Secret Identity

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 19, 2012

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one* on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Many of you have been praying for the nearly 100 students involved in this DiscipleNOW weekend.  I have, and what I’ve been praying is that they would have a mountaintop experience, one that would last them for years to come.  We talk about those sometimes, don’t we?  “Mountaintop experiences”?  As best I can tell that phrase comes from this story in the Gospels, where Jesus is “transfigured” on the mountaintop in front of his disciples, with his face shining and his clothes dazzling and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved son.”  If you had been one of those disciples you would have remembered it for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you?  Of course you would.  I’ll say more about that in a moment but before we join Jesus on the mountaintop I’d like for us to spend a few minutes thinking about how he got there, and I’d like to begin where we left off last week, in Mark, chapter 1.

It’s somewhere near the middle of that chapter that Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Capernaum.  And it’s somewhere in the middle of that service that a man with an unclean spirit bursts into the room and begins to scream, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” Jesus doesn’t hesitate; he rebukes the spirit and says, “Be silent and come out!”  And it does.  It shakes the man like a dog shakes a rat, but in the end it comes out, and when you read this story it’s hard to say: did Jesus tell it to come out because it was tormenting the man or because it was telling the truth?  Because in the very next paragraph Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and then he heals all those sick people who were gathered around Peter’s door, but according to Mark he also cast out many demons, “and he would not permit [them] to speak, because they knew him.”

I didn’t mention it when I preached on that passage.  I had other things I wanted to talk about.  But most of the commentaries point out that this is a theme in Mark’s Gospel, this thing about Jesus not wanting anybody to know who he is.  They call it “the Markan Secret,” and when I learned about it in seminary I began to picture Jesus in Mark’s Gospel with a finger pressed to his lips, always warning the people he helped and healed not to say anything about it.  It happens in the very next paragraph in this Gospel. Jesus cleanses a leper.  And then, “after sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone.”  But what did he do?  “He went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:45).

Now if you were wondering why Jesus didn’t want people to know who he was or talk about what he did, you may have just gotten your answer.  Mark says Jesus could no longer go into a town openly.  He had to stay out in the country.  But I don’t think that’s the only reason he didn’t want people to know who he was or to talk about what he did.  I think he was up to something.  I think he was trying to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  I think he was trying to overcome the forces of evil with the forces of good.  And I think he knew that someone would try to stop him.    

There was a brief period in my childhood when my family owned a television set, and the show I begged my parents to let me stay up and watch was “Batman.”  Do any of you remember that show, with Adam West in the title role?  When I see the re-runs now I can hardly believe how phony everything looks, but when I was a kid I thought it was real.  My friend Bobby Thompson and I used to draw pictures of Batman during every art period in first grade, working hard to get the eyebrows just right.  I asked my mother to make me a Batman costume for my birthday, and she did.  The color wasn’t exactly right but everything else was perfect.  I would race around the house with my cape flying, humming the theme song from the show (“Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da BATMAN!).  In my mind, at least, I was Batman, and one of the things I loved about him was that he had a secret identity.  By day he was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, but by night, whenever he was needed, he was Batman.  That made it a little easier for me to believe that I was Batman.  To the little girl who sat beside me in class I might have looked like an ordinary first grader, but because of that show I knew things aren’t always what they appear.

Did you ever stop to think about why a superhero would need a secret identity, why Batman would need to spend so much of his life as Bruce Wayne, or why Superman would need to go around dressed up as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent?  I’m not sure I know the answer, but I can make a few educated guesses.  I would guess, first of all, that it would allow them to live some semblance of a normal life.  I can’t really imagine going out to dinner with my friends if I were the only one wearing a costume.  Secondly, it would allow them to be among ordinary, everyday people, to know their hopes and fears, and to come to the rescue at a moment’s notice if needed.  Finally, it would offer some protection from their own enemies.  If the Joker knew that Batman was really Bruce Wayne he might have just gone to stately Wayne Manor and gunned him down.  If Lex Luthor knew that Clark Kent was Superman he might have gone to the Daily Planet and conked him in the head with a lump of Kryptonite.

I hope you’ve been able to stay with me so far because I don’t think these things are unrelated to the story of Jesus.  He, too, had a secret identity.  Most of the time he was just Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, but every once in a while a man with an unclean spirit would shout, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God!”  And Jesus would rebuke him and tell him to be silent, because he didn’t want everyone else to know his secret.  And I think he didn’t want everyone to know for some of the same reasons I’ve just mentioned.  1) His secret identity allowed him to live some semblance of a normal life; he could come and go as he pleased.  2) It made it possible for him to be among ordinary, everyday people, to understand their hopes and fears, and come to their rescue.  3) It offered him some protection from his enemies. 

For the past few weeks we’ve only been dealing with the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and so we haven’t encountered many of Jesus’ enemies, but they’re in there.  In the very next chapter Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven and some of the scribes who are sitting there begin to murmur among themselves, “This is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  Later they are surprised (and not in a good way) to find that he eats with sinners and tax collectors.  When his disciples pluck and eat heads of grain while walking through a field some of the Pharisees ask Jesus why they are doing “what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”  And when he heals a man with a withered hand later that same morning the Pharisees go out immediately and conspire with the Herodians how they might destroy him. 

Just imagine that you were trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and imagine that these religious authorities—the scribes and Pharisees—were trying to stop you at every turn.  Wouldn’t you want to keep your identity a secret as long as possible?  Wouldn’t you want to slip into one small Galilean village after another and announce in the synagogue, “Listen, the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!”  And then slip away?  Wouldn’t you want to heal the sick and cleanse the lepers and cast out demons as a sign of the coming kingdom, but wouldn’t you be afraid at the same time that that kind of activity might give you away?  Because here’s the truth: those scribes and Pharisees wouldn’t put up with that kind of thing forever.  Your power would threaten their power, and they would want to put a stop to it.  Eventually they would try to catch you and kill you.

By the time we get to today’s reading they are well on their way to doing that.  Jesus has already told his disciples, in chapter 8, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.  The disciples can’t believe it.  Peter rebukes him.  But Jesus rebukes Peter and says to the crowds, “Look, if any of you want to come after me you need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Needless to say, that’s not what the crowds were hoping for.  And even the disciples seem to be disappointed in Jesus.  And maybe that’s why, at the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  While they are there Jesus is transfigured before them.  His face begins to shine like the sun.  His clothes become dazzling white.  Suddenly, Elijah and Moses are standing there with him, two of the greatest figures in Israel’s history, heroes who would easily overshadow anyone else in the world, but not Jesus—he outshines them both.  The disciples are terrified.  Peter offers to build three shelters, one for each of them.  He doesn’t know what else to say.  But while he is still talking a cloud covers the mountain and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  

And in that moment Jesus’ secret identity is revealed.

It would be like watching Clark Kent remove his glasses, take off his jacket and tie, and unbutton his shirt to reveal the big, red “S” on his chest.  It would be like watching Batman slowly lift his mask and finding that it was Bruce Wayne under there.  Right there, before the disciples’ eyes, they saw Jesus of Nazareth revealed as the Beloved Son of God.  And there was a reason for it.  Jesus knew that they were getting ready to go back down into the valley, and he knew that that valley would eventually lead him to the cross, and when he was hanging on that cross, dying—when it looked as if the forces of evil had won and his mission would never be accomplished—he wanted his disciples to remember that moment on the mountain, when his face was shining like the sun, when Moses and Elijah were standing there with him, when the voice of God was saying, “This is my beloved son.”  He knew they would need something like that to convince them that even in that awful moment the forces of good had not been defeated forever, something that would enable them to pick up the broken pieces of his mission and move on.

That’s what a mountaintop experience is for, and let me just say to those of you who have been here for the DiscipleNOW weekend, if you’ve had an experience like that in these last couple of days, that’s what it’s for, too: so that you can believe in Jesus no matter what everybody else at your school might say, so that you can have some confidence that the forces of good have not been defeated in the world, and so that you can pick up your piece of Jesus’ broken mission and move on.  You see, we’re all getting ready to head down into the valley now.  In three days’ time we will plunge from the dazzling heights of Transfiguration to the pitch-black valley of Ash Wednesday.  There will be moments in the days ahead of us when this mountaintop experience will seem like a distant dream.  But we have to remember.  We have to hold on to this moment, and to this vision of Jesus revealed as the beloved son of God—his identity a secret no longer—because that’s what will sustain us in the days ahead.  That’s what will make it possible for us to endure the long journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, when we will see him once again in all his glory,

His face shining like the sun.

—Jim Somerville 2012

Before you go, let me remind you of your mission:  I believe that God’s people are called to labor alongside the Lord Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth, and I believe there are a thousand ways to do that.  For example, you can share your experience of Jesus.  Not everybody has seen Jesus standing on the mountaintop in all his dazzling glory, and probably you haven’t either, but if you have had an experience that feels real to you, one that you can share with enthusiasm, then do it.  While I hesitate to single anyone out, one of our members who comes to mind is Bill Whitfield.  He isn’t able to do as easily now, but he used to tell me about going to Grace Fellowship on Thursday nights where he would share his faith with some of our homeless neighbors.  For some of those people, heaven came a little closer to earth because of Bill.


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