The transfiguration story is … well, it’s weird. I have never known what to make of it. And I’ve always thought the little editorial dig they didn’t know what they were saying, they were so scared was unwarranted, because “let’s build a tent for all three of you!” seems like a perfectly rational response to Moses and Elijah showing up. I mean, who wouldn’t want to turn a visit with the Big Two from Israel’s history into a camping trip?
Anyway, this is the text:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
~ Mark 9: 2-12
We see some echoes of Jesus baptism here in the Voice from the clouds. But unlike the baptism, the Voice isn’t speaking to Jesus; it is a declaration to the three disciples about Jesus. That’s important, because we’re approaching a turning point in Jesus’s story. The cross is coming. Soon, it will time for the disciples to carry the message without him. This is supposed to reassure them of who exactly this man is that they are following.
It’s also why them discussing what “rising from the dead” meant is important, and also poignant.
It’s maybe the first time Jesus leads with plain speaking instead of a riddle or a parable. He does this — we assume — because he’s not going to be here much longer, and he doesn’t want them to misunderstand what he’s talking. Because this thing he’s talking about? This matters.
But it also makes sense that the disciples misunderstand anyway, because they are used to him speaking in riddles and parables. It is natural (and terribly sad to me) that the three of them just presume they are too dense to figure out what he’s talking about. After all, that’s been pretty much their whole thing for three years now.
Not that we are any better. Me? I’ve been misunderstanding Jesus for going on 50 years. So, yeah. I get it.
Anyway, then things get exponentially sadder after all the disciples get back together. Here, Jesus gets absolutely crystal clear. He is done with speaking in stories, at least about This. One. Very. Important. Thing. He is laying down some #realtalk for his followers to prepare them for what’s coming next. He tells them he is going to be killed, and then he will rise again.
Two things follow:
1) They are still confused, because they STILL think he’s speaking in riddles and stories;
2) Even worse, they are afraid to ask him what he means.
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
~Mark 9: 30-32
To misunderstand what Jesus is saying to us is so very human. It is so very us.
To be afraid of approaching Jesus for fear of how he will react — for fear of appearing inadequate, or stupid, or irreverent, or just not trusting enough — is heartbreaking. But also so very human, and so very us.
Reading Mark with some fresh eyes this time through, I’ve been struck by how varied is Jesus’s approach to different people.
On one hand, he consistently shows great compassion to the sick and to children, and his biting sarcasm is pretty much always on display toward the religious establishment.
But then, around his followers and his friends, it gets complicated. He is sometimes kind, sometimes harsh. He is sometimes patient, sometimes short tempered. He doles out praise and he gets testy. He is playful and exasperated. There is a remarkable amount of push and pull.
And it makes me wonder if this push and pull, this wrestling, isn’t by design. Maybe this push and pull, this wrestling, is what draws us to him. Maybe it is what makes growth possible.
In evangelical culture, “obedience” is still king, and has been for about 150 years or so at least. Don’t ask questions. Just push the “I believe” button. And when we all get to heaven, then we’ll get to ask Jesus all our questions. We’ll understand it better by and by. Well, if we even care about the questions anymore at that point. Because, why would we? We’ll be in heaven!
This … this is unhealthy. And it’s really not consistent with Scripture.
Abraham argued with God when he thought God was being unjust. Moses argued with God when he felt God was being unjust. Jacob wrestled with God for a blessing. Elijah cried out because he felt God had abandoned him when Elijah needed him most. Heck, just a couple chapters ago, there was a Gentile woman giving Jesus massive pushback when he treated her dismissively. Scripture is chock full of stories of faithful people who stood up for themselves and for others, who contended with God for a just cause, and we are better off for all of this.
Now, the point I’m making here isn’t to argue over a theology on the eternal nature of God. You can do that on your own time in your own blog post.
The point I’m trying to make is that this contention with God for what is good and what is right and what is true changes us and bends events toward justice.
It is an essential part of being made in God’s image.
There is a classic Star Trek episode called The Squire of Gothos, where a being called Squire Trelane controls matter and creates planets, and he decides he wants to play with the Enterprise crew. Things do not go well for Kirk and the crew as this god is quite capricious and childish. In the end, it turns out that this being is just a child-god, as his “parents” step in to save the crew.
Relatedly, I once had a once had a friend who was convinced that this universe was the product of some higher being’s fifth grade science project.
We don’t believe either of those scenarios are an accurate representation of our God. But honestly, aren’t there days when it feels that way? And on those days, don’t we have the duty to push back against it?
So wrestle. We contend for love and justice and mercy. Because that is what we are called to do.
I mean, it’s right there in the Book:
What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God
I don’t believe our God is a little dictator. But you and I were created to push back against the times when the world makes it feel that way.
I don’t believe that our God is hoarding all the answers and intentionally keeping us in the dark. But you and I were created to press in and seek the Kingdom and God’s Righteousness, even when everything conspires to keep that Kingdom and Righteousness hidden.
It is why we are here.
So the sadness in this story isn’t that the disciples misunderstood Jesus. We all misunderstand Jesus sometimes. Even when he speaks plainly.
It isn’t even that they were afraid of confronting him. Nobody likes like confrontation after all, and we could all do with a few extra helpings of humility to temper our self-righteousness. To wrestle with God isn’t to assume that that we are the ones with answers.
No, the sadness in this story comes when these disciples (and we) yield to the fear. When we stop chasing truth and justice and love. When we quit pushing, when we settle into defeat, when we accept that we are too broken or too corrupt or too dumb.
We must keep up the pursuit for truth and mercy and justice and love in spite of the fear. Not just because it is our reason for being. But because the pursuit — the seeking — makes us into the people we are becoming.