Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of PrairieBaptistChurch in Prairie Village, K.S., on Feb. 22, 2009.
Rome is a beautiful city, ancient ruins, famous fountains, enormous palm trees, orange trees, lemon trees, olive orchards. But they warned us that, though the climate is Mediterranean, they were having unseasonably cold weather a week ago when the Global Baptist Peace Conference gathered, so we should bring warm clothing and perhaps an extra sweater or jacket to share with people coming from Africa and other places where it doesn’t get cold. And it was cold, but nobody expected it to snow – big, heavy, white snowflakes, practically a blizzard. It didn’t last long and it didn’t stay long, but it amazed and surprised us, especially the Africans.
Mark gives us a story of transformation this morning which also amazes, surprises and even terrifies three disciples. This is a rare story for the gospels, an epiphany or theophany form of literature which comes from the Greek metamorphose – to change into another form. It may also mean to change on the outside to match the inside. It happens when God enters into a story to uncover what has been hidden from human perception or recognition. God does it sparingly.
In Rome, snow fell out of the sky in a quirky winter surprise. In Mark, the story is carefully put together – mountain top, the brilliant white clothing, the cloud, the divine voice – to point to an intentional holy encounter, a God moment, a thin place. Those elements would remind hearers of the great Hebrew Testament stories of Elijah and Moses who encountered God on mountaintops. Now, here are Moses and Elijah, long dead, yet alive in front of their eyes, and Jesus with them, looking like they’ve never seen him before.
That would be disorienting, confusing and terrifying. Their knees start knocking and Peter, the one never at a loss for words, even if they are the wrong words, says a few wrong words out of his need to make sense, control, do something! “Rabbi, I’m so glad we’re here. Let’s make three dwellings, one for each of you!” Maybe he wants to make a monument to the event. Maybe he’s thinking about the annual autumn Feast of Booths with its little constructed dwellings that celebrate harvest and remember Israel’s wilderness pilgrimage. Whatever he’s thinking, he’s trying to put some of the spotlight on himself.
A famous Russian icon of 1403 depicts the transfiguration with light radiating from Jesus, Moses and Elijah calm and deferential beside him, and the three disciples crumpled on the ground, hanging on for dear life.
The dead, live. The living, radiate. We’re not in Kansas anymore. And God speaks: This is my beloved son. Listen to him. Why would God have to say that? Have the disciples not been listening? As a matter of fact, just before the transfiguration, when Jesus tries to explain that he will soon suffer and die on the way to resurrection Peter tells him to stop! On the way down the mountain Jesus tells the disciples not to tell what they have seen because he knows they don’t understand. And right after this story, Jesus explains it again: First death, then resurrection. Yet even with the mountaintop and the cloud and the holy voice, Mark says they still didn’t get it and “were afraid to ask….”
But before we’re too hard on the disciples, perhaps we should confess that it is not easy for us either to follow and understand a savior who loves his enemies and forgives those who nail him on a cross. It is hard to see how this is the way to peace, to life, to resurrection. But God says, “Listen.”
I believe that God still tells disciples, you and me, to listen. God still steps into our stories to uncover what we don’t see. It’s not that Jesus changes in front of us so much as for a moment we get to see who he really is. Theophany is not something we can schedule or make to happen. It is a gift of God. But we can make ourselves available to receive the gift.
Coming together to worship is one way. Going to a far away city like Rome with Baptists from all over the world is another. I tried to listen carefully at the Peace Conference to hear how God might be speaking. Like any theophany, it is sometimes puzzling, sometimes disorienting, sometimes threatening, sometimes beautiful. God’s beauty showed in the faces of Baptists from so many places – 50 countries, and there would have been more if everyone who tried had gotten visas. God’s beauty sounded in the cello that accompanied our singing in English, Italian, Spanish and once in a while, Latin. God spoke in the Negro spirituals sung by the Italian Baptist choir and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen sung by an aspiring operatic soprano. There is such goodness and life when people come together.
But one morning, God spoke in the disorienting voice of C.H. Chiromo, a long time advocate for peace and justice in Zimbabwe and founding member of the African Baptist Peace Network. In elegant English he began, “I wish that we had colonized you instead of you colonizing us. Then I would be able to speak to you in my native language.” And I was reminded of the privilege and the advantage that I take for granted everywhere in the world based on great cruelty and injustice.
Another day, God’s voice sounded ominous as a Congolese man stood in a session to ask a question which did not sound like a question. It was a story, a very long story, about the suffering of the people of Congo. And when Paul the facilitator stood and tried to take the mike the man refused saying, “Let me! Let me!” He talked on and Paul attempted again to stop him but he said again, “Let me! Let me!” and told his story until he finished. How often voices are silenced, ignored, discounted and how difficult it is to hear something you do not want to hear or cannot understand.
Which brings us back to the disciples. I am talking about us. God needs us to “listen to him.” Our world is far from the peace we long for. We are far from the people we could be. But Jesus is in the world, in the room. Listen to his voice in worship, a Sunday School class, the spiritual life retreat, a small group, a serving ministry. He is all that you need, the hope of the world. And he will lead you to life.