Transfiguration Sunday Exodus 24:12-17 Matthew 17:1-9
If someone told you they had a mountaintop experience, what would you think they meant? Most of the time, people mean they had an experience that changed them. They went someplace or to an event or perhaps just experienced something in a new way that they never had before and it fundamentally changed something inside them or transformed the way they viewed the world.
There are a lot of things that happen on the tops of mountains in the bible and most of the time, these things have something to do with meeting God. In our gospel text for today, Jesus goes to the mountaintop to pray. In our Old Testament lesson, Moses goes to meet God in a mysterious cloud on the mountain. It is here that Moses receives the Ten Commandments.
The prophet Elijah, who also shows up in this gospel text, had a significant mountaintop experience, too. He was the superstar of prophets and at a very low period in his life and ministry, one of those times when it would be really good for God to show up in an unmistakable way, he runs to the mountain to find God. Or perhaps to just hide and get away from those who were trying to kill him.
Many of us might understand this. Not the part about hiding from people who are trying to kill us, I hope! The part about having a low period in our lives and really wishing God would show up and give us direction or make everything right. Like a bolt of lightning or one of those burning bushes. Or even just let us know we are not alone. Lots of people come to our area, here in the Appalachian mountains, for just such a thing as this. They, like all of us on some level, want to have a moment of connection with something bigger than ourselves, something that gives life meaning and perspective, and perhaps a connection with that which is holy and divine. They find it here, in the mountains.
I imagine that is exactly what Elijah was looking for the day he ran to the mountain. And God does not disappoint him. First there comes a powerful wind that splits rocks in two, but God is not in the wind. Then there is a terrible earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. And then there is fire, but it is not in fire that God chooses this time either. And then, lastly, there is stillness. Silence. There is God.
Jesus went to the top of the mountain to pray, taking with him Peter, James, and John. We can already tell this probably isn’t going to be an ordinary teaching time because those are usually with big crowds.
Something different is about to happen.
After they arrive at the mountain top, Jesus changes and his clothes become a dazzling white. This doesn’t mean he simply changed his clothes. The word used here is Transfigured. Actually, the Greek word is metamorphosis. He went through a process of metamorphosis right before their eyes.
Metamorphosis might make you think of butterflies. How many elementary school classrooms have a corner or container where the teacher carefully places a caterpillar that becomes a cocoon and then finally a butterfly or moth? The dramatic process of transformation from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly is called metamorphosis.
But Jesus was more radiant than any butterfly. Glowing with a light brighter than anything they’d ever seen. His face shone like the sun. And he was not alone. Those two great heroes of faith who also had amazing mountaintop experiences, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him. Moses, the one who brought down the Ten Commandments and who had seen God face to face, and Elijah, the superstar of prophets. What an amazing thing; to actually see both of these men along with Jesus. Peter, James, and John witness the three talking together.
Right in the middle of all this, Peter, as only Peter can do, jumps up and says to Jesus ‘Lord it is good for us to be here! Let’s just stay! We’ll make tents up here for you all!’ He did not realize what he was asking for. But who could blame him? We might just do the same thing!
When we have those kinds of mountaintop experiences in our lives, we want to stay there and keep it all just as it is. Perfect and shiny and happy. We don’t really want to go back to the drudgery of everyday life and the struggle to get to that kind of perfect, happy time we have in those mountaintop experiences.
In Peter’s mind, here was the glory of all things that really mattered in the world. Already, they had experienced many who were suspicious of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus himself, perhaps by his repeated instructions to tell no one of what they saw, was aware of the threat posed to his followers. He had also told them that he was going to have to be killed. Would any of them want to think about this man Jesus, their friend, the teacher they had abandoned their jobs to follow, going through abandonment, violent torture, and death?
To Peter’s eyes, they had already arrived on the other side of that journey! They had just taken a little shortcut up this mountain. What Peter saw was Jesus in his full glory just as he would be after he was resurrected from the dead. He did not realize that what he had witnessed that day was the foreshadowing of what was to come in the resurrection, not a skip-ahead to the good parts.
God brings Peter to silence as he says to them ‘this is my beloved Son and I am so pleased with him! Listen to him!’ Be quiet for a moment, Peter. Be still. Listen to all he tells you. This isn’t just about this one amazing moment. It’s about everything.
Wise advice for us all when we, in our enthusiasm, want to skip the journey to get to the destination. Perhaps God knows the journey matters, even when it is hard, and in truth, there is no other way to get to the end.
The three disciples throw themselves face down on the ground in terror, overcome by fear. Jesus stands alone before them. He touches them and says, ‘get up and do not be afraid.’ There is silence and stillness, like that stillness Elijah experienced on top of the mountain when he met God.
If we read just a little farther in this chapter of Matthew, we see that immediately after this experience, Jesus is called upon to cast out a demon from a child. Yes, there will come a time when there will be no more suffering children, no more evil to defeat, no more brokenness to heal, but for now, there is work for Jesus to do. And for us, too.
As we read further on in Matthew’s gospel we realize Jesus is on a collision course with Jerusalem and those who will kill him. Soon, he will tell his disciples: ‘we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised.’
It seems like just the other day we heard the words of the angels to the shepherds “Do not be afraid, for we bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” Words announcing Jesus birth.
But now, the one who was the inspiration of such heavenly songs of joy and celebration turns toward Jerusalem, toward conflict and his own impending suffering and death. As he turns, so do we. Just days from now, we receive ashen crosses on our foreheads, turning them toward Jesus’ cross.
Ending the seasons of Advent anticipation, Christmas joy, and Epiphany celebration, knowing what lies ahead in Lent, is not easy. This is especially true when we live in a world that seems to already be in a time of darkness and division. Wouldn’t it be better to just build a tent in the glorious image of Jesus, triumphant and shining with the brightness of the sun, and never leave it? Simply sing of the resurrection and stand among the Easter lilies forever?
It is tempting. Yet, in the presence of the brilliance of the Son of God, God reminds us to be still and listen to Jesus. Get up and do not be afraid. Listen to where Jesus is calling us. Listen to what Jesus is telling us about the world that God so loves. Jesus is saying into this dark, divided, broken world is where he must go. And so must we.
Our little church is a place of light and life. It is a place of love. It is a place where we are working to accept one another as fellow broken humans, beloved children of the same God. We are, by no means, perfect, but we are forgiven and surely, God is in this place. And, while Jesus continually welcomes us back to places of light and love week after week, he also leads us back into a hurting world desperate for this same love we have been given. Jesus calls us from our safe places of refuge to follow him into a hurting, beloved world, our world, and to love as he does.
It is possible that we celebrate Transfiguration just before Lent begins so that we can get a look at the light at the end of the tunnel, so we can remember why we journey, why we started down this pathway, following this Rabbi in the first place. So we can know why Jesus must go to Jerusalem, must climb up the hill of the skull, must be nailed to the wooden beams, must be lifted up high in the darkest of hours to die in humiliation.
The light of Christ that we see in Jesus transfiguration lies ahead of us because we know the end of the story—we know Jesus will, indeed, rise from the grave early in the morning on the first day of the week. What a gift this knowledge is! We also know God has promised that in the end, God wins, evil is defeated, and the world will be made new. But knowing all of the truth about the light at the end of the long dark journey does not mean that the journey will not need to happen.
We do not get to fast-forward past the crucifixion, in all its forms, be that Jesus’ suffering and death or all the other suffering and dying of this world. However, this knowledge; the knowledge that Jesus suffers the worst of it, that in this Jesus is present with all of us when we suffer as well, that Jesus defeats evil, sin and death and frees us from our slavery to them all, that Jesus lives again and with him, we do as well, this is the light that is not only at the end of the road but journeys in us through darkness.
As we take our first step on the road with Jesus to his cross this week, as we live in the time that lies between the Gloria of Christmas and Epiphany and the Halleluiah of Easter morning, let us hold this image of the Transfiguration in our hearts and minds. The mountaintops, the places of transformation God brings us to are not where we go to live. They are moments from which we are sent out into the world, transformed and transforming with Jesus.