A couple of months ago, we entered into a new liturgical year. When Advent started, we began another year of discovery, this year focusing on Mark’s gospel and Mark’s depiction of who Jesus is and what that depiction means for our journey with Christ. Back in December, we began the journey with the very first words of Mark – the first verse of the first chapter of Mark. Mark says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now, I never thought much of Mark 1.1. The line, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” has always sounded to me like, “Once upon a time…” But we know that Mark is the shortest gospel, and that Mark is the tightest writer of Jesus’ story. So, what I should have remembered is that Mark does not throw away words. Mark would never introduce his gospel with “Once upon a time.” As a writer who does not mince words, instead Mark tells us everything we need to know about Jesus in one simple sentence: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So what does Mark tell us, and why I am taking us back to the beginning when our assigned reading is about the Transfiguration? Because we need Mark’s first words before we can understand anything as dramatic as the Transfiguration. When Mark says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark tells us right away who Jesus is: Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus is the Son of God.[i] Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus is the Son of God. First, Mark tells us Jesus is the Christ: the Messiah, the person the people of God had been awaiting, the victorious redeemer of the people, the mighty restorer of the kingdom of God. Since that day in December when we heard this brief introduction by Mark, we have been celebrating the Messiah. We heard of a mother, shepherds, and kings who reveal this truth to us – a Messiah is born. Then, Jesus is baptized, and disciples follow him, and miracles happen. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus asks who the disciples say that Jesus is, Peter boldly proclaims, “You are the Messiah.” Even today, as Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses appear, we are filled with anticipation: this is what we have been waiting for – Jesus the Messiah!!
And yet, somehow in the birth stories, and the epiphanies, and the dramatic healing stories, we forget the other half of Mark’s introduction: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You see, Mark needs us to know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But Jesus is equally something else: the Son of God. Now the Son of God is not just an honorific title. Mark tells us something powerful when Mark tells us Jesus is the Son of God. If you remember, in a few chapters beyond our reading in Mark today, Jesus will tell that familiar parable of some wicked tenants – tenants who are entrusted with the Master’s vineyard, but who kill the son of the landowner when the landowner sends his son to collect the harvest. The Son of God is not a title of honor so much as a reminder of what will happen to Jesus. The Son of God is destined to lay down his life for the people of God. Jesus is the suffering servant we hear about in Isaiah – the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that new life might come.
So what does any of this have to do with the Transfiguration? Pretty much everything. You see, in this victorious Messiah-like last epiphany moment before we head into Lent, when the disciples are so overwhelmed by the drama of their Messiah gathered with Moses and Elijah, God says something simple to the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” You see, just days before the Transfiguration of Jesus, Peter had insightfully proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah – the same thing that Mark proclaims from the beginning of Mark’s gospel. But Peter forgot the other part of Mark’s introduction. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ, the Messiah, and the Son of God, the suffering servant. Jesus is always both.
I remember in my very first interview with the Commission on Ministry – the group who helps those discerning a call to ordained ministry – in that first interview, the Commission asked me this question: Who is Jesus to you? I remember at the time thinking what a weird question that was. I mean, we have the whole of the New Testament that tells us who Jesus is. But since I was sitting before a body of people who could determine my fate, I figured I had better come up with something better than, “That’s a weird question.” And so I started to ramble on about the things that were enlivening my faith journey – Jesus’ preference for the poor, his passion for justice, and his call to being in community. Not once did I remember Mark’s simple words – that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. I did what Peter does today – what we all do in our faith journey. I looked at Jesus and pulled out the stuff I liked: the advocate for justice. Peter pulls out what he likes: the Christ, the victorious Messiah. But what the Transfiguration today reminds of is that we can never pick and choose what we like about Jesus. Jesus is always both the Christ, the Messiah, and the Son of God, the suffering servant.
So why does any of this matter? Well, in part, this fundamental clarity about Jesus is important because we are at a fulcrum in Mark’s gospel. We have journeyed with Jesus, experienced epiphanies, ascended the mountain and seen the radiance of our God. All of that excitement could lead us to think we have arrived, that our victory has already come, that Christ is simply the Messiah. The temptation is for us to linger on the mountain, to stay with the Jesus who makes us feel good, who makes us feel powerful, who makes us feel victorious, who dazzles us with shiny clothes. And in some ways, that is what today is all about. We celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration because we need to know Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah.
But as we begin Lent this week, we descend this mountain and walk our way to another mountain – the mountain of Calvary that reminds us of the other truth of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to redeem us through the darkness of the cross.[ii] Even on the mountain of Transfiguration, God reminds us of this truth. God does not shout to the disciples, “Jesus is the Messiah!!” Instead, God whispers the gentle reminder, “This is my Son, the beloved.” Even God knows we will want to linger on the goodness of who Jesus is – the brilliance of a Messiah. But as Mark tells us from the beginning: The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God.
This week we will begin the long journey of Lent. We will be reflecting on our relationship with Jesus, our failings and faults, and our gifts and goodness. The work will feel hard and tedious at times, and on those days we are feeling particularly low, we may want to have Jesus the Christ stand up for us, and bring in a mighty victory. But as we walk from today’s mountain to Good Friday’s mountain, we also hold in tension with Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God. In our weakness, we find a savior who is also weak. In our dark days, we find a savior mired in darkness. In our despairing, we find a savior lost in despair too. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God gives us as much comfort as Jesus’ identity as the mighty Messiah. When we hold all of who Jesus is in our hearts, we can be more tender with all of who we are.
I am eager to walk the Lenten walk with you. I am eager to hear about your struggles and victories, your darkness and light. I am eager to be surrounded by a community of people working through valley of two mountains so that we can come through the redemption of the resurrection. Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration offers you sustenance for the valley, fuel for the work, fire for the renewal. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the son of God. Amen.
[i] This understanding of Jesus’ identity was presented by Thomas P. Long at a lecture on February 9, 2018.
[ii] The idea of framing Lent between two mountains come from Rolf Jacobson, in the Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#585 –Transfiguration of Our Lord,” February 3, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977, as found on February 7, 2018.