Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Way back when I was in the 5th grade, our family took a vacation out to visit my cousins who had moved to Seattle, Washington. We didn’t fly, we drove – trekking across country in our rambler and staying in different motels every night. Vacations were really rare in my family. Other than long weekends, I only remember a handful of times we went farther than my grandparents’ farm in southwestern Minnesota. So, this was a really big deal, very exciting. And what was even rarer than vacations: Mountains. In fact, until that summer I had never seen a mountain before.
So I still remember how we spent one whole day driving through Montana, and how, suddenly, my dad said in an excited voice, “Look! Kids! There’s a mountain!” And how we perked up as we saw, off in the distance, the beginning of the majestic Rockies. We had never seen anything like this before – so we were in awe at the different landscape. Evidence for the existence of God, right?
Has that ever happened to you? When you’ve seen something, or experienced something for the first time? For me, it was mountains. For you, perhaps the ocean, or the giant redwood forest, or a piece of history up close.
A day later, on the same trip, we were still driving, and my dad said, in an excited voice, again, “Look, kids, there’s a mountain!” and we all said, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
What a difference a day makes.
Today is the day of “Transfiguration” -- named after this unusual experience that Peter, James and John had up on – of all places – a mountain. If you are paying attention, you might notice that, in the gospels, important things happens on mountains. Jesus gives the sermon on the mount – on a mountain – after his resurrection, he gathers his disciples again to teach them – on a mountain – and today, he takes three of his disciples up on a mountain where he is transformed – transfigured – before their eyes. His face shines, and his clothes become dazzling white. Wow. “Look! There’s the Messiah!” It was like they were seeing him for the first time. And though we can imagine the clothes and the face glowing – maybe a little – when you think about the whole world “transfiguration” -- it’s possible that it can’t even be described. Something has really, radically changed about Jesus. what’s another word that’s similar? ‘meta-morphosis.’ Like the change from caterpillar to butterfly. “wow!”
Moses and Elijah were there speaking with him – and if you want to understand the importance of this, imagine a scene where Barack Obama is seen talking to Presidents Washington and Lincoln – something that would make some of us very happy and others of us very disturbed. Moses and Elijah are lending legitimacy to Jesus’ ministry – they are telling us that this Jesus – he’s the real deal. And then you have the voice of God, “Listen to him.” Interesting. Not ‘look at him’, or even ‘follow him’, but ‘listen to him.’ That’s what the voice says. And then, it’s so sudden, so brief, that it’s all over. Peter doesn’t even get a chance to build a memorial. They’ll never be able to go back and find that spot again. They were in the presence of God, and they knew it, but only for a moment, and then it was gone.
So why is this story in the Bible, anyway? It’s sort of frustrating, because it’s so strange, and so fleeting a moment – when they recognized Jesus, when he was transfigured. Some people think this story really belongs at the end of the gospel, after the resurrection. It’s out of place here, in the middle of the gospel. It seems like it should be a resurrection story, his glory revealed at the resurrection, not before.
Perhaps it’s sort of like a “sneak preview” – as in the movies, a ‘preview of coming attractions’. Because when Jeuus and the disciples come back down the mountain, they are going to encounter darkness, and struggle, and failure and perhaps a sneak preview will help them in the middle of it all. Because, you know, it’s easy for us too, as each ordinary day goes along, to start looking at the world, and saying, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Perhaps it’s sort of like a sneak preview, not just of coming attractions, but of what is present, but most often, unseen. Maybe it’s meant to keep us going during all the ordinary days, and the days of struggle, and the days when it’s easy to forget what he has told us is true, because it doesn’t look much like it. “sneak preview.” Maybe that’s what it is.
There’s an interesting point in this particular story: when Peter and James and John see Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah on the mountain, do you know what they are talking about: his departure in Jerusalem. And the word for departure in greek is this one, “Exodus.” They are talking together about his ‘exodus”, the place where he will be transfigured again as he struggles and suffers and dies, the place where everyone will desert him, where he will no longer look like the messiah they expected. ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And yet he is with them, with us, always.
Transfiguration. Jesus face shines on that mountain, but the point is not just that Jesus’ face shines. The point is not just that he is transfigured. The point is, finally, that our faces are shining, because we have been in his presence, and even though, when we look in the mirror, we can’t see it. The point is that we are being transfigured as we walk with him, not just on the mountain, but every day. The point is that we are being changed, from one degree of glory into another.
But, most of the time, you can’t see it. That’s why the voice from heaven says, “Listen to him.” Believe him,. Trust him. You are made in my image, he says. I’m here, with you, he says. I am forming and re-forming you, working in you and among you.
Most of the time, we can’t see it. But once in awhile we get a glimpse.
Long ago, one cold day, I was called to a nursing home to visit a woman who was dying. She was frail and old and small, I remember. I knew her, a little. I sat there and I held her hand, and she did not hold my hand back. I thought I could see her, while I sat by her bed. And then, a figure came through the door, quickly. A woman, who came right over to the bed, and leaned over. It was this woman’s daughter. And she kissed her mother on the forehead.
And I saw. This was not a dying woman. This was a beloved and beautiful woman, alive to God. Transfiguration.
What a difference a day makes. Or a moment. When wine is poured, and bread is broken, and we listen to him, as he says, “this is my body. This is my blood.” What a difference a day makes. It is a sneak preview of the feast on God’s holy mountain, where Jesus, and all of the broken, holy, people, will shine.