Last Sunday the Gospel told us of Jesus going alone into the desert to fast. A sharp contrast today with a mysterious appearance of Jesus surrounded by heavenly glory. A reminder as we settle into Lent that our preparation is to bring us to a deeper knowledge of the risen Christ.
Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18
This strange story, it is said, has inspired more books by Jews than any other in the Bible and it may be even more difficult for Christians to understand. It would seem chosen for this Sunday, because the words of ‘beloved son’ will be echoed in the Gospel. How can we interpret it? Historically, the Hebrews in their early days as a people of God lived among nations which practiced human sacrifice, especially of children. Some Jews were tempted to copy this. (See 2 Kings 16:3, and Micah 6:7-8.) So on one level, I take this as an emotionally powerful lesson that God does not want human sacrifice.
But we still have to deal with the question of why would God test Abraham with the apparent command that he must sacrifice his son? This called for for absolute trust or ‘hope against hope’ for it was through Isaac that God had previously promised that Abraham’s descendants would be everlastingly blessed and how could this happen if Isaac were to die a young boy? Abraham’s words that ‘God will provide’ the sacrifice may indicate his trust that God would carry out his promise even when the circumstances seemed to make it impossible. E. A. Speiser notes that the people of God would be tested again over and over for generations to trust when times seem to show that all was lost.
Christians can also think of the disciples who were challenged when ‘the beloved Son of God’ would be a sacrifice on the cross, and they had to understand that this did not validate the promise that the ‘Kingdom of God’ had come. The horrors of our time –wars, famine, torture, natural disasters – are being seen by some as reasons not to believe in God, and so trusting beyond what we can understand may still be a challenge.
Psalm 115:10, 15-19
The response effectively takes up the themes of affliction, trust, and salvation, which will also be in the next reading.
The language here is taken from the law court with accuser and the judge’s acquittal. Some commentators also see the Genesis story as background for the Son sacrifice. There is a shift here: Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, accepting the saving will of his Father. Paul calls us to trust that in Christ we are beyond condemnation. The force of Paul’s language dramatizes the same kind of trust as Abraham – no matter how it may seem, or even how we may feel emotionally, God the Father will refuse us no good gift and Jesus is always ‘pleading’ for us. That gives a sense of the timelessness of Jesus’ love and care, as during his life on earth, still in heaven he is ‘God with us’.
In the flow of Mark’s Gospel, this event of ‘the Transfiguration’ comes shortly after Jesus has predicted his passion, death and resurrection. The disciples had found that very hard to take in and Peter had objected (8:31-33). Unusually for Mark with his usual vague time comments, this is event is preceded by the note ‘six days later’ and so linking it to the prophecy. It therefore can be seen as reassurance to the inner circle of disciple that Resurrection will follow Jesus’ death. Some also think that it may have also confirmed Jesus in his determination to face the suffering according to the will of his Father.
There are multiple Old Testament resonances to the story, especially centring on the two who appear along side Jesus. In Exodus 24:16, Moses is called by God to come up to the mountain Sinai (also called Horeb) where ‘the glory of the Lord’ settles in a cloud for six days, and then on the seventh, Moses is called into the cloud where he receives the revelation of the Law. Mark may hint that the ‘glory of the Lord’, which was like a ‘devouring fire’ on Sinai, is here shown by the shining appearance of Jesus. Later in the Exodus account, Moses will come down from the mountain with the skin of his face shining and that may be another reference. Here we can see the shining white of Jesus’ clothes as a symbol for his bodily glory.
Elijah was the first great prophet, who also had a mountain top revelation (1 Kings 1:8-12). He was expected to return ‘in the last days’ before the coming of the Messiah. The last of the prophetic books, Malachi 4:4-5 ends, ‘Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes…’
All of this would have been in the memory of the first readers of Mark, and are the best clues we have to the meaning of the scene. The three disciples receive a vision that can be taken as replacing the Old with the New: Moses and Elijah, great prophets as they were, now giving place to the Beloved Son.
The three disciples are overcome with awe – or ‘fear’ – the common word used for how people react to a heavenly appearance. Mark is always frank about the shortcomings of the disciples, and lets us know Peter was so overwhelmed he hardly knows what he was saying. His idea of tents has some Old Testament resonances recalling both the tents of the desert wandering, and the temporary outdoor camps set up by the Hebrews during their ‘Feast of Tents’ (Also translated ‘booths’, ‘tabernacles’, ‘huts’; in Hebrew Sukkoth). With nomadic culture the idea of ‘pitching one’s tent’ among a people indicated an intimate dwelling and appears in several prophecies of God promising to be with God’s people in future times. Peter seems to intend honouring the three, but maybe also be a desire to make their presence a permanent one.
The cloud, like Sinai representing God’s presence, descends; Mark is not clear whether the three disciples are in the cloud or witnessing it from the outside but they hear the words spoken by the Father which are the same identification given to Jesus at his baptism. Now they are addressed to the disciples, with the added command to ‘listen’ to the Son. These words echo Moses’ prediction that God would raise up for the Hebrews a greater prophet than Moses himself, and Moses ordered them to listen to this coming one.
Jesus warns the disciples not to speak of their experience until after his resurrection. In Mark, the fullness of Jesus’ divinity is not revealed to the world until his trial before the priests when he accepts the title, ‘Son of the Blessed’. While the three of the inner circle obey, they still do not understand the full meaning of Jesus words. Like Abraham, their faith will be tested, but they have seen and heard the promise of Jesus’ triumph. The command to them – and to us – is to ‘listen’ – pay attention and obey – to Jesus. This is a focus for Lent. And for life.