Matthew 17:1-9 (CEB)
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
A Word of God for the people of God…
Thanks be to God.
February 25-26, 2017
“A Mountain of Meaning”
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany before we begin the season of Lent. The Gospel reading on the weekend/Sunday before Ash Wednesday is always the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
The Transfiguration story appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I invite you to read all three stores sometime to see the similarities and slight differences in the story from Gospel to Gospel.
Our Scripture passage today from the Gospel of Matthew begins by saying, “Six days later…” which leads to the question, later than what? A few verses earlier in this gospel, Jesus has told his disciples about the fate which awaits him in Jerusalem. Now it is six days later…
I have said before that whenever anyone in the Bible goes to a mountain, it means this is a “pay attention” moment because something important is going to take place.
In Scripture, mountains are often the places where people experience most vividly the presence of God. It was on a mountain that Moses saw the burning bush and heard God’s call and claim on his life.
It was also on a mountain that Moses spoke with God and received the Ten Commandments. The prophet Elijah journeyed to a mountain when he was discouraged and fearful for his life. There, God spoke to him, giving him encouragement and direction for the work that would be ahead of him.
Now, on top of the mountain in our Gospel story, three of the disciples, Peter, James and John, see Jesus transfigured or changed in such a way that his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white…”as white as light,” the Scripture says.
Then they see the great prophets from the past, Moses and Elijah. Moses is considered the great deliverer of the Israelite people and the embodiment of the Law and Elijah is considered the greatest of all the prophets. Then the disciples hear a voice from the cloud say, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” These words echo the words we heard spoken from the Scripture at Jesus’ baptism.
This scene on the mountain is filled with meaning that looks to the past and points to the future, with Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills both the Law and the Prophets.
This is also another story of the in-breaking of God’s presence. Upon hearing the voice from the cloud and seeing Jesus shine with an almost indescribable light, the disciples are in awe and fear. Then Jesus says as he has many other times in Scripture, “Do not fear…do not be afraid.”
In so many ways we live in a time of fear and anxiety. When we take time to look at people’s faces, we see anxiety and fear. And it’s not just about one thing.
It may be the questionable health diagnosis, unemployment, retirement, the cost of education, transportation, food, and housing. It may be politics, elections, power struggles, differences, and the unrest and violence in the world.
While the circumstances that cause anxiety and fear around us or within us may seem to be at an escalated level, it really is not anything new or different…it’s just that these unwanted and often unexpected realities are invading the lives of more and more people. And these disruptions to our reality alter the flow of life and there is fear…fear of what we do not know; fear of what we do now; fear of what tomorrow will bring.
And yet, that sort of fear and anxiety is not what Jesus is bringing about on the mountain top in our Gospel story.
Fear and the anxiety that comes with it as described in the New Testament is not because of the human condition or troubled reality of the time, but rather fear in the presence of Christ.
We often talk about wanting God to speak to us or longing for some clear vision of God. We say we want some “proof” of the presence of the living God. But there, on the mountaintop, with the mystical cloud, the shining face, and the voice from heaven, the disciples fall down and need to be told by Jesus to get up and don’t be afraid.
Perhaps on some level, what the disciples feared most was what might now be required of them…now that they had seen the presence of God shining through Jesus.
And in some ways that is what is often most fearful for us…what is required of us. When we think of what is asked and required of us as Christian people of faith, you may be like me and have your mind flash to the words from the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Or, the “Golden Rule” might come to mind…”Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or it might be the Ten Commandments that come to mind.
And all this requires having some kind of relationship; some kind of encounter with God. Encounters with the living God can cause us to have anxiety and fear, but they can also be encounters that are deeply moving and life transforming.
And that is what the Transfiguration of Jesus is about…opening and allowing ourselves to be changed so we can be the light of God’s presence in our everyday lives; and so we have the strength to work for change in life around us and in the world.
Scripture is clear…what God changes, God changes through us…we are the vessels God uses for change.
The next story in the Gospel of Matthew after Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain is Jesus healing a boy possessed by demons. Jesus and the disciples were right back into the difficulties of life around them.
The disciples realize that day on the mountain with Jesus, that while there is nothing they can do to avoid the anxiety and fear that comes with following Jesus, there is also no way they can shield themselves from the light of God that shines hope into darkness.
Like the disciples, when we know the light of God’s presence, there is no guarantee that our troubles or the challenges of life will go away. But it does mean we will be able to face those troubles and challenges with a strength and a peace that is beyond our understanding.
There is an experience I think about when the story of the Transfiguration comes along each year.
It has been several years ago now, but I was at a conference in Houston, Texas with several hundred other United Methodists. The conference was entitled “Healthy Congregations.”
One day, at the end of the morning session, one of the persons from the Houston area went to the podium and invited anyone who wanted to go, to walk the four blocks from the Hotel to McDonald’s for lunch.
He said, “We’ll eat our lunch and then we’ll all buy a second lunch and give it to the homeless people that live in the alleys and under the bridge near McDonald’s.”
There ended up being about 50 of us from the conference that went to lunch at McDonald’s. We purchased our lunches and then bought everything from Happy Meals to Big Macs and distributed them to the homeless people outside the restaurant.
And then we invited them to come to our banquet dinner at the Hotel at 5:30 that evening.
As we started gathering in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel at about 5:15, the hotel security appeared saying that there were people downstairs in the lobby saying that they were invited to this dinner.
Several of the people at the conference that knew what was going on, went down to the hotel lobby and not too much later were back in the ballroom with some of our invited guests. Pretty soon, security was back and following them, a few more homeless friends and then some more and then some more.
By time the dinner grace was given by one of our Bishops, some 20 homeless folks from the streets of Houston were at the banquet.
We made space at the tables for our guests and the servers brought out more place settings. We cut our entrees in half and scooped vegetables and potatoes onto the plates of the guests at our tables. One woman was at my table. She didn’t say much, but made several positive comments, along with the rest of us, about the delicious meal.
After dinner, I offered to walk with her down to the lobby. When we got to the escalator to go downstairs, the woman stopped and asked me if we could take the elevator. I said, “Sure.”
Once we were on the elevator she said, “Can we ride all the way to the top?” I said, “Sure,” and hit the button to the 34th floor. When we got off the elevator, we both stood silently looking out the huge window that overlooked the nighttime lights of downtown Houston. It was a breathtaking view and my new friend was quite in awe of all that could be seen from such a height.
Then the woman pointed and said, “Look, there’s our MacDonald’s!” And sure enough, the golden arches were shining brightly in the valley below. As we went back down the elevator, the woman said, “That was fun, thanks for riding to the top with me.”
When we got to the lobby, I saw her safely out the revolving doors of the five-star hotel and back into the reality of her life.
I don’t know which one of us had the more extraordinary experience. And I don’t know which one of us returns more often in her mind and heart to that mountain top experience.
If there’s a place where you have had an encounter with God or felt a unique sense of God’s presence, build an altar there in your mind and heart, and revisit it often to find renewal and strength for life back in the difficult valleys.
Our memory of the mountain top experiences in our past will ground our belief in the Gospel’s truth that God will not leave us without hope in the future.
This week most of us will probably not have anything close to a transfiguration experience, but this does not mean we won’t have transforming moments where we see the light of God breaking into our lives and into life around us.
What is significant about the accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus is not the “special effects” of the story, but what the story affirms about Jesus…that Jesus was not just another exceptional human being or prophet or great teacher or example; but that Jesus IS the window through which we see and experience God, the source of all life and all hopefulness.
So this evening/morning, if we allow our imaginations to help us climb the mountain with Jesus, we may experience the light of God’s transforming presence.
But beware…if you try to understand this story with your mind, you will most likely be disappointed. It is only when you see it with your heart and soul that you will know the true light of God’s presence. And in the glory of that presence is great hope and a mountain of meaning.
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.