Sunday, February 11, 2024
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“More Than Just a Great Pair of Legs”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, February 11, 2024
Reading: Mark 9:2-9

There’s an amusing story I read of a university student who needed one more course to round out his timetable for the semester. The only course that fit into his schedule was “Wildlife Zoology,” and he had some reservations about taking this course, because he had heard the course was tough and the professor was a bit “different.” But, since he really had no other choice, he signed up for “Wildlife Zoology.”

After one lecture and one chapter of the textbook, the professor presented the class with a surprise test. He passed it out to the students, and they saw that it was a sheet of paper divided into squares and in each square was a carefully drawn picture of some bird’s legs. Not bodies, not beaks, not even feet – just the birds’ legs. The test simply asked them to identify the birds from the pictures of their legs.

The student was stunned. After just one week, he didn’t have a clue about any of these birds! And as he sat and stared at the test page in astonishment, he started to get madder and madder. Finally, reaching the boiling point, he stomped up to the front of the classroom, and threw the test on the teacher’s desk, and exclaimed, “This is the dumbest test I have ever seen, and this is the worst course I have ever taken.” The teacher looked up at him and said, “Young man, you just flunked this test.”

Then the teacher picked up the paper, saw that the student hadn’t even bothered to write his name on it, and said, “By the way, young man, what’s your name?” At this, the student bent over, pulled up his pants, showed the teacher his legs and said, “You identify me.”

In the verses that lead up to the scripture passage we heard this morning, we learn that the disciples had some confusion around Jesus’ identity. They had been following him around for some time, and sure, they knew he was a great teacher. Many people called Him ‘Rabbi.’ They knew he could heal people and cast out demons; He could stop a storm with His hand, and miraculously feed thousands of people with just a little bit of food. They had seen him perform all kinds of miracles. But what did it mean? Who was this person who could do all of this?

Just a few verses before this passage about His transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus was walking along the road with his disciples, and he was asking them (8:27) “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples indicated the confusion that everyone had surrounding Jesus’ identity by answering, “Ummm…John the Baptist? Elijah? Maybe…one of the prophets?”

So then, Jesus asked Peter directly: “who do you say that I am?” And without missing a beat Peter answers, “You’re the Messiah.”  And we – with our two thousand years of hindsight – cheer, do the wave, and think, “Yeah! He got it right! He passed the test!” (Although he got to see more than just Jesus’ legs.) But then, as is strangely common in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples not to mention this to anyone – what they have seen, what they have come to realize about Him. Then he goes on to talk about his suffering and death.

When we come to this morning’s passage, then, the Transfiguration, we think that finally things are being made clear. After all, what could be clearer than hearing God’s own voice from heaven calling Jesus His Son? But then we are told again that the disciples walked away puzzled. This time, in all fairness, it’s because Jesus told them not to say anything until after he is raised from the dead. Of course, the necessary step before being raised from the dead is to become dead, and this didn’t fit with their understanding of the Messiah. So, the passage says they were puzzled, which may be one of the biggest understatements in the history of Christianity.

For the disciples – the people who walked with him, and sat with him, and ate with him every day – there was a real mix of ideas and viewpoints and thoughts and emotions regarding the identity of Jesus. On one hand, they were completely devoted to Him, and gave up absolutely everything to follow Him, and they loved and worshipped Him with all their hearts.

On the other hand, they never really understood him while He was living amongst them. Especially when you read through the gospel of Mark, you’ll see Jesus getting frustrated with the disciples; that despite everything they witness as they accompany him, they just never quite seem to get it, even when He says things plainly like, “the Son of Man must suffer and die and be raised from the dead.” They know who the Son of Man is in Jewish apocalyptic tradition: a pre-temporal heavenly being who was expected to descend to earth and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. But they scratch their heads whenever he talks about dying and rising.

We almost expect Jesus to say to Peter, “Young man, you just flunked the test.” But, of course, Jesus never does. Nobody who loves Him and follows Him – even if they’re not sure they totally understand Him – ever flunks the test. The mystery of God’s love in Jesus Christ is so complex that nobody can ever fully understand it, while living in human flesh.

Of course, we’d like to think that if we were walking and talking with the flesh and blood person of Jesus every day, seeing the miracles, hearing him teach – witnessing firsthand all of the things we have only ever read about – that we wouldn’t have any doubt about Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God. It seems as though 2000 years of hindsight gives us somewhat of an unfair advantage.

But even with the stories that we have in the Holy Scriptures, we Christians – over the centuries – have never really been able to get things perfectly straight about who Jesus is, either as individual believers or the Church as a whole. People today still tend to focus on one aspect of who Jesus is – the part that appeals to them – and ignore those aspects of Jesus that make them uncomfortable. That’s because we tend to trust our physical eyes more than we trust our spiritual eyes, the eyes of our hearts. The disciples were walking with him physically, but they were seeing things only with their physical eyes, which makes it impossible to fully understand who Jesus is.

If we, as Christians, are walking with Jesus each and every day, through scripture reading, prayer and devotions, we too run the risk of seeing Jesus only partially, if we are approaching our devotions with physical eyes; that is, if we are trying to rationalize everything we read, and make it fit with our own personal worldview, or make it fit into a mould we have created in our own likeness.

Often, people seek to understand first, to make sure that it all makes rational sense, and then they will feel that it is safe to believe. Many Christians feel that if we can just formulate the right doctrine, then it will all make sense, and then we can trust. But faith and trust and discipleship always come first; understanding comes later, gradually, as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When we read the scripture and dismiss it as not relevant to our generation; or we try to explain it in a way that makes it easier to stomach – more palatable to us or to society – then we are seeing it only with physical eyes…we are seeing only the legs, and trying to identify who Jesus is to us without having a heart vision of who he is. If you wait until everything makes sense before you follow Jesus, believe me, you will never follow him. Because it will never all make sense in this lifetime, not even for the most devoted believer.

The church has called the event from this morning’s Bible passage the “Transfiguration.” To “transfigure” means to change in looks or appearance. It was as if Jesus took off a veil and Peter, James, and John could finally see him a little better and understand him a little more clearly. This new vision of Jesus’ identity is not something they could achieve by themselves, it is not something that they could ever have figured out or rationalized, because the things they were seeing had no rational explanation.

But, because the disciples were walking with Jesus daily and had a deep desire to know Jesus, which they demonstrated – not just by thinking about Him once in a while – but by walking with Him every day; and because they committed their lives to following Him and knowing Him and listening to Him, Jesus took them to the mountaintop and showed them who He really is to them: “God’s beloved son,” the person that God wants them to listen to and obey.

We really learn who someone is only when we walk with them every day. Our spouses, our children, our families, our closest friends…when we really pay attention and listen and watch, then we will have a deeper knowledge of who they really are, even if we can’t ever fully understand the total depths of another person’s heart.

But when we show an interest in knowing the people we love, they will be willing to reveal more of their hearts to us. Other people who aren’t as close to us we only know partially; we only see their legs, so to speak. We may know their name, where they live, who they’re married to, but we don’t really know who they are. And the same is true with Jesus.

When we walk with him every day, and when we watch and listen – with spiritual eyes and ears – then Jesus will show us who He is. Jesus never says ‘no’ to the person who says, “Lord, show me who you are. I want to know you.” 

Now, many people in the biblical stories did not accept Jesus because what He said made them uncomfortable, and many people today are no different. But to the person who has a sincere desire to walk with Jesus every day and know Him, He will not keep himself hidden. And it is when we really see Jesus, see who He is, that everything in our own lives becomes so much clearer.

Unlike the boy in the story, who got mad at the professor and left, we can go to our teacher and ask to see the whole picture. And instead of flunking us, our merciful teacher will show us, will reveal His true identity; and at the same time, reveal our own true identity as He sees us – as His beloved children. Thanks be to God.