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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

A Secret Transfiguration Witness - 02/14/2021

I wrote this first-person narrative of an imagined and unexpected witness to the transfiguration three years ago when we were last dwelling in Mark’s Gospel.

I enjoy doing this style of reflection on the scriptures and it strikes me how relevant they can remain. Three years ago, we would have never guessed that this pandemic would be upon us when we came back around to Mark again in February of 2021. And yet, these stories that give us a glimpse of what it may have been to be on the earth at the same time as our Lord Jesus, continue to speak powerfully into any time.

We read in our story that Jesus went up a high mountain with three of his disciples. I wondered what I would have done if I had been in the right place, at the right time and I saw Jesus and those three trying to get away from the crowds. I knew I’d follow. And so, I imagined a woman named “Bereneice,” (Bare-ha-neice), a secret witness to the Transfiguration. She feels a little like a friend to me this time around, a little more familiar, and this is part of her story as one of God’s Beloved.

When I was a little girl growing up in Caesarea Philippi, some of my warmest memories are of sitting around with my extended family after dinner for hours of conversation and storytelling. When I was even smaller, I remember listening to the conversation while pressing myself into the warmth of my mother or one of my aunts as they held me in their arms. When I was a little older, I would often be on the ground with my brother, Jonathan, or my cousins playing with a top or a little sheep on wheels. That was my favorite toy.

Whenever I played with that sheep, Jonathan would recite from the scrolls he was learning to read with his teacher. “Bereneice,” (Bare-ha-neice) he would say – that's my name – “Bereneice, (Bare-ha-neice) you must always remember, The LORD ‘will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.’” (Isa 40:11) Or sometimes he would recite that beautiful line from his favorite Song of Thanksgiving: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Ps 100:3)

Every evening, no matter what I was doing, when the work of the day was done and nighttime fell, I was always at least one-ear-open to what people were saying. It was mostly the men who did the talking, but I would ask my mother and aunts questions about what I heard when we were alone.

I still have conversations like this today, often with my husband Simon, who is a dyer of cloth. And I recite those songs and prayers and stories for my granddaughter Lilah, as she plays with that same little toy sheep today.

When I was younger, I would talk mostly to my mother though. Sometimes I asked more about the scrolls. Like, in one of the Songs of David it says that the LORD is good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love for all who call on the LORD in their time of need. (Ps 86)

Jonathan had taught me that song too. But then I would look at the world around us – too many people didn't get enough to eat, some weren't even able to afford bread twice a day for their families. Many people were sick or possessed by demons, but no one seemed to help them. And the priests and scribes put so many rules and laws into place about was clean and unclean, that it made it nearly impossible to help even if you wanted, unless you were willing to become an unclean outsider too.

  Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, had started making us Jewish people pay triple the number of taxes others had to pay. And some of our religious leaders turned far from God and betrayed us, working to make sure the empire stayed in control so they could keep their positions and riches too.

Maybe you’ve heard of Herod the Great's family? They not only betrayed their own people but seem to take immense pleasure in terrorizing us.

Of course, there are constantly waves of Jewish uprising against these injustices. But my people have so little power, so little hope of defending themselves against the often-brutal strength of the Romans. A primary objective of whatever it is that oppresses you is that it must silence the truth and keep you paralyzed in fear for as long as possible.

I asked one day as I was helping my mother make bread how we profess that this powerful LORD of us Jewish people is like a kind and fearless shepherd to us sheep when all these other horrible things seemed to happen over and over again without any hope for change?

My mother looked at me like she expected someday I would ask a question like this. I remember thinking her eyes looked tired, too tired for someone who had just begun her day. “We must wait,” she said, “...like our people have always done, from the time Moses brought them out of Egypt. And we must trust the faith that the LORD has given us and that somehow the LORD is working a way for our life and not our death.” And then she reminded me of her favorite reading, one she said pointed to a sure sign of the LORD's salvation for all creation. The Messiah.

She put her hand on my cheek and said, “One day, the Messiah will say to us: 'The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. '” (Isa 61:1-3a)

My mother was exceptionally good at reciting God’s holy word.

It wasn't long after that, that our family suffered horribly at the hands of Herod. Jonathan had gone to the marketplace. While he was there, Roman soldiers got into a scuffle with a Zealot who tried to resist arrest. One of the soldiers was badly hurt and the Romans got terribly angry and rounded up a few other Jewish boys and men, including Jonathan. They were crucified on the road to Jerusalem as an example – to remind us all to stay in line. To keep the us paralyzed in fear. He was 16.

“Sheep, indeed,” I thought – but not sheep of the wonderful LORD – we were sheep of this empire. And for a while I gave up any hope that the LORD was at work for our life at all – all I could see was Roman death.

At least I thought I had extinguished all hope – until the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth came along – all the way up here to the foot of Mt. Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan River.

He was in the marketplace one day – the same place where Jonathan was taken. And the crowds … you should have seen it. It was everyone I could think of from Caesarea Phillipi, and many, many people I had never seen. I got close enough to see and hear Rabbi Jesus teach. His voice, the way he explained the creation story and the words of the prophets, his very presence drew me in with promises of safety and freedom from what oppressed God’s people. I was drawn in to hear more and I started to feel this foreign yet familiar something inside.

Suddenly I realized that I must have had some hope inside of me somewhere because in the presence of this man, hope was what I began to recognize. It went from an imperceivable spark deep within me, to a little flame with warmth and anticipation and life! Life!

Rabbi Jesus spoke very much like my mother and Jonathan when they talked about the scrolls. But he spoke with such authority about our compassionate, abundant, forgiving LORD. He talked in ways that convicted some of our priests and leaders, and clearly the Romans. But he did not incite us to violence like some leadersa did. And then he'd say: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

This Rabbi had my attention immediately. Some of the people who had followed him to Caesarea Philippi came from Bethsaida. They told of how Rabbi Jesus healed a blind man there. Others had told them about amazing things too. How he cast out demons, healed lepers, stumped the Pharisees, called tax collectors to be disciples, fed multitudes of people and even walked on water.

I’m sure you can imagine that by now I was more than attentive to what the Rabbi was saying in the marketplace that day – I had to know more. Because you see, healers and rabbis and people good at slight-of-hand are a dime a dozen around here. But nobody, no matter how good and holy they might seem, makes an extra effort to minister to lepers and tax collectors and the demon-possessed and even Gentiles! There was something unique about Rabbi Jesus, so I made every excuse I could be to in those crowds from that day on. And I saw him heal people with my own eyes too.

About a week later, I was out looking for him again – he was typically easy to find, with that persistent crowd following him everywhere. But I didn't see a crowd that day. I thought he must have left and moved on to another town. I was heading home when I saw him slip between a couple of houses with a few of his followers.

So, I followed too – at a distance – all the way up the high mountain. I kept thinking that I was like my little toy sheep, compelled to follow a faithful and trustworthy shepherd. And my mother's words kept going through my mind too … “We wait … for the Messiah.” Somewhere inside I was already debating, “Is it him? Is this Rabbi Jesus the Messiah? He just looks … like a man.”

They didn't see me and when they got to the top they stopped, and I stayed hidden and watched.

Never would I have imagined seeing what happened next – I don't think I'll ever see anything like it again. As I and those three men looked on, Rabbi Jesus started changing right before our eyes. At first it seemed like I must be imagining it. I hadn’t brought water with me. Maybe without water and in all the excitement, I was just a little lightheaded, I thought.

But, that rationalization didn’t last, because he kept growing brighter and brighter until he was gleaming white with what could only be the light, the radiance of the LORD. It was pure and perfect and unstoppable. I could hardly keep looking, but I had to because I thought I saw other people too, two others. Then the men were terrified, they were shaking so hard I could see it. I heard one of them say “Moses” and “Elijah.”

And then I heard a voice … it came from a cloud that was quickly coming down upon us and the whole mountaintop. I felt the waves of sound move through my body as much as I heard with my ears. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And then it was over. Everything looked normal again, Moses and Elijah were gone, and the sun was shining. I was frozen to the spot, unable to move or speak. I wasn't sure I could even breathe. The men kept talking, but I couldn't seem to understand what they were saying. I was certain they hadn't seen me.

And then, as they began to step back down the high mountain – back into the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives– I heard Rabbi Jesus' voice again. And he did the oddest thing. It seemed like for just a moment, he looked directly at me, and then he told the men – and now me too – not to say a thing about what we had seen, but to wait “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

I didn't understand what that meant at all, but I didn't understand anything that I had just seen or heard. I only knew that flame of hope Rabbi Jesus fanned to life was now a whirlwind of hope and curiosity and confidence to continue following him back down that high mountain … and then back up again on the road to Jerusalem.

And so that's what I did, that’s the part of the story all of you are about to embark on … the story of Rabbi Jesus’ pilgrimage to the cross … and beyond. I pray you make this pilgrimage as I did, with that divine command ringing your ears and illuminating your way: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mk 9.7b)

And I hope and pray you will do the same as you enter this season of Lent and your own road up to Jerusalem. I will see you on the other side of this remarkable story, on the other side of an empty tomb. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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