Matthew 17:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then 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.” While 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As 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.”
In our lectionary readings we’ve jumped several passages from the time Jesus “preached” to the crowds to today’s passage called the “transfiguration” – an amazing leap in many ways. What has been omitted in the lectionary readings are familiar stories of healings of the maimed and the blind and the mute; as well as miracle stories of feeding the multitude with a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread and Jesus walking on water.
Now, we are transported into this amazing story of Jesus’ transfiguration – his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. And not only, that but long deceased Moses and Elijah were walking and talking with Jesus. Yet only three disciples, Peter and James and John, were witnesses to these incredible events. And as if that weren’t enough – a bright cloud overshadowed them and they heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Just WOW! No wonder Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid! Over the centuries we’ve come along for the walk up that mountain to witness in our own way what happened that day.
Certainly, mystical experiences are not just for Jesus or Peter or Moses or James or Elijah or John. Mystical experiences are not just for church members or just for believers or just for some of God’s children. Mystical experiences are for all of God’s children. There are no barriers to mystical experiences – only the need for an understanding of what it is that we’ve experienced.
Mystical experiences may not be as dazzling as what we’ve read this morning, and the voice may not be as loud as the one heard by Paul and James and John. Mystical moments may oftenboccur in the quiet AHA moments of life that can transform and transfigure and deepen our own relationship with the Creator of Life.
This is such an amazing experience, that Peter wants to capture it and build dwellings for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. When we have incredible moments it is not an unusual thing to want to keep those moments close and fresh to us. Some of that may be reflected in our journal writing or our scrap books or photo albums. It is however, the experience that’s significant because that moment passes and by trying to hold on to one mountaintop experience we may miss many more God-blessed moments.
It may be difficult for us to also recognize experiences more negative than positive as God-blessed moments. Not so much the bad stuff but the growth that may evolve from the negative. I read of a situation lately that made me think of that possibility in light of today’s reading. A disillusioned, former evangelical pastor is now claiming himself to be a hard core atheist. I am not aware of the situations or conversations that led this person to take this stand. I suspect that this crisis of faith didn’t just happen overnight – it very rarely happens that we have a change of heart that quickly, but too many things building up to have us question our faith tradition and our beliefs clash with what we expect God to do and how we expect God to intervene in difficult situations in life.
There is definitely pain and distrust and disappointment in this man’s life. But I believe there is also a tremendous mountain of hope and possibility as he is in the process, if he can give room for it, of transfiguration in his life – from the old to the new. It is hard giving up prior beliefs we thought were set in stone and God blessed.
I also think of Paul who was known to persecute Jesus’ followers. Yet one day Paul had a strong, mystical experience – a conversion experience – a change of heart, and became one of the strongest defenders of Jesus and a disciple like no other.
I get caught up in this fantastical story that I often miss taking a step back and looking at it as a whole – not so much a mountain top view but from a bird’s eye view way above the scene. One poet, Maren Taribassi, woke me to that fact when she wrote:
One of the hidden questions for me has always been — why just take three disciples to the Transfiguration mountain. Maybe because those of us who feel left out also need saints.
Another transfiguration perspective
The insiders grab
pitons and crampons,
some spiritual version of gear,
and start to climb,
but the boys back at base camp
see only a flash of
faintly hear a man with no sense of rhythm
playing a tambourine
and a baritone mumbling away at
swing low sweet chariot,
but the voice their
are aching for …
the wind just blows away,
while they greet
an endless rumpled multitude of needers
“your healing is important to us,
please stay in the line…”
And, even after the
shiners and shriners
return with their precious secrets,
Jude and Thad, Tom, Nate,
and the others
are already the saints of the left-out –
second January baby,
only fourth grader
without a birthday invitation,
girl stood-up to the senior prom,
runner-up for the new job,
ex-spouse who does not get married again,
all-aloner at coffee hour –
“Never mind the
they tell us,
“in the end, it’s one hill fits all.”
Maybe that’s the way many of us feel when we hear about mystical experiences others describe, “Why not me? What is so special about her that she gets to experience these marvelous things?” “What is so holy about him that he heard God talking to him.” Perhaps we do have these experiences, but we just don’t understand what’s happening in that way. How often do we not want to share something that happened to us that we can’t explain because we don’t want to be seen as “that crazy person”? But sharing that experience with someone you trust can be helpful. As Jesus said: “Be not afraid.”
Returning to that mountaintop experience, Kristin Adkins-Whitesides (Wrapped in a Cloud, A Sermon for Every Sunday, Transfiguration, Year A) reflects that this “moment of transfiguration – this revealing of God’s glory – on the mountaintop serves as a turning point. Jesus, who has been ministering throughout the countryside, now turns his face toward Jerusalem, ready to start down the road to the cross. And the disciples are also at a turning point because they 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 Epiphany, a season characterized by light and revelation, and Lent, a season of repentance as we too journey to the cross.”
From this mountain we can look behind to see our own journey and we 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.” (Like that Evangelical preacher is also invited to do.) Yet, “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 – [caught by surprise, perhaps,] reminded that our journey of faith and our journey to faith are not yet over. There is still more to Jesus than we had allowed ourselves to imagine.”
There is still more of God’s call to us that needs our response. “The fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa said, ‘The knowledge of God is a mountain, steep indeed, and difficult to climb.’ As we grow in our faith there are moments when we feel as if we have been climbing for years, still unsure whether we are heading in the right direction. There are times when we find ourselves on the wrong path and we must turn around and backtrack in order to find our way.”
Adkins-Whitesides reminds us that “Jesus is already on his way back down the trail. There are 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. He has put his hand out to us. Told us to rise up. Told us not to be afraid. He has invited us to come and follow him once more. What is our response as we begin our journey into Lent?
May God bless us as we begin that climb up the mountain with eyes to see what is before us, and a heart to accept the challenge and the love. Amen
Copyright DMC 2020