“Transfiguration: Prophecy and Apocalypse”
Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 9:2-9
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
21Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood
from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he
who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?
says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power, not one is missing.
27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (NRSV)
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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. (NRSV)
Isaiah 40 begins with the words Handel used so effectively in the Christmas portion of The Messiah. “Comfort ye, O comfort ye my people.” Isaiah 40-54, often called Second Isaiah, announces that, by God’s grace, Israel will leave Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. And in today’s reading, we hear the prophet calling Israel to trust that promise by remembering all the ways that God has already demonstrated faithfulness to the people.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” says Isaiah. “Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” God is the Holy One, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Source of forgiveness, deliverance, peace, and enduring strength among the people.
In the middle of the passage, the prophet makes a distinction between God and worldly powers. “Scarcely are [princes and rulers] planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when [God] blows upon them, and they wither.” The cautionary tale of the impermanence of princes, rulers, and nations reminds Israel that God has created and called them to a unique reason for being and to very different ways of being.
As the people of God—and even as a people whose identity is tied to Jerusalem—Israel has been called to a way of life that transcends the boundaries of geography and time. God’s purview includes all that lives and moves and has being beneath the heavens. And God has called and commissioned this specific nation, Israel, to move among the world unhindered by loyalties to anything but God. Because “the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth,” Israel is a nation of global witness and welcome.
Jerusalem may be a place of origin, a home base even, but as Isaiah illustrates in chapter 11 with the vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-9), the purpose of the Holy City is to set an example of harmony, wholeness, and belonging for all creatures. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says God, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Blessed to be a blessing in and for the Creation, Israel’s life is an ongoing spiritual journey. Always being transfigured by God, Israel continually experiences and reveals the transforming presence of God—throughout the Creation and throughout the ages.
When Peter, James, and John follow Jesus “up a high mountain apart” from everyone and everything, they witness something apocalyptic. Modern use of the word apocalyptic has almost ruined the ancient, prophetic concept connected with that language. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t meant to terrify readers and hearers with warnings of Armageddon or other violent, end-of-time scenarios. It was written and spoken to reveal something holy and gracious, something full of spiritual energy and heat. It could be unsettling; change often is. But apocalyptic literature and speech are always meant to generate hope and to inspire encouraging, edifying, redemptive action.
During their brief apocalyptic vision on the mountain, Peter, James, and John are reminded of all that they had “known…heard…[and] been told…from the very beginning.” For there, with Jesus, stood Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the ancient prophets of Israel. And Jesus is just “talking” with them, like farmers standing around the bed of a pickup truck musing on the weather, wheat prices, and high school football.
Speechless but not silent, Peter says to Jesus, Hey, let’s stay here! I’ll build a hut for each of you, and we’ll just live in this bright warmth forever.
It seems to me that Peter wants to lay claim to that mountain. He wants to hold it and own it. He wants to plant himself on that peak the way “princes” and “rulers” try to plant themselves. But Jesus knows that when nations try to establish themselves that way, “Scarcely are they planted…[and] sown [before God] blows upon them, and they wither.”
A thick cloud gathers, and from it, God shuts down Peter’s fantasy. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And with that, the apocalyptic moment ends. Peter looks around and sees only Jesus, James, and John. And no more talking clouds.
Mum’s the word on all of this, says Jesus. After the Son of Man has been raised from the dead, let people know. But for now, hush.
Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is secretive about his identity. It’s not that he doesn’t want people to know who he is. It’s that he doesn’t want the kind of bootlicking attention princes, rulers, and celebrities demand. Jesus wants people who are willing to listen to him and live like him, even when living as signs of God’s grace and agents of God’s love is demanding or dangerous.
Both Isaiah and Jesus are calling people to transfigured and transformational living. He’s calling them to live prophetic and apocalyptic lives. Whether in Babylon, Jerusalem, or anywhere else, God’s people belong to God before any celebrity prince, violent ruler, or transitory nation. And as disciples of Jesus, our call is to follow him. And like him, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling as transfigured or transformable as I was eleven months ago. Living in isolation, bouncing between computer, phone, and television screens, not having visited family in Georgia in over a year, slogging through this wet, dreary winter, and caught up in the anxiety of a culture in turmoil—some days, I get overwhelmed. Some days I get downright discouraged. I yearn for a bright, transfiguring, apocalyptic experience. But the clouds remain heavy and silent—except for the relentless rain. I pray that you’re coping better than I am, but I know that many of us are struggling.
Into such physical and spiritual enervation, Isaiah says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Remember! God is Lord of heaven and earth, and God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. [And when you grow] faint and…weary, [when you] fall exhausted…wait for the Lord [and you] shall renew [your] strength, [you] shall mount up with wings like eagles, [you] shall run and not be weary, [you] shall walk and not faint.”
Waiting for the Lord doesn’t mean catatonically enduring the passage of time because you’re in the back of some line. Waiting on the Lord is more like a waiter waiting on diners in a restaurant. Holy waiting involves tending to neighbors, tending to those in need, tending to the Creation. It means living a hopeful, awe-filled faith in the moment regardless of circumstance and trusting that God, who is already present in the future, is inviting humankind toward a place and time in which we will have yet another experience of redeeming grace to remember and to strengthen us for challenges yet to come. To wait for the Lord is to engage today’s struggles and opportunities with confidence, peace, and gratitude.
Isaiah’s words to Israel are the words of God’s Universal and Eternal Christ to all humankind. Even when we feel overwhelmed with apprehension or grief, we will, by grace, “mount up with wings like eagles,” we will “run and not be weary,” we will “walk and not faint,” because God was, God is, and God will always be with us.