Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
If I were to ask you where you were on certain famous dates in history, chances are you’d be able to answer me without hesitation—it all depends on your age. Where were you, for example, November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy got shot? I was only 3½ years old back then, but the impact of that event was so huge, that either the news of what happened or the funeral itself is my first memory: I very vague remember coming down the stairs and it being on television.
Or what about September 11, 2001? That’s much more recent, and just about everybody remembers where they were when they heard the news of the terrorist attacks. My memories are especially vivid, because, as I shared with you a few months ago, I was actually on an airplane that was just about to enter U.S. airspace when my plane was diverted to Newfoundland where I spent the next week as a refugee. Everything not only about that moment, but about that whole week is indelibly etched in my memory.
But where were you on June 23, 2000? Do you remember? I know I’ll never forget that day. I was driving down Loiza Street in San Juan, PR, when a news report came over WOSO-AM radio informing me of the demise of the California prune. Yes, it was on that day that the Food & Drug Administration gave the California Prune Board permission to change the prune’s name to the dried plum.
The reason? Well, that’s pretty obvious. Prunes are boring. They’re eaten by people whose main concern is their digestion. You won’t see Justin Bieber or Beyoncé or Kanye or Lady Gaga snacking on prunes between songs at their concerts. Dried plums, on the other hand, sound exotic—maybe even sexy. They sound youthful and cool and upwardly mobile—something you might look for amongst the in crowd at Whole Foods.
The bottom fell out of the market for prunes. But for dried plums? The sky’s the limit! Those you can really sell! So now, if you google “California Prune Board,” you’ll be whisked away to the California Dried Plum Board, a website that is nothing if not contemporary and cool. That’s right, the Prune Board is now obsolete, so successful was it in its elimination of the lowly prune from its own vocabulary.
I. The Disciples' Marketing Problem
When you think of the problems faced by the California Prune Board, perhaps you can better understand the problems faced by Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had been preaching for a while now. It was at least a few months, it may have been a year or two—we’re not sure. All we know is that Jesus’ ministry was in full swing, and that he’d become rather famous. He was known as somebody who was different. The things he said really touched people. And some had even witnessed miracles he’d performed. The Twelve (that’s what Mark usually calls the disciples) knew all this. They’d been there to see almost all of it. They’d heard all his sermons, they’d witnessed his healings and even his exorcisms, they’d seen him do amazing things with water—everything from walking on it to turning it into wine (and not the cheap stuff, either). The problem was, they were the only ones who’d seen it all. Others had only seen bits and pieces. Many people liked what they saw, but they just hadn’t seen enough to realize just how great Jesus really was.
And there was another problem: Jesus didn’t seem to be reaching the right demographic: the people Jesus healed usually weren’t the most well-known or richest or most respectable persons in their communities. Instead they always seemed to be women and children and foreigners and lepers—the kind of people who were either ignored or avoided back in those days.
There were a couple of real highlights seen by hundreds, even thousands of people. The first one was the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus was reaching out to the poor and the weak and the downtrodden in this sermon, and his difficult teachings on non-violence and love for enemies were frowned upon by the powerful.
And then there was the Feeding of the 5000. A wonderful miracle. But once again, he fed the hungry, and it was the well-fed whose support he was going to need if he going to make friends in the right places. His difficult teachings and his obsession with the downtrodden were actually making him friends in all the wrong places.
So what the disciples had on their hands was a marketing problem. They knew they had a great product to sell. They knew Jesus had to be Messiah. But Jesus just wasn’t the kind of Messiah that would matter to the people that counted. He looked and acted like a regular person. (And please remember, regular people back then were really poor.) His miracles weren’t performed in front of the people who had the ear of the big guns in either religion or government, and his teachings weren’t designed to gain him the kind of power that the Messiah was going to have to wield if he was ever going to take over governing first Israel and then the world.
II. From Foundation Stone to Stumbling Block
Things started to look up at one point—Jesus asked them point blank just a few days before the events of this morning’s Gospel reading, “Who do you think I am?” And Peter, speaking for all of them, told him that they believed he was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus seemed to agree, but—according to Mark anyway—Jesus then immediately instructed them not to share this information with anyone else.
This messianic secret (Jesus’ tendency—particularly strong in Mark—to instruct his followers not to tell others about him) was bad enough. But it got worse. Immediately Peter’s confession of faith that just mentioned, Jesus started talking some nonsense about how he would be rejected and killed. Apparently all the talk about persecution had gotten to him. It was clear that he had no understanding of what it meant to be Messiah.
They were so distressed at hearing about his death that they didn’t even bother to listen to the part about the resurrection. It was by now clear that Jesus was going to need handlers who could keep him on message if he was ever going to rule the world. And so Peter—once again speaking on behalf of the other eleven—gently took him aside and told him he was wrong and not to say such negative things. Remember, just a few minutes earlier Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Son of God and Jesus had called him the rock of the church. Well now, Jesus responds to Peter’s positive message by saying, “Get behind me, Satan, because you’re trying to impress other people instead of trying to serve God.”
So if this is the way Jesus reacted to the power of positive thinking, you can imagine the kind of challenge the disciples had in trying to follow Jesus down a path of world domination that apparently he didn’t even know he was supposed to be on.
III. The Event
And this is probably what was on their minds when, almost a week after that last fiasco, Jesus took Peter, James, and John aside and asked them to go up the mountain with him and pray. This was nothing new; Jesus prayed a lot. But this time, after they’d been praying for a while, they started to notice something: Jesus began to change right in front of their eyes. He started to glow, as though he were filled with the power of the sun. His clothes, which quite frankly had been kind of cheap and a little bit dingy looking, suddenly began to change as well. It’s like they were turning into the most exquisite silk made with thread so pure it shone like silver. As Peter, James, and John stood there dumbfounded, two other people suddenly appeared on either side of Jesus—somehow they knew they were Moses (the giver of God’s law) and Elijah (the greatest of all God’s prophets)—both of them standing right there, confirming what the disciples had known all along: That this was the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Son of God.
They were speechless, until suddenly it occurred to Peter: This would sell! Before this, Jesus had been a lowly prune—useful and good for you, but not particularly glamorous. But here before them was a real plum! This they could market. And so Peter (once again speaking on behalf of the others) said, “Master, thank goodness we’re here to see this! Why, we can build little dwellings for all three of you: One for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you!” You see, Peter wanted to repackage Jesus and put him and Moses and Elijah on display. He wanted to capture this moment and make sure that everybody could see the same proof that they’d just seen that Jesus was The One. Maybe they could even lead tours up to the mountaintop to see Messiah marketed the right way—and not just the poor and the downtrodden would come to experience his transfigured glory, but also the Scribes and the Pharisees and the other people whose support they’d need if Jesus was ever going to come into the power they knew was rightfully his.
But then suddenly, before anybody could say anything else, a cloud covered all of them, and a voice came booming out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” All thoughts of being Messiah’s handlers suddenly left the disciples’ minds. They forgot all their clever schemes to package Jesus’ glory in order to prove he was who he said he was, and they fell to the ground, cowering in fear, ashamed that they’d been thinking that they could somehow control him or his message. And then faster than they could say or do anything else, the cloud disappeared and everything was back to normal. Jesus wasn’t shining anymore. He was dressed in the same threadbare robes he’d had on before. And Moses and Elijah were gone.
I doubt that James, John, or even Peter had much to say as they descended the mountain after that. And neither did Jesus. But he did say this: “Don’t tell anybody what you saw up there—at least not until after I’ve come back from the dead.” Since they’d never seen anybody come back from the dead before, it’s unlikely they even knew what to do with that command. But at least this time they had the wisdom to keep their mouths shut.
You see, Jesus’ disciples had no idea what was in store for their teacher or for themselves. But Jesus knew, and he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. In the midst of all the doom and gloom of him trying to tell them about the cross, God had yet one more thing to show them. And that was that they were, in fact, right about Jesus. He was the Son of God. He was the glorious Messiah. He was the One who fulfilled the law, the One foretold by the prophets. But God wanted them to know this in context. The Transfiguration witnessed by these three disciples was an important sign sandwiched between two other very important signs. And these two other signs were both the sign of the cross—Jesus telling them about his betrayal and death. They wanted a Messiah they could package and sell to others. God had something else in mind. They wanted only a glorious king—one that the whole world would fall in love with. But God sent them One who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” They wanted a savior who would rule the world from an earthly palace, but God sent them One who “was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, acquainted with pain.”
Conclusion: The Message of the Transfiguration
The most commonly heard message in the story of the Transfiguration is that mountaintop experiences are often followed by deep valleys of doubt or pain or depression. The message that we cannot stay too long on the mountaintop before we descend into the valley is an important one, and it’s borne out in our experiences. But just as important a message is that our experience of Christ is real. But no matter how glorious it is, it is our experience. It cannot be packaged and sold to others as the only way to salvation. Nor can it be used by a congregation—no matter how well intentioned that congregation is—as a church growth scheme. Our experience of Christ—whether it is our individual experience or our experience of him as a community of faith—is just that: our experience. Jesus wants us to share it—even shout if from the mountaintop if necessary.
But he wants us to do so in context. Our victories are often sandwiched between defeats. Our glory often occurs in the midst of pain. We may be sure about some things, but we also have many doubts. Jesus’ witness to the world was truthful and genuine. He did not want to be known as the Risen Lord without people also knowing about the Man on the Cross. A savior who knew nothing of death could not save us from death’s sting. A king who knew nothing of pain himself could not be with us in our pain. God didn’t give Peter and James and John the opportunity to build containers for Jesus and his two biblical witnesses. It was enough that they had experienced Jesus’ glory and the biblical confirmation that he was Messiah. If anyone else was to know about it, it would be up to them to place it where it belonged: In a life that ended on the cross and which was resurrected on Easter morning. And they would have to tell the story as people who themselves were honest about their own faith and their doubts, their own victories and their own defeats. The Transfiguration is one of the most other-worldly scenes we see anywhere in the gospels. But it also a story about how to live in this world, because this is the world Jesus lived in, and it is this world that Jesus came to redeem.
How do our experiences of Jesus—whether how he makes us feel, what we learn from his teachings, or how we experience his love in our faith community—teach us how to live in this world? Are we as individuals or as a church committed only to offering the world a message of positive thinking or material success? Are we committed to offering the world a vision for the age to come, a world not yet realized? Please remember: This wasn’t Jesus’ message. Even in his transfigured glory, he confirmed that a mountaintop experience taken out of context—even one of his own mountaintop experiences—was a dangerous thing to preach. Just as this sign in his life came before and after the sign of the cross, so must our proclamation place success and glory in their proper context.
Thus may this transfiguration story inspire us to put our own lives in context, to be honest about our own religious experience, and to use not just our victories to inspire others, but also our defeats; not just our strengths, but also our weaknesses. For it wasn’t just the greatness of Jesus that made him who he was, but also his ordinariness. Lives are changed not by denying the truth of our experience, but by telling it. Let us be people of integrity, satisfied not to re-package Jesus into what we want him to be or think he ought to be, but allowing Christ to be the Healer and the Teacher of people like you and me, followers of the Transfigured One, the Suffering Servant of God, and the One who death could not destroy. Amen.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.