Transfiguration B: Back Down the Mountain

Mark 9:2-9

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Of late, I’ve been thinking about the creeds. Actually more than just thinking; in fact, of late I have been somewhat preoccupied with the creeds. Don’t worry, I know why. It’s because I am teaching confirmation and we are exploring the creed and what it means today. Which is of course the problem, because sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the creeds, and that’s particularly true of the Nicene Creed. Fourth-century language and philosophy applied to making sense to one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith: how can Jesus be both divine and human, two natures in one person, let alone also a distinct person yet of the same substance of the Father? (And let’s not even start on the Holy Spirit. 🙂 )

The creed settles this not so much by defining who Jesus is, but rather by setting up boundaries, demarcating what you can say about Jesus and thereby ruling out some of the things we shouldn’t say, in this way, perhaps, making room for the mystery to be mystery… but keeping it an orthodox mystery. And so we get, “We believe… in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.”

Beautiful, poetic even, but not terribly, terribly clear. Which is what makes it challenging to explain to 7th and 8th graders… and 30-somethings… and folks in the fifties to seventies and beyond. The difference between all these different age groups isn’t so much their sense of the intelligibility of the Creed – most probably don’t understand it. (And, honestly, do we?) The difference is simply that a younger generation has a harder time participating in things if they don’t understand what’s going on. They are less likely than previous generations to do things simply because they should or because their parents did or because it’s expected. (And, of course, attending church is increasingly not expected; nice if you want to, but not an expectation.)

Reading today’s passage from Mark about the Transfiguration helped me in my quest first to understand what we’re confessing – or at least to understand it a little better – and to teach it to my confirmands. Because after describing Jesus’ trek up the mountain with Peter, James, and John; after trying to capture the epiphanic (nice word, isn’t it?) appearance of Moses and Elijah; after working through Peter’s good intentions and lack of understanding; after reporting the interruption and instruction of the divine voice… After all this, Mark reports simply, “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.”

And what I think is so significant about this little verse, and so easy to overlook, is simply that it reports that after all of what happened on the mountaintop…, Jesus came back down. Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life “here below,” down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world. Down, if you read closely, to the crucifixion. Jesus orders them not to tell anyone “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Resurrection, of course, is a hopeful note, but it does not just imply, but pretty much necessitates, death!

Jesus came down. He didn’t just go up the mountain of revelation or inspiration, but came back down again. As I was reading Mark’s story after laboring to help my students understand the Creed, I realized that this is more or less what happens in our confession of faith as well. Because after all the fourth-century, Greek philosophic language trying to make room for, if not explain, the mystery of the Incarnation, the Creed also gets to that same simple and crucial statement: “And for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”

This is, I think, not just the key to understanding the Creed, but also the heart of the Christian faith. God in Christ came down to be with us and for us, to take on our life and our lot that we might not simply persist, but flourish, not simply have life, but have it abundantly, that we might understand that the God who created and still sustains the vast cosmos not only knows that we exist, but cares. Cares about our ups and downs, cares about our hopes and disappointments, cares about our dreams and despair, cares about all the things we care about, promising to be with us, to walk alongside us, to never, ever let us go, and in time to redeem us and bring us into the company of saints.

And that, finally, gives me something to tell my seventh and eighth graders (and their siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches and more!): that they are never alone. That God in Jesus sees them as worthwhile, as worthy, that is, of love and dignity and respect. That God intends to use their gifts to care for each other and the world. That God loves them…and loves their neighbor as well. That God will not give up on them. Ever. Because Jesus came down. For us. In love. And for good.

Thanks for sharing this amazing word of promise and hope, Dear Partner. I know your people will appreciate it, because each of us needs reminding from time to time – as in weekly! – that God is with us and for us. Blessings on your proclamation!

Yours in Christ,