Today is Transfiguration Sunday. On this day, we celebrate the moment when Jesus appears in the resplendent glory that he shares with God, insofar as he is God’s own beloved Son. This moment is the culmination of Epiphany. This word means “shine forth.” In his deeds of power, who Jesus really is “shines forth.” He is the Son of God, come to earth, to be with us, as one of us. What happens today serves to validate and confirm all that we have seen so far.
The gospel tells us that Jesus brought Peter, James and John up a high mountain, apart, by themselves. These are the disciples closest to him; they are in his inner circle. That is why Jesus is about to grant them the privilege of a greater glimpse of who he is. These men, whom Jesus singled out earlier to witness the raising of a little girl from the dead, climb up the mountain path with Jesus.
There is an important lesson to be learned here. If we are in the fog about God, if we do not have a firm grasp of the good news about God’s kingdom, then we ought to draw closer to Jesus. We ought to aspire to be in his inner circle, in the hope that he will show us too what until now has been unclear to us. So then, let us follow the three disciples on the path up the mountain, so that, with them, we can catch a greater glimpse of Jesus as he is.
We’re talking about a mountain. In keeping with the metaphor, we can say that we spend most of our lives not on a mountain but in the lowlands and the valleys. There we are preoccupied with the mundane. We have our daily round of chores. There are beds to be made, meals to be prepared, children to be clothed, loved ones to visit. Not that these activities are to be disparaged; on the contrary, they make up the content of our lives. Without them, we would not feel fully human. And yet they can become monotonous, repetitive, unfulfilling. Then it feels as if we’re running in place in the proverbial “hamster wheel,” from which there seems to be no escape. We have the nagging sense that there has to be more to life than this. Life reduced to monotonous routine does not deserve to be called a truly human life.
So, leaving the lowlands, the three disciples go with Jesus to the summit of a high mountain. Once we arrive, we may say that we find the location itself liberating. The view is fantastic. From the mountain height we can gaze at the distant horizon. We can see the lay of the land below us. The world and our place in it no longer seem so oppressive to us from up here.
But while it is exhilarating to be in the open air, this is not exactly the purpose of the ascent. In an instant, Jesus undergoes a transformation before their very eyes. His clothes become a dazzling white. What else does our lesson mean to portray here than the manifestation of the divine, an epiphany of the divine glory unconcealed? That which we earlier discerned in his deeds of power, in those deeds by which he subdued our demons and cured our diseases—that is on open and unambiguous display here. That is why we said that Transfiguration Sunday is the culmination of Epiphany.
But what does it all mean? It is worth noting that this whole episode on the mountain heights is preceded by a declaration that Jesus makes in 9:1: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Jesus probably has in mind Peter, James and John. On the mountain height they see momentarily the kingdom of God in power. They are now standing in the presence of the king arrayed in his power and glory. In this moment they see him as he is.
They have already had a foretaste of the power of the kingdom over which he reigns. They encountered it as a power that liberates. Here we recall the man whom Jesus liberated from the tormenting spirit. And we may also recall Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus liberated from the bed of sickness to which she was confined. And once news about him and his power spread throughout the region, people came from everywhere to bring to him the all the sick and the demon-possessed. In Jesus’ inaugural sermon at a synagogue in Nazareth, according to Luke’s Gospel, we read that Jesus’ mission includes releasing the oppressed (4:18).
But we note that Jesus is not alone. On the mountain two figures appear suddenly next to him, luminescent in the reflected light in which he appears. They are Moses and Elijah. The liberating power that we have seen in Jesus is attested and confirmed by these two pillars of the Old Testament. In Moses is represented a power that led a whole people out of bondage and despotism, through the wilderness, into freedom. The prophet Elijah makes clear that God is not an idol, which has only the power to enslave and do harm. He is the living God who alone has the power to make it rain on earth parched by drought; that is, the God who exercises his power in the service of life.
Freedom and trust in God’s power are represented in Moses and Elijah. They speak with Jesus and come together in him. They are alive in him. For the early church, the three of them together communicated the message that there is a continuity in God’s plan for his people. From beginning to end God intends freedom for his people. That includes us today. He brings us up from the lowlands and valleys to the mountain heights, where, arrayed in his power and glory, he makes clear to us that with him we are free. That is his intention for us, for the whole creation, which will be realized when God’s kingdom comes, on earth, as it is in heaven.
That is why we can sympathize with Peter for wanting to stay up here. Wouldn’t we too if we were Peter? He suggests that they make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. The word “dwelling” can also be translated as “tent.” It then calls to mind the Exodus account about Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, where the tent of meeting is overshadowed by a cloud while the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle. The proposed tents also evoke the Feast of Tabernacles, which the people of Israel celebrate to this day by living in tents. It is both a reenactment of their sojourn in the desert, as well as a looking forward to life in God’s new creation.
As Peter is caught up in his vision, there is a cloud that overshadows them, just like the cloud in the Exodus account. The voice we heard at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:11 claims Jesus again. Only this time the voice speaks not to Jesus, but directly to the disciples and to us. “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Then a command: “Listen to him!”
Peter’s plan is not the plan of Jesus. This no doubt must have been a disappointment to him. And his experience in this regard is not foreign to our own. The command of the Father reminds us too that we are not to go our own way, but rather are to follow Jesus on the way he goes. And that is for our good, even if we do not see it and therefore resist it, at least at first. Because if we go our own way, we fail to see reality as it is; indeed, when we go our own way, we willfully refuse to see reality as it is, even escaping from it when it becomes too painful through drugs and alcohol, internet gaming and social media, and gambling and pornography. Following Jesus, we have the courage to face reality as it is, however painful it may be.
The transfiguration of Jesus, which Peter really wanted to continue, comes to an end. Moses and Elijah have left the scene as mysteriously as they entered it. We now find Jesus alone with his disciples, So the moment has passed, and we have to pause to reconsider what we saw. First, we reconsider Jesus. To be sure, he was arrayed in his royal glory, but he was not seated on a throne. Rather, he was in conversation with Moses and Elijah. We reconsider the prophets. Yes, they embodied God’s power. But their power was expressed in teaching (particularly Moses), in justice for the oppressed and advocacy for the poor, and in miracles that manifest God’s healing and guiding love. And then we reconsider our freedom. Granted, we had an exhilarating sense of our freedom on the mountain heights. But then we recall Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and realize that our freedom is to be used in acts of humble service, like preparing meals and clothing children. And that is when we know we have to return to the lowlands and valleys.
Jesus then leads his disciples, leads us, down the mountain. He tells them not to speak of what they experienced. It may be because he knows that, they and anyone who hears them, will imagine that glory is possible without the suffering, rejection and the crucifixion that he insists is still to come. But there is no kingdom without the cross.
But even if we are not to cling to glory, we still need a glimpse of it. What we see and experience on the mountain heights stays with us; it seeps into our bones. It becomes a source of courage for us as we make our descent and once again have to face life in the lowlands and valleys. Here we understand why Transfiguration Sunday precedes Lent, which begins this Wednesday, which is called Ash Wednesday. The timing is important. Just as the Transfiguration prepared Jesus for his passion and death, so our experience of his transfiguration prepares us for our Lenten journey, in which we accompany Jesus in his suffering on the way from the desert to Jerusalem.
Author and Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper reminds us that we can walk down the mountains of our lives with confidence, because even if we are heading for the valley of the shadow of death, God’s beloved goes ahead of us. He chooses not to remain in glorious isolation on the mountain height, but in the need, lostness, and heartache of the world. And that is good news for us too, because Jesus is most likely to seek us out, not when we are at our most radiant, but when we are at our point of greatest need.
To sum up: until now we have seen the power and glory of Jesus, which is on full display today on Transfiguration Sunday. But going forward we will see the suffering of Jesus, culminating on the cross, the emblem not of power and glory, but of weakness and shame.
But the transfiguration points to the resurrection. The reason that Jesus brought Peter, James and John up that mountain to show himself in his glory was to assure them that the suffering and death he was about to undergo in Jerusalem was not the end of the line. There would be resurrection. They did not understand then and would not understand later. But no doubt this strange event came into sharp focus afterward, when they became eyewitnesses of a Jesus who was raised to life in the power of God.
Let this Easter expectation also be our guide as we prepare for our own Lenten journey, which we are about to begin. But let it also guide us at all times, especially when we have to come down from our mountains and walk in our own valleys of the shadow of death. Amen.