“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 dazzling white.” Matthew 17:1-2
Last Epiphany 2017 – February 26, 2017
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Mountains are holy places. They are high places, where the earth and heavens seem to touch. The air is crisp and invigorating. On mountains, we are closer to the brightness of the sun during the day and the illuminating array of stars at night. We go to the mountains to retreat from the craziness of our daily lives, and from their tops we are able to gain perspective, to see more clearly where we are and who we are.
It is no wonder that mountains figure so prominently in the Bible as places where people meet God. In Exodus, Moses goes to the mountain in Sinai to receive the law, and it is on another mountaintop that Moses sees the Promised Land just as he is about to die. In First Kings, Elijah, the great prophet and forerunner of the messiah, goes to the holy mountain to hear the still, small voice of God in the sheer silence of the mountain pass. And today, in our gospel reading, it is on the mountaintop that Jesus is transfigured before his inner disciples – Peter, James, and John.
Every year at this time we hear the Transfiguration story, at the end of Epiphany season and before we embark our Lenten journey to the Cross. Transfiguration Sunday, as we sometimes call it, is a “hinge” time, a transitional moment in the liturgical year, a time when we are invited to look both backward and forward, as if we were indeed standing on a mountaintop, glancing back whence we have come and looking ahead to what is yet to be. And so too does the Transfiguration story itself invoke both past and future.
The story looks to the past by connecting Jesus’ life and ministry to the two great prophetic figures of the Old Testament – Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet whose primary mission is to herald the coming of a Messiah. Their appearance with Jesus in this vision tells us that, yes, Jesus’ life is in continuity with the prophetic tradition and the Torah. Jesus is fulfilling the work God started in Moses, and he is responding to the clarion call of Elijah for a messiah.
The Transfiguration story likewise looks backwards to the scene of Jesus’ baptism. You will remember that at his baptism in the River Jordan, a spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, with a voice from the heavens saying to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” Now, this same voice from the heavens calls out again, but this time it speaks not to Jesus alone, but to those who would follow Jesus, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved,” and then adding three simple, yet daunting words: “listen to him!”
But the Transfiguration story also looks forward, foreshadowing things to come. Jesus’ mysterious transfiguration into a dazzling white figure, such as no one on earth has seen before, points us unmistakably to the Resurrection. In this brief mountaintop experience, the disciples get a glimpse of the glory that is to come, and are thus reassured that, even though the way of Jesus will be a way of suffering, and even death, Jesus’ solidarity with God will somehow endure. For all of these reasons, it is entirely fitting that we end the season of Epiphany with this greatest of Epiphany stories.
Many commentators have pointed to the many striking parallels between Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration, on the one hand, and the account of the crucifixion, on the other. In the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments. In the transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah; at the cross, he is flanked by two criminals. In the transfiguration, God Himself declares Jesus to be the divine Son; at the crucifixion, the words “he said ‘I am God’s Son’” become a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities. At the end of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see “whether Elijah will come to save him.” In both stories there are three witnesses: in the transfiguration, the witnesses are men (Peter, James and John); at the crucifixion, they are women (Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome, the mother of James and John).
These extraordinary parallels invite us to consider the deep theological connection between power and powerlessness, between glory and sacrifice, between self and selflessness, and how God in Christ utterly upends our all-too-human fantasies of how we would like our lives to be. As followers of Jesus we live between the two poles of crucifixion and transfiguration.
Like Peter, I am sure that most of us would prefer to stay with Jesus on the mountaintop, to build him a house there with Moses and Elijah, to preserve that moment of mystery and splendor forever, to bask in it, and to block out all this business about suffering and serving and bearing one’s cross. But that is not Jesus’ way. Much as his disciples want to hang on to the glory of the moment, Jesus gently leads them back down the mountain. His future is not to withdraw from the world, but to serve it, to stand up to its injustices, to speak out against its corruption, and ultimately to suffer at its hands and to die for it. And, if we are to “listen to him,” as the voice of the Father urges us to, we know that we must follow him down the mountain, through the stark wilderness of Lent that lies ahead, toward that mount on the other side, Calvary.
But notice this one other detail in the story. What happens to Peter, James and John when the veil is drawn back, and they see Jesus in his glory, and they hear God’s command to listen to him? As usual, the disciples are afraid, and fall down. And what does Jesus do? He gently comes over to them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The Greek word that is here translated as ‘get up’ has the same root as the word for resurrection. Jesus literally raises them up out of their fear, so that they might follow.
I have a foreboding sense that this year’s season of Lent may well be one of the more challenging ones of our lifetimes. We’ve already seen the dark clouds on the horizon: signs that our country is so intoxicated with “making America great again” that we are prepared to crush those who get in our way, to ignore those whose needs are perceived to be a drain on our greatness, and to silence all those who dissent from the ruling narrative.
In the face of such idolatrous nationalism – for that is what it is – our call as Christians is to stand with the weak and forgotten, and to give witness to an alternative community that is rooted in love rather than fear, and that is known by embrace rather than exclusion. From the vantage point of the world, nothing could be more foolish than to pick up a cross and follow Jesus. A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, welcoming the stranger, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age; but in the divine economy, such a life is a precious thing indeed. Suffering on behalf of others may appear to the world to be pouring one’s life down the bottomless drain of human need; but in the Kingdom this is what saving one’s life looks like.
One of the gifts of the season of Lent, which begins for us this coming Wednesday, is that it offers us a ‘pause’ in the midst of overwhelmed lives and a troubled world, to consider whether we are being truly attentive and receptive to the transfiguring work of Christ in our lives. Let us use this season of Lent to listen to him with a renewed sense urgency, confident that when we do choose to follow him, he always remains by our side, ready to raise us up when we fall.
Please pray with me: “Lord Jesus, pull back the veil of ignorance and unbelief that blinds us to your glorious truth, dispel our fears, raise us up out of despair, and then send us back out into the world to be your agents of transfiguring love so that through us you might heal all who are hurting, make whole all that is broken, and renew the spirits of all who have lost hope. We pray these things for your love’s sake. Amen.”