On the Identity and Purpose of One Divine
February 14, 2021
Mark 9: 2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 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.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Identity and Purpose of One Divine. In the cycle of the church year we stand at a metaphorical threshold today. We are five Sundays past Epiphany and the season of Lententide is just about to begin. We are halfway between Christmas and Easter. Every year at this time we revisit the event of the Transfiguration, an event recorded in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. I have been thinking about his story all week and asking myself, “What did this mean for the followers of Jesus then, and what could it mean for us as followers of Jesus today.” In my questioning, one of the answers came in an unexpected form.
Remember the nursery rhyme and fingerplay, the Itsy-Bitsy Spider? We call it a nursery rhyme but it is really a powerful allegory; I would go as far to say that this short verse that we probably all learned before the age of 5 is our first introduction to existentialism.* Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Are the events of our lives predetermined? What is the extent of our free will?
The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sun and dried up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.
The origins of this rhyme are rather recent, dates range from 1910 to 1920. The authorship is unknown, but the theme is far more ancient and reminiscent of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who valued his power above all else. Sisyphus deemed himself to be of supreme importance and was willing to stoop to the lowest levels to preserve his kingship and influence over others. The all-mighty Zeus taught Sisyphus a painful lesson in the underworld. Sisyphus was given an infinite amount of time to ponder his over-inflated self image as he was consigned to pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again, over and over, throughout eternity.
700 years before the birth of Jesus, philosophers were using the story of Sisyphus and the many other stories in Greek mythology to illuminate the mysteries of human nature. The stories in the collection of literature we call the Bible, spanning over 3000 years of history, offer us the same thing, the chance to learn more about ourselves, why we do the things we do and how we have come to believe what we believe. The story of the Transfiguration that we are offered today is particularly essential and helpful. Through the Transfiguration we gain insight into the identity of Jesus, his purpose in the world at that time, and why that matters to us here today.
Let’s place the story of the Transfiguration in context. It was not that many weeks ago when we were studying the baptism of Jesus by his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus’s baptism was marked by unexplainable action in the heavens and a proclamation from an omnipotent-sounding voice. After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days where he wrestled with his doubts and fears before he came back to civilization and began to gather a community around him. In teaching, preaching, feeding the multitudes and healing people everywhere they went, news of Jesus is spreading rapidly through the region and the temple authorities are taking notice. John the Baptist has been arrested, jailed and executed and for the very first time, just before the Transfiguration, Jesus has revealed to his students what is to come.
This is particularly important for us because, like I mentioned before, we stand at the threshold and look before us into the future towards Eastertide. Jesus is standing at the very same threshold in our story today. He is looking into the future and he has an unexplainable knowledge of what is to come and he knows he must warn those closest to him. Jesus’s students, his disciples, do not want to believe what their teacher has revealed to them. Jesus said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. [I love that detail.] Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, but turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Tempter! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”
Jesus’s disciples can not believe what they are hearing. They have given up so much to follow him; they love him, they see he is changing the world and they have been assuming that their own liberation, and the liberation of the Jewish people, is close at hand. They are an oppressed people living under Roman rule and these disciples know that, if he wished, Jesus has the power to change all of that. Jesus has just let them in on what will really happen and they fall right into an existential crisis.
I can just hear the questions in their minds and hearts. What is all of this for? Why did we drop everything to follow this person who says now he will soon suffer and die? This is not what we signed up for. We had such high hopes. How will we ever get through this? If he is put to death will we even survive?
Jesus takes three of them up to a hilltop where they can all see far and wide. On that hilltop, Jesus is transfigured with light, right before their eyes. Moses appears. Moses is revered for bringing the Hebrew people out of slavery and for bringing God’s law in the ten commandments. The most beloved prophet Elijah, whose very name means “The Lord is my God” appears to them there. Those three men, Peter, James, and John receive a gift that day that will stay with them for a lifetime. Those three men were witness to their teacher, (our teacher) Jesus of Nazareth, glowing with heavenly light and in the presence of two iconic figures, one representing the law, the other all the prophets. In this moment we see Jesus’s identity revealed as the next in a long line of progression from law to prophecy to fulfillment.
Jesus is the fulfillment. Jesus is the divine in human form that has come to prove that there is a force more powerful than fear, a force more powerful than even death. To prove it, he must die. And with his death, all of the hopes and expectations of his students will have to die, too. This is why Lententide can be a heavy time for us. It is a letting go, and an emptying out that will make room for what is to come. It is a time to ask ourselves, like the disciples did, the deeper existential questions; there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. What or who is at the center of my life? What or who is most meaningful in my life? How does my outer life reflect or obscure my inner life? What or who is holding me from closer union with Love, with God, with Goodness?
In closing, I lift up that climbing spider who perseveres. May the moments of sunshine be glorious enough that the drenching rain will not quench the fire of the spirit. I lift up the lessons learned by Sisyphus, too, as he pushes the heavy stone, still. No doubt he has learned by now that he is really nothing, as we are really nothing, without one another to care for and to care for us. I lift up those disciples who gave up so much for love and then gained unshakeable assurance in the divine identity and purpose of their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. And may we, brothers and sisters, enter Lententide with minds and hearts open and ready to receive. Amen.
* Existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will
God of wisdom, we are living in a world where love is too often obscured by fear and violence, and our hearts and minds are heavy with the weight of the struggle to understand. Lord, we pray for ourselves, that we may hold fast to the golden thread of hope for the future of humanity. Save us, please, from sinking into apathy. We are in desperate need of a great shift in our culture. In this place, together, this morning, we are aiding in the cultural shift as we for deeper understanding, as we live into the lovingkindness of Christ, and as we share our best selves with one another. Help us, God, to become what we most wish to see in the world. This I pray in the name of Jesus, who gifted us this prayer… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the closing of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound.”