Transfiguration Sunday, Year C
29Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Once when my son, David, was a little baby, I needed to replace my very old, scratched up pair of glasses. On the day I came home wearing the new glasses, David was waking up from a nap so I went up to his room to fetch him. He was sort of gurgling when I walked into his room, but when I lifted him up from his crib, he burst into tears. I figured he was wet and hungry, so I changed his diaper. The child was still pitifully sobbing. So I settled in to nurse him, but he wouldn’t stop crying. And the crying wasn’t like an ordinary “Feed me now!” kind of crying. It was more like “Mommy, can’t you see I’m having a nervous breakdown?” kind of crying.
My mother’s intuition finally kicked in. I put the screaming child back in his crib, went downstairs, got my purse and fished out my old pair of glasses. I put them on, went back upstairs, and when I picked him up – viola! – the crying stopped as if by magic. Obviously, it was my new glasses that upset poor Baby David. He didn’t recognize me as his mom. At least not at first, particularly just after waking up from a nap. I am happy to say he deals with changes in eyewear much calmly 15 years later.
Getting used to something unfamiliar or new is sometimes not so easy, right? Change can scare us silly. Even when are old enough to handle something as innocuous as a change in a parent’s eyewear, there are other changes that can throw us for a loop. We can freak out even when facing a change that seems on its surface like a good idea. A new job. A new baby. A new house. Even good change brings a certain level of anxiety and sleepless nights.
And when changes happen that are not so good, or seem are beyond our control, or cause disruptions we did not anticipate, we become even more anxious.
While we may not wail like a baby very often, we are all, to a certain extent, creatures of habit. Change is hard. Change is scary. Even the most adventurous and open-minded among us like a certain level of certainty and predictability in our daily lives.
Well, if you were looking for familiarity and reassurance, you really picked the wrong day to come to worship. You are in the wrong place this morning if you’re looking for something predictable and safe, at least according to Luke. A big change is about to come into the lives of Jesus and his disciples.
Because today is the Sunday that marks the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. It is a Sunday when we turn away from the twinkling lights of Christmas and make the hard turn toward a different kind of light that will lead us into the deep, dark spaces of Lent. A light that will lead us into 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness and we all know wilderness means.
In scripture, wilderness means change. Wilderness means wandering into uncharted territory without so much as a map, let alone a GPS.
Here’s two truths about wilderness as it’s portrayed in scripture. People are changed in the wilderness. Nobody emerges from God’s wilderness the same person they were when they went in. That’s a promise you may hear as good news or bad news, I suppose, depending upon how ready you are for change.
Here’s the other truth about wilderness. Nobody can make you go. It is entirely possible to skip the whole wilderness journey and stay right where you are. If that’s you, you can stop paying attention to this sermon. Maybe start thinking about the food at your Super Bowl party. There’s no hard feelings. Transfiguration Sunday is just not your day. You can stick with the scratched up lenses and keep seeing life in exactly the same way and God will still love you, because that’s how God is.
But maybe you are tired of the same old scene and are thinking about putting on a new set of lenses. Maybe you’ve been feeling the need to get serious about your life as a disciple and enter more deeply into a life of faithfulness. Maybe you feel the persistent itch to see clearly where Jesus might lead you.
If so, this is your moment, right here on this mountain. That’s the first step The Holy Spirit has invited you on this journey to the top of Mt. Tabor with Jesus, Peter, James and John.
The disciples have already received a pretty significant hint about what sorts of changes are on the horizon if they’re going to continue following Jesus. Right before they go up the mountain, Jesus gives the disciples fair warning that things are about to get real. Jesus tells the disciples that they are turning toward Jerusalem and things are going to look really awful for a time. Beyond awful. The elders and chief priests and scribes are going inflict great suffering upon Jesus and then they are going to kill him. But Jesus also tells the disciples that the story doesn’t end with his death. Jesus says that humanity will do the worst they can do to him, but three days later, he will be raised from the dead.
Which, of course, sounds to us like awfully good news to us living on the other side of Easter morning. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that the news Jesus gives them absolutely blows the disciples’ minds.
Eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John on a hike to the top of the mountain. We always imagine that Peter, James and John get to go because they are part of Jesus’ inner circle, his most trusted disciples.
But the opposite could be true. Maybe Peter, James and John are the least convinced by Jesus’ plan and need this journey to get them prepared for what is to come. It could be that they need a mountaintop experience to prepare them for what is ahead of them. Maybe words alone won’t suffice and they need to see for themselves. Maybe these disciples are the most in need of a holy space to breathe in the presence of God before moving into the messiness of life down below.
When they arrive on the mountain, Jesus takes time for prayer, but the scene doesn’t stay tranquil for very long. God does not comfort the disciples or tell them everything is going to turn out ok.
Instead, God gives them a crazy unfathomable demonstration of Gods power, starring Elijah and Moses.
God demonstrates this glory not to threaten or impress. The glory is to remind us of the relationship between God and God’s son, and invite us into that relationship. It is a glory that does not rebuke or condemn, but points us to a voice we can hear and trust, even when the worst is happening. It is a glory that assures us we can enter into those high places, those deep places, those difficult and fearsome places, and we will not consumed or destroyed. We do not have to be afraid.
“Just listen to Jesus,” the voice from heaven says. “Keep awake, keep listening. Follow him where he leads. The path he leads you on may feel like death, but is the road to new life.”
The transfiguration is a flashing light to wake us up and get our attention, alerting us to what is going to happen if we’re serious about following Jesus up the mountain, then down that mountain, and up another mountain called Calvary, which is the journey of Lent. Because the transfiguration story is not about how Jesus is transformed up on the mountain. Jesus in his glory, his face shining like the sun, is what he always is when not obscured by human flesh.
Transfiguration is, however, OUR encounter with the holy so that WE may be transformed to do the hard, wilderness work of following Jesus all the way to Calvary and beyond.
After this time on the mountain, there’s no turning back. Not for Jesus. Not for James, John or Peter. Not for you and me. It’s all downhill from here, from now until Good Friday when Jesus will walk up to another hill, this time carrying a cross on his back. This time, he will go alone, abandoned by his friends, forsaken by those who knew him best. Peter might have wanted to build a permanent residence for everyone on Transfiguration Day, but he is nowhere to be found on Good Friday.
A religious scholar has said that on Transfiguration Sunday, we see the Jesus we want, bathed in light, lit up like the 4th of July, making it so easy to believe that this is the Son of God indeed. But on Good Friday, we see not the Jesus we want but the Jesus we get, and probably need most. The Jesus who suffers with us and is always present in our suffering, our loneliness, our fears and foibles.
Human beings know so much, and yet, when you come right down to it, we really don’t know very much at all. And I think that Lent is the perfect metaphor for where Christ’s church finds itself in 2016. We find ourselves needing to repent of the ways we have, as an institution and as individuals, made it so hard for so many to know the love of God through Jesus Christ. Like Peter, we have been busy thinking how to contain the glory of God in our church-shaped box and have been blind to God’s glory that shines in the world all around us. We are fearful when confronted by change, sleepy when confronted by injustice, and timid in our witness to Christ’s presence in our lives. We so often choose to shelter in place instead of participating in the work of the Holy Spirit blowing through our communities and our lives.
I was in a meeting last week and we were talking about Camp Crestfield and about how it is, for so many of our young people, the experience of camp and retreats in that beautiful space is transformative in their faith journey. Someone told the story that when his son got his first job after college and received his first paycheck, the son decided to tithe, not to his home church, but to the church camp where he says his faith was most fully formed. The father said that was fine with him and he encouraged his son’s generosity. But as the father said to us, “The local church has outsourced transformative faith experiences to our camps and retreat centers. Nobody expects to be transformed in a local Presbyterian congregation.”
We love the high places, the mountaintop experiences, the Billy Graham crusades, the soaring music, the glory of God’s presence in Technicolor tones. That’s what Peter, James and John wanted to hold onto and build a tabernacle to contain forever. But God’s purposes are not only accomplished in visible glory, but often in the ordinary, the hard, the small moments, the dry and empty spaces of wilderness. Moses had his moments of meeting God face to face and seeing all God’s glory, but Moses also had to come down from that mountain and do the hard work of wandering with God’s people through a frightening and dry wilderness.
Up on the mountaintop, the door between this world and the next has cracked open for a moment, and the light reveals the glory of the Son and the love of the Father for Jesus and for us. The light also reveals who we are…a bunch of tired, dusty pilgrims with blisters on our feet from the long climb. It is not a light that will keep us always from stumbling when things get messy. But it is a light that will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. The Son. The beloved. Let’s listen to him. Let’s trust him. Let’s follow him and see his glory everywhere.
He meets us here today. Not on a mountain, but at this table in the bread and the cup.
He lifts us up today. Into the very presence of God.
He feeds us today. So we may be strengthened for whatever comes next.
He sends us today. Into a world that will frighten and delight.
Thanks be to God.