The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
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 bright as light. 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 set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud 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 raised their eyes, 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.”
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
This past weekend I was watching “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two,” the final installment in the Harry Potter movie series. Close to the end of the movie, the part when Voldemort strikes Harry dead with his wand. Harry is immediately transported to an afterlife of sorts, where everything shines white and all is peaceful. Harry has to make a decision: will he remain within the safe confines of this place, or will he return to the life he knew so he can confront Voldemort once more?
In our Gospel lesson, it seems Peter, James, and John enter a similar reality. Shortly before they make their way up the mountain, Jesus breaks the news that his life will not end peacefully: Jesus is destined to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The scene that follows, as Jesus is transfigured atop that high mountain, casts him in a light that is so incredibly different than the suffering, dying portrait he has just painted of himself. Although they do not quite know what to make of the whole scene, Peter, James, and John want to hold onto its tranquility and majesty. After all. isn’t this Jesus as he is meant to be? He is united with other giants of the faith, Moses and Elijah, and the entire scene is reminiscent of such iconic moments as when Moses is transfigured on Mount Sinai and when Elijah spends time with God on a mountain.
The thing is, Peter, James, and John cannot preserve this moment or stay on this mountaintop any more than they can confine Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in tents. To follow Jesus is embracing the full mystery of who he is. Sometimes Jesus shines so brightly as to be completely otherworldly, and at other times we look on as Jesus suffers immense pain. We cannot place Jesus in a box, so let’s stop trying. Because following Jesus requires imagination, vulnerability, and a willingness to constantly be surprised.
Matthew’s gospel has as an underlying theme that Jesus is a new Moses and the writer employs many parallel images in telling us about Jesus. The reading from Exodus makes many of those connections easy to see; holy mountain, voices from heaven, clouds, fire, over shadowing. Even Peter’s suggestion of the dwellings recalls the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival during which people lived outside in little tents to recall the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness-following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
And now, we come to this day, this moment, of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John. There is a cloud, something happens and Jesus glows with holiness and divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to him. While the disciples shrink back in fear and wonder a voice thunders, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” And then it’s over and Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples and tells them everything is okay.
And what are we to make of this? | mean what difference does all this make to us? Is this just a nice mystifying story; or is there something here about Jesus and God’s holiness, God’s beauty and, more importantly, God’s love?
At the very end of the Gospel lesson, there is this peculiar little line where Jesus tells the three witnesses not to tell anybody about what they’ve just seen and heard “until after the Son of man has been raised from the dead.”
There are a couple of important things here.
- One is that it would be difficult to get anyone to believe you. This would be a first century equivalent to telling people about being abducted by aliens. It’s just too strange and pointless to be believed. Healing, and the casting out of demons, and the feeding of thousands of people are somewhat reasonable uses of divine power; but just lighting Jesus up (like a Christmas tree) seems kind of random, unless you were there. So, Jesus says, just keep this to yourselves.
- But, after the resurrection, this day on the mountain with Jesus is another piece of evidence about who Jesus was and is, and what God was and is doing through him.
As we see in our second lesson, Peter backs up his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection with his testimony about the miracle he saw and the voice he heard. Then it becomes a piece of the long story of God reaching out to all of us with a message of love, compassion and mercy.
And, truth be told, if we would take a good look in the mirror, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives. Now, for most of us, it’s not been a dramatic change at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.
Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Jesus Christ in our lives.
- We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be.
- Less judgmental and more tolerant; less anxious and more trusting; we do fewer bad things and more good things.
If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.
And like Peter, we are called to tell the story of our encounter with the holy, we are called to give our testimony to the voice that has claimed us as God’s children, and the glow of joy that fills our lives when we remember what God in Christ has done for us.
The thing is, Peter, James, and John cannot preserve this moment or stay on this mountaintop any more than they can confine Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in tents. To follow Jesus embracing the full mystery of who he is.
Sometimes Jesus shines so brightly as to be completely otherworldly, and at other times we look on as Jesus suffers immense pain. We cannot place Jesus in a box so we should stop trying. Because following Jesus requires imagination, vulnerability, and a willingness to constantly be surprised.
When we to put Jesus “in a box.”
- Do we tend to contort Jesus to make him fit our own image?
- Assume that Jesus believes the same things we do and would agree with us about todav’s hot-button issues?
- When we face interpersonal conflicts, do we take for granted that Jesus would tell us we’ve done nothing wrong?
- Do we peg Jesus as a fellow Democrat or Republican?
- Do we presume we know exactly how Jesus would answer a burning question of ours?
Jesus’ transfiguration signifies that he is beyond our reach: our presuppositions about who he is and what he believes do not ultimately hold weight.
We’re not meant simply to be good stewards of the tangible blessings God graciously places into our lives, or even the talents with which God gifts each of us individually. Instead, one of the questions that is most central to our faith is this: what does it look like to be good stewards of the mystery that is our Savior? How can we at once follow him up high mountaintops and also embrace him as he endures the depths of human pain?
Our Good News today is even as we seek to be faithful stewards of the mystery that is Jesus, we can be grateful he understands what it is both to ascend to the highest heights and to descend to the lowest depths. Our lives are complex and filled with both mountaintops and deep valleys. I don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring to know there isn’t anywhere Jesus will not go to show his love for us.