Good evening. Huddle together to stay warm! I just came back from a week with the Episcopal clergy in sunny Texas studying with Brené Brown, who is one of my all time professional heroines. She’s written a few books that are standards in my library- The Gifts of Imperfection, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Wasn’t) and Daring Greatly. She is about as close as I’ll ever come to being on Oprah, since she is on Oprah’s life class and Super Soul Sunday. I was too shy to ask for a selfie with her and will live with that—until the next time I meet her. It was in the forest by Houston but it was a mountaintop experience for me. It was also a lot of hard work and transformed how I look at myself, my work and my ministry.
You’ve probably had experiences like that. Maybe a class or a conference that completely changed the way you think, or a camp you went to when you were young that was a spiritual high (in Youth Ministry we called that the “I Love You, Man” moment) or maybe a concert where you heard the lyrics or music that altered your life. Or after nine long months, you get to hold your baby. The wedding day is finally here after months of planning. Or after exams, you find yourself walking across the stage with your diploma. Or maybe your dream job or date calls you. These are moments when we realize something big is shifting. Something inside of us has changed.
Our Gospel today is about a mountaintop experience for Peter, James and John called The Transfiguration. This was a big day for them. Jesus glows like Oxyclean bleach. They see Jesus chat with Moses and Elijah. God bellows out of a cloud. This is big stuff for three former fishermen. What is their response to this? They are terrified.
They don’t know what to say. How does Peter react to these events? By saying he will build booths or dwellings for the three. I’ve have always thought this meant that Peter wanted to ‘hold on’ to the moment. Dwell in the Mountaintop glory with Jesus and the prophets. But in order to understand what’s happening here, we need a little back-story.
Transfiguration. It’s a churchy word and we think we’re supposed know what it means. Change? Metamorphosis? Transformation? But Robert Capon calls our gospel text today the “single strangest event in Jesus’ Ministry.” He says that all kinds of weird things are happening. Before this in Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They answer, “John the Baptist, some say Elijah and others a prophet.” Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter replies, “You are the Christ.” Good job, Peter. A+. Christ is the Messiah. But there’s a twist in it for Peter. In Judaism, the Messiah, or Mashiach, will not suffer and die or even be a savior. He will be human not divine, possess a military mind and restore Israel to the center of all world governments. The laws of nature will change after the Messiah comes and there will be world peace. Sin will cease. One of the minimum requirements for Judaism was and is believing in this type of Messiah. In the Judaic tradition, the coming of the Messiah will happen when Elijah comes back at the Festival of Booths (or Dwellings), which commemorates the Exodus wandering. So it is natural for Peter to think he needs to build a booth for Elijah, Moses and Jesus. He thinks this is the big day. Elijah is here, the Messiah is here and Israel will be the center of the universe again. Jesus is rocking the Messiah thing. But then Jesus says he will suffer and die.
Peter would surely have had a massive headache at that point, just from the cognitive dissonance. He is looking for the Messiah that he has been schooled in since he was a boy: a war leader, a great man who will make Israel the seat of world government. No mention was made of suffering, rejection, or dying. What is Jesus talking about?
Then Jesus caps it all off by saying that he doesn’t want him to tell anyone until he has risen from the dead. You can almost hear Peter thinking, “Risen from the dead? What is the point of that? You can’t be a world leader if you are dead!”
What has happened here? For Peter, his whole theology changes in one fell swoop. The Messiah is the Son of God who will die on a cross in great love for us, not one who will start a war and take over the world. Christ has changed the rules. It’s not about what Peter does to satisfy God anymore but how Christ the Messiah will die for him. Through the cloud at the Transfiguration, God is telling the disciples and us, “This is a difficult cosmic reality to understand, but I am giving you the Beloved to show you. Listen to Him.” God is giving us clear instruction on how to understand this turn of events. Why does the Messiah have to suffer? Why does Christ need to die and be resurrected? God points to the One, the beloved. Not Moses of the Law or Elijah the prophet. Christ is the explanation. Listen to Him.
Listening to Christ involves risk, however, because He challenges our assumptions about the world we live in and how we experience life. Our theology was formed at the Transfiguration, this day that stands between Epiphany and Lent, this pivotal day of change between revelation and suffering. In Epiphany, we see and hear the revelation of God and, in Lent, we walk with Christ towards the suffering of the cross. When religious people tell us there is no suffering, it’s all glory, we don’t trust them.
We know there is suffering because we experience it in our minds, bodies and spirits. We watch Christ go through suffering on our behalf. We are listening for the voice of the Beloved who gives us faith and courage through the great love of his suffering. Martin Luther wrote that, “Many people have considered the Christian faith an easy thing….[but] it is impossible to…understand what has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a man when trials oppress him.”
We sometimes believe that our faith should inoculate us from any pain or hardship and give us only mountaintop experiences. We think if we are faithful, God will make our lives easy. But is this reality? Is that the life that Christ died to give us? At the end of this Transfiguration story, Christ leads the disciples down from the mountain to life in community. They leave the mountain top experience behind to find that Christ is to be found in our everyday, ordinary life. This means Christ meets us on the day after the Graduation, when the baby is cranky and vomiting, in the middle of the marriage after the wedding, at the job when its boring or in relationships when it’s hard to even talk. Although nice, the mountaintop experience is not where we live.
I want to share a story that the author, Steve Arterburn, tells about his mother. He says, “When my brother contracted AIDS and eventually died, my mother was confronted in a most painful way with the fact that her faith provided no supernatural vaccination against terrible events. She struggled with my brother’s illness; she struggled with her faith. She slid into a deep depression, and at times I didn’t know if she would return to being the wonderful woman we had always known. Fortunately, she did recover. How? She dealt with her confusing ideas about faith. She yelled at God. She told him it wasn’t fair.
She admitted she had come to her faith as a way of making life easier. As she shared her anger and frustration with a God who did not do things according to her fondest wishes and expectations, she slowly recovered from the death of my brother. She also recovered her faith. …As I look back on that time, it seems to me that God was building her faith, rooting her more deeply in reality than ever before…Jesus, the real son of God, who calls us to live in reality, gives us this counsel: ‘I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:33)
In the Collect appointed for Transfiguration Sunday, we say, “Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty.” Disquietude is not a word we use these days but it means, “an uneasy state of mind, usually over the possibility of an anticipated misfortune or trouble.” The Collect tells us that Christ will deliver us from the anxiety of living, which for us means the perfectionism that rules us, the worry that occupies us, and the fear that whispers in our ear. We have not been guaranteed an easy life but we are told that Christ will take away the fear and anxiety. Christ has changed the rules of self-sufficiency in order to deliver us, change us, transform us through the cross and give us eternal life with Him. This is the authentic and original mountaintop experience, the eternal high that will never end and also good news for the valley moments of life.
You may not hear the booming voice out of the cloud as the disciples did, but you will hear the still, small voice like Elijah in the valley. It will relieve and transform you. We can hold onto this as promise and comfort because of the Transfiguration. Amen.
- Matthew 17:1 - 13