Transfiguration Sunday Year A, March 2, 2014

All Downhill From Here

Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Once when David was a baby, I decided to replace my very old, scratched up pair of glasses.  On the day I came home after picking the new glasses, David was just waking up from a nap so I went up to his room to fetch him.  He was just 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 long enough to eat.  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.  But over the next couple of days, he was able to handle the transition from Mommy wearing beaten up specs to Mommy in the fabulously stylish horn rims. 
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 parental eyewear, there are other changes that can throw us for a loop.  We can freak out even when facing a change that seems 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 beyond our control or cause disruptions we did not anticipate, we become even more anxious and sleepless.  While we may not wail like a baby, 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 church.  You are in the wrong place this morning if you’re looking for the same old, same old, at least according to Matthew.  Today is the Sunday between Epiphany and Lent, a Sunday when we turn away from the twinkling lights of Christmas and 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 nights in the wilderness and we all know what that means.  In scripture, wilderness is a place of change and challenge.  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 to change.  
I remember a having a conversation with a friend who was thinking about whether or not his 13 year old daughter should go on a mission trip to a place in Philadelphia I had visited on different mission trip a few years earlier.  I went on and on, telling him all about the trip, how deeply meaningful it was for the kids and for me.  I remember saying to my friend that the trip would be transformative for his daughter and bring about amazing changes in his daughter’s perspective and faith.  And I remember him saying something I never would have predicted.  He said, “But what if I don’t want her to change?  What if I think she’s perfect just as she is right now?” I didn’t know what to say. 
Nobody can make you go into the wilderness, you know.  It is entirely possible to stay right where you are.  If that’s you, you can stop paying attention right now.  Transfiguration Sunday is just not your day. 
But if you’ve been feeling the need to get serious about your life as a disciple and enter more deeply into a life of faithfulness, this is your moment, right here on this mountain.  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 they’re getting into.  Right before they go up the mountain, Jesus gives the disciples fair warning that things are about to get real.  There is the sense that there will a deepening intensity to this discipleship business they have undertaken.  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 to make him suffer and then they are going to kill him.  But Jesus also tells the disciples that three days after humanity has done its worst, he will be raised from the dead and that most of them will live to see it.
Which, of course, sounds to us like awfully good news to us living on the other side of Easter morning, but this news absolutely blows the disciples’ minds. They are so rattled by this information that they can scarcely hear what Jesus is saying.  In fact, Peter and the others absolutely recoil at this idea of taking up a cross and losing their lives.  Well, wouldn’t you?  What kind of horrible vision is that?  All this time, the disciples imagined Jesus as the One who had come to save them, to save Israel, to make everything better.  Peter finally brings himself to blurt out what they’ve all been thinking – that Jesus is the Messiah.  And now their Messiah is telling them that not only is he not going to make everything all better, he’s also going to lead them to a place where all hell will break lose.
But they go.  Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John on a hike to the top of the mountain.  We always imagined 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 something more.  It could be that they need the experience of transfiguration the most 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, God does not hide from the disciples, but invites them to step into this crazy unfathomable demonstration of Gods power.  God demonstrates his glory not to threaten or impress.  The glory reminds us of the relationship between God and God’s son, and invites us into that relationship.  It is a glory that does not rebuke or condemn, but names Jesus and us as beloved.  It is a glory that points us to a voice we can hear and trust, even when the worst is happening.  It is a glory that assures that 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.
The transfiguration is a flashing light designed to get our attention, alerting us to what is going to happen to the disciples – and to us — if we’re serious about following Jesus up the mountain, then down that mountain, and up another mountain called Calvary.   Because the transfiguration story is not about how Jesusis transformed up on the mountain.  Jesus in his glory, his face shining like the sun, is what he always is when not obscured by the difficult business of human flesh.  Transfiguration is, however, OUR encounter with the holy so that WE may be transformed. 
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 Easter.  What we see on the mountain is just the beginning of what God will reveal to us.  We’ve got to move from the high places to the low places to see the fullness of God’s glory.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the cloud that envelops and frightens the disciples, “the bright cloud of unknowing.”[1]  It is a cloud we enter not to become more certain of everything or even more certain about what the light or the cloud means, but to be so broken open that there can be room for “divine movement” in our lives, particularly as we enter the season of Lent.  Only when our own certainty is shattered can God’s certainty seep into us.
I have become more and more convinced over the past few years that the greatest challenge facing all of us in Christ’s service is not knowing more, but to get better at not knowing.  To survive in the wilderness without a map or a GPS and exist in the not yet knowing where God is leading us.  It is ironic that the church finds itself in such position in an age where we have the ability not only to figure out exactly where we are just by looking at a smart phone in the palm of our hand, but also know exactly where everyone else is by tracking their phone. 
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 we find ourselves in 2014.  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 a 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.
The transfiguration is a story we need to hold on to as we move through the wilderness of Lent and beyond.  Because it tells us we do not go up the mountain alone.  It tells us that things can be frightening before they become holy.  But it also tells us that there is someone who will touch us and raise us up when we are too frozen and frightened to move on our own.  He is the Light that came into the world, the light we can follow down the mountain back to wildness and wonder of our existence. 
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. 
He is God’s beloved and we are his, so we can do this.  We can do this.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Bright Cloud of Unknowing.” on 2/28/13.