In His Own Words: James at the Transfiguration

Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church for the Ecumenical Wednesday Service.

Mark 9:2-9

Six 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As 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.

***

I never could say no to Jesus.

He woke us up early in the morning. I wasn’t too enthused about that. It’d been a crazy couple of weeks, and honestly, all I wanted to do was sleep late for a change. Most of the guys weren’t even awake yet. I could see two of them in the dim light—my brother John, for one, I’d recognize his silhouette anywhere, and Peter, maybe?—they were fumbling around, shrugging on their outer tunics.

Jesus was standing over me. “Get up, James,” he said. “Follow me.”

This was a thing with him, this “follow me” bit, and I fell for it every time. I couldn’t help myself. About a year ago, maybe a year and a half now, I was out on the boat with John and my father, and it was one of those lazy days in the boat that I loved, clear skies, and John and I were just mending the nets, knotting and re-knotting the ropes so they’d be strong enough to hold that big catch our father was always going on and on about. “Back in my day,” he’d say, “you could pull in so many fish that the boat would ride a full foot lower going back. Those were days,” he’d say, and John and I would laugh and ask him if he thought the Lord wasn’t making as many fish nowadays or if we had just built better boats than he could. My father didn’t like that kind of talk; said it was sacrilegious. But my brother and I would just laugh and laugh.

It was on that kind of day, a laughing, lazy day, when I first saw Jesus. We were moored just off shore, and all of a sudden I looked up and there he was, just looking at us. He didn’t seem rude—or even curious. But somehow I felt I’d never been seen so thoroughly, and I found myself standing up in the boat as if some great emperor or general was walking by and I needed to show respect. My brother did the same, and the boat rocked back and forth in the shallows.

“What’s going on?” is what my father said, but I didn’t hear him. Instead I heard two other words, two words that would change my life forever.

“Follow me.”

And I did. John and I got out of the boat and waded onto shore and fell in with Jesus like we’d been waiting to do just that our whole lives. I still can’t tell you why—I knew it was crazy at the time, and so I kept telling myself things like, “I’ll just see what he wants,” and then, “I’ll just spend the day, one day won’t hurt anything,” and then, “until next Shabbat,” and then “I’ll go to the next town, and come right back,” and eventually I stopped thinking about going home altogether, and I knew I was going to follow Jesus till the end, and I never expected the end to come.

Sometimes it was great. I mean, the dude was amazing. The man had God’s own power in him. He could heal and teach and man could he preach. I’d heard his message a hundred times and still it made the hairs on my arms stand up. When he said words like “mercy” and “salvation” and “soon,” you really believed him.

Not everybody liked what he was doing, and sometimes we got hustled out of town real quick, and sometimes we were even attacked, and sometimes I got tired of having no home to call my own, and tired of the crowds pressing in with their diseases and despair, and tired of having no idea what was going to happen next.

I felt that way that morning when Jesus woke me up and told me to follow him, and I won’t lie, a huge part of me just wanted to turn over and go back to sleep, but wasn’t it just last week that Jesus had been talking to us about taking up our crosses? Maybe this was the kind of thing he meant. And in the end, I never could say no to Jesus. So I stretched and I got up and I followed him.

We didn’t say much as we climbed the mountain. The world woke up around us, the air getting warmer, the birds starting their songs, and sometimes when I paused for breath I thought I could hear the faint waves of the sea in the distance, but it might just be that I’d spent so long as a fisherman that the rhythm of the waves and the rhythm of my heartbeat were pretty much the same. Jesus led the way, with Peter right behind him—Peter always had so much energy, no matter what time of day, no matter what we were doing. John and I crashed along behind. I laughed to myself—Jesus sometimes called us “sons of thunder”—we were certainly making enough noise to earn that name that day!

I didn’t really wonder why we were climbing a mountain, the four of us. I’d gotten so used to not knowing what we would do next that I’d sort of stopped trying to figure it out, and Jesus was a big fan of mountains, and a big fan of praying, so maybe we were headed for a prayer retreat or something like that. My job wasn’t really to know. My job was to follow.

We got to the top about mid-morning, and like everybody does when they reach the top of a mountain, we turned to look out over the valley. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and strained my eyes to see Caesarea Philippi, where we’d been last week, with its palaces on the shoreline, and boats as small as beetles dotting the ocean. Even up on the mountain I could hear the cries of the seagulls, and knew the daily catch must be good.

Once I’d caught my breath again, I turned around to see what Jesus would have us do next.

I nearly fell off the mountain in amazement when I saw him.

You may not believe me, and if you don’t, that’s okay, I hardly believe me—but Jesus was glowing. Not just sweaty, like me, but shining, everything about him, even his clothes had gone white, dazzling white, white like the local laundresses would’ve killed for. In a way, it was like when my sister was pregnant with her first child, and she glowed with it, glowed with anticipation and excitement and love, glowed with the idea that she was about to bring a new thing into this world. Everybody commented on it. She just had that glow about her. This was nothing like that, but at the same time, this was just like that.

I glanced over at my brother, just for a second, wondering if he was seeing what I was; he had his hand halfway over his eyes, like he was shielding them from the sun. Peter’s mouth was open, one foot forward like he had started to move. I looked back at Jesus and discovered we weren’t alone on the mountain. There were two other men there, and they looked a little funny, with strange untrimmed beards and long robes, and somehow I heard the names Elijah and Moses in my head, which is crazy because how would I recognize them? But I will swear until my dying day that I saw Moses and Elijah on that mountain. And I will never know why I was granted that honor.

They seemed to be speaking with Jesus, and I could hear the strange accents of their Hebrew, and I couldn’t pick up much, but somehow I knew that Jesus was the most important guy on this mountain, and that’s crazy too—I mean, Moses saw God face-to-face, Moses gave us the Law, Moses brought us out of Egypt into the promised land—surely he was the most important man ever to live. And Elijah was no small potatoes either—Elijah who was the prophet of the Lord, who fought the prophets of Baal and won, who didn’t even die but was taken up to be the with the Lord forever. And yet Moses wasn’t shining. Elijah wasn’t shining. Jesus was shining, and I think he was teaching them, and I think he was praying with them, and it crossed my mind for the first time that maybe Jesus was something more than even I’d realized, something more than a teacher and healer and prophet, something more than a man who held the power of God. How close did a man have to be to God to outshine Moses and Elijah?

I don’t know how long their conversation lasted. It felt like hours and it felt like seconds, but eventually I felt Peter stir beside me—he was always impetuous—and he said something about setting up tents for Elijah and Moses and Jesus, which seemed silly to me—you can’t box up sunlight and keep it for yourself. Jesus turned to look at Peter, and he didn’t say anything, but I could tell we weren’t going to be following Peter’s plan. I was too terrified to speak. Who was I to witness this miracle? Who was I to be in a place where God was breaking through to earth?

Just then a cloud passed over the sun, and I hardly noticed because the sun hadn’t seemed very bright for a while now, but suddenly there was a voice out of the cloud, like in the stories of the Torah, and I knew I was hearing the voice of God, my God who formed the earth and ruled the nations of the world, and if I’d had an ounce more courage I’d have thrown myself to the ground, but still I was frozen in place, and each word fell like the ringing of a bell on my ears, clear and strong and rumbling.

This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!

That’s what I heard.

This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!

I didn’t understand immediately. I still won’t claim I understand fully. But I began to know that the man I’d been following, the man I’d split dinner with and told jokes to and prayed with on bad nights, that man was God’s son. God’s beloved. Not just a man of God. Not just a man who wielded God’s power. But God’s own son. But God. I’d been sharing my life, my days, my desires, my everything—with my God.

I looked back at Jesus, and the light was gone from his face, and his clothes were back to being old and dirty, but somehow everything was different now. I barely noticed that Moses and Elijah had disappeared.

I wasn’t following a man. I was living with God.

God was doing a new thing with Jesus, and God was being a new thing with Jesus, and something was about to be born into this world, and I didn’t know what it would be, but I wanted to be there to see it happen.

I looked again at Jesus, and he smiled, in that sad, secret sort of way he often did, and started down the mountain again, but before he did he said two words: “Follow me.”

I never could say no to Jesus.

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