The Church’s text for Sunday is that Transfiguration passage. It stands midpoint in the gospel story. The storm clouds were gathering around Jesus already. His enemies were growing in number and the pressure was increasing. In the distance Jesus saw trouble, serious trouble ahead.
And so he took Peter, James and John high up on a mountain. It was a dream-like scene. Some called it a vision. But whatever it was something important happened there. Jesus appeared with Elijah and Moses. It must have been terribly emotional because Peter wanted to stay and build three tabernacles and just worship God. But Mark reported that the disciples were terrified. They had told him it was like one of those out of the body experiences. But out of the midst a voice came. God’s voice. “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” It was the same words Jesus had heard whispered that day he stood waist-deep in the Jordan and was baptized. And then, Mark wrote, it was over. Elijah and Moses were not there. The mist was gone and the four of them just stood there. Not a word was spoken. But somewhere they heard a bird sing.
Jesus led them down the mountain telling them to keep what had happened a secret. At the bottom of the hill there was a world in need. Scholars say that this whole experience was a preparation time as Jesus came nearer and nearer to his death. Later those disciples would read back into the story their own meanings. It was a preparation time for them, too—preparing them to face the fact of their Lord’s death and perhaps their own.
So why did the Church keep the story? On the edge of another Lenten season what is there for us to take into our own lives? Two little words, I think. Maybe not little at all. Maybe two of the most important words that we have.
Like Jesus, like his disciples we need some vision to refocus our lives. Jesus heard a voice at his baptism and then on the mountainside. “You are beloved…” the voice said. “You are beloved of God.” Those words carried him through all he had to face. And they would remind him, again and again, of something he already knew. And so he reached into his heart and gave to them what God had given him. He whispered, over and over, “You are beloved.” Prostitutes, beggars, old cripples sitting by the pool for 38 years. Rich young rulers and fisherman and tax collectors. He told them all the same thing. You are beloved. No wonder they followed him.
We need that voice still that touches our hearts underneath all the clutter of our days. A voice larger than ball game scores and economics and personal struggles. We also need to hear that despite our shabby lives we really are beloved. But sometimes it gets complicated. Tony Campolo tells the story about an old man in the backwoods of Kentucky that could always be counted on when the evangelist came to town and the annual revival cranked up again. At the end of the service the man would get up when the invitation was given come down the aisle, kneel at the altar and cry out: “Fill me Jesus, fill me Jesus, fill me!”
The revival would end and the old man would slip back into his meanness and drinking ways. And the next year at the revival he was back at church and when the invitation was given, he would saunter down the aisle crying out, “Fill me, Jesus. Fill me.” And from the back of the church an old lady said, “Don’t do it Lord, don’t fill me. He leaks.”
Isn’t this why we all need a Lent? We all leak. We don’t live up to our promises. And this is a preparation time. It is getting us ready to be honest with ourselves once again. To help us with the hard things and turn toward the good things. Faith is not easy. We all leak. It comes hard. “Lord,” we pray, “we believe, help thou our unbelief.” So we read our Bibles, we pray, we come back to church on Sundays to see a little clearer once again. To be reminded that even though we all leak we really are beloved, no matter who we are and what we have done. But isn’t this just half of Mark’s story?
And so we come to the second word: Task. If the first word is vision—the second word is task. When Jesus and his three friends finally got to the bottom of the hill reality hit them in the face. No vision now. Just life. A man stood helplessly by as his son convulsed. And the disciples could do nothing. The text says, sadly: they were not able. They could not help the man. And so they argued. About the right cure. About many things as the boy convulsed and the father cried: “Help him! Help him!”
Doesn’t it sound familiar? The world aches and leaks, too. A mother and a father and two kids lose their home and find themselves in a trailer park. Boys and girls still coming home in boxes—over 7,500 now from 20 countries, not to speak of those 22,000 others seriously wounded. And the church argues about gays and abortion and birt control and and drinkin’ and dancin’ and smokin’. The world convulses. We understand the disciples’ frustration when they told Jesus we are not able. There is so much about our age and our lives that we can also say, we are not able.
But we don’t have to pick on Washington. We would give anything to help some divorced daughter and her two children. We’d give anything to help our friend with cancer. We’d give anything to find help with the leaks in our own lives.
And Transfiguration comes. It says the strangest thing. If you find your vision…you can make it. If you see beyond the Evening News and this strange rage our kids have over vampires and the sad, sad death of Whitney Houston. It’s a tall order but we begin to reach out, as best we can, where we are and help somebody else.
Some time ago a man came to me and told me a sad story. He was depressed and his job was not going well and he was turning forty and the fun had about gone out of everything. He met this woman who thought he was the funniest thing she ever met. And she listened to him. Laughed at his jokes. One thing led to another. Word got out and he lost his job and his wife kicked him out. His children wouldn’t speak to him. And he didn’t know what he was going to do. And in desperation he went to see a counselor. Over a period of time he found his way back. It was not easy. He got another job—not as good as the one he had. He and his wife came to some understanding and they are working hard on their marriage. He came through the line after our Christmas Eve service, his family trailing behind him. I hugged him and whispered, “Aren’t you glad you worked it out and stayed.” Great big tears came to his eyes and he said back: “Oh yes, I’m glad I stayed.”
The world is a better place when we get in touch with our visions, deal with our leaks, lift somebody’s burden and help some convulsive child. We may not be able to do it on our own. But with God’s help—who knows?
No wonder the church left Mark’s Transfiguration story in the book. No wonder we read these old words on the edge of Lent.