(Based on a sermon for the final Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, preached at All Saints' Littleton 2/19/2012)
This morning brings us to our final story of Epiphany. After weeks of reading sequentially from the Gospel of Mark, we fast forward to past the middle of the Gospel.
Jesus and his closest companions, in the tradition of ancient Hebrew accounts as well as others, journey up to the top of a mountain to encounter God.
As we happen to be surrounded by mountains here in the North Country, it is worth wondering what qualifies as a similar journey today. Does any climbing of a mountain count? Does it have to be at least a 4000 footer?
Well, no. In fact, you don’t really need a mountain. The key component to a “mountain top” experience is physical journey that brings someone closer to God (by which I mean one is more open to sensing God in that setting). Some of the common characteristics of such a journey is that it takes some getting to the place. It is an intentional journey, not a chance encounter, and it is marked by openness to what and whom is around a person.
So a journey up a mountain here in New Hampshire can be a similar experience, but so can a retreat, or a particular type of travel to a destination where one is likely to be more open to encountering God. Having this story here, right as Epiphany ends, is the Church’s attempt to see Lent itself as a journey towards a new openness to God.
This leads us to Mark’s version this morning (9:2-9). Mark crafts this story in a rather particular way, with specific details that leads his readers to certain scripture memories as well as particular conclusions. That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t go up a mountain with his closest companions to encounter God. Everything I know about Jesus points to his taking such a journey. But the details recorded here are Mark’s.
For example, verse two of Mark’s Gospel actually begins:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. (Mk. 9:2)
The “six days” part gets cut off by the lectionary, which then misses the parallel with the Book of Exodus:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. (24:15-16)
Clouds on mountains mean revelation, and the presence of God.
Moses' skin on his face shown bright after talking with God. Those who saw him were afraid to come near him. This is shared in Jesus clothes becoming dazzling white, and the disciples being terrified. And of course, there is the obvious: the disciples see Jesus with Moses, connecting in mystical encounter with God.
There is more here as well: the presence of Elijah. We heard this morning's first reading about Elijah’s going up heaven at the end of his life (2 Kings 2:1-12). It was expected that Elijah would come at the climax of history (perhaps from Malachi 4:5-6, and referred to in Mk. 9:12-13 and Mt. 17:10-13). This is a vision of a future of hope. The cross references with Elijah and Jesus continue throughout Mark’s Gospel, reminding the readers that Jesus is not just about encountering God, but the hope that we will actually, one day, live as God’s vision desires.
We also have a Peter moment in this story, when he offers to make three booths. It is his attempt to preserve the moment: make it about the event rather than about what it points to.
Then comes the voice from the cloud:
This is my son, the Beloved.
This is slightly different from earlier in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters, he hears "You are my son, the Beloved." This first message was for Jesus. “YOU are my son. This time, it’s for his disciples (and the readers) THIS is my son, the Beloved. And follows the essential message: "Listen to him!", which echoes Jesus' familiar "Let anyone with ears to hear listen."
This morning’s Gospel also cuts off the ending.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. (Mk. 9:9-10)
The disciples still do not understand...
But for us who are about to journey into Lent, the path forward is perhaps more clear, even if it is still unknown. We are to attempt to make ourselves more available to God and our human companions, as we...with eyes wide open...begin the sacred walk towards Holy week; towards death and resurrection.
Up the mountain we go...