Reluctant Transitions

Feb 11, 2024

Pastor Sandy Selby
Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9
           There is no way Peter wanted anything to do with following Jesus back down that mountain! To understand why, we need to go back to the scene in Mark’s gospel just prior to today’s lesson. Six days earlier, Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do say that I am?”Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). Jesus went on to tell the disciples that he would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, and be killed, then would rise on the third day. When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying this, Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (8:33). At that, Jesus called the crowds and the disciples together and said, ’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:34-36).
            At that, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the mountaintop. Once there, his countenance and clothing were transformed, his clothing becoming dazzling white. And  Moses and Elijah were there, talking to Jesus. Seeing the three of them together, Peter said to Jesus, “it’s good for us to be here! Let’s build dwellings for the three of you, right here on the mountaintop!”
            Before Jesus could answer Peter, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came the voice of God saying, This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus”. And Jesus led Peter, James and John back down the mountain, and ordered them not to say anything to anyone about what had just happened until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead. And they wondered among themselves, what is he talking about, this rising from the dead?
            On the mountaintop, God had told the disciples, very clearly: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” But frankly, when Jesus had said that he would be betrayed, would suffer, die, and be raised on the third day, they didn’t want to listen. They didn’t want to hear anything about that! And who can blame them? Being a disciple hadn’t always been easy. They had left their jobs and their families to follow Jesus.  But then, hadn’t it been amazing, hadn’t it been thrilling, to see all the people who flocked to Jesus to be healed, and to see thousands of people fed from just seven loaves and a few fish? So having Jesus talk about his suffering and death, and telling them to take up their cross and follow him, was unsettling. To Peter, James, and John, the journey down the mountain to an uncertain future was a change they didn’t want to make. They wanted to stay on the mountaintop, admiring the view! Thing is, what was ahead for the disciples wasn’t just a change, but a transition. Change is hard, but transition can be even harder! What do I mean by that?
            Twenty-five years ago I decided to leave my job at BFGoodrich to pursue a call to ordained ministry. Having heard about the major change I would soon be making, a person I knew from church recommended that I read William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The person who made that recommendation twenty-five years ago was Martie Hall, Dave Weida’s wife, and I’ve been grateful to Martie ever since. Some of you are familiar with that book from a book study we did here nearly ten years ago.
            In his book, Bridges talks about the difference between change—leaving a job, losing a loved one, moving to a new city, [having a pastor leave to go to a new congregation]—and transition. Change is an event; transition is the process we go through to deal with that change. Bridges says, “Change is a situational shift...Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become...Transition is the way that we all come to terms with change.”[1] Bridges says that all transitions have three stages: an ending, a new beginning, and the neutral zone, the wilderness that lies between the ending and the new beginning. In order to make a successful transition, we need to experience these three stages.
            In the first part of a transition, the "ending" of the old way of being, we need to recognize that all endings involve both opportunities and losses. The “ending” stage of transition can be difficult! Bridges calls one particular, challenging aspect of the “ending” stage “disidentification.”  When we change jobs or retire, when we lose a spouse or other loved one, when we have any major change in our life circumstances, we can lose our sense of identity.    
            That’s part of what the disciples were dealing with, there on the mountaintop. Six days before they headed up the mountaintop, Peter had identified Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” But the Messiah Peter had in mind, and the identity Jesus claimed as Messiah—one who would suffer, and die, and be raised on the third day—-were two very different things. Beyond that, the identity that Jesus had ascribed to being a disciple, to following him, wasn’t the identity they envisioned when they left their nets to follow Jesus. “Take up our cross? Lose our life to save it? That’s not what we signed up for, Jesus!”
            William Bridges says we sense we are ready to make a new beginning when we experience a kind of “inner realignment”[2] that turns our attention toward the future.
But we can’t make that realignment toward a new beginning until we have first endured the chaos of the neutral zone, that unsettling, in-between time, that liminal space that lies between the past we knew and the unknown future that lies ahead. The neutral zone is wilderness time, scary time in which we are disoriented by the unfamiliar terrain of uncertainty. We want to run through the neutral zone to get somewhere, anywhere other than the harsh wilderness landscape of the unknown. Bridges writes about this poignantly in his book The Way of Transition, published after the death of his wife. Reflecting on his own experience of the neutral zone he writes,
Whatever the change that triggered the transition was meant to produce, the neutral zone opens up a world of utter possibility. That is why many people find being in such a state so disconcerting. In changes where the outcome cannot be foreseen--where there is just an ending and a neutral zone that stretches beyond the horizon--this state of possibility can be quite terrifying.[3]
            That’s what Peter was experiencing on the mountaintop. Mark says that when Jesus’ appearance was transfigured, and Elijah and Moses were standing there talking to Jesus, “Peter did not know what to say, because they were terrified.” No kidding! Peter and the others were already disconcerted by the transition, the change in identity and destiny, that began, for them, six days before they went up to the mountaintop. Suffering? Death? Taking up our cross?  What are you saying, Jesus? Where’s the ‘good news’ in that?” It’s no wonder that Peter says, “Wait," Moses and Elijah, "Don't leave! We'll build you and Jesus comfortable cabins right here on the mountain, and we’ll stay right here. It's a beautiful view, isn't it?”
            Jesus will have no part of that. They don't stay on the mountain, but go into Galilee, where Jesus continues to heal and teach, and and in the process upset the authorities who feel so threatened by him. He gives the disciples further hints about his coming betrayal, suffering, and death; and still, the disciples don’t “listen to him,”  denying that this suffering and death will happen and later, in Jerusalem, denying Jesus himself. In this neutral zone, this psychological, emotional, and spiritual wilderness on the way to the cross, the disciples can’t let go of the past--the Jesus they thought they knew, back in the early days—and they can’t trust the future, this strange prediction of Jesus being killed and then raised on the third day. They wander through a wilderness of uncertainty whose landscape is scary. Anxious and afraid, they squabble with one another about petty things and one of them, finally, denies Jesus.
            Jesus himself is in transition, of course, and at times we have a sense that, along his journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus is experiencing the stages of transition--ending and neutral zone--with the grief and loneliness that go along with that process. But Jesus knows who he is: the voice from the cloud on the mountaintop had affirmed his identity as God's beloved Son. He could claim that identity, boldly, knowing that whatever ending, whatever wilderness, whatever new beginning might come, God would be with him on that journey.
            God knew that Peter, James and John would resist leaving the mountaintop to endure the difficult transition ahead. So God surrounded them with a cloud that completely obscured their vision, making them helpless to see the way ahead---a setting in which God’s words on the mountaintop took on particular meaning: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In other words, Peter, James, John, when you are in transition from the identity and the life circumstances you once had, to a new future that has not yet unfolded; when you are lost in the wilderness and can’t see the way ahead, listen to Jesus.”
            God says the same thing to us. Just as God journeyed with the disciples, God journeys with us through the transitions—the endings, the neutral zones, and the new beginnings that are part of our life’s journey. God works at every moment to guide and empower us through whatever changes and transitions our life circumstances throw at us. If we will only stop and pay attention. If we will only listen.

[1] William Bridges, The Way of Transition (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001), 2-3.
[2] William Bridges, Making Sense of Lifes Changes 2nd Edition (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2004), 159.
[3] Bridges (2001), 38.