2/11/18: Where Does the Light Come From? Mark 9:2-9
Where Does the Light Come From?
First Lesson: Psalm 50:1-6
Second Lesson: 9:2-9
Rev. Scott Dickison
Just a few weeks ago we found ourselves at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, standing beside Jesus in the Jordan River as he was baptized by John. And we were told how when Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens were “torn apart” and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, You are my Beloved Son, I’m so proud of you.
This morning we find ourselves at the halfway point in Mark’s Gospel, at what’s called the Transfiguration. We’re not down by the river, but up on a mountain. The heavens aren’t torn open again—after all we were never told they closed up at after the baptismal scene. As far as Mark is concerned, they’re still open—there’s no mention of them ever closing. Which suggest to me they were still open there on top of the mountain, but even more, that they’re still open today! God is still present in the world in a new way; the relationship between heaven and earth has been forever changed.
Where at the river the Spirit descended as a dove, this time we’re told a cloud overshadows them, which seems ominous and foreboding, but to ancient people, especially those living on the edges of desert climates like in Palestine, clouds were considered symbols of life and of hope. As I saw it put this week, “one good rain can make the difference between a good year and near starvation. It’s out of this cloud filled with life and hope—but that’s also a little ominous—that the voice comes down, echoing the blessing from Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, though slightly different.
At Jesus baptism, we’re told only he, Jesus, saw the epiphany from God. Only he saw the heavens torn open, and only he heard the voice of blessing which was directed to him: You are my Beloved son, and I’m so proud of you.
But now some eight chapters later, after Jesus has called his disciples, and traveled around the Galilee, preaching the good news that the reign of God has drawn near, and that we’re to prepare ourselves to receive it, to be a part of it, and showing just what this new reign will look like: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, calling children to sit at his right hand, saying these will be the ones who will lead us. Up there on the mountain with his three most trusted followers, the intended audience of this theophany of God, this revelation of divine glory, has changed. The voice from above isn’t directed at Jesus but those who had traveled up the mountain with him. This time the voice is directed at us, saying: This is my Beloved Son. That’s him, right over there in the dazzling white. And just to make absolutely clear the purpose of all of this, this voice continues, saying: Listen to him!
I believe the blessing at Jesus’ baptism was intended for him; to assure him as he accepted his call to usher in this new reign of God that he was on the right track. That he was not alone. That he was enough.
But now here at the transfiguration, it’s not Jesus who needs to know these things. It’s us. You see, if this revelation on the mountain was just about the blessing he received, or the light that surrounded him or the color his clothes turned, he could have gone up there alone. If it was just about Jesus being transformed, he wouldn’t have needed them to go with him. The good news of this mountain top story is that it wasn’t for Jesus. It was for the disciples. It was the disciples who needed to be changed, who needed to be transfigured. They were the ones who needed to see that light on the mountaintop so they could go back down into the valley with new eyes. And this is how it must be.
Mountaintop experiences are important: a moment, an experience, that touches us and changes us in ways we cannot fully explain and dare not try so as to rob it of its mystery. We need these. Audrey and I drove back early this morning from Lake Oconee where 16 other couples from our church are still on retreat. Not a physical mountain, but let me tell you what two days of adult conversation and two nights without toddlers crawling on top of you can mean. It felt like a glimpse of the reign of God!
We need these moments when we’re reminded we’re part of something much greater than ourselves of which we know such a small part. It’s true about a marriage—how much more the love of God? We need these experiences on the mountain. But life can’t be lived on mountaintops, at least not a life following Christ. These experiences are important, and profound, and have the power to change our lives, but the extent to which this is true has everything to do with what we do when we come down the mountain into the valley—and here is the part of this story we often overlook, to the point that it’s not even included in the lectionary passage.
It’s on their way down the mountain, seconds after they’ve witnessed the glory of God come upon them, and the voice declares Jesus as the Beloved, that Jesus tells them again that he must suffer. That this, too, is part off the story. And if we were to continue reading, we would learn that no sooner have they made their way down the mountain, when they find they are needed in the valley—a crowd of people has gathered around a young boy who is possessed by a spirit and suffering terribly. The boy’s father runs up to them and begs Jesus to heal his son—this is how it must be.
The mountain is important, but only so far as it prepares us to face the valley, for it’s there, in the valley, that life is lived. Christian faith, lived rightly, is not a kind of escapism designed to shield us from the harder parts of life and the world, no, it’s a kind of realism to help us see the world as God sees it: for all its beauty, but also its brokenness. For all its mystery but also its madness. For all is enchantment but also it’s wounds. For all its light, but also its darkness. It’s in the story of Christ that we find strength to hold all of this in love. This is what Jesus took them up there to see: that God really was moving in the world. That their suspicions that there must be something more, something deeper, that underneath the dullness they saw in the world and in their lives most days, there was in fact a radiant light waiting to spring forth—and this is an important part of this transfiguration story: Where did the light come from?
Where did the light come from that emanated from Jesus and caused his clothes to become a dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them”—it’s almost like those Tide commercials from the Super Bowl were a week ahead.
But where did the light come from?
Theologians have debated this through the generations—even in some of the earliest sermon and commentaries we have on the transfiguration. Where did the light come from? Of course, ultimately it came from God. But some have argued that God brought it down in that moment, speaking those words of blessing from the cloud and shining the light upon Jesus. But others have wondered if perhaps the light came from Jesus himself. That the light had been there all along, as he had ben God’s beloved Son all along. In other words, it wasn’t that Jesus was turned into something new up there on the mountain. It was more that his true identity, his true nature, was suddenly and unmistakably revealed. I believe the light came from Jesus up there on the mountain. And not just because he was God’s Beloved Son, but because the light is always there, always here. It’s always waiting to be revealed.
It reminds me of an experience Annie Dillard—one of my very favorite writers—describes in her little book Holy the Firm. It all began when she was asked to purchase the communion wine. She’d suggested to the people at the little church she was attending out on the Puget Sound in Washington State that perhaps they could use wine instead of grape juice for communion. They agreed this would be a nice change, and so for her splendid idea she was asked to be the one to purchase the wine—this is how good ideas are rewarded in church. But as she made her way into town to do just that, she found herself feeling somehow inadequate to be responsible for something so holy: How can I buy the communion wine? She asks. Who am I to buy the communion wine? Shouldn’t I be wearing robes? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy?
These doubts rushed over her, so in order to allow herself to go through with her duty of buying the wine, she finally concluded that this was all nonsense, There are no holy grapes, there is not holy ground, nor is there anyone but us—and someone has to buy the communion wine. So it might as well be her. But soon after she’d purchased the wine, she was on her way home, the bottle of wine tucked in her backpack, and suddenly and without warning everything around and within her started to feel strangely alive.
She sees the hills unfold before her, blackberry brambles over to the side of the road. The world suddenly feels alive and full of wonder and light. The bottle of wine in her backpack feels strangely warm, and she begins to walk faster. She comes up the hill overlooking the sound and sees a baptism taking place down in the waters. Two men have waded out there into the sound with others watching from the shore. She watches as one man lifts the other up from the water, and as he rises she sees the water fall off and around him, and time seems to collapse in around here and she is overcome. She sees the water drops splash from this man as he’s lifted from the water and suddenly everything is different. The surface of things outside the drops has fused. Christ himself and the others [watching from the shore], and the brown warm wind, and hair, sky, the beach, the shattered water—all this has fused. It’s the one glare of holiness; it’s bare and unspeakable. There’s no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, not motion, nor time. There is only this everything.
It was revealed to her in that moment that it isn’t that nothing is holy but that everything is. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” in the words of the great poet Girard Manley Hopkins. In other words, the light is always there. It was put there by God at the creation of the world. It was already in Jesus when it shone forth up there on the mountain and it’s already in you whenever you find yourself suddenly overwhelmed with the beauty of things. With the oneness of things. God put it there long before you’d ever need it.
In the end it wasn’t Christ who was transfigured up there on the mountain, it was the disciples. They came down with new eyes, more prepared to see the world as God dreams for it to be, which is to say, more prepared to see the world as it is. More prepared to see themselves. And it’s so hard sometimes. It’s so hard—but isn’t this why we go up mountains? Not so our world will be transfigured, but our own eyes. That from this elevated state, from this new vantage point, we can see what’s there all the time but that we too often overlook. So we can see how small our little lives are—cars like ants. People barely visible. But how big is the sky?!
And isn’t this why you climb this hill each week? Mountaintop it is not, but don’t you expect something to happen here at the top of Poplar? Some new light to be shed—or perhaps another glimpse of an old, familiar light? A light that sometimes doesn’t burn brightly enough? Some needed warmth? Some truth? Some beauty? Some something to remind you of this “everything” in which we live and move and have our being? Some reminder that it’s going to be okay. That you are okay.
It’s why I come. I come to be changed. So that my eyes would be transfigured. So that I would see the light that’s there under the surface of things, the light that’s been there all along, waiting to be let loose in the world. Waiting to be let loose in the valley? Where healing is needed.
Have you seen this light? Have you seen that it comes from you? Amen.
 William C. Platcher, Mark, 129
 Tom Long teases this out even further, examining how the disciples change throughout the story of the Transfiguration.
 Platcher, 124-127
 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, p.67-68