This passage from the gospel of Mark, called the transfiguration, is a story that has been puzzling pastors and theological scholars for centuries. It’s a bizarre tale. But I’m delighted to tell you that I’ve finally found an explanation, thanks to the Super Bowl. It’s a Tide commercial! Obviously, I jest, and I do feel like every preacher in America is probably making that joke today.
It is such a peculiar story. Jesus’ clothes turn sparkling white. There are ghosts – or some manifestation of two guys who should have been long gone, anyway. A voice speaks from a cloud. It’s not entirely clear why Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and not the other disciples. Jesus obviously though it was important for these three disciples to see something special. But why?
At this point in the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, the disciples have already seen a lot of miraculous things. They’ve seen Jesus cast out demons and cure the sick. He’s healed Peter’s own mother in law. In the chapter just before this, he feeds 4,000 people on seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. They’re starting to roll with seeing unexpected things, and to expect the miraculous from Jesus.
But then he sits them down and begins to explain where this is all leading. He tells them that he’s going to suffer and be rejected, and then be killed. And this does not mesh with the powerful, seemingly invincible Jesus they are coming to know. Peter even takes Jesus aside and tries to reprimand him. But Jesus tells him, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And then, up the mountain they go, where they cannot help but set their minds on divine things, because there’s Jesus, all clean and glittery and somehow both recognizable and different; the word in Greek is metamorpho, to change form. A couple of the most significant historical and religious figures of their faith then show up, speaking of divine things.
This is when Peter thinks he finally gets it. He’s setting his mind on divine things, he thinks, when he gets all excited and says to Jesus, “I know! I know! Let’s stay here! I’ll just build you guys some places to stay, you can even have your own rooms, and we’ll just hang out here. Okay?”
But no. Everything suddenly goes back to normal, as if nothing had ever changed at all. Back down the mountain they go. And worst of all, Jesus tells them that they cannot tell anyone what they have seen until after he has died and risen from the dead – which, you might remember, Peter wasn’t even convinced was really going to happen.
Jesus was convinced that these three disciples needed this experience, needed to see this metamorphosis. At the time when they’re finding it hardest to see who God really is, Jesus shows them something new: not something different than he’s been before, but something different than they’ve seen before. Instead of the picture of him they’ve gotten below, he gives them a window to see fully. But their new perspective isn’t just meant to stay on the mountain. It’s meant to come back down with them to their everyday lives, transfiguring how they see that same Jesus they’ve been following all along, setting their vision of Jesus firmly in the divine, not just the human. The transfiguration is as much about them as it is about Jesus. It’s not just a change in the landscape, it’s a change in how they see.
Sometimes in our lives, we might look around and wonder, “Is this all there is?” Maybe it’s just a fleeting question, maybe the question lasts for a season, maybe it even lasts for years. We look around at our life, and it seems like there should be something more. Maybe something happened, maybe nothing really happened, but suddenly there’s a restlessness. Our longing something else, to just break out of what feels monotonous, can make us do weird things. Some people make notorious mid-life crisis sports car purchase. Some go on a bucket-list level trip, or take up a new hobby they’ve always intended to try, or quit their job, or jump into a new relationship.
But usually, nothing really changes, because these are mostly superficial changes. They might change the landscape, but they don’t change how we see. Like the disciples, most of the time we don’t need to see different things; we need to see differently.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get a visit from sparkly Jesus and a couple of ancient Hebrew prophets – although if sparkly Jesus was going to show up anywhere, it would be here. But God does give us experiences that change our vision and open us up to seeing how things really are – that get our very human picture out of the way and let us see through the window of the divine. We all have transfigured moments. We are awed by the grandeur and power of nature, or overwhelmed by the love we feel for a partner, or a child, or a friend. In a moment of deep vulnerability, we share a piece of ourselves with someone else, something we’ve never felt like we could reveal, and they receive it with grace. We get a glimpse of, perhaps not sparkly Jesus, but some sudden clarity about God. And in that moment, we go through a metamorphosis. The world is transfigured before us.
The question is whether those moments transfigure us as well. When we come down from the mountain, and go back to the patterns of our lives, will we take the time to remember how to see?
We often want to go back to those transfigured moments, or we want God to give us more of them. We are tempted, like Peter, to build dwelling places and try to stay there all the time. But clinging to the past closes us to the future God offers. We have to go back down the mountain. We have to take our metamorphosis with us.
Peter, James, and John depended on their transfiguration moment to get them through Jesus’ suffering and death, through the desolation of wondering if everything they had done was a waste. And our transfiguration moments can sustain us, nurture us, and inspire us through any circumstances we face – if we allow ourselves to be transfigured. If we allow God to show us who we are, and who God is, and if we allow ourselves to see a transfigured world. Then we can see in any landscape, “No, this is not all there is.”