When Easter Comes Before Lent

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” Mark 9:7.

The interesting thing about Mark’s gospel is that it doesn’t end in an encounter with the resurrected Christ. If the scholarly consensus of New Testament scholars holding that the gospel ends at Mark 16:8 is correct, and I believe it is, then the story concludes with an empty tomb and two terrified women running away, far too frightened to say anything to anyone. So the closest thing we have to a resurrection story in Mark is today’s gospel account of Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, a resurrection that occurs not at the end but smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing and casting out demons.

This is also the second time in Mark’s gospel we hear the voice of God speaking from heaven. The first was at Jesus’ baptism where the divine voice declared to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11. Now we hear that same voice addressing the disciples with the same declaration and demanding, urging, pleading, with them to listen to that Son.

I don’t know what Peter had in mind when he offered to build three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. Commentators put forth a number of theories, but quite possibly Peter had nothing in mind. The gospel tells us “he didn’t know what to say” which suggests to me that his mind was probably empty of everything except blind terror. Yet Peter, being Peter, feels compelled to speak anyway. Mark 9:6. Maybe Peter thought he was honoring Jesus by putting him on the same level as Moses and Elijah, by building him a shrine just like theirs. If that was case, the voice from the cloud is sure to set Peter straight. Jesus gains nothing from his association with these two great luminaries. It is quite the other way around. “‘This Jesus is my beloved son. Listen to him.” And after that, as the disciples looked around, they saw no one, not Elijah, not Moses, but Jesus only. If there is one sentence that summarizes the gist of today’s gospel it is this: “Listen to Jesus.”

Coming as it does at what I believe to be the climax of Mark’s gospel, this three word imperative deserves our full attention. Jesus’s voice is not the only one speaking. I am sure Moses and Elijah had plenty to say as well. As the greatest of teachers and the greatest of the prophets respectively, Moses and Elijah represent the sum total of the Hebrew scriptural witness. As such, they should not be ignored. Nevertheless, the one voice that, for Christians anyway, is ultimately authoritative is that of Jesus. Jesus tells us that everything in the law and the prophets hangs on loving God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves. Mark 12:28-31. There is no commandment greater than these which are in fact one in the same. For there is no way to love God other than  by loving one’s neighbor. We must not follow any voice telling us to do otherwise, even if it comes from the Bible.

God knows there has been and still is a lot of Christianity around that is mighty short on Jesus and long on-well you name it. There was no shortage of crosses worn and carried by members of that mob that stormed the Capital Building on January 6th. There is a lot of nail biting, hand wringing and consternation these days about declines in church membership and financial support for the mainline denominations as well as some frantic discussions among us about how to turn that around, many of which, sad to say, have little to do with Jesus or the reign of God he proclaims. Just prior to my retirement from full time parish ministry, I attended the presentation of a program designed to spark congregational renewal. Aside from the opening devotion that included a reading from one of the gospels, the name of Jesus never came up during a nearly two hour session of PowerPoint, group exercises and lectures. It made me wonder whether the church is worth renewing. If the world sees nothing of Jesus in us, why is it so all fired important that we last into the next century?

In view of all this, I have to say that I found refreshing the words of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry spoken in a recent webinar to the effect that Christianity needs to recenter itself on the teachings, example and Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. Curry is calling for a positive witness testifying to God’s priorities for humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ. “We need a standard,” he says, “of what Christianity looks like and it’s Jesus of Nazareth.”  I would only add that, if we are going be a living witness to Jesus, if we hope to be a church in which Jesus is recognized, then we need to start listening to him.

Perhaps that is a good segway into the season of Lent. What is the point of fasting, prayer, retreat and the other Lenten disciplines if not to hear with greater clarity the voice of Jesus over the din of all the other noise generated by an endless news cycle? What better opportunity to reflect upon where Jesus might be calling us? What better time than now to consider the shape love must take for our neighbors in a bitterly polarized cultural climate poisoned with racism, threatened with sickness and overshadowed by the specter of violence? And what better light to help us find our way through the darkness of these days than the light of Jesus’ resurrection, a generous glimpse of which Mark’s gospel has given us?

I don’t know about you, but this year I prefer receiving my resurrection now rather than later. A resurrection that takes place only in the distant future is of no use to me just now. I need the light of the resurrection now as I muddle through the grief and confusion that comes with losing so many of my family members and friends. I need the light of the resurrection now to help me navigate the ever changing terrain of a world turned upside down with pandemic, racial violence and a troubling global rise in nationalism. I need the light of the resurrection now to help me see and visualize hope when the daily news gives me so much reason for despair. I need for Jesus to shine into the dark corners of my day to day existence, into my marriage, into my family, into my work and ministry. And thanks be to God, that is what Jesus offers us.

Here is a hymn/poem by Ludämilia Elisabeth that captures what I believe is the thrust of Sunday’s gospel from Mark and, indeed, the thrust of Mark’s entire gospel.

Jesus, Jesus, Only Jesus

1 Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus
Can my heartfelt longing still.
Lo, I pledge myself to Jesus,
What He wills alone to will,
For my heart, which He hath filled,
Ever cries, “Lord, as Thou wilt.”

2 One there is for whom I’m living,
Whom I love most tenderly;
Unto Jesus I am giving
What in love He gave to me.
Jesus’ blood hides all my guilt–
Lord, O lead me as Thou wilt.

3 What to me may seem a treasure,
But displeasing is to Thee–
O remove such harmful pleasure;
Give instead what profits me.
Let my heart by Thee be stilled;
Make me Thine, Lord, as Thou wilt.

4 Let me earnestly endeavor
Thy good pleasure to fulfil;
In me, through me, with me, ever,
Lord, accomplish Thou Thy will.
In Thy holy image built,
Let me die, Lord, as Thou wilt.

5 Jesus, constant be my praises,
For Thou unto me didst bring
Thine own self and all Thy graces
That I joyfully may sing:
Be it unto me, my Shield,
As Thou wilt, Lord, as Thou wilt.

Source: The Lutheran Hymnal, (c. 1941 by Concordia Publishing House) # 348.  Ludämilia Elisabeth (1640-1672) was the second daughter of Count Ludwig Gunther I of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. She was born at the castle of Heidecksburg, near Rudolstadt and was educated there. In 1665 she went with her mother to the dowager castle of Friedensburg near Leutenberg, but after her mother’s death she returned to Rudolstadt. On Dec. 20, 1671 Ludämilia was formally betrothed to Count Christian Wilhelm of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. Shortly thereafter her eldest sister Sophie Juliane contracted measles from which she died. While caring for her, Ludämilia caught the infection and died on March 12, 1672. Ludämilia was raised and thoroughly educated in a devout Christian family. She was a good Latin scholar and well read in theology and other branches of learning. She authored many poems showing her to have been a deeply faithful disciple with an intense love for Jesus. Her poems were written as personal prayers for her own edification rather than for public worship. Nonetheless, they were subsequently put to music and so used. The above hymn is taken from the hymnal in use by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod when I was a child. Unfortunately, it did not make the cut for subsequent worship books.

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