The first time I ever got to swim in the ocean, I was 22 years old. Like many of you watching this, I grew up in Nebraska – and, well, Nebraska’s not exactly known for its close proximity to the ocean. So when I joined the Peace Corps and got assigned to live on a small Caribbean island (the Dominican Republic), you can probably imagine that I was pretty stoked to finally get a chance to go swimming in the sea!
The very first time I went, I was visiting an older Volunteer as part of my training – I was actually visiting Jan Espinosa, who’s probably watching this video right now! She took us up to the beach at Sosúa, on the north side of the island. I put my swimsuit on and I waded out in the water to where it was deep enough that I could swim around a little bit. I still remember the seawater splashing into my mouth for the first time – I was shocked by how salty it was! Like, I knew in my brain that the ocean is made up of saltwater, but I was so surprised by that first taste of it.
But the one part of that trip I most viscerally remember is when someone lent me a pair of goggles so that I could actually look around under the water a little bit. I was so excited swimming out there with those goggles. I’d seen beautiful photos of gorgeous coral reefs, with all those brightly colored tropical plants and fish swimming around under the water, and I was excited to get to see something like that with my own two eyes. So I swam out to where the water was a little deeper; I strapped on the goggles; and I plunged my face under the water.
It was not quite the magical experience that I had been hoping for. Below me, I saw sand and rocks and a whole bunch of spiky looking things I assume were maybe sea urchins. But further out than that, the sea floor faded out of view – and all I could see was deep blue darkness. And I’ll be totally honest with you: it freaked me the fork out. I don’t think the ocean’s even all that deep by Sosúa, but staring down into all that water below me just filled me with this deep sense of existential terror. I suddenly realized that I was just this tiny speck of flesh adrift on the surface of a vast and mysterious ocean that I could hardly even wrap my brain around.
After all, the ocean is huge – it covers over 70% of the planet’s surface – and I read recently that 80% of it has never been mapped, explored, or even seen by humans. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the ocean floor of our own planet!
Anyway, suffice it to say that that one brief glimpse into the watery abyss was more than enough to send me scurrying back toward solid land.
I can imagine that this feeling of terror and awe is something like what Peter and the other disciples are experiencing in our gospel reading for this morning. They had been excitedly following Jesus around all over the countryside, listening to him preach and watching him do these amazing healings. But this one terrifying mountaintop moment forces them to realize that they might have vastly underestimated who Jesus is and what he’s about.
This realization actually starts six days earlier, as the beginning of our gospel reading implies. Six days before this encounter on the mountain, Jesus and the disciples had been traveling around in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. This was when Jesus famously asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” And for once, Peter gives the right answer: “You are the Messiah.” But then of course he quickly demonstrates that he has no concept of what that actually means. As Mark writes, Jesus began to teach them that:
the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”Mark 8:31-34
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Peter is excited to be rolling with the Messiah, but he is totally unprepared for what the reality of that will actually be like. And now here they are on the mountaintop. Jesus has deliberately brought Peter and James and John here with him – he wants them to see this. And “this” is a dazzling revelation of light that can’t even be described in human terms – the closest Mark gets is to say that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” They see Moses and Elijah appear and somehow know exactly who they are, even though it’s not like they would have seen a photo of them somewhere. A massive cloud overshadows the mountaintop, and from the cloud a thunderous voice proclaims that Jesus is the Beloved, the Son of God – so shut up and listen to him!
The disciples are overwhelmed and terrified by this entire spectacle. It was one thing for them to see Jesus as this great prophet and teacher – but it’s a whole other thing to see Jesus outshining even Moses and Elijah. In that moment, the disciples get just a glimpse that Jesus is SO MUCH MORE than they had even begun to imagine. Kind of like my experience looking down into the ocean through those goggles, a curtain is pulled back to show the disciples how very little they truly understand.
And I think that this revelation terrifies them not just because it shows them the reality of who Jesus really is. I think the transfiguration also terrifies them because it reveals the reality of who they themselves now are. They are now part of this mission, part of this epic story – and there’s no going back. They have been lifted up from their humble lives as fishermen to be servants and proclaimers and even bearers of this unimaginable light. They are now witnesses to divine mysteries far beyond themselves.
Paul is getting at this in our second reading, in his letter to the Corinthians he writes: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of the darkness,” – the God who said “Let there be light” – who has shone in our hearts. The voice that Peter and the other disciples heard speaking from the cloud was the same voice that spoke over the waters at creation, calling life itself into being. And this is the light that has now kindled itself in their hearts – in our hearts – the light that we are called to share with the world. That is an overwhelming thought – trying to share that dazzling light of the Transfiguration by sharing the light in our own hearts. That feels kind of like if I were trying to hold that salty seawater in my cupped hands and tell someone else about the ocean.
Paul describes this reality so well in the very next verse – he writes: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” According to Paul, our limitations can actually be part of our witness – it makes clear that we are pointing in awe to something that is vastly beyond ourselves.
This is what it means to be a witness – like in our mission statement, “to witness and serve in the name of Jesus Christ” – it’s to be the cupped hands or the clay jars or the burning hearts that point the way to something beyond ourselves, that point to something much greater and more mysterious.
Transfiguration Sunday is a day to be reminded of this. And it’s a day to be reminded – like the disciples who came before us – that we shouldn’t ever get too comfortable thinking that we know all there is to know about God and about how God will act. We don’t know. God is so far beyond our understanding that there is always more for us to discover and to learn and to be surprised by.
Our task is to listen for God’s voice – to make space in our prayers and in our lives for God to speak to us, and to trust that God will do so. And then we are called to follow Jesus back down the mountain, back toward the shore – to go with our hands full of seawater and our hearts full of light – to go and bear witness to the things that we have seen in whatever way we can.