I have a confession to make. I really don’t like the Transfiguration all that much. Not the story itself, so much as the festival we remember it on. Even among the biblical miracles, the Transfiguration is a weird story. Were Moses and Elijah visions? Did everyone hear the voice or just Peter? Why did only three disciples get to go? My biggest struggle is that it sometimes feels if I don’t have a “mountaintop experience” my faith is somehow lacking. I know that’s not true, but I don’t like that feeling. So this year, I tried to make my peace with the Transfiguration. Instead of explaining or analyzing, theologizing or simplifying, I just went with experiencing. This sermon is pretty much an extended retelling of the story, with a little commentary thrown in for good measure.
Readings: Transfiguration Readings
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Things have not been going great recently for the disciples. Everywhere they turn, people are seeking them out looking for help or healing, and now the religious leaders are starting to question them, too. No where can they find a place for rest or retreat.
As if that weren’t enough, in the middle of this press of exhaustion and questions, Jesus asked them who they believed he was. Peter spoke up first, as he so often did. “You are the Messiah, the Lord,” he said. Those were the right words, but it turned out Peter didn’t fully understand what they meant. Because when Jesus started talking about a cross, Peter fell apart. The cornerstone became a stumbling block. “How can someone save God’s people if he gets killed?” Peter wondered. It didn’t make any sense.
And what’s more, Jesus told Peter and the others that their journey forward would be difficult. And that it would end in a cross. And that they, too, would have crosses to bear if they followed him. Jesus had been trying to tell them who he was, why he had come, what it meant to be the Messiah. But Peter just wanted Jesus to stop talking. With every word, it seemed the Jesus he knew and loved got farther away.
That was six days ago. Peter hasn’t known what to think since. Still, as Jesus began to climb the mountain in our text today, Peter, along with James and John, followed, up the winding paths to stand with him at the top. From such a great height, they could look back over everything that had happened. They can remember their call to follow. And now, at the top of this precipice, looking down and across the valleys ahead, they begin wondering where Jesus will lead them next.
And it was there, on that mountain, that everything changed for those three disciples. They might have been expecting a break, a respite, but instead got pulled into the middle of a terrifying, mystical experience they never expected. All throughout Scripture, God has appeared to leaders and prophets on the mountaintop. Enveloped in the clouds, Moses is given the tablets of the law. Elijah hears God in the still, small voice, powerful as a thundering silence on the mountain. And here today, Peter, James, and John encounter God as well. In the transfiguration, God knits together the law, the prophets, and the gospel, weaving them into one in the person of Jesus.
Peter’s wanting to stay on the mountaintop makes sense. On the mountaintop, he isn’t distracted by the needs of other people. He doesn’t have to worry about what Jesus meant when he talked about a cross and suffering and death. Here on the mountain, he has the glorified, victorious Jesus he wants, shining in splendor and majesty. It makes sense that he says, “It is good to be here. Let’s stay awhile.”
But then God’s glory pulls back the veil between heaven and earth even more fully and begins to speak: “Look, here is my son. My beloved. Listen to him.” And the disciples are terrified. Falling to their knees, they tremble in fear until the cloud melts away, the cracked door to heaven is again sealed, and they are left there, on the mountain, alone with Jesus. Even as they cower, Jesus reaches out his hand, touching their shoulders and saying, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” The cloud has dispersed. Jesus’ robe is back to its dusty brown. Moses and Elijah have disappeared. And it is almost as if everything is back to normal. But, of course, in reality, nothing will ever be the same.
In the Gospel of Matthew, this moment of transfiguration—this revealing of God’s glory—on the mountaintop serves as a turning point. Jesus now turns his face toward Jerusalem, ready to start down the road to the cross. And the disciples have a decision to make. Will they keep following him on this new leg of the journey?
The transfiguration is also a turning point for us. It is positioned between the season of Epiphany, a time characterized by light and revelation, and Lent, a season of repentance as we too journey to the cross. From this mountain, we too can look behind to see Jesus being baptized, Jesus beginning his ministry, Jesus teaching, preaching, and healing. We can also look forward, seeing the rocky and winding path to Jerusalem. We can see, from this place, the ways that Jesus will continue to open his arms up to the world, reaching out to each of us, until those arms are stretched out across the beams of a cross. And from this mountain, we are even given a glimpse of the end of the story, when Jesus will once again stand robed in glory as he is raised from the dead.
I think most of us have had turning points like this in our lives, too, not just in the church year. Perhaps we see them more clearly looking back, but we often have seasons where things are bright, going well, full of new discoveries and experiences, that turn to seasons which feel like that long trek to Jerusalem. Times when we don’t feel hopeful or can’t see God as clearly as we did on the mountaintop. Mountains and valleys are part of life. But from this reading, we can see one purpose of the mountaintop experience. It helps prepare us for the valleys of life. When the going is hard, we have that moment of revelation to hold on to.
I think God knew that, to endure the coming trials, the disciples, and perhaps even Jesus, needed this moment of clarity, of affirmation. We need those moments, too. Where we can clearly see how God is working in our lives. We can’t stay in them forever, but we need them to keep going.
Like any experience of the divine, the transfiguration is shrouded in mystery—a burning bush that is not consumed; a still small voice; a cloud and pillar of fire—these are all ultimately “you had to be there” type of events. Even for Peter, James, and John, part of the story, part of the meaning eludes them. And they come back down the mountain not quite sure they know what just occurred.
On this day, we, like the disciples, are invited to remember all that we have come to believe about Jesus. And at the same time, we are asked to allow Jesus to transform those beliefs and reshape them. For just like Peter, when we think we have made progress, when we think we have finally figured it out, we are often brought up short by God, reminded that our journey of faith is not yet over. There is still more to Jesus than we had allowed ourselves to imagine.
There’s a beautiful quote from C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia that speaks to this. Aslan, the great lion, Lewis’ stand-in for Christ, is speaking to the Pevensie children. It is just before he leaves them. He 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 appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
Remember the signs–for Jesus is already on his way back down the trail. Back into the crush of people waiting for healing, for vision, and for hope. Back into the middle of all that need and all those questions. Moving forward to what lies ahead. Remember the signs. He has put his hand out to us. Told us to rise up. Told us not to be afraid. Remember the signs. He has invited us to come and follow him once more. We better be on our way. Amen.