St. Paul’s Congregational Church, February 23, 2020
Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24: 12-18
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This Sunday we mark the end of the Epiphany season – it started on January 6 with the arrival of the Magi, and then we observed the baptism of Jesus. It’s fitting that we both begin and end this season of light with the same announcement by God: this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. But here, God adds a phrase, a direct instruction: listen to Him. This story is first a story about who Jesus is, about God’s will for Jesus, about Jesus’ willingness to follow God’s will, regardless of the cost. And as we approach the season of Lent, we are reminded again and again of the cost – but we also know the joy of Easter morning.
The story tells of the affirmation of Jesus as God’s Son, confirmed by the splendor and the glory of the divine presence. But we also see the confusion and fear of the disciples in the face of this – and we also hear the comforting words of Jesus.
So, what’s going on here? The story comes between times when Jesus begins to tell his disciples of the suffering to come. It follows the testing by the Pharisees and Sadducees as they asked, demanded, a sign from heaven. It follows Jesus’ question, who do you say that I am? It also follows Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Then following this story of the Transfiguration is a series of healings, of teachings, and then the entry into Jerusalem, the beginning of Holy Week.
Jesus calls three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, to follow him up onto the mountain where suddenly Jesus’ face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus. They don’t do anything. They just talk.
Let’s look at the symbolism here: the way this story connects the entire Christian story together: do you hear the similarities between the Exodus account of Moses on the mountain and this story of the transfiguration?
Moses went up on the cloud covered mountain. For 6 days the clouds covered the glory of God but on the 7th day, God called Moses out of the cloud. Matthew tells us it was after 6 days that Jesus went up on the mountain and the presence of the Lord shone about him. We think of another experience of the 7th day as we remember the story of creation in Genesis. And on the 7th day, God finished the work he had done, and he rested on the 7th day. God saw everything created and indeed it was very good. The 7th day is blessed. For creation. For Moses. For Jesus.
We have come to expect the presence of God on the mountaintop. That’s where Moses experienced it. Elijah heard God’s still small voice in a cave on the mountain. And that’s where Jesus is transfigured. We speak of mountaintop experiences, don’t we, as glorious, awesome times in our lives. Maybe as times when we have experienced the glory of God personally; a time when we know something wonderful is happening, but can’t quite articulate it. Think back to those times you’d experienced – that’s when we feel some of the mystery we read about in this strange and difficult story.
Another similarity. Moses stayed on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus was led into the wilderness following his baptism to be tempted by the devil, following God’s first pronouncement: this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights. And following the transfiguration story, God’s second pronouncement, we enter into the season of Lent: 40 days and 40 nights. A long time. A long suspended time.
Why Moses? Why Elijah here? We remember Moses as the lawgiver in our Christian story. The one who brought the tablets holding the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. We read in Deuteronomy 18:15, “Moses says, the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall need such a prophet.” In the transfiguration this prophecy is fulfilled. God says, Listen to him. This is the prophet who is greater than the law; this is the one who is the fulfillment of the law and all the prophets.
And Elijah: the last verses of the Old Testament in the book of Malachi speak of the great day of the Lord, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Elijah and Moses appear on the mountain with Jesus as fulfillment of an ancient heritage. They stand together – they don’t have to do anything. Their presence confirms Jesus’ authority as Messiah. It’s right here, right now, that the past meets the present, where the present leads us to the future.
The story of the transfiguration is also about the confusion of the disciples and that’s where I think we can really enter in. Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountaintop and all of a sudden Moses and Elijah appear to them all. I’m sure I’d be as confused as they were. And when we’re confused or afraid, we try to make sense of what we’re seeing out of our own experience. And so Peter does just that – perhaps remembering another ancient tradition. Remember that God instructs Moses to build a tabernacle – the ark of the covenant – a sanctuary for God so that God may dwell among the people of Israel. Maybe this is what Peter is thinking about when he offers to build booths – dwellings – for the three of them. Or maybe he realizes this is an extraordinary moment – he doesn’t want to see it ever end – he thinks building booths will capture, contain, that moment to make it last. Or maybe Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop and not return to the valley, knowing of the predictions of suffering, of the impending death of Jesus. He doesn’t want to deal with that, wants to avoid it. Can’t blame him for that, can we. Peter is so like us – we are so like Peter. So human, all of us.
Whatever his reason, Peter’s response is interrupted by the voice from the cloud and the voice speaks what is really essential here: this is my beloved Son. Listen to him!
There’s no judgment here, though. Peter isn’t berated for his nervous, useless chatter. Not at all. Doesn’t this tell us about the need for divine help to comprehend what’s happening here? Of course the disciples are confused by these events. And so are we.
So, what happens next. When the voice comes from the cloud, the disciples fall to the ground, overcome by fear. That’s certainly understandable – the power of God coming into the midst of human reality is no ordinary event. Not then. Not now either. And when the power of God comes, nothing is ever the same. Never. When God’s power, God’s gift of transformation is given and received, lives change forever. And with that change comes fear.
How does Jesus respond? Matthew says, “But”….I think that word “but” is important here – but Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” He comforts them. He doesn’t criticize. And we get a hint of the resurrection promise: Lo, I am with you always.
Here’s the promise of his presence, both on the mountaintop and in the deepest valley of despair, the darkest times of fear. The promise of his presence to us, no matter where we are.
The story speaks to us about discipleship – about both the cost and joy of discipleship. Think about it: it is Peter, James, and John who are with Jesus as he shines with the glory of God. It is also Peter, James, and John who are with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. That place where Jesus says, I am deeply grieved, even to death. The garden – the place where he threw himself on the ground and prayed, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want but what you want. These disciples are with Jesus both on the mountaintop and in the valley. Both in glorious times and in difficult, frightening times. Those who witness Jesus’ heavenly glory must also witness his earthly agony.
So yes, we too, must leave the mountaintop as tempting as it is to stay, and enter into the valley of human needs to serve our brothers and sisters in need. Without criticism. With deep compassion. And leaving the mountaintop is frightening and it leaves us so uncomfortable.
But we have stood on holy ground on that mountain and standing on holy ground brings transformation. For us as it did for the disciples. Can you remember such a moment in your life? When God entered your life in a moment that was like no other moment? Maybe it was only a small change, or an insight. Or maybe God called you to become all that you could be and you felt changed from the inside out?
In spite of the clouds that surrounded Moses and Jesus, God’s glory was, is indeed present. We all know about that, I think, but we’re surrounded by clouds too – clouds of illness, of sadness, of uncertainty, of fear, of broken relationships – but within the clouds the glory is there. We don’t always see it. We don’t always experience it when we’re caught in the midst of pain. But the story of the transfiguration is a promise: it’s God’s commitment to resurrection, to the promise of life to come.
It’s true. We have trouble with this story. The supernatural, the mystical is a problem for many of us. We want straightforward answers. When we’re hurting, we don’t want empty words. There’s nothing romantic about suffering – there’s nothing attractive about pain. We’ll do all that we can to avoid it, won’t we. We’ll all babble as Peter did when we’re faced with the unexplainable, with the unthinkable, with all that which scares us right down to our toes. We want answers. We’re desperate for answers. We fall on our knees in fear, in a search to make sense.
Jesus comes and touches us and says, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” In the midst of all the chaos around us, in the center of our deepest pain and fears, Jesus does to us what he has done to the leper, to Peter’s mother in law, to the blind, the lame, to countless others. Jesus touched them. Jesus touches us. Then he speaks words of reassurance – without criticism, without judgment, without rancor of any kind. Words of reassurance to the disciples. Words of reassurance to us. Because, we like the disciples are the recipients of that incredible grace shown to all disoriented, fumbling, fearful followers. We are the recipients of that divine patience too. What a gift that is.
So let that mystery touch you. Be amazed. Be grateful. See the light shining through the clouds. And know that through grace we are touched both on the mountaintop and in the deepest, darkest valley. That’s such good news for us as individuals. It’s such good news for us as church. Jesus touches us and reassures us and leads us into the light of God’s presence. That’s the promise. That’s the truth. Believe it. Receive that gift. And listen to Him! Amen.