Matthew 17: 1-9
Today’s Gospel is described in your bulletins as: The Revelation of Christ as God’s beloved Son, where shortly before he enters Jerusalem, where he will be crucified, Jesus is revealed to his disciples in a mountaintop experience of divine glory called the transfiguration.
With this mountaintop experience, today, Transfiguration Sunday, is acknowledged by many, as one of the least understood days of the church year. As pastor/theologian Frederick Buechner describes, “It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels.”
Matthew writes that as Jesus makes his way up the mountain, followed by Peter, James, and John, the unexpected happens. Jesus was transfigured before them — his face shone like the sun, his clothes became as white as the light — Moses and Elijah, these prophets of Old, appeared before them, and then, as Peter scrambles around, attempting to respond to all that he is experiencing, a cloud appears and surrounds them, out of which the voice of God proclaims, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him”.
A strange a scene without question. And a difficult one for us to wrap our minds around, as it was no doubt for Peter, James, and John. Possibly even for Jesus as well.
With all of this, I struggled with which direction to go as I prepared my sermon for this weekend.
Certainly we could spend all kinds of time breaking down the various historical perspectives of Jesus’ transfiguration. We could discuss how, while tradition connects the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration with that of Mount Tabor in the lower region of Galilee, it’s probably more likely to have taken place on Mount Hermon due to its’ proximity to Caesarea Philippi from where Jesus and his followers just came. We could talk about the importance of the three shelters or tabernacles that Peter wanted to build for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and the Jewish traditions that would have motivated Peter’s response. And we could talk about the significance of the cloud that surrounded Jesus and the disciples from which God spoke, and its connection to the Old Testament, particularly the books of Exodus, 1 Kings, and 2 Chronicles. But who would remember any of that anyway???
So here’s my thoughts.
What if, today’s Gospel is less about the transfiguration, this other worldly transformation, of Jesus, and more about the transformation of the disciples that occurred from witnessing this defining moment of Jesus as the Son of God? What if today’s Gospel is less about the details surrounding this divine experience, where exactly it happened, or how exactly it happened, and more about how those who experienced were forever changed? How Peter, James, and John were transfigured, in experiencing that of Jesus? How we are to be transformed in the same way? To stop us from planning every little detail of our lives, like Peter, and to get us to stop and listen to Jesus, as God proclaimed from the cloud?
As a faith-filled believer, all-be-it not always a faithful one, I would feel confident is saying that each and everyone one of us here today has experienced God in some way, at some point in our lives. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t. And to, it’s likely that these experiences have happened through moments of joy and celebration, as well as through moments of fear.
If I’m honest, in my limited time as a pastor, it feels as though I experience God most often in the later, in moments of fear, sadness, and loss. In officiating funeral services, in sitting at the bedsides of the dying and ill, in hearing of broken marriages and damaged relationships… It’s a reality that is at times, certainly overwhelming. And one, my guess is, many of you can relate to. Yet, it’s my experience, as is the case in today’s Gospel, that even in these moments, God can be felt joyfully as well.
Tim will have to forgive me, but I couldn’t help but think of him when writing today’s sermon. Many of you know at least something about the challenges that Tim and Barbara’s daughter Kate has faced this past year. It has been a time undoubtedly filled with fear, sadness, and loss, and one that has brought them all to the ground, like our disciples, a time or two, ok… probably a lot more…
This past week, Tim came into my office in order to give me what he called my “good news for the week”. I’m always thankful for good news.
The conversation began by talking about some of the general challenges that come with any major health issue. Hospital bills, unpaid time off from work taken for treatments and surgery, thus less income to pay for said hospital bills, the normal bills that keep coming in the midst of such times, and of all of the stress and anxiety that comes from it all… and oh yea, the recovery itself.
Overwhelming to say the least… You’re probably wondering when the good news comes in…
In the midst of all of this, Kate discovers that at the Carter Center, where Kate works, there is a policy that allows coworkers to anonymously donate their own paid vacation days to replace the unpaid days off taken in moments of need. Needless to say, Kate’s coworkers responded. In the midst of fear, sadness, and loss, Jesus came, laid his hands, and said, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
In today’s account of the Transfiguration from Matthew, the fear of the disciples is the only detail that is unique when held in comparison to our other Gospel accounts. Overcome by all that they had experienced – the transformation of Jesus – his face shining like the sun, his clothes as white as the light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the cloud that surrounded them, and the voice of God — Peter, James, and John fall to the ground, terrified.
And then, as suddenly as it all had happened, it all comes to an end. The voice is done speaking, the light from Jesus face and clothes reduces, the cloud dissolves, the spirits of Moses and Elijah are no longer visible, and all that is left… is Jesus… As the disciples tremble on the ground, Jesus makes his way to them, touches them, and says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Throughout the season of Epiphany, we have followed Jesus up two mountains. The mount where Jesus gives the crowds of people and us the words that we are to live by, and today, up the mountain where he was transfigured. Yet as we know, his true high place is yet to come, where he will be hung on a cross of suffering and shame for the all world to see. Where, glory and suffering are joined together. Where, moments of fear become those of hope. Where, God’s presence is found in moments where it would otherwise be impossible to see.
We all have our mountains to climb and our own journey to take. Regardless of the path we follow, it will at times be rough, and the direction unclear. As we enter into the season of Lent, the season of repentance, we are called to take God’s command seriously, to listen to Jesus, regardless of the plans we may have for ourselves, while at the same time holding onto the assurance that in those moments we feel as though cant get off the ground, that Jesus will lift us up. For in Christ, glory and suffering are joined together. May you rest your burdens on this promise. For from the mouth of God’s beloved Son, we are to listen, we are to trust, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
~Pastor Andrew Geib