(sermon 2/26/17 – Transfiguration Sunday)
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.” – Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
They started out early in the morning, when the fog was still hanging heavy over the top of the mountain, because it was a long, steep way to the top. Before long, though, the sun had burnt off the fog, and they were enjoying a beautiful, bright, sunny day that they were enjoying as they made their way higher, higher up the winding path. Of course, Jesus was leading the way, and right alongside him were Peter, and James, and John, maybe excited about the trip, maybe feeling just a little bit superior over the thought that Jesus had picked the three of them over the others to join him on this trip. Surely that must have made them Jesus’ inner circle, didn’t it?
The day wore on, and at some point Jesus decided they’d gone far enough. And then, Matthew tells us, Jesus was changed. He was transfigured, he was transformed. His face blazed like the sun; his clothes were dazzling white, brighter than Tide white, brighter than my pasty white body enjoying a day at the beach white. In that moment, these good Jewish disciples of Jesus had to remember the scripture, our first Lectionary reading today, that told about Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and that his face turned a dazzling, bright white like this too. And then, as they’re thinking about that, Moses himself actually appears, and Elijah, and they’re talking with Jesus – and it’s clear to them what this must symbolize; here’s Moses, representing the Torah, the Law; and Elijah, representing the prophets; and that this is a sign that Jesus is the culmination, the fulfilment, of the Law and the Prophets; that Jesus is indeed God’s chosen; God’s anointed one.
It was an amazing, incredible thing. The three of them stood there completely overwhelmed by it all, this great, incomprehensible mystery that they were standing in the middle of. And of course it was Peter, because he was, well, it just always seemed to be Peter – impulsive, fly-off-at-the-mouth, shoot-from-the-hip Peter, who stands up and does what human beings often end up trying to do when they’re in the middle of an incomprehensible mystery – they try to put some structure to it. They try to put some order to it, to make it understandable. “Lord, let’s build three dwellings. We can put together a building program. Well, first, I suppose we should draw up some paperwork, and maybe incorporate, and probably set up some bylaws. Then, we should probably elect a few committees, and then we could start a capital campaign – after all, we really should do this decently and in order…”
It’s a normal human response to want to try to make sense out of something we don’t really understand. To take apart the mystery and get it to fit into some system, some structure, that we can understand, that we can get our arms around. That normal human response is an important part of how God designed us, and in all honesty, it’s led us to great advances in human knowledge and understanding. There have been other times, though, where that structure, that system, that we use to try to understand the mystery, actually sucks all the life, all the power, out of the mystery that made it so special and wonderful to begin with. Just as one example, you surely don’t need me to tell you that there are times when our institutional church structure serves us well, but there are other times when it gets in the way, when it clogs up the work of God’s Spirit.
Well in any case, there’s Peter, going on and on, talking about what they should do, until apparently God has heard enough about Peter’s plans to put some structure to this great mystery – to quantify it, organize it, maybe put it all on a spreadsheet somehow to make it more understandable, so they could keep it all going just as it was in that moment – and a dense cloud rolls over the mountain, even thicker than the fog of that morning, and the voice of God booms out of the cloud, “Enough! This is my Son – listen to *him*!!!”
And in an instant, everything is changed. The great, fantastic moment is shattered; it’s vaporized. Peter, James, and John fall to the ground in white-knuckled, heart-pounding, can-barely-catch-their-breath terror. All the plans, the hopes they were starting to put together to keep this mountaintop experience going on, have come crashing down in an instant. Now what do they do? Now what’s going to happen?
Well, the first thing that happens is that they feel Jesus’ hand on their shoulders, touching them, reassuring them, “It’s OK – Get up, don’t be afraid!” Even though things didn’t work out the way they’d started to plan, God was still there, Jesus was still there, helping to lift them up, dust them off, and to guide them forward.
How many times have we found ourselves in the same kind of situation? Things were going well for us, and we were making plans and doing what we could to keep things going the same way going into the future, when all of a sudden, something brought it all crashing down. Suddenly, everything was different. The old assumptions didn’t apply, and we found ourselves trying to figure out how to move forward when now, everything is uncharted territory.
We definitely find ourselves in that kind of a situation in the church today. It used to be that the church pews were full every Sunday, and nothing ever had to change, and nothing really ever did change, but still, people kept on coming back. Until one day, they didn’t. Fewer and fewer people started coming to church, and we worried if we’ll survive, and we didn’t know what to do, and honestly, maybe we still don’t. And that terrified us maybe as much as Peter and James and John were terrified on that mountainside. But the good news for us is that just like them, we don’t need to be terrified, either. Because Jesus is reaching out to us, telling us the same thing – Get up, don’t be afraid; I’m here with you.
And it isn’t just the church; it’s our own personal lives, too. Times when our lives are turned upside down, when we’re knocked to the ground, and we don’t know how to move forward or even *if* we can move forward. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love, someone who’s everything to us, they’re like the air we breathe, and we don’t know how we’d get along without them – and one day, they’re just gone. It’s like we’ve been punched in the stomach, we’re knocked off our feet. But Jesus reaches down and touches us, and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’m right here with you.” Maybe we lost a job; we’ve never been rich but we always made do, and we paid our bills and maybe socked a little bit away for a rainy day, but now that’s over, we don’t know what we’re going to do, we don’t know how we’re going to get by, and the bills just keep coming in the mail every day – but Jesus reaches down and touches us and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’ll help you find a way forward.” Maybe we get bad news, terrifying news, a life-changing diagnosis from the doctor, and we’re terrified at what it means for us – but there’s Jesus’ hand on us again, “Get up, don’t be afraid – we’ll walk this path together.” Society changing, government changing, laws changing, and always it seems for the worse, going backward and not forward – and Jesus says “Get up, don’t be afraid.”
There are all sorts of things preachers can preach about when we read about the Transfiguration – but for me, it’s always been about this moment when Jesus reaches down, even after the disciples were missing the point and going off in a wrong direction, and he lovingly helps them up, telling them to not be afraid. I always thought that in that moment, when they let their fears go, and trusted Jesus, and got back up out of the dirt and on their feet, that they were transfigured – they were transformed, too – maybe not as big and bold as Jesus was, but in a real way, their lives were changed, and they were made a bit more the people God had created them them to be.
And I believe that’s true for us, too. When Jesus reaches out to us in our times of terror, our times of worry, our times of doubt and uncertainty; and when Jesus reaches out to touch us, and to lift us back up, and to lead us forward, we’re transfigured, too. We’re new creations, loved by God, empowered by God, led by God. We know that’s true. And if we know that’s all true, and we know that Jesus is indeed right here with us, telling us not to be afraid of any of those things, then really, there is nothing – nothing! – nothing outside these walls, or within our own hearts, that we should ever be afraid of.
Thanks be to God.