Scripture - Mark 9:2-9
Listen, for God speaks, calling out to the earth, speaking for all to hear.
Centuries prior to this event, according to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, God came down on Mt. Sinai in a cloud. The voice of God spoke out of the cloud, & everyone was afraid. Moses went to the top of the mountain & begged to see God’s glory: Please show me your glorious presence. And God responded: As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, & I’ll cover you with
my hand until I’ve passed by. But my face won’t be visible. Moses was not able to see God’s glory directly. But even getting near was enough to make Moses’ face shine with the reflected glory of God.
Now, centuries later, we are on top of another mountain & there is glory again. This dazzling brightness makes Jesus’ clothes brighter than if they had been bleached white. There is a mountain, a voice out of a cloud - & even Moses makes an appearance. Is this Mt Sinai all over again? No, because there is a mind-boggling twist. Moses had reflected the glory of God as the moon reflects the light of the sun. But Jesus produces the unsurpassable glory of God; it emanates from him. Jesus does not point to the glory of God as Elijah, Moses, & every other prophet has done; Jesus is the glory of God in human form. The author of the book of Hebrews puts it like this: The Son is the light of God’s glory & the imprint of God’s being (1:3).
Something else happens here that never happened on Mt Sinai – Peter, James & John are in the presence of God & yet they do not die.
On Mt Sinai, God came down as a cloud. It was called “the shekinah glory;” maybe you remember it from the holy of holies where the high priest atoned for the sins of the people of Israel. He spoke out of the cloud – it was God’s raw presence, which the Israelites knew was fatal. When God told Moses, no one can see me & live, he was saying that there is an infinite gap between deity & humanity. “You can’t handle my reality,” God was saying, “you can’t endure the presence of my holiness, my glory. It would destroy you.”
That is why, here on the mountain where Jesus is ‘transfigured’ (that is why this is Transfiguration Sunday), Peter is scared. So scared he does not know what he is saying, according to Mark. He stammers out: Rabbi… let’s make 3 shrines, one for you, one for Moses, & one for Elijah. To us, that is a baffling proposal – so let us look more closely at it.
The word translated shrines here is actually the Greek word for tabernacle, or ‘tent’. After God’s glory came down on Mt Sinai, the Hebrew people built a tabernacle. Why? Most religions have recognized that there is a wide gap of some kind between deity & humanity. Therefore, many religions have temples (or tabernacles) with priests & sacrifices & rituals to transform your consciousness or take away your sin – in other words, to mediate the gap & protect human beings from the divine presence. What Peter is actually saying here is, “We need a tabernacle, we need to set up rituals, to protect us from the presence of God.” Immediately after Peter says this, a cloud appears & envelops Jesus, Moses, & Elijah. And from within the shekinah glory cloud, God says: This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him! The disciples are in the very presence of God. And yet, Peter, James, & John do not die! How could that be? Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. That is Mark’s way of saying: Moses is gone, Elijah is gone, & Jesus is the bridge over the gap between God & humanity. Jesus is able to give what Elijah could not give, what Moses could not give, what no one else could ever deliver. Through Jesus, we can cross the gap into the very heart of reality, into the steps of the dance. Jesus is the temple & tabernacle to end all temples & tabernacles because he is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He is the ultimate priest to point the way for all priests.
When the cloud comes down, not only do the disciples not die, but they are also surrounded & embraced by the brilliance of God. They hear the Father speaking of his love for the Son, just as he did when Jesus was baptized at the beginning of Mark. Then suddenly the cloud goes away, & they are left standing there blinking in the comparatively dim light of the mountaintop, in a state of awestruck wonder.
James, Peter, & John have experienced worship.
And worship is a preview of the thing that all of our hearts are longing for, whether we know it or not. We seek it in art, in music, in romance, in the arms of our lovers, & in our family. In his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” CS Lewis puts it like this:
“The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that [exists] between us & reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely from this point of view the promise of glory becomes highly relevant to our deepest desire. For glory means good [relationship] with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, & welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last… then our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere [fantasy] but the truest [indicator] of our real situation… At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door… but all the [pages] of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”
Worship, then, is not just believing. Before they went up the mountain, Peter, James, & John already believed in God. And Peter had already said: You are the Christ. But now they have experienced it. The presence of God has surrounded them. They have had a foretaste of what CS Lewis says all of us are longing for: the very face & embrace of God.
In a moment, an invitation to know & feel God’s embrace…
Let us pray. The light of God is shining. The word of God is speaking. In this time of silence, may we look within ourselves & listen deeply for the presence of God in our midst. Amen.