Not a Hallmark Love Story
A sermon on Mark 9: 2-9
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash).
This past week I was shopping for a Valentine’s Day card for my husband. Actually, I was shopping for 2 cards for him. We have a tradition that started back on our very first Valentine’s Day, when we both – without pre-arrangement – bought each other 2 cards: one funny, and one sweet. It’s been a tradition ever since. (Bonus cute fact about your pastor).
Anyhow – I was at the store and there were A LOT of different card options.
Some of the cards waxed reminiscent about the daily moments that make life together sweet.
Some extolled the character of the beloved one.
Some talked about the ups and downs of love.
Some made subtle adult references, or poked fun at such expectations.
Some were funny, and some were romantic.
Some were rhymed verse, and some were just a few simple, powerful words.
But in all those cards, not a single one said, “when I look at you, you shine brighter than any bleach and make me want to build you a shrine!”
Now, you might be thinking “Umm, Pastor? Of course, they didn’t. That would be bizarre!” And, I mean, yes, you would be right.
But the bizarreness is kind of on point for today’s gospel, right? The whole scene with Jesus getting all shiny, and Elijah and Moses appearing, and the disciples being completely freaked out about it all, and then this literal voice from heaven… It’s weird. And we aren’t entirely sure what the point of it all is. But then we hear what the voice of God has to say.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
“This is my Son, the Beloved… “ It might not exactly be a Valentine’s card, but in the midst of this strange, disorienting scene, God makes a point to identify Jesus as loved, as The Beloved. This is no throw-away descriptor. This scene is the only time in the gospels that the voice of God Above speaks directly to the disciples, and the one important thing that they need to know is that Jesus is loved by God.
But what does that mean? What is the significance for Jesus that he is the Beloved? After all, a word like “love” has many more dimensions than even Hallmark typically captures.
But I don’t have to tell you all that. A couple of weeks ago I asked you to send me your photos of “what love looks like” and you responded beautifully:
Of course, there were the expected photos celebrating the love known in committed partnership…
and the love we experience in our families .
Many of you also recognized how we experience love with our animals...
and noted that we can see how animals love each other.
But there are less immediate forms of love too. We foster love when we intentionally build community;
and when we make sure to preserve the connections to our past…
and when we celebrate the beauty of everyday moments.
When our hearts are open to love, we find evidence of God’s love in the beauty of nature…
and we pour our hearts into our own creations of love.
We offer love to each other and our communities when we serve…
and we find strength in love when we are scared and hurting…
and we do the hard work of love when we use our voices and our resources to make a point of loving those who have received too much hate.
There are so many different images of love – but all of these images of love connect us back to one thing. the love we know in Jesus.
Every love that we know in our lives, whether the love found in relationships, or in nature, or in creativity, or in broader means of connecting to humanity… all of it flows from the self-giving, Creator love of God that we know through Christ Jesus. And the photos that you sent me reflected how real that connection is in your lives. You experience the truth and the power of love in the simple and in the profound ways. This slide show is a testimony to what love means… for us.
But there is still that question from the mysterious scene on the mountain top in which God declared Jesus The Beloved. What does it mean for Jesus that he is the Beloved?
Because, of course, we know the rest of the story.
We are about to embark on the Lenten journey with Jesus, a journey that leads us from temptation in the wilderness, through various challenges and confrontations, to the cross. And it begs the question… why would God send The Beloved to walk such a path? Theologians and biblical scholars have engaged that question down through the centuries and… there are no Hallmark answers. Because the kind of love that God revealed on that mountain top doesn’t make sense on a greeting card. Nor can it even, really, be captured in a slide show of the ways that we experience love.
Because God’s love is not our love. It is the source of our love. We can understand it dimly through our experiences of love. But it is also beyond our comprehension.
I think, maybe, that’s the reason why God chose this particular moment to make the declaration of Jesus’ Beloved identity to the disciples.
The same voice from heaven had spoken directly to Jesus at his baptism, in parallel words: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”(Mark 1:11) In that declaration, there was no mysterious transfiguration, because Jesus didn’t need it. Jesus knew what it meant for God to call him Beloved. He knew the unfathomable depth and the life-and death-encompassing scope of such love.
But when we human beings hear God’s words of love, we think we know what they means. We think of all the ways that we experience love in our lives, and we assume that encompasses the truth of God’s love.
Except not in this scene. Not for the disciples. Because before they hear the word Beloved, their confidence in their ability to comprehend God’s truth has been shaken to the core.
They thought they knew what Jesus looked like, but then he is transformed before their eyes into a vision too bright for to even describe.
They thought they understood how time and history worked, but then prophets from the past appeared and spoke to Jesus.
They thought they understood how worship worked, but in a moment of profound transcendence they stumbled to find an appropriate ritual and did not know what to say.
It is only after their confidence in their own understanding had been profoundly shaken, that the voice from heaven speaks. It's as though God is saying:
This is my Son, The Beloved…
(You don’t understand what that means… but that’s OK. Because it’s not your job to anticipate… you aren’t supposed to understand yet. Your work is to…)
…listen to him.
(pay attention, follow his teachings rather than your own assumptions and expectations, and, eventually…
after the Son of Man has risen from the dead…
(you will begin to understand).
The story of the Transfiguration, and the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a love story…even though it’s not the kind of story that will ever make it onto the Valentine’s aisle at the card store.
It is a story of love that can span the breach between God in Heaven and God on earth… and thus assures us that it can span the breach to reach us as well.
It is a story of love that knows difficulty and death are coming, but that walks into this future willingly… so that we can know death does not win.
It’s a story of love that tells us to wait, to not give way to fear, and to not try to organize this story according to our inadequate ideas, but to wait until love rises triumphant from the grave… because only then can we begin to understand….
That being Beloved by God doesn’t mean being protected from all pain. It means knowing that no matter what pain lies ahead… it does not win. Life and Love are what win.
Thanks be to God.