I do not know about you, but lately, I have found myself at a weird emotional place with this pandemic. Eleven months ago, the pandemic got so bad, our church buildings closed and our experience as church as we know was forever altered. Then the rollercoaster began. Cases went up and down. Schools were in and mostly out. Masks were optional, then required, and now even recommended to be doubled. And then there is the death toll. We went from a couple of thousand a week to lately as much as 25,000 a week. The introduction of the vaccine feels like the great white hope. And yet, just this week I learned of a dear family friend who died a rapid death from the virus. And we know there will be more death before there is life again.
I think that is why I am struggling this year to find the Transfiguration to be a source of joy. As I read the familiar words this week, I wanted to be mesmerized – by the dazzling white of Jesus’ clothes, the appearance of none other than the law and the prophets: Moses and Elijah. Even God speaks words of revelation to the disciples. Despite all the wonder and awe on this last of epiphanies in the season of Epiphany, I find myself unable to rally in this epiphanic moment.
The good news is the tension I have been feeling this week might not just be a case of my own emotional journey through this pandemic. The tension we feel today is intentional on Mark’s part. If you can remember all the way back in Advent, when we read the very first words of Mark, we read, “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] 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 who was born. 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, just as Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus is equally something else: the Son of God. Now 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, 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. That euphoric feeling is not unlike the feelings stirred up by the hope of vaccines – a hope so strong that some governors in our country have lifted pandemic restrictions all together – no more masks, no more distancing, no more waiting.
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: Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God.
This week we will begin the long journey of Lent. We will reflect on our relationship with Jesus, our failings and faults, and our gifts and goodness. The work will feel hard and tedious at times, especially clouded by this unrelenting pandemic, and we may prefer to hold on to the Messiah on today’s mountain. 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 grateful to walk the Lenten walk with you. I am grateful to hear about your struggles and victories, your darkness and light. I am grateful to be surrounded by a community of people – whether virtually or in person – working through valley of two mountains so that we can come through the redemption of the resurrection. Today’s Transfiguration Sunday offers us 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, “#768: Transfiguration of Our Lord (B) – February 14, 2021,” February 7, 2021 as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/768-transfiguration-of-our-lord-b-feb-14-2021 on February 10, 2021.