Just then a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: “This is my son, marked by my love. Listen to him.”
(Preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018)
The traditional location in Israel for the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus is Mount Tabor. It is located about 10 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee on the eastern edge of the Valley of Jezreel about 5 miles east of Nazareth. That places is right in the heart of the territory Jesus traveled during his itinerant ministry. Mount Tabor reminded me of Stone Mountain in Georgia, rising like a giant lump of stone above the surrounding countryside. Though both geological formations are called Mountains, each of them is only about 1,700 feet in elevation. But both mountains rise dramatically out of level plains and dominate the surrounding landscape. They each also provide impressive, inspiring, wide panoramas of the surrounding countryside.
To reach the top of Mount Tabor today, you must either walk up, or take a special limousine/taxi ride up a steep, winding, serpentine road. As the car groaned up the steep grade when I visited Israel several years ago, I had my own epiphany, or a sort, about the steep climb involved in this mountain trek by Jesus, Peter, James and John. To climb Mount Tabor was not a simple matter and I think the gospel writers got it wrong. It wasn’t that Jesus singled out these three for this special revelation. Rather, they were the only three willing to make the climb with him. Riding up in that car, I could just hear Thomas and the other disciples saying to Jesus: “You’re going to climb up there and pray? And then you’re coming back down to here? Okay, you go ahead. We’ll just wait for you down here at the base of the hill, okay, Jesus?”
When you get to the top of Mount Tabor you encounter, as you do at so many of the sacred sites in Israel, a church. Built to commemorate the event of the transfiguration there is a large central sanctuary with a beautiful tile mosaic above the altar. The background is in gold tile and there is Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah, with Peter, James and John watching in wonder. On either side of the main sanctuary, located by the front entrance, are two smaller chapels, each decorated with beautiful fresco paintings. One is dedicated to Moses and one is dedicated to Elijah.
So what you have, on the top of Mount Tabor, is the very thing Peter blurted out and wanted to do: “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” While it wasn’t Peter who did it, we Christians have done the very thing he wanted to do: tried to preserve the moment with permanent structures and visual, artistic depictions of the glory of that moment.
But that doesn’t seem to be what God wanted. As the story goes, when Peter blurted out that suggestion, at that moment a cloud descended upon the mountain and the disciples heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to him.” After they heard the voice, the disciples found themselves looking around, rubbing their eyes, and seeing nothing but Jesus. Only Jesus.
Mark is very careful in his description of this event not to say that the cloud or the figures of Moses and Elijah left. There is nothing here about them disappearing as suddenly as they appeared. The narrative just simply moves from the voice in the cloud to the disciples looking around after hearing it and only seeing Jesus. This implies that the glorious power of heaven remains all around them. It did not necessarily leave; they just no longer can discern it. What they do see is Jesus. And Jesus does not say anything to them right away about what just occurred. He does not rebuke Peter, nor does he say, “Great idea, let’s get started on those memorials right away.” No, he just starts back down the mountain with them.
What comes through loud and clear in this story is the centrality of Jesus. The transfiguration and voice from the cloud endorse and announce Jesus. Pay attention to him! Jesus is the climax, the center, the key. He is the main theme. In this mountain moment, the present connects with the past. There will be a future when we understand better. But what is crystal clear is the present – and the present is a Jesus whose glory commands out attention.
Peter expressed a natural human tendency. When we encounter God, when we experience the mysterious holiness that is so often hidden from us, we fall down in awe and wonder and we want to worship. We want to praise, give thanks, glory in the moment. And our tendency when we have mystical experiences is to mark the spot and do everything we can to preserve the experience, in the hope that we can re-created or re-experience that mystery at that spot once again.
So, when you visit Israel, you discover that Christians down through the centuries have done just that. Wherever they could, they have build a church to mark a sacred spot: over the house of Peter in Capernaum; at the location of the Sermon on the Mount; at the location of the feeding of the five thousand; on the spot where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem; in the Garden of Gethsemane; on the stable in Bethlehem; over the home of Mary in Nazareth; over the site of the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus; and on and on. And in most cases, you cannot even begin to see the actual site of the event or experience, but you see the church that remembers the event.
We do that all the time as human beings. We invest locations and buildings with great meaning; where we were baptized, where we grew up, where we were married, where our children went to school, where a funeral was held. And those are all sacred moments and they are very meaningful. But the sacred moment, the mystical experience, the encounter with the holy mystery of life is not what we should worship. God does not break through the veil of this existence so that we might become locked in place. No, God draws back the curtain blinding us to the presence of glory from time to time to show us, remind us, that glory is all around us; the glory of God revealed in creation; the glory of the good news revealed in Jesus; the glory of Jesus revealed in the people of Jesus. Our eyes are opened to this glory by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And the purpose for this revelation is not so we might build shrines and temples but rather that we might better understand how to live in this world together. Look again at the words spoken out of the cloud. They echo the words spoken to Jesus at his baptism, but this time they’re spoken directly to his disciples. What’s more, after identifying Jesus as the beloved son, the voice offers the disciples one clear instruction: “Listen to him.”
That is still pretty good advice for followers today. Listen to Jesus. Listen to what he says; watch where he goes; and follow him down this mountain. That is a very simple command: Listen to him. And what did Jesus teach? Two simple commands: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you listen to Jesus that is what you hear and that is what he lived.
How will we change the world? It is simple: Listen to Jesus. Love your neighbor. If you love your neighbor you do not insult them, taunt them, or demean them. If you love your neighbor, you listen to them when they say “no” to any sort of overture or advance you make toward them, especially if it is of a sexual nature. How will we change the world? It is simple: Listen to Jesus. Love your neighbor. Don’t judge them by the color of their skin, or their gender, or the faith they practice, or who they love. Loving your neighbor means allowing them to express themselves, their opinions, their grievances, their protest, and taking time to understand how their lived experience in this world is different from your lived experience, and seeking to find common ground and ways to work together for a better world.
It really is that simple: Listen to Jesus. In whatever way you want to change the world, apply that instruction. There is no other message. Listen to Jesus. There is nothing more spectacular in the bag of tricks for the follower of Jesus. Just listen to Jesus, this person of incomparable love. Preach him, trust him, and live him. Look for no other way, but his humble way; for no other power than his love-power; for no other glory except his kind of inverse and humble glory of service. His way of love is the stuff the future is made of, irrevocably. Listen to him.