, the Jesus that we follow is a Jesus who thinks a lot like us. I think it’s funny that all of the artwork that’s featuring Jesus has him as white when he most likely looked like someone from the Middle East, since he was, you know, from there. But we feel this need to make Jesus in our own image. We want a Jesus who thinks like us, talks like us, believes like us, acts like us. And it gets to the point where there is no way that we can be wrong because of course Jesus agrees like us, we’ve made him that way.
What if you met Jesus and he completely disagreed with you on something that you deeply believe? What if you met Jesus and he said that literally all people deserve the same respect, honor and rights as you do, no matter if you disagree with their lifestyle, beliefs, religion or politics? What if you met Jesus and he said that women have just as much a right to be in ministry as men do? What if you met Jesus and he said that the act of killing people is wrong, even if it’s done in war? Or what if he said that war can be justified if it’s rooting out true evil or oppression? What if he said that owning the best house or the nicest car or having the best job doesn’t matter at all? What if he said that it doesn’t matter how eloquently you can speak or how much you know the Bible or much mission work you do or how well you can pray or how spiritual and godly you think you are, if you don’t love your neighbor as much if not more than you love yourself, even if they think and act and believe completely differently than you, it doesn’t matter if you don’t love them as you love yourself.
I don’t know if Jesus is saying any of that stuff. I think he is. I believe he is, and I believe enough that sometimes I even let it affect my actions so that I maybe act a little bit more like Jesus. But I make Jesus in my own image too, so I’m sure that at least half of what I believe about Jesus doesn’t actually come from Jesus but from my recreation of Jesus into my own image. So what’s happening here in the transfiguration of Jesus is that we finally get a glimpse of who Jesus is. We finally see Jesus in all of his power and authority and strength. We finally see him for who Jesus truly is. So may we not see it as an opportunity to make Jesus into our own image. Let us see this as an opportunity to learn who Jesus truly is. And let us stop making Jesus and ourselves into our own image and may we be made into the image of Christ.