Rev. Ken Kovacs preaches to the congregation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church


Who is this Jesus?

February 11, 2024

Readings: Mark 9:2-9

That was surely one of the questions going through the disciples’ minds when they encountered this dazzling vision of Jesus on the mountain.

We don’t know what they had expected when they began their slog up the hillside. Mark’s gospel tells us that they’d been companions of Jesus and his ministry for a while, yet Mark is careful to point out that all has not yet been revealed about the sacred identity of Jesus Christ. It’s been described as the “messianic secret.”

Just before today’s text begins, Peter had started to get wise to something special going on. On the road to Caesarea Philippi, he experienced a brief moment of insight. Jesus had asked them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out “You are the Messiah!”

They were probably still clueless. Jesus had been describing to them the suffering that lay ahead, telling them that he was going die and rise again. But this was a very different expectation for the disciples. They didn’t get it!  The text a few verses before says that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (!) for saying that. The disciples — the ones who are closest to Jesus, they cannot yet see; they cannot yet understand.

Here on the mountain, then, James and John and Peter had an encounter with Jesus in a way they hadn’t before. It is such an intense and shattering vision, that they begin describe it with images of prophets and leaders from the Hebrew Scriptures. They’re trying to find the closest parallels to their faith experience; figuring out what could help them make sense of what they were seeing and experiencing. They try to hold on to the moment by proposing to build shelters there… so they could stay awhile, or come back to this feeling when it began to fade….

Whatever their confused and dazed reactions were, there’s no doubt about this: they did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

There’s no question that something happened that really rocked their world.

Have you ever had an experience that really shook you? Something indescribable that affected you emotionally and mentally, but left you somehow the better for it?

It’s hard to put into words, that soul-shaking moment.

  • Holding a newborn infant in your arms
  • Hearing a piece of music that transports …. A sublime piece of art
  • Seeing the stars in the night sky and feeling the enormity of the universe
  • The images from the James Webb telescope
  • A sunset
  • Surrounding the bedside of a loved one who is peacefully dying and saying your final farewells.

Theologians have given a name to certain moments like that theophany. A time when you experience God’s presence in a way that is beyond comprehension or description, a time that philosopher Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium tremendum.

The quote printed in the bulletin by Frederick Buechner, (from Whistling in the Dark), describes it like this:“Even with us, something like [the Transfiguration] happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the par, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert…Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

For Peter and the other disciples on that mountaintop, this theophany is the moment they began to discover who Jesus truly was. They couldn’t explain it, but they knew it deep in their bones, their hearts, their minds….. that Jesus was the Son of God. And that nothing from this point would be the same.

The text tells us they were overshadowed by a cloud, and heard the voice of God speaking words that we heard before, earlier in Mark’s gospel, at Jesus’ baptism. But now the disciples hear those words: This is my Son. My beloved. Listen to him.

These words — “This is my Son” – proclaim Jesus’ identity.
The words – “my Beloved” — are an affirmation.
“Listen to him” —- this is your ministry, this is your calling.

Listen to him.

The word for what the cloud does is overshadow, from the Greek word episkiazo. Jan Richardson points out that “the only other place we see this word in the gospels is in the angel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, when he responds to her question about how it will be possible for her to give birth to the child whom God has asked her to bear. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow (episkiazo) you.” [1]

What does this mean? As Richardson says, “God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation of the holy.” The disciples are beginning to perceive, in Jesus, this new revelation of God’s work in the world, work that lives in and through human lives.

These wondering, surprised disciples, through this Transfiguring Moment, begin to discover more fully what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, and what it truly means to follow him — this Jesus, both human and divine. “It was important,” Richardson says, that Peter, James, and John have that mountaintop experience. The experience would work on them, shape them, and continue to transform and perhaps even transfigure them. The knowledge they carried would alter every future encounter: with Jesus, with their fellow disciples, and with those to whom they ministered.”

Who is this Jesus?

From this point, as they leave the mountaintop and enter again into Jesus’ ministry, these three friends of Jesus begin to understand – however incompletely – that in Jesus God is speaking, God is acting, God is present in a way that they had never glimpsed or perhaps imagined before.

They see Jesus touching wounds and healing, crossing barriers of religion and class. He invites people who have been unwelcomed to come and sit at a table. He gathers the least of his society, gathers them and blesses them. And he tells his friends yet again that there will be suffering, that he will die and rise again – death and resurrection. They begin to see Jesus revealed as an unexpected Messiah…. not a king, but a servant; not a victor who will overthrow the oppression of Rome, but one who the authorities of the state will kill on a cross.

Who is this Jesus?

He is the one who give us our identity — we have been baptized into him, into his life and death and resurrection.

He is the one who affirms us — we are beloved of God, God rejoices in us and calls us God’s own.

He calls us into ministry — we too become healers; we cross the boundaries of culture, class, nation, and proclaim a welcome for all people. We work for inclusion and affirmation of those who are shut out and on the margins. We too feed the hungry. We are emboldened to take risks on behalf of the kin-dom, to work for justice, to end oppression. We reach out to the lonely, to those living in fear. We speak out for our fragile planet. We love our enemies; we love our neighbors. We don’t put any limits on the depths of God’s love. We are not afraid, for Jesus tells us that he will be with us always, even to the close of the age.

This Wednesday – Valentine’s Day — we enter into the season of Lent. This Transfiguration text  is read from one of the gospels every year at this time. It marks our entrance to a time when we are invited to ask, “Who is Jesus?” “How can I truly love him?” “How can I faithfully serve him?”

However you walk this path, of these next 40 days and six Sundays, may the Spirit overshadow you and give you a glimpse of God’s unimaginable glory and love.


[1] JR, Transfiguration Sunday, Show and (Don’t) Tell, The Painted Prayerbook