Sunday, February 14, 2021

Sermon: “Jesus’ Deciphers”, Mark 9:2-9 (February 14, 2021--Transfiguration Sunday)


Every year, on the last Sunday before Lent, we read this story. Every year we hear the account of the disciples’ encounter with a transfigured Jesus. Every year, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay up on the mountain with them for a while. And every year, we struggle to figure out what to make of this supernatural story.

There’s no question that the Transfiguration is one of the most puzzling stories in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). And whereas Jesus takes pains to explain some of the other things that happen during his ministry—if not to the crowds, then at least to his disciples—there is no explanation to be found in any of the Transfiguration accounts. It’s no wonder Peter, James, and John were terrified: as much as they loved and trusted Jesus, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed and confused when you see your best friend lit up like a Christmas tree and hanging out with two long-dead prophets, especially when you receive no explanation whatsoever.

Maybe that’s why the disciples wanted to stay on the mountaintop for a while—they needed more time to process what the heck was going on before they could even begin to figure out what questions they should be asking. The human brain has a difficult time reconciling supernatural occurrences with our own lived experience of the world, even for those who accept miracles as a real possibility. Before the disciples could serve as witnesses to Jesus’ glory, they needed to figure out exactly what it was that they’d seen. They needed to decode the Transfiguration before they could explain it to others.

I recently heard a prayer where, when attempting to say “disciples”, the leader stumbled over the word a little bit, and the word came out sounding like “deciphers”. I have to confess that I was distracted for the rest of the prayer, because it occurred to me that this is (unintentionally) an entirely appropriate moniker for followers of Jesus. The divine can be mysterious, cryptic, and incredibly confusing, so the job of “disciple” necessarily involves some deciphering along the way. Finding meaning in the inscrutable comes with the territory. So calling Jesus-followers “deciphers” makes a lot of sense, in my opinion.

This is partly why God chose to become incarnate—to become more accessible, to help us understand the almighty. Jesus is kind of like a decoder ring for the divine. Do you remember those? They were most prevalent from the 1940s through the ‘60s, but they’ve been around since the ‘30s and keep popping up here and there. They were often sold as merchandising in connection with a radio or TV show. Usually, a character would use one in the show; then there’d be a coded message for the audience to decipher at the end of the broadcast. Without the decoder, the message was impossible to understand—just a random string of numbers or letters. The ring allowed you to take the jumble and turn it into a cohesive message.

Similarly, Jesus transformed the transcendent mystery of God into something that the disciples could see and comprehend. Still confusing and mysterious—but definitely possible to decipher. See, even though the divine is difficult to wrap our mortal minds around, humanity isn’t meant to stay ignorant of God’s identity and desires. God has taken great pains to communicate these things with us. A disciple, as one who follows Jesus closely and devotes an entire lifetime to learning from him, is the perfect person to decipher God’s message and share it with the rest of the world. If Jesus is the “decoder ring”, then Jesus’ disciples are the cryptologists tasked with making the message plain for those who don’t know Jesus as well as they do.

Which, of course, begs the question: why did Jesus instruct Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone what they’d seen? If Jesus is supposed to be the means to understand the message, why did he specifically order his followers to keep quiet about it? This isn’t the only time that Jesus commands the silence of those around him. In fact, he does it frequently—especially in Mark’s gospel. Biblical scholars call it “the Messianic Secret”, and there are several different explanations for why it exists. Some of the theories are theological in nature, while others are literary or even pragmatic. Maybe, though, Jesus wants them to wait for another reason. Maybe it has something to do with the disciples’ role as Jesus’ “deciphers”.

A decoder ring is more or less useless on its own. Most of them are used to crack a specific kind of code, called the “Caesar Cipher”, where every letter in the coded message is shifted from the original letter by a set value. For example, if the set value was two, an “A” in the original message would become “C” in the code, “B” would become “D”, “C” would become “E”, and so on. But the thing is, you can’t easily decipher the message unless and until you have the final piece of information—how far you need to shift the letters.

So maybe the so-called “Messianic Secret” was actually a strategy to make sure that the disciples had everything they needed to share the message accurately, to make sure they weren’t unintentionally communicating a still-garbled message. As they descended the mountain together, Jesus realized that the disciples would still need more information before they could fully understand the divine plan as a whole. They’d need to study, reflect, and pray on all the things that they’d seen and heard…but even more importantly, they’d need to experience the Resurrection before they could possibly comprehend what God’s end game really was.

Without this final piece of the puzzle, Peter, James, and John might have mistakenly started spreading the word that Jesus was a professional-caliber magician, or that he’d discovered the secret of getting your laundry sparkling clean, or that he hung out with ghosts…and telling people anything other than that Jesus is God incarnate, come to reconcile humankind with the divine and to save us from our sins, would have been garbling the message. They needed that final piece of information for all the parts to fall into place. But once they knew the key, Jesus’ “deciphers” could get to work living the Great Commission, fully confident in their message…and they did.

As we enter into Lent this year, this is our time to do our own deciphering. We once again ponder the great mystery of faith—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again—and what it means for us, sinners that we are. Unlike Peter, James, and John, we have millennia of study and prayer and processing time helping us with this task, not to mention our own knowledge of the Resurrection providing the key to the whole thing. But God is STILL acting in the world and speaking to each of us, so we can’t just rest on our cryptological laurels. Not only are we modern disciples of Christ, we’re Jesus’ modern-day “deciphers,” as well. Every year, we set aside the forty days of Lent to reflect and question and evaluate, to reapply our understanding of the decoder ring and see what we discover about God and about ourselves.

This is a more difficult task than it might seem. Many Christians fall into the trap of thinking that, because we know Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we already have the answers, and all we have to do is regurgitate exactly what we learned in Sunday School. But life has an infinite number of possibilities, and while Scripture does indeed hold answers to life’s biggest questions, every single one isn’t literally spelled out in the pages of the Bible (contrary to popular belief). That’s why we still need the “decoder ring”: in order to apply lessons from first century Judea to the 21st century world, we need to do some translation work. But fortunately, we have the decoder (Jesus) as well as the key that puts the message in the right context—a divine love for ALL of humanity, so great that not even death could defeat it. No matter how society or its culture changes, we have everything we need to decipher God’s will for us from now into eternity.

Even though it requires some decoding, this message isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves. Remember that this is a message that we are called to share. The whole point of a decoder ring is to *communicate* an important message. If we take all this time to examine and decode the divine and then keep it all to ourselves, it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Over the next forty days, as we put away our green paraments and our “alleluias” and take on a more somber tone in order to focus on repentance, we won’t be doing it for the sake of self-flagellation. No, all of the reflection, the penitence, the study, is in service to the greater message that we’ll hear once again on the other side of Lent: Christ the Lord is risen! And that message is just too good to keep secret.

So if you find yourself bewildered, confused, or overwhelmed by the divine during the next seven weeks (or in general, for that matter), don’t worry. It’s not just you. God’s works are often puzzling to us mere mortals. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling to understand. But if you claim to be a disciple of Christ, the story can’t end there. You can’t just sit in awe on the mountaintop forever. You have a responsibility to come down, to keep wrestling with the mystery, sitting with the questions, and working to decipher God’s Word until you’re ready to share it. Your understanding will probably never be complete—goodness knows that the disciples had plenty of stumbles along the way, even after meeting the resurrected Christ in person. But as long as you’re doing your part to unscramble and share the message to the best of your ability, you’re on the right track. Go forth and decipher in the name of the Lord! Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment