Transfiguring Fear, Transforming Listening
A Sermon on Mark 9: 2-9
My apologies to anyone who is not a Harry Potter fan, but on Transfiguration Sunday I cannot resist just one Professor McGonagall story – I promise it is relevant.
In the Harry Potter series, Professor McGonagall is the Transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts School, which - in the fictional world of the books - means that she teaches the students how to change the appearance of everyday objects into completely different objects, or sometimes animals.
Now, just to be clear, that kind of “transfiguration” is NOT what is described in today’s gospel story – more on that in a minute. Nevertheless, as I contemplated our gospel this week, I was reminded of one particular “transfiguration” scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
In the scene, Professor McGonagall demonstrates, for the first time to Harry’s class, her ability to transfigure herself into a tabby cat. It's an impressive bit of magic, she doesn’t get the enthusiastic response that she is expecting. That’s because she performs this feat just a few minutes after the Divination teacher has predicted that Harry is going to die a violent death. Spoiler alert – it’s a false prediction. But the aura of fear created by the prediction, has such a powerful impact that the students are distracted from responding to the amazing feat of McGonagall’s transfiguration.
Fear has that effect. It claims our attention and blinds us to everything else.
We see that effect in today’s gospel story as well, although in this case the fear is created BY the transfiguration. Peter, James, and John go up the mountain with Jesus, the man they have been journeying with, and learning from, and witnessing perform miraculous healings, and despite what they had already witnessed… what happens on that mountain terrifies them. One scholar I read this week translates vs. 6 as “…they became freaked out.”
Clearly, Jesus’s transfiguration was much more than a magic trick. It wasn’t just a temporary alternation of Jesus’ appearance – it was a revelation of his nature.
His closest disciples had seen his acts of power, and Peter had confessed him as the Christ – the anticipated Messiah, whom God would send to save God’s people – but they hadn’t really understood what that meant. They hadn’t yet experienced Jesus as truly divine.So when they did… when Jesus was transfigured to SHOW his full nature (rather than to just change his form, like McGonagall’s version of transfiguration)… they didn’t know how to process it, and it terrified them.
And because of that distracting, disorienting effect of fear, they missed part of the revelation. Elijah and Moses – themselves larger-than-life figures in the history of the Jewish faith – were there, talking to Jesus. I imagine that conversation was worth listening to.
But instead, Peter blunders in. Trying to find his footing in a disorienting and frightening scene by claiming a role for himself and the other disciples. “Hey. I know. We can build structures, so you three can go inside, where your shininess won’t be so scary. Then we can all stay here and figure out what is going on. Yeah. That’s a good idea. Good thing I’m here.”
I know that’s a little snarky-sarcastic. But that’s probably just because I can relate.
I can relate to talking precisely BECAUSE I don’t know what to say;
And because I’m scared by unexpected things that I don’t understand;
And because I think that if I can just take control of the situation, it will be less scary.
And I know, because of this tendency in myself, how this manifestation of fear can distract and blind us to the revelation that can come if we just stop and listen.
Which is precisely the instruction from God that interrupts Peter’s bumbling. God kindly covers the dazzled vision of the terrified disciples with a cloud; And God reassures them that this transfigured Jesus is BOTH all he has been revealed to be, and also still trustworthy – the Son of God, the Beloved; And then God tells the disciples what they are to do in response to this revelation: LISTEN!
Of course, fear doesn’t want to listen.
Fear wants to self-protect.
Fear wants to shut out any new information because it has quite enough to deal with already, thank you very much.
Fear wants to take control, not to defer authority to someone else.
I have always been mystified by the repeated Biblical theme that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Because... how could that be true, when fear usually shuts us off from revelation, as it does for Peter, James, and John in this story?
That is, fear shuts us off, unless, fear can be transfigured too.
What if the fear of the Lord, is itself a revelation?... A revelation of the truth about our dependence, and our weakness, and our need to just shut up and listen?
What if the fear that arises when the disciples see Jesus transfigured is exactly the RIGHT place to start, as long as they don’t stay stuck in the fear, as long as the fear leads them to recognize that they aren’t in control, so that they can listen to what the Jesus revealed to them has to say?
The biblical teaching is that the fear of the Lord is the BEGINNING of wisdom. It’s where we START. Seeing Jesus for who he is SHOULD scare us a bit, because this is no tame miracle-worker and gentle teacher we are following. This is the Son of God. This is God come near; God in all the power and glory and uncontrollable-ness of the Creator of the universe.
This Jesus of terrifying power is one before whom the only reasonable option is to listen. That’s how fear can be the beginning of wisdom … when it closes our mouths and opens our ears. Because that kind of listening is the only kind that allows us to hear things we don’t want to hear.
And Jesus has things to tell us that we don’t want to hear.
Just before this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had made the first prediction of his own death, to his disciples. And, of course - spoiler alert – Jesus’s prediction IS accurate. But (unlike the students of Hogwarts), the disciples weren’t impressed by this prediction. In fact, Peter told Jesus to knock it off, and Jesus had to rebuke him.
And then Jesus went on to tell them that all who want to follow him “must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow him.” (Mark 8:34b - Common English Bible)
I don’t know about you, but this isn’t a message I really want to hear.
I don’t like saying no to myself.
And I don’t want to have to carry a cross, much less be nailed to one.
And more often than not I only want to follow Jesus if he is leading me down a road that I already want to travel on.
Those ideas all SCARE me.
Or, at least, that’s how I feel until the veil lifts from my eyes and I see who Jesus really is – the Son of God, the Beloved. And the ONLY hope that is more powerful than all the things in THIS world that scare me.
The promise of this gospel story is that the transfiguration of Jesus can transfigure our fears as well. The revelation of Jesus’s full identity is - as our reading from 2 Corinthians says - “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
In this light of God, is it possible that even our fears can be changed?
Could seeing Jesus in the fullness of his divinity scare us out of our self-protective modes of operating?
Could it shift our focus away from all the threats that loom so large in our earth-bound vision – threats to our health, or our bank accounts, or our relationships, or our country?
Could seeing Jesus transfigured before us gives us a truly altered perspective about everything we THINK we have to protect ourselves from?
Could it free us from our need to control our own circumstances, and allow us to ACTUALLY repent and believe – to change the way we think about the world and our role in it, and to genuinely trust the God who tells us we too are beloved, even when our lives aren’t going the way we have planned?
Maybe, if we could experience the transfigured Christ, we could know the fear of the Lord that IS the beginning of wisdom. Maybe we could be reoriented in a way that would let us genuinely rejoice in the chance to follow Jesus on the way of the cross – the way that means rejecting all the things our culture tells us to cling to in order to ensure our own safety.
Maybe SAFETY could cease to be our god, and we could desire to love God and love our neighbor no matter what it cost us.
Most days - most moments – I’m not there. And from the rest of the gospel story we know even the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration weren’t either.
But the thing about this gospel is that it’s not a standard we have to achieve. It’s a promise. A promise that our fears really can be transfigured by Jesus – God’s Son, the Beloved. To whom we are invited to listen.
God is inviting us to listen to Jesus. Because when we do, WE are changed.
Thanks be to God.