Today is a special day in the life of the church. It’s called “Transfiguration Sunday.” In the United Methodist Church, as in many Protestant churches, it’s observed on the last Sunday before Lent. I don’t know about you, but for many years, the significance of this day completely escaped me. There’s no Transfiguration Eve service, no Transfiguration Sunday sales at the mall and, except for the white paraments on the altar, pulpit, and lectern, no Transfiguration Day decorations. For most of the many Transfiguration Sundays I sat in the pews listening to the sermon rather than giving it, the meaning of Transfiguration Sunday was pretty much lost on me.
Maybe it’s partly because the Transfiguration story is such a strange story—a story that scholars have struggled with for years. And yet, it is a significant point in our annual retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We know this because the story appears in all three of what we call the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That tells us that it was important no matter who the writer was or what congregation he was writing to. It also comes nearly in the dead center of the Mark’s gospel, and when things come in the middle of a book or passage, that’s a tip-off that it is important—probably a turning point of some kind.
Coming in the middle of Mark’s gospel as it does, the story of the transfiguration does mark a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Until this moment, Jesus has focused on healing and teaching. He had gathered his inner circle and travelled all over, exorcising demons and healing the sick and raising the dead. He had calmed a storm at sea, fed thousands on a hillside, and walked on water. He had taught his disciples and the crowds that gathered about the kingdom of God and its coming near, and he had sent the disciples out in mission in his name.
But even the miracles he wrought and the powerful teaching he offered weren’t enough to convince everyone that he was what the voice of God announced at his baptism in the Jordan—God’s own Son, the beloved, with whom God was well pleased. Instead, he was met with skepticism and even hostility. The Pharisees were on the look-out for any opportunity to trip him up. His own family was afraid he had lost his mind. Even the disciples often showed an astounding and sometimes almost comical lack of understanding about who he was.
But now his ministry has reached a critical juncture. Jesus turns his attention to the suffering which is to come. He literally turns his face to Jerusalem, where the final confrontation with evil and death will occur. And in the passage before ours, it seems like the disciples finally get it. When Jesus asks them who they believe he is, Peter, speaking for the entire group, says “You are the Messiah.”
But as soon as Jesus begins to talk about what that means—that he will undergo great suffering, and be killed, and then rise again—Peter freaks out. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him—scolds him!—for saying such things. But Jesus knows what the problem is—Peter is still not able to see beyond his human concerns to the divine mission Jesus came to fulfill. And I think it’s probably safe to say that when Jesus began to tell the crowds that being his follower meant taking up a cross, they probably didn’t understand any better.
After all, the Messiah they were expecting would be a powerful, military leader who would take back the Promised Land from the Roman oppressor. A Messiah who will be rejected and made to suffer and die, and then to be raised from the dead? In that time and place, no god would suffer and die. Certainly, the expected Messiah wouldn’t.
Clearly something more is needed to help the disciples understand who Jesus is, and why his glory could not happen apart from his suffering. So, six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. I wonder what they were thinking? Was it just another one of Jesus’ attempts to get a little quiet time for prayer? Was this when he would hand out the plum assignments for when he took control? Whatever they were expecting, I’m sure it wasn’t what happened—that as they stood there on that mountain, Jesus was “transfigured” before them. His appearance changed. His clothes became a dazzling white—a color impossible to achieve on earth and a signal that something divine was happening.
And then Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. Understandably, Peter and James and John are terrified, and Peter, true to form, blurts out whatever he’s thinking—that they should build three dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. And then a cloud envelopes them in shadow.
If the story ended there, you would think that this was an entirely visual experience. The disciples see a change in Jesus’ appearance and in his clothing. Then they see Moses and Elijah, and they see that Jesus was talking with them—there’s no suggestion that they could hear the conversation. And then the cloud comes, and where once there was dazzling light, now all is obscured, dark, fuzzy. All that they’ve seen points to Jesus’ divinity, a fact that they had not quite grasped, and one hopes they’ve grasped now. Up to this point, it’s a visual event, all focused on the disciples seeing who Jesus is.
This dramatic visual display is important. It didn’t change who Jesus was; he was the Son of God from the beginning. But it changed—it transfigured—the disciples’ understanding of him. That’s what all our Transfiguration songs point to—to our eyes being opened so that we can more clearly see who Jesus is. And if that’s all that the transfiguration event was intended to do—to open our eyes to Jesus’ divinity, the story could have ended there. But this story isn’t just about seeing; it’s also about hearing. Or rather, it’s not so much about hearing as it is about listening.
My mother passed away four years ago on the Friday before Transfiguration Sunday. She was a speech and hearing therapist in the public schools for many years. She worked mainly with elementary school children. She and her colleague Ruth realized that they were getting many more requests from the kindergarten and 1st grade teachers for hearing tests than they were used to.
Mom and Ruth began giving all these little ones hearing exams. And they found that the children’s hearing was just fine. But what they discovered was that, while the children didn’t have hearing problems, they did have listening problems. So, Mom and Ruth developed a program to teach kindergartners how to listen. They taught them how to sit with their hands and feet at rest. They taught them not to talk and whisper while their teacher was speaking. They taught them how to screen out all the distractions around them. The children went from being hearers to listeners.
In the Transfiguration event, God instructs the disciples to become listeners. After all the visuals, God enveloped the disciples in a cloud. All the sights of the event were blotted out by the shadowy, dark mist. And when all the distractions were removed, God spoke: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
Until that time, it seems, the disciples had been hearing, but they had not been listening. They had not truly listened when Jesus spoke of his coming suffering and death. In fact, it seems like they purposely refused to listen to something that was so outside their expectations. But listening is exactly what they must do. They need to absorb all that Jesus had begun to teach them about his coming death and resurrection. They’ve seen a foretaste of his glory, but they need to listen to how it is inseparably tied to his passion.
They need to listen in another sense as well. The word “listen” also carries with it the idea of obeying. They need to truly listen to—and obey—Jesus’ difficult words about the life they must adopt if they wish to be his followers: a life of cross-carrying. A life that would only begin when they died to self. A life that couldn’t begin until they stopped focusing on human things and started to focus on divine things.
But what does that cross-bearing look like for us? Often we speak of the difficulties in our lives as the crosses we bear. The illnesses, the family problems, financial worries—those are heavy burdens to be sure. The way that we deal with those burdens can be a testimony to our faith and trust in God and in the hope we have in Jesus.
But I think we need to listen more closely to Jesus when he says, if we choose to be his followers, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. There is an element of choice in this. Unlike the burdens we do not choose, we take up our crosses, not because we have to, but because Jesus has asked us to. These crosses all involve an element of dying—dying to ourselves and our own interests. Carrying them may have consequences for how we are seen by others, or how we spend our time, or how we spend our money. The crosses we pick up may change our relationships. We know when we willingly take them up that they will have an impact on our lives, but we take them up because we are followers of Jesus.
Listening begins with hearing and ends in acting—living out what Jesus has told us to do. Just as Jesus’ glory is inseparable from his dying, our discipleship is inseparably linked with our taking up our cross and following him. It would be nice to stay on the mountain with Jesus, basking in that dazzling light. But the fact is that we have to go back down the mountain, carrying with us both the conviction that he is God’s Son, and the intention to fully listen to him—to hear what he said about taking up our crosses and facing the hard truths of discipleship.
I have seen how this church is willing to take up a cross in our TAP dinners. This project, coming on top of all that this church already does, has cost us something. It has cost a great deal of time—in the time we spend cooking, serving, and being part of the dinner fellowships. It has cost money, and it continues to need your financial support. But as I looked around the room at our last dinner, I thought about what each of those families are dealing with in their lives. I saw the community that was forming around each table. And I was grateful that this church chooses to carry this particular cross—to sacrifice yet more time and money to create a space for fellowship in the name of Jesus.
When our group went to the District Leadership Development Day, we all heard about a program called the “Breakthrough Prayer Initiative.” We heard about praying to learn what God wants this church to do and be in the days to come. Essentially, the speaker reminded us to do what God instructed the disciples to do—to listen to Jesus, as we think about what crosses we can take up for him.
Jesus bore both burden and cross. The burdens he bore, and still does, were the unwillingness of people to see him for who he is and their refusal to accept that the kingdom of God is near. But in the midst of that burden of disbelief—the outright rejection of his identity as the Son of God, the Beloved—he picked up his cross, with the suffering and death it brought, and lived in faithful obedience to his mission to save the world. And that is the life he invites us to share and that we enter into when we listen to him. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young