Read Mark 9:1-9, 2 Kings 2:1-12 (13-18)
Have you heard the story about the Zen master? He decided he was hungry for a hot dog, so he stopped at a hot dog cart and said: “Make me one with everything.”
The hot dog vendor fixed a hot dog and handed it to the Zen master, who paid with a $20 bill.
The hot dog vendor put the bill in the cash drawer and closed the drawer.
“Wait a minute. Where’s my change?” asked the Zen master.
The hot dog vendor replied: “Change must come from within.”
Change must come from within. I cannot profess to know exactly what that means to a Zen Buddhist, but I can tell you what that means to a follower of Jesus. Through faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives in us, and we are changed. It’s a rather mysterious process, in some ways. It happens gradually at times, but also rather dramatically on occasion. We can expect, as we follow Jesus, that we will be changed.
Is that what you are expecting to happen?
Along the way, we can expect to see God in sometimes surprising ways.
Do you expect to see God?
When we lived in California, I spent a lot of time on freeways. Every day I drove an hour to work in the morning and an hour to get home. I often used that time for seeking God in prayer and listening to sermons on the radio. One day I was a little too intent on my thoughts and not on my driving. (As if this was a one-time thing. Ha!) My speed was gradually increasing, but I didn’t notice. I might have been praying something like “Keep me safe on this journey,” but I don’t remember exactly.
What I do remember quite clearly is that a car that had been in the next lane over moved ever so slowly and carefully in front of me and gradually reduced their speed to just below the speed limit.
I’d seen the Highway Patrol do this when they’re getting ready to shut down a freeway, but I’d never seen a random driver do it. It shook me out of my contemplation and forced me to slow down to a safe speed.
I couldn’t see who was driving that car, but it felt very clear to me that this was God’s angel doing exactly what I had asked God to do.
I was expecting God to hear my prayer, but I was not expecting to see God through a driver on the freeway. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it didn’t feel like one. And that experience changed the way I drive.
Nope. It didn’t. It should have, but I still got distracted and drove too fast for a long time after that. I’m better about it now, I think.
It did change my faith, though. I had a lot of stuff going on in my life at that time, and this experience helped me to see that God was hearing my prayers and to trust that God was with me in all the chaos.
In today’s scripture readings from 2 Kings 2 and Mark 9, it’s likely that neither Elisha nor Peter were expecting what happened. Maybe Elisha had an inkling, or at least he says he did, but it’s pretty apparent that Peter didn’t expect what happened. Both of our scripture readings today are quite spectacular. Elijah, one of the greatest of the ancient prophets, gets taken up to heaven by chariots of fire and a whirlwind, and his disciple Elisha is given the gift of seeing this happen. And then, more than 800 years later, Elijah shows up on a mountain top with Jesus and Moses, and the disciples Peter, James and John are there to witness it.
Both of these stories feel like we’ve taken a step into eternity. Time and space have been transcended. The laws of physics have ceased to matter. Elijah is transported, and Jesus is transformed.
Theologian Leonard Sweet tweeted about the transfiguration of Jesus this week. He compared it with another story in the Bible, Jesus temptation. Christian Dashiell preached about this a few weeks ago. Sweet said:
Self-glorification and self-aggrandizement versus service and selflessness.-Leonard Sweet in his Sweet tweet.
You may have noticed that Mark tells us that this time on the mountain happened “six days later” (Mark 9:2). Six days later than what? Six days after Jesus had told the disciples for the first time that he was going to be rejected by the church elders and killed, and then three days later raised from the dead (Mark 8:31). Then he also told them this:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:34b-36)
The disciples have had six days to think about that, and now here they are getting this remarkable vision on the mountaintop.
Mark doesn’t tell us this, but in Luke’s gospel he says that Elijah, Moses and Jesus were discussing plans for Jesus’ departure from this world, which was going to happen soon (Luke 9:31). That must have been a pretty interesting conversation. It almost sounds like CIA operatives discussing exit strategies. Wouldn’t you love to have been able to hear them talking? Maybe it went something like this:
Ok, here’s the plan:
- They’re going to try to arrest you. You’re going to let them.
- Then there’s going to be a trial. Let them convict you.
- They’re going to sentence you to crucifixion. Don’t fight that.
- Oh, and don’t worry about dying. You will, but God’s going to take care of that.
That’s a plan for service and selflessness instead of self-glorification and self-aggrandizement, for sure.
All three gospels do their best to tell us what it looked like. Mark says Jesus clothes got super white. Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus’ face glowed. Matthew even says his face looked like the sun. (Matt. 17:2)
All three gospel accounts say that Peter didn’t know what to think at that moment. So it’s cool that we also have Peter’s own account. In Peter’s second letter he refers to this as that time they witnessed Jesus’ majesty on the mountain. I think that’s a pretty nice way to put it.
Peter obviously knows that this story about Jesus can be hard to believe, because he begins his description of the event saying, “…we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:16)
Believing can be a challenge. This transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain is an amazing story that helps the disciples and us to see that Jesus is the Son of God. But it also tells us something about our own lives.
While they are on the mountain, God speaks. And he’s not talking to Jesus, he’s talking to the disciples. The voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Listen to him. Jesus would tell them about his coming death and resurrection two more times before it happened. And he would tell them so much more about how to live faithfully. At the Last Supper he demonstrated what he was teaching when he washed their feet, and told them to love one another as I have loved you.
Listen to him. In other words, do what he says. And when we do, we can expect to be changed, and we can expect to live differently.
The Holy Spirit does the work of changing us, but we can help or we can hinder that work. There’s a Bible study by authors and pastors Ray Jones and David Lolent that suggests that our lives as disciples are lived in three directions. (It’s a good Trinitarian idea.)
Up, in and out. We see all three of those directions in this story from Mark.
- “Up” is about our time with God. Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray, to have some time in the “up” direction. The disciples see Jesus’ divinity and hear God.
- “In” is about our time spent with other Christians that helps us understand what God is doing. Peter sees what’s happening and wants to pitch a tent. Maybe he’s thinking, “Let’s spend some time together talking about this.” Peter needs some time in “in” direction, encouraging one another and helping each other understand what Jesus is doing.
- “Out” is our apostolic direction. We are sent out into the world to share what we’ve gotten from spending time in the “Up” and “In” directions. Jesus and the disciples …
- … went back down the mountain. And Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept it to themselves, but they often asked each other what he meant by “rising from the dead.” (Mark 9:9b-10)
Jesus knows that in this case what’s happened is beyond their ability to understand for now. They won’t understand until they’ve seen Jesus after the resurrection.
Up, In, and Out. We need all three.
What happened to Jesus on the mountain, and what happened to the disciples when they saw God in Christ that day, is like what happens to us as the Holy Spirit works in us. The word in Greek that’s used to describe what happens is metamorphoo. It’s where we get our word “metamorphosis.” Metamorphoo is the same word that Paul uses in Romans 12:2 “Be transformed.” It’s also the word that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 3:18 where he says that we are all being transformed into Jesus’ image.
What Paul tells us in the letter to the Corinthians is that we too have that glow. He says that as we are being transformed we reflect the light of Jesus. His light shines through us, but to be most effective we have to stay connected to Jesus, almost as if we had solar batteries that need to be charged by the Son S.O.N.
In Ezekiel 36, God promises to make us softer. He says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) Maybe that’s what we saw on the faces of the people coming out of that prayer time—softened hearts. An internal makeover.
Spending time with God changes us. It’s really kind of like the glow from being in love. When we spend time with someone we love, that love grows. Nobody loves us more than God, and spending time basking in that tremendous, unconditional love has an effect on us.
Remember that Sweet tweet? Satan’s version of power and glory is self-glorification and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’s version is service and selflessness. Jesus demonstrated that service and selfless ness by being willing to lay down his life for us all, for the forgiveness of all our sins, so that there would be nothing to get in the way of enjoying God’s love forever.
Three days later God raised Jesus from the dead, and gave us the Holy Spirit so that we would have help to see and hear and understand and be transformed.
The Holy Spirit does the work, but transformation does require our participation. Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed, but before that, in Romans 12:1, Paul tells us to respond to God’s gift of forgiveness and love by offering our bodies as a living sacrifice. Offering our lives. Being willing to let the Spirit help us to trust God and listen to Jesus and do what Jesus says.
Prayer is crucial. So is reading God’s word. These help us grow in our understanding and ability to know that God is with us throughout the day, helping to guide us and to be more like Jesus. Engaging in discussion about God’s work in our lives and in our world is also helpful, and I hope you’ll join us on Zoom for our Lent group where we’ll talk about how to put Jesus’ words into practice in our everyday lives.
Our transformation happens in great and quiet ways. As we spend time with God, we are changed little by little. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we go from glory to ever-increasing glory. In the Message version, it says “we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
As the Holy Spirit works, we are transformed. Little by little we deal with the world differently the more we reflect the light of heaven.
Maybe you’ve already noticed that after spending time in prayer, and reading the Bible or devotionals, you find you respond differently to situations at work or school. Maybe you’ve discovered that saying a prayer before a conversation then makes that conversation go better.
It happened to me just this past week. A friend who prays with me called and said, “I need to pray for you right now.” I told this friend I had just a few minutes before I had to get to a meeting on Zoom. I wasn’t expecting anything dramatic. A prayer, and then a meeting. But my friend prayed an extraordinary prayer, and the meeting turned out to be about matters that were far bigger than I had expected. Because of my friend’s prayer, I was so much better prepared to be a part of that meeting. I didn’t know I was going to need that prayer, but God knew. My friend listened to the Spirit and called me.
What are you expecting God to do? Expect nothing less that the extraordinary. Expect to be changed.
There’s a great poem that’s floating around the internet. Some say this was written by a monk in the middle ages, but it’s origins are unclear. Nevertheless, these words are powerful.
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
Our faith is not just about us. Quite the opposite. Our faith affects everyone around us. As we spend time living our lives in three directions, up, in and out, inviting the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in us, our transformation shines out and impacts the world.
Be transformed and let your light shine.
 Here’s a great discussion of coincidences and God: https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-coincidence.html
 Ray Jones and David Loleng, Engage: Discipleship (Louisville, Witherspoon Press, 2013)
 Internet meme. Original source unknown. http://www.docmeek.com/i-wanted-to-change-the-world-unknown-monk-1100-a-d/