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Transfiguration: Not Always Shiny Reality

A sermon on Mark 9: 2-9.

[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.]

One of the things I have learned about being a weekly preacher is that you never know exactly where sermon inspiration is going to come from.

A lot of the time it comes from expected places, like a commentary essay on the day’s texts, or a sermon preparation podcast, or a deep dive on the Greek roots of a phrase that catches my attention from the readings.

These are the resources and skills they teach you about in seminary.

And then there are the weeks where inspiration is a bit more… unconventional.

This was an unconventional week.

I was searching for images that might work for the bulletin cover, and trying to come up with keywords for the scene on the mountaintop from today’s gospel that I could put into a non-religious image search resource that would probably just give me Professor McGonagall if I tried searching for “Transfiguration”…

And I was thinking of Jesus all bright and shiny with Moses and Elijah…

And this phrase popped into my head: “Shiny Happy People.”

For all of you who now have the repetitive chorus of an R.E.M. song in your heads… welcome to my week. Good luck falling asleep tonight.

So, anyway, I had the thought, and I snickered, and moved on with my image search.

But… earworms are a thing. And I just kept hearing the chorus on repeat in my head, so I decided to look up the lyrics of the whole song, hoping that might help my brain to move on.

I didn’t work. But I did discover a bit of history about the song that I hadn’t known before, and that backstory actually got me thinking about our gospel story from a new perspective.

The history is about the song’s inspiration.

I, like most Americans apparently, have always assumed Shiny, Happy People is just a silly, boppy song. A little out of character for R.E.M., but whatever. It’s catchy and people like it.

What I learned is that Michael Stipe’s lyrics are actually intended as an ironic response to the Chinese government’s propaganda after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

The phrase “shiny happy people holding hands” is a direct translation of the text on a poster put out soon after the massacre, offering glowing images of happy Chinese workers literally raising their clasped hands.[1] A projection of the utopia the leaders wanted people to believe in.

When Michael Stipe borrowed the phrase and used it to anchor the lyrics of a supposedly simplistic, bop-along anthem it was a subtle call to distrust the uncomplicated, pacifying narrative… to not get distracted by the “shiny, happy people” just because that’s a more comfortable image to focus on than the images of slaughtered student protestors… who had been (as the song subtly alludes) “put… in the ground where the flowers grow.”

Of course, the irony of the song is that most people didn’t get it. They didn’t hear the social commentary… only the catchy tune.

Because it is easier to just bop along to the singable chorus that can be learned in one listen.

It is easier to just be delighted by shiny, happy people and not wonder if there is a deeper, more challenging meaning that the bright light might be obscuring.

And that realization was the unexpected inspiration for my sermon today.

You see, there is something similar happening in today’s gospel story, when Peter celebrates the “goodness” of the revelatory moment and wants to set-up camp on the mountaintop… to stay there in the bright light and the glory, where he can forget about what came before.

Because the scene just before in Mark’s gospel… the narrative to which Mark refers when this reading starts with “six days later,” was not one of shiny happy people.

In that scene, Jesus predicted his coming death for the first time…

And called all who would join his work to “pick up their cross and follow (him)”…

And when Peter tried to scold Jesus for the negative turn in his teaching, Jesus said to Peter “get behind me, Satan.” (Mark 8:33)

It’s hard to really blame Peter for wanting to forget that encounter. I’m sure I would feel the same.

And when Jesus is suddenly “dazzling” and the great prophets of old are there in front of him, he might be excused for getting a bit caught up in the excitement of it all.

But then, a cloud overshadows the illumination, and a voice from heaven speaks, “This is my Son, The Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).

Listen to him.

Listen to Jesus, who has been trying to tell you the thing you don’t want to hear.

Who has been trying to tell you that – as real as the glory you are seeing on this mountain is – there’s another part of the story that has to come first.

“Shiny happy people” doesn’t just happen. Perfect love and joy and community takes effort, and struggle, and sometimes suffering along the way.

The people who appeared with Jesus on the mountaintop should have been a clue for Peter about that.

Moses was the great Liberator of the Jewish people, but that liberation was not without suffering.

After barely escaping their slavery through devastating plagues, the people endured 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, before they could enter the Promised Land.

And Elijah’s prophetic ministry was one of power and faithfulness, but it was punctuated by persecution and suffering…

including a hopelessness so extreme at one point that Elijah prayed for God to take his life (1 Kings 19).

When Jesus prophesized that he must suffer, and be rejected, and killed, he was not departing radically from the script.

The healing of brokenness in the world has never come easily.

Whatever propaganda posters (or, probably, Superbowl commercials) might try to sell us, happiness has never been just a matter of putting forward a good face.

It has never been as simple as just holding hands, and smiling, and pretending like evil and injustice don’t exist.

But here’s the good news in the gospel that the pop song doesn’t have:

It has the promise a of guide.

And when the dazzling shine and the voice from heaven were both gone that guide was still there, walking back down the mountain with Peter and the other disciples.

Peter had rejected Jesus’s message when he heard the hard parts, but there were hopeful parts too.

Jesus prophesied his death, but also his resurrection.

He promised that the suffering wasn’t for nothing; it was ushering in God’s transforming kingdom.

And that’s what’s missing from both propaganda AND satiric commentary… the promise of genuine change.

The shiny, happy assertion that everything is already perfect is a lie.

But the mocking rejection of that lie offers only the cold comfort of cynicism.

Whereas Jesus tells the difficult truth so that we can actually take hold of hope. He tells us that the path of true life is hard, but it is also assured. He is walking it with us, and even if it leads through death there is resurrection on the other side.

And that is the light that I hope will shine through our worship today… the promise that when we see the things that are wrong… in our lives and in our world… that’s not the whole story, just as the moment of dazzling brightness are not either.

The task is not to cling onto the latter and try to deny the former.

It is to listen to Jesus and follow him as our guide. He will lead us through whatever comes, with the promise of life at the end.

Thanks be to God.


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