The Transfiguration of Our Lord · Mark 9:2-9 · February 22, 2009
By Paul Philp
Transfiguration Sunday has some similarities to Christmas and Easter in the sense that the assigned Gospel reading is one of those very familiar texts that can be difficult to preach in a fresh and new way. The details of the account are familiar to us. The decision is whether or not to preach on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God revealed, the Law and Prophets testifying to Jesus, or some combination thereof. The Three-Year Lectionary offers the opportunity to view the transfiguration through Mark’s eyes in Series B, and thus a fresh look at this familiar text.
The Gospel of Mark, likely authored by Peter with Mark as his scribe, offers the only eyewitness account of the transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels. The placement of the text in the context of Mark, and several of the subtle details in the Markan account suggest potential themes for homiletical development. Within the context of the Gospel of Mark, the transfiguration account immediately follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection.
The transfiguration account is uniquely linked in Mark to the preceding events by a timeline of “six days.” Mark is only this explicit with time here and in the Passion narrative, linking the two closely. This link demonstrates that Jesus is in fact the Son of God who will be able to accomplish the work of salvation which he has foretold. The period of “six days” may also suggest that there was time for the disciples to have considered Jesus’ teaching about his death prior to the transfiguration event.
Moses and Elijah are often viewed as representing the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. They are those who heralded the coming of the Messiah and appear at the Transfiguration to attest to the fact that Jesus is he. While this is a helpful interpretation of Moses and Elijah’s role at the transfiguration, the Markan account may suggest something more. In both Matthew 17 and Luke 9, Moses is listed before Elijah suggesting the Law and Prophet interpretation; however, in Mark’s account Elijah is listed before Moses, which may suggest an eschatological emphasis. Elijah’s presence suggests the fulfillment of all things completed in Jesus, and Moses’ presence suggests that Jesus is the eschatological prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. The Father’s command to “listen to him,” echoes the words of Deuteronomy 18:15-19. This eschatological emphasis follows Jesus’ discussion of judgment at the eschaton in Mark 8:38. Peter’s request to build the booths points to a lack of understanding on the disciples’ part, as is often the case in Mark. Peter, despite his confession of Jesus as the Christ, seems to lack the full understanding of who Jesus is and what he is doing. Calling Jesus “Rabbi,” rather than “Lord,” as in Matthew, or “Master,” as in Luke, likely illustrates
Peter’s failure to fully recognize who Jesus is and what it means that he is the Christ. The construction of the booths or tents may indicate that it is the early fall and the time for the Feast of Tabernacles; however, it also illustrates that Peter may believe that Christ’s glory is now present, that his reign has begun, and there is nothing more to be done. Peter is focused on the present glory, but Jesus will not be detoured from the Cross. Jesus knows that the Cross must come before the Glory.
The words of the Father from the cloud confirm the need for the Cross. The words echo not only Deuteronomy 18:15-19, but also the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. This is still the same Jesus; he is the Son of God. The Father also echoes the language of Genesis 22:2 spoken to Abraham regarding Isaac. The Father will take his “beloved Son” and he will be sacrificed as the atonement for sin. The Father commands that they “listen to him.” This may speak to Jesus’ authority as the Son of God and assert that the disciples should listen to what he has said of his death and resurrection. This may also speak to Peter who has just confessed Jesus as the Christ and affirm that Peter was correct and thus ought to listen to Jesus.
The transfiguration in Mark points to the completion of Christ’s work at the Cross and in the Resurrection. The Cross must precede the Christ’s Glory revealed in the transfiguration. As Christ descends the mount of transfiguration, he is moving directly to the Cross and takes his disciples with him. By doing so, he is completing the purpose for which his Father sent him and thus the glory of the Resurrection and his eternal reign, glimpsed at the transfiguration, are made certain.
I. Mistaken—Misplaced Focus on Glory
II. Eschatological Glory By Way of the Cross
III. Glimpses of Glory Now in Word and Sacrament