Below is my sermon from Sunday, February 26, 2017, the Sunday of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration comes every year on the last Sunday before Lent, and recounts the story of Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. That mountaintop experience of Jesus’ divinity and glory gives us strength for the 40 day journey to come.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Where were you when….? The end of that question changes depending on your generation, I think. For my grandmother, it was—where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor? She can still remember exactly what she was doing. It was a Sunday afternoon, and all of her grandparents were over for dinner.
Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Or Martin Luther King? For my generation, it’s where were you when 9/11 happened? It’s seared into my memory. I was in Mrs. Nagumi’s seventh grade English class. It was early in the year and we getting an introduction to using the library. We were all talking, and didn’t get quiet right away, so we missed the first half of what the principal said over the intercom.
Where were you when? Big, major events have a way of grounding our lives. They can provide a focal point for generations, help to shape our values, and to define our commitments. For the author of Second Peter, the Transfiguration of Jesus was just such an experience. A moment that shaped his entire life.
Part of the purpose of his writing this letter is to pass that story, that moment, on to the next generation. They weren’t there themselves, and he fears that they don’t understand just how important that moment was.
For Peter, that moment was everything. He gets to go with Jesus and just two others, James and John, up a high mountain. And Jesus himself, his friend, his teacher, is changed. Transfigured, his true glory and divinity shining through. And suddenly, Moses and Elijah are there with them on the mountain, the greatest leader and prophet of the Jewish people. And then, to cap it all off, Peter hears the voice of God speaking—to him!
It could have been a life-defining moment for Peter simply for the majesty and awe. The mysticism of the moment. But that’s not all it was. The transfiguration was more than simply a show of power. Our gospel story starts six days, less than a week, since Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And it is six days since Jesus has told the disciples that being the Messiah meant suffering and death.
The transfiguration was more than a show of power. It was a clear, singular visions—affirming Jesus’ divinity for the disciples, affirming his Messiahship, but also affirming his mission, suffering, and death. It’s no wonder that Peter, knowing what’s to come, wants to stay up on the mountain.
It is good there. There is no suffering and death there. And he can see things clearly—things are the way there are. Jesus is divine, and Jesus looks divine. Down in the world, Jesus is divine, but doesn’t look it, and not many others believe it.
It reminds me a lot of a speech Aslan gives in the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia. The Christ-figure of the books, Aslan says, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.
And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs, and believe the signs. Nothing else matter.”
Through these transcendent moments, God prepares us to endure the world below the mountain—the world of the cross. It is a world that has the ability to break us, and yet it is never beyond God’s redemption. The mountain of the transfiguration was a moment for God to prepare that small band of human companions for their sacred journey ahead, a way to offer them something to hold onto when they went back down into the overwhelming reality of the world below.
When we are overcome by the world, by the reality of our lives, the transfiguration is there for us, too. We weren’t there when it happened, and it will never have that same life-defining quality it had for Peter. But we can experience the transfiguration—God’s light breaking through clearly—in our own lives.
For some, it does feel as eye-opening and overwhelming as that mountaintop experience, but for others it’s often smaller, but no less revelatory. It’s that moment, when you can almost feel God with you. They often don’t come as frequently as we’d like. We ought to cherish these moments, for they are gifts to us—signs of God, when the air and our minds are clear.
I often find myself, like Peter, wanting to stay in these moments. Because I know that once I leave that moment, the real world will settle in again. The world that has grief and pain, confusion and turmoil. Where things are not as clear cut, and it’s harder to find the voice of God.
But it is the voice of God that drives us forward, out of the transcendent and into the realities of the world. Listen! God says to Peter, but also “Do not be afraid.” Because God is God, you need not fear, but raise yourself up. Follow Jesus, as he makes his way to Jerusalem, a journey that will not ultimately end in suffering and death, but in resurrection.
Remember the signs, Peter, remember what you have seen here, and do not be afraid. For the God of the mountaintop, the God of those transcendent moments, is with you for every step down in the world. And God is with us, for every step, too. When we can’t see that clearly—and there will be times when we cannot see it clearly—that is when we must remember the signs and the words of God. Listen—Be raised up—Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to leave that transcendent place, for God goes with us. Always. Amen.