The Glory of the Lord

Mark 9:2-10       Joel 2: 28-32
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
February 11, 2018

The comedian Mel Brooks has offered up a now infamous definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy. When something unexpectedly falls from the sky and lands on another person, that is funny; that’s comedy. And when something unexpectedly falls from the sky and lands on me? Well, that’s a tragedy.

The contingency, the sheer unpredictability of life frustrates and maddens us. Sometimes it makes us laugh, and other times, it makes us cry. But we wish we had some handle on what we should do. We want some control over our lives. We don’t want anything falling from the sky unexpectedly. It is hard to acknowledge that we may not be in control of our personal lives. In fact, it may be that we only know what we have done with our lives by thinking back, thinking retrospectively when it is too late to do anything about it. If you don’t believe that, then I ask you to reflect on whether you knew what you were doing when you chose your major in college? When you chose your profession? When you decided to get married? Or when you became a parent?

The prophet Joel looked up and saw something unexpected falling on Jerusalem and Judea. It was famine and starvation, and it came down on Judea in the form of the day of locust. It fell on me and mine, and so it was a tragedy. First the cutting locust, then the swarming locust, the hopping locust, the destroying locust—one after the other laid waste to the fields, the vineyards, the fig trees. For Joel, this is the terrible day of the Lord when God judges Judea and finds it wanting. The signs and portents are there for all to see: the darkened sun, the blood moon, the fires burning up the land.

But for the Apostle Peter—after he has witnessed Jesus crucified and risen, after he has received the gift of the Holy Spirit—Peter sees that these are not just signs of judgment but also signs of God’s power to save, signs of God’s redemptive powers. All who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

The crowd gathered in Jerusalem to observe a holy day looks upon the gathered disciples, hears them speaking the Word of the Lord, each in his or her own native language and they conclude that what they are hearing is confusing, chaotic, mere drunkenness. “These are out of control,” they shout to Peter.

But Peter refutes them saying,

“No. We may be out of control, but only because we are under the authority of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God that has been poured out upon all flesh. The blood moon is not just about destruction, but a sign of God’s redeeming love; a sign that with God, all things will turn out right. Yes, the world we all knew has changed. Something has died, but what has died was death itself. So, know now with certainty that this Jesus, whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Christ.”

And when the crowds heard this, they were cut to the heart. And they called out to Peter, “What shall we do?”

That is our question too. What shall we do? How shall we live. Because we look out and see a world that is out of control. We are determined to show that this contingent, temporal, chaotic world can be subject to our will. Whatever it may mean to be a modern person, it certainly includes our refusal to be determined, to be fated, by the past. We tell ourselves that we can make a difference; that we can be in control. If we could only get better at what we are doing, we may be able to get out of life alive.

When we take up the invitation to follow Jesus, we soon discover that we are learning to live out of control. By placing our faith in God in Christ, we let go of our presumption that we have to make everything turn out right. Because everything has already come out right. We have seen the glory of the Lord. We have seen the end in Jesus. That end makes it possible for us to go on when we are not sure we now where we are. We know that through the cross and resurrection, Jesus defeated the powers that deceive us: powers that promise to save us from death by our willingness to coerce, over-power, and even kill our neighbor.

To live by faith is an invitation to learn how to let go, to live out of control, and one of the gifts God gives us along this path is the ability to recognize that we cannot do this alone. We must learn to depend on others who are also learning to live out of control. The name for such people is church.

There is a natural connection between this event that the church calls the transfiguration and the style of music known as jazz. Throughout his gospel, Mark reveals to us that God is breaking into human lives and human history. The heavens are ripped open. Walls of division—physical and spiritual walls—are torn down. Human beings who thought they were in control are shown that there is a higher power—the power of God—that has been unleashed among us. John the Baptizer suddenly appears, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, evil spirits are cast out of troubled lives, disciples immediately leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

Now Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain and they see a vision of holiness that terrifies them. Everything they thought they knew about the world is but a shadow next to the glory of the Lord. Peter, who always speaks before he thinks, does not know what to say. Trying to regain control, he says: “Let me pitch three tents to contain all this holiness. And then a cloud overshadows them, and a voice calls out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” And when the disciples manage the courage to look around again, they see no one, but only Jesus.

This is an experience of holiness that transcends the human senses. Sound and sight and touch are not enough to understand this experience. Musically, jazz is an idiom that seeks to transcend the normal limits of music. The normal range of melody, harmony, and rhythm cannot contain the music that the musicians seek to express. Thelonious Monk, when asked to define jazz, once said, “Its freedom, but it is also something beyond freedom. And what that beyond is, is complicated.”

I don’t play jazz, but I have been listening to—and studying—jazz since I was 17. What I have learned is that jazz requires a high degree of trust between the players in a band. The music is about the relationships between the players. Jazz is not simply a musical form where each musician plays whatever he or she wants to play. There are rules that are understood by all the players; an underlying musical foundation that holds the music together even as the individual players take the melodies and harmonies to unexpected places. It is an exercise of living out of control.

To make music this way requires that the players have developed a relationship with the music and with one another. Each player receives the music from the other, and then gives the other a new chord, a new rif, a new relationship to the underlying beat and melody. A musician graces the other players with a new variation on the original musical theme. Jazz puts into action what St. Paul invites Christians to do for one another in every aspect of life: As God gives freely to us, so we freely give to one another.[i]

This trust was implicit between McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane as together they sought to create waves of sound that would replicate the movement of God’s Spirit in the world. Friendship and trust was the basis of the musical relationship between Paul Desmond and Dave Brubek. Each musician played notes in a form of harmony that the other had not heard before. These two were difficult personalities. Sometimes, they found it difficult to even talk to one another, but when they played music together, this dissonance provided a basis for a kind of beauty that had not been heard before. As musicians, they found a way to mend their friendship and created a new sort of beauty. It was healing music, and all things came out right in the end.

The story is told of a Thelonious Monk concert, when his band had gone to places so out of control that the music was near chaos. Musicians had taken their freedom and gotten lost. Amid this chaos, Monk, from his piano bench, shouted, “one!” Monk did not know where the beat was, but he spoke, and the beat was. Immediately the players found their place in space and time. Order and music emerged from the chaos; beauty and joy and peace became the last word.[ii]

That is what happens on the mountain top. The glory of Lord becomes terrible and chaotic. The disciples don’t know what to say. Then God speaks from the cloud: “One.” And the “One” God speaks is only Jesus.

The contingent and unpredictable character of our lives maddens us. Yet we worship a Lord who did not despise the contingent, a Lord who became, unpredictably, one of us. The love that moves the sun and moon and stars turned up in Palestine, of all places, only to die on a cross in AD 33. Through those temporal events we have been given everything we need to live out of control in a world that is spinning toward chaos. To so live means we must learn to trust God and trust one another. That is why we are here this morning; and why at this time and place, we will eat and drink again with the One who makes it possible to live joyfully; the One to whom we make music that comes out in a glorious, peaceful, beautiful place; the One who has created us to be people who are not afraid of being surprised. Amen.

[i] Jeremy Begbie makes this point quite profoundly in Theology, Music, and Time; Cambridge University Press; 2000.

[ii] Stories of Coltrane, Tyner, and Thelonious Monk come from Jason Bivins, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion, Oxford University Press, New York, 2015.