Mark 9:2-9; 2 Kings 2:1-12
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 11 February 2018
When my friend Michael Atty was here for my installation, almost every time we turned a corner and the Chugach range came into view, he would declare it seemed that if he could stand on top of one of them, he could surely speak directly to God. We drove and hiked in the cold rain, but it did not matter. What our eyes see connects beyond the moment itself. It is up to us to carry that moment forward.
I sometimes feel the same way in Anchorage. There are moments when I turn a corner and see the mountains in a new light, or with just the right cloud cover, and I am struck as if seeing them for the first time. There are also places in Kansas that I have been to and seen hundreds of times, but when I am there, they connect me to heights few places can. Standing on the shore of a pond fishing, or hiking the dry clay buttes looking across rolling flatness. Hiking among the trees, then out and above the low tree line to catch a view of the inlet. It matters not where we are, but whether we notice where we are.
I know Michael, and I know he does not believe God lives on top of a mountain, or even in the sky above them. The mountaintops are not closer to the presence of God than the ocean floor. Nevertheless, he knew that if he could just stand there, he would know something of the presence of the divine that he did not know before.
Building a shrine, or a tent to mark the spot and to signify a time and location begins to seem reasonable. There are temples all over the world, from all sorts of faith traditions, including Christianity, that exist because that specific place recalls a spiritual experience. From that initial experience, people continue to connect something to the place. Generations return to connect with what happened there.
In fact, there are many churches and shrines in the area where the transformation story in Mark is purported to have happened Even so, Jesus seems to be doing something that is not concerned with the symbols or shrines, but with what lies beyond the physical expression.
And this is why the story of Elijah and Elisha is so helpful. If you remember, John the Baptist came into the gospel story out in the wilderness, baptizing people in the Jordan who were going out to see him. This is the same place where the story in 2 Kings places Elijah. He parted the Jordan and departed out of sight.
Now John has appeared on the same scene, wearing the same clothes as Elijah, crossing people over the Jordan through baptism. He is an Elijah figure, only now he says that with all the prophetic power he commands, even as much as Elijah, one even greater is to come.
Of course, we can also go farther back. Elijah was for his day a new Moses figure, even down to parting water. That is why the transfiguration account in Mark has Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. That is why Peter asks to build them all a shrine. It is because Jesus is signified as the heir to this prophetic tradition, except he is now seen as even greater than anyone who had come before him.
But instead of focusing on the prophets before him, or even himself, Jesus is calling his disciples, and the church for that matter, to reach beyond what we can see with our eyes into the realm of God, which persistently eludes our ability to see it clearly.
So instead of building a shrine, as helpful as they can be, Jesus challenges his followers to find their own voice to speak of and to the realm of God that he is pointing to. It is not enough to pause where we are, for shrines and even extraordinary memories have a tendency to draw focus upon themselves.
Just as Moses and Elijah also pointed to God in their words and deeds, Jesus compels us to see beyond what is right in front of us, even if it is as awe inspiring as the heights of great mountains shimmering with alpenglow.
It is there for a brief time, and then we are left trying to make meaning of a moment so that it might transcend the instant we spend in the midst of it.
Jesus compels us to speak to the unspeakable truth of our faith, but not to place too much permanence in what we might say at any particular moment and place. This is a question worth returning to often. What do we say about God if we feel compelled to say anything at all? Does Jesus glowing on a mountain really prove anything to us? How is Elisha supposed to react when the chariot and fire shine in the sky?
We must ask these questions because the moment will not last forever. Peter looks back and the scene returns to normal. Elisha looks until he can see no longer, and the loss of the moment causes him such great distress that he tears his clothing in frustration.
The moment is gone, and the question remains for us: what are we to do with an evanescent experience that refuses to remain constantly present?
Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is not a mistake in the life of the church that we read the story of the transfiguration, and of Elijah riding off on chariots aflame directly before the bottom falls out.
The high moments we experience are no guarantee of future moments of greatness. The transfiguration and chariot are not the end of the story. We remain bound by the rising sun of a new day. We turn a new corner and we are faced with the next moment, with all of its own beauty and limitations.
For Michael, I know that he remembers his time in Alaska. We have spoken about it a few times since. But he is not here. There are no mountains to his East that grab his imagination and compel him to see God as if just a few steps away. Nevertheless, other moments and places are in front of him.
We have new corners to see around and people who transform us in front of us. We have conversations, we see children master a new skill, or older people share their wisdom to the next generation.
I get the feeling that Jesus was not concerned with transfiguring for the sake of itself. It is Mark’s story after all. It is instead a reminder of days to come, for difficult moments ahead. Yet Mark is signaling something close at hand. Although we can see Lent arriving, this day shall be a reminder that the realm of God is at hand, even in the low moments of our life.
In the moment when we caught our first glimpse of what the realm of God might be like and chose to follow after Jesus as Christians, our lives would never be the same. Perhaps we have seen many moments since, or just a few.
We know that it is not always clear what we are after, or even how God is present in our lives. Yet we find ourselves in these moments that remain as signposts along the way, when we are reminded of how our lives are transforming again and again.
These are the transfigured moments, when it is as if chariots are blazing through the sky, showing us which way to go that reminds us in leaner days that God can break through at any moment.
This is after all what we believe. Whether we are sure of it or not, we proclaim the possibility that the Spirit of God can break through the cracks and come flooding into all the things we do, and at any moment. There is no great secret to keep. There are no magic words to say.
There is simply hope that as we practice our faith together, as we struggle it out this day and the next, we might see clearer, we might love easier, we might forgive and repair more fully, we might transform together and shine brighter in each moment.
And perhaps, as we grow and as we ourselves are transformed along the way, may we begin to see the realm of God at even the lowest points. Even as everything seems to be lost, when death threatens to wipe it all away, may we still see the transfiguration happening as if for the first time, and proclaim it in everything we do. Amen
Lent will begin. Low days will happen. Difficult times will push us. Even death will visit us. But if we can see the world transforming at every turn, no shrines can contain our visions, no lack of shrines can make us forget, what God has done and what God is doing.