Transfiguration from the Valley

GOSPEL: 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

The mountain stands high before us. 

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a touchstone moment in the church year. In so many ways Transfiguration looms in the background right from Advent. But certainly from the day of Epiphany, the revealing of the Christ child to the Magi. From then on, this next revealing of the Christ is on the way. The words spoken at the the Baptism of Jesus are foreshadows of the words spoken again today: this is my Son, the beloved. 

And this mountain stands before the valley to come, the valley of Lent that will push Jesus towards that next hill, the hill of Good Friday and another revealing of the Christ. 

This Transfiguration comes to us when we are little more tense and stressed than usual. Normally this time after Epiphany and these green Sundays before Lent are some weeks to catch our breath after the excitement of Advent and Christmas while preparing for Lent, and the wilderness Journey that we are about to embark on. 

But for right now, everything seems to be about Jesus’ journey up the mountain. Like so many faithful patriarchs of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Elijah (who show up today!) Jesus goes to a mountain to be seemingly be closer to God. And Jesus brings with him 3 of his disciples… maybe the 3 leaders. Peter, James and John. 

It should be noted at this moment that we have skipped through half the book of Mark (don’t worry we will come back his summer). For three weeks we lingered in chapter 1, only to jump right to chapter 9 of 16, the half way point. 

And Jesus is transfigured, meaning his outward appearance is changed. 

He shines like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear beside him. Jesus not only goes up the mountain to be closer to God, in Jesus God comes closer to creation, to Peter, James and John. 

Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind… or maybe the extremely well thought out idea he has been holding onto the whole hike up the mountain. Peter suggests that like good and faithful jews who know a holy place when they see it, that they should build a dwelling place. An alter to worship God. Just like his forebears, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who built altars on mountains. 

But maybe it isn’t Peter’s thoughts are relevant, but his feelings. Here on the mountain, he is away from the struggle and chaos. The mountain top is removed and calm, quiet and enlightening. The mountain top is a place to escape the reality of the world. The mountain top is a place to leave troubles behind. And Peter knows a world of trouble. Living under foreign occupation by the Romans, conflict with the religious authorities, experiencing unclean spirits, dealing with demanding crowds, and managing a moody and enigmatic Jesus. 

We get it, escaping the struggle and chaos is worth staying a while, worth lingering and holding on. 

Most times we hear this story, we imagine ourselves standing right beside Peter, there on the mountaintop, there witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus and having to contend with our strong desire to remain in this safe place. 

But this year feels different. Transfiguration feels far away. Escape and relief feel far away. 

This year we are not on the mountain top. We are down in the valley. We are witnessing Transfiguration from afar. 

Our perspective has been shifted, and Transfiguration isn’t an insiders journey that we get to witness up close. Instead we only hear about it from Mark, we only get to catch the wisps of light emanating from the mountain top, we only hear the whispers that Peter, James and John cannot keep to themselves once they get down from the mountain. 

We are living in the valley and stuck there this year. The valley of struggle and suffering, the valley of the shadow death. The valley that Peter is so happily escaping as he tries to build a dwelling and an altar on the mountain top. We would much rather have that moment of escape that, break from the chaos, that chance to just catch our breath, to feel free, to relax and be safe, to forego our daily vigilance just for a moment. 

And yet there is no escaping our predicament, no mountaintops where we can hike above the fray… we are in a moment, a shared moment, a global moment of struggle and hardship, chaos and suffering. We are all stuck together down in the valley. 

A valley where struggle and suffering multiply struggle and suffering. Where one threat to our heath and safety requires sacrifice and struggle, where trying to fix one problem creates two more. Where one person refusing to buy-in and share the sacrifice can jeopardize us all. 

This is a valley we were unprepared for, one that is wearing us down, one is harder to bear than we ever imagined. 

And  this valley changes the way we see and hear the story of Transfiguration. This valley pulls us down from the mountain and keeps us far from that mountain top escape. 

So we long to be Peter, we wish we could foolishly think that living on the mountaintop was a good idea because we long to feel, even if just for moment, Peter’s sense of relief. 

And then almost a quickly as it started, Jesus is headed back down the mountain. 

Jesus tells these privileged three not to tell anyone about what they have seen, at least not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. 

At least not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. 

Jesus took these three up the mountain, Jesus was transfigured and met with Moses and Elijah, the voice of God speaks from the heavens, yet Jesus seems most concerned about something beyond this mountaintop experience. Peter wants to stay and linger, but Jesus is back on mission. 

Jesus is focused on the being raised from the dead. Which means Jesus also knows that he is headed towards Crucifixion. Headed towards, arrest and trial, towards conflict with the plotting religious authorities, towards more demands for healing and miracles from the crowds, more encounters with the surpernatural. 

Jesus is focused on going back down into the valley, back down into the depths of suffering and chaos, back down into the place of human need, back down to where creation is thick with finiteness and mortality… 

And Jesus is doing what he has said he has been doing since the beginning. Bringing the Kingdom of God Near. Bringing the God of all Life close again to creation that feels so far. Bringing God into the struggle and suffering that seems so far from the mountain top, so far the high minded dwelling and altars where the space between heaven and earth feels thin.

Jesus is on the way to the places that feel far from the divine, far from God’s love and mercy and grace. 

And that makes all the difference. When you are on top of the mountain like Peter, it makes sense to stay. But when you are stuck in the valley, when you feel far from the shining light of God, far from the dwellings and altars where God seems close enough to touch…

Seeing the God made flesh, the Christ come to save, the Messiah on the way…. To see Jesus coming down the mountain, coming down into the valley of the shadow of death changes everything. 

Today, we get that feeling too. We might be used to feeling like we are on the mountaintop, but, this year we need to be reminded that God is coming down the mountain to. 

Jesus is coming down into our lives, into our communities, into our chaos. Jesus meets us in the shadows of pandemic, the shadows of lockdown, of loneliness and isolation. The valleys of suffering and sin, of racism in our institutions, division in our politics, stress in our neighbour hoods

And Jesus is doing the work of the God. Confronting our mess, confronting our chaos, confronting our sin, confronting death. And in that confrontation Jesus is on the way to the new thing that God is doing among us. Bringing comfort where there is suffering, forgiveness where there is sin, and life where there is death. 

Here today, down in the valley, far from the mountain top, far from the escape of transfiguration, Jesus is coming down to us. Coming down to us in word of promise, joining us to one another through the spirit, making us alive again in the Body of Christ. 

Why Heal Anyone if You Don’t Heal Everyone, Jesus?

Mark 1:29-39
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Today is our last Sunday in the mini green season before we head up a mountain. This church year began way back in Advent, as we built towards the coming of Christ in the flesh of the babe in a manger. And soon we, with Ash Wednesday and Lent on the horizon, we will be building again towards the coming of Christ, this time Christ coming to a cross on Friday and out of the grave on Sunday. 

But for now we have been lingering with the revealing of Jesus. Revealing of his mission and ministry, revealing his identity in the waters of baptism, his call to the disciples in various ways, his message for God’s people bringing the Kingdom near. 

Last week Jesus cast out an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue, a spirit that revealed our own fears and anxieties of change, of the unknown, of the future. 

And all these weeks between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, are supposed to moment to steel ourselves for the slog of Lent. Yet, this has been hard work, being forced to face reality and deal honestly with our situation. 

In this final week of lingering, there are more miracles. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then the whole town comes with their problems. They want to be healed too. 

It is no wonder that Jesus is tired by the end of the night. It is no wonder that he wants to get away and be by himself. And it is no wonder that even the disciples want more out of him. 

The miracles, the people clamouring for Jesus. This is the story of today. But as Mark tells us these stories of healing, we are begged to ask a deeper question, one that is percolating under the surface. 

Mark shows us that there are many, many people searching for healing, searching for miracles. And Jesus doesn’t accommodate them all. In fact it almost seems random and doesn’t make sense. Why heal anyone if you don’t heal everyone? 

And if you have the the time to stay and heal some people, would one more day, to finish the job, be so bad? Jesus decides to pick up and move on, and for us it doesn’t really jive. 

This Gospel lesson brings another story to mind, one that may open wide the question that is floating beneath the surface, the one that we might be afraid to ask.

In the face of suffering, in the face of pain and grief. In the face of death, we bring our greatest questions to God. And we ask why some and not others? Why heal some people and why let others suffer? Why is there no obvious reason for it all?

This moment in time has certainly opened the flood gates of questions about suffering, with a sometimes near harmless, sometimes deadly virus seemingly arbitrarily choosing who gets really sick and who doesn’t, who ends up in the hospital and who just gets the sniffles. Not to mention all the other things we have going on that are out of control from job loss to climate change, from racial justice to extreme political division based conspiracy theories. 

We know both the exhaustion that Jesus seems to have with it all (and it is only still the first chapter of Mark) and the clamouring for healing and miracles of the crowds who are coming to him. 

There is a temptation when preaching about this story tell you that we are being selfish when we ask why God isn’t solving our problems. There is the temptation to say that we only want a magic Genie God who comes at our beck and call to make our lives easier. There is the temptation to say that all human life ends in death, so a little healing here and there doesn’t really make a difference. 

But that is not fair to the reality of suffering. That does not acknowledge how much suffering and our need to be healed can come to define our very existence. And nor does it explain why sometimes it doesn’t make sense why some people are healed and some are not. 

When Simon comes and tells Jesus that people are looking for him Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 

For that is what I came out to do. 

We know the message. We know what Jesus has done for us. 

But at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done it yet. The message that Jesus is preaching is that the Kingdom of God has come near. Those are the very first words that he says in the Gospel of Mark. 

The Kingdom has come near because the King has come near. God is near because Jesus is near. And Jesus is not only on his way to proclaim the message, Jesus is the message. The message is what we proclaim as a community of faith:

Christ has died

Christ has risen

Christ will come again. 

But the message is not just knowing the story, but discovering how exactly the story has changed our lives. 

Jesus has not come to take away our suffering. In fact, even the people who Jesus healed, they still suffered afterwards. And even still, Jesus himself suffered. 

Suffering as terrible as we know it, is normal. That doesn’t make it easy, that doesn’t make it suffering good. 

But especially these days, as our suffering and discomfort, our crisis and struggle is so acute, there is a strange comfort in know that it is not outside the normal. It isn’t *our* normal, but pandemics and economic struggles and existential threats are not unusual for creation, not new in history, and not outside of God’s purview. There is nothing that we are experiencing now that is too big for God to contend with.

God’s mission in Christ, God’s purpose in the incarnation, God’s activity in the world has not changed. God stills comes to be reconciled with God’s people. God still brings mercy and forgiveness and grace into a world that needs it. God in Christ has come near to us to do something about ultimate and permanent defeat — death. 

While life and freedom will always mean that suffering and discomfort are a part of our existence, God’s mission to creation is to redefine our existence. Not take away our pain, our suffering, our grief. Not remove death from our existence. But rather to transform it.  

On the cross, Christ takes all of our death. 

Christ does not take it away, rather Christ changes it, all of it. 

Transforms it. 

Into something new.

On the cross and then in the empty tomb, Jesus takes death and makes it something completely different. It is no longer the end of our lives. Death is now our entrance into the Kingdom of God. Suffering, pain, grief and death are near. But so is the Kingdom of God. This is the message that Jesus has come to proclaim. This why Jesus only stays for so long and why some are healed and others not. Because this healing is only temporary. But death having been transformed into resurrection. That is permanent. 

Yes, we know that suffering and death can be terrible and it can in fact come to define our very lives… but God has refined suffering, God has redefined death and God has redefined life. Yes, we come clamouring to Jesus to take away our aches and pains, to take away our grief and sorrow. But Jesus does something completely different, something that isn’t for just a few or some of us. Rather, Jesus has come into our world, joined God to all creation in order to bring us, all of us, all of creation, to New Life.