Jesus Hits the Back 9

“Church of Transfiguration- Mosaic” Image by  Israeltourism via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Pastor Joe Skogmo

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN

Transfiguration of Our Lord | 02.11.2018 | Mark 9:2-9

The Transfiguration is an inexplicable event. It is beyond explanation. One thing, however, we might be able to understand is how the Transfiguration plays into Jesus’ story. It is a turning point in his ministry on earth.

The Transfiguration happens roughly halfway through the gospel and it marks where Jesus turns to journey back to Jerusalem, and when he finally arrives in Jerusalem (a moment observed on Palm Sunday), it will be his last week on earth. So, again, the Transfiguration is a turning point.

I don’t know how many of you play golf, but in golf there are 18 holes in a round broken up into “the front 9” and “the back 9.” Golfers call the halfway point, ‘the turn’ (or the point where you go to the clubhouse to sulk about what just happened on the front 9 hoping your can salvage something on the back 9 only to yank one out of bounds on the 10th tee, at which point you stare longingly at your car in the parking lot and wonder, ‘Why didn’t I just go to a beach today?’…I digress).

Perhaps one way to think of and understand the context of the Transfiguration is to think of this moment as ‘the turn’ in Jesus’ story. He’s just finished his front 9 and is about to hit the back 9 of his ministry, towards Jerusalem. The Transfiguration is the turn.

Now, as to the event – the Transfiguration in and of itself – it is much more difficult to understand. I mean, you just heard the story. It is like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up a mountain and while they were at the top, something wild took place (Mark 9:2). The text reads, “he was transfigured before them…his clothes became a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (9:2-3). Then out of nowhere, two ghosts of Israel’s past appear—Moses (who freed the Israelites) and Elijah (a major prophet of God) and they just start talking to Jesus (v. 4). It doesn’t reveal what they talked about. That’d be nice. But, no. Instead, Peter, who must have been a nervous talker, which the text implies: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (v. 6), and Peter blabbers out in the midst of it all, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (v. 5). Then to make matters more bizarre a cloud rolls in and STARTS TALKING! (Forget sci-fi, this is a cross between The Twilight Zone, A Christmas Carol, and The NeverEnding Story). Then the cloud finishes speaking and “suddenly…they looked around” and everyone was gone except the disciples and Jesus. They proceeded to go back down the mountain and Jesus sternly warned them not to tell anyone what had happened until after Easter (vv. 8-9).

See what I mean? That’s pretty much beyond explanation. I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand what happened that day on the mount of the Transfiguration, and I think that’s okay. I think it is enough to understand the basic idea that this is the turning point between the front 9 and the back 9 of Jesus’ ministry. Amen?

Well…there are two things we could note about the Transfiguration story.

One, Peter tried to understand and make sense of what was happening. He made a recommendation that they should all set up camp and memorialize this place. He saw Moses and Elijah (the curious confirmation student in me wants to ask, how did Peter recognize who Moses and Elijah were if they lived hundreds of years before him and there weren’t photographs, but again I digress [although that question does further prove that this event is beyond explanation]), and Peter thought it good and necessary to set up camp and act accordingly. But the cloud interrupted Peter’s efforts to figure this all out by repeating the words that were said at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” (v. 7).

In other words, we might be distracted by a lot of questions and details regarding what just happened on the mount of the Transfiguration, but God through the cloud gives us the one thing upon which we are supposed to stay focused: Jesus is the confirmed Son of God and disciples should listen to him. That’s it. Basic but profound.

And finally, two: another detail to note is that Peter was not only wrong to try to figure it out, but Peter was wrong in what he thought they should do. Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.

Remember, he wanted to construct three dwellings (v. 5) and stay there. I don’t blame him, either! What an exciting scene! But the final verse notes that Jesus lead them back down the mountain.

The fact that Jesus didn’t stay there means that we do not have a God who only sits on mountaintops like Zeus on Olympus, but rather, a God who relentlessly comes down to enter back into human life to do God’s saving and loving work. That’s what the Son, the beloved does.

And that is what makes this moment a turning point. What is revealed here is Jesus’ identity as beloved Son, and his purpose – his purpose is not to be praised on a mountaintop, but to continue to come down and to serve – which is exactly what happens as he heads down the mountain and towards Jerusalem for his final journey back to the city which he knew full well awaited his death (cf. 9:44).

The Transfiguration turning point: Jesus, the Son, the beloved, the one to whom we need to listen, dazzling bright, takes his light down into to the world which is so often filled with darkness, makes his fateful turn from the mountain of the Transfiguration, and he hits the back 9 of his ministry toward the mountain of the cross.[1]

Our season of Lent begins. Amen.

     [1] (*Paraphrased) Professor Mark Throntveit quoted— Quoted by Rolf Jacobson, Transfiguration Sunday, Sermon Brainwave, Podcast #340, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=481.

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