As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
(Preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017)
When did everything in your life and world change for you?
Perhaps it was November 8 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Or perhaps it was on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the World Trade Center towers. For me it honestly changed a few days after September 10, 1999, when I stood in a funeral home in Mountain Home, Arkansas and stared at my mother lying in her coffin. Just two days earlier, when I received news of her death, I was on my way to the hospital to be by Dianne’s side as she had a pacemaker surgically implanted to regulate her heartbeat. Suddenly, the reality of my mortality and the mortality of all whom I loved grabbed me in my gut and was no longer just an intellectual idea.
For UCC pastor Jennifer Brownell it happened when she was fifteen years old. She was in a canoe with a couple of others in the middle of a summer night, on a lake far to the north. Above, a carpet of stars, the brightest she had ever seen. Below, the sky again, perfectly reflected in the fathomless black water. When the loons started calling – their eerie cry echoing off the stars above and below – vertigo struck. The dizziness was so unsettling she asked to go back to the dock, where she lay on her back, trying to get her bearings. “We are so big,” the stars and the water and the loon sang, “And you are so very small.”
For Peter, James and John, and yes, even for Jesus, everything changed one day when they went up a mountain apart from the rest of the disciples and the crowds. Do you suppose any of of them honestly expected what they encountered on that mountain that day? Certainly not Peter, James or John, based on the description of their response. They clearly had no warning. They are hiking along with Jesus, climbing to the top of a mountain. Probably they figure they are going apart for a time of special teaching, or perhaps, for some time of private prayer. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah are standing there talking with Jesus. His face dazzles like morning sun glinting off the waves at the shore. His clothes are suffused with light. Imagine yourself there with them. Our noses are buried in the hard scrabble earth; we don’t know whether to look, push ourselves slowly backward along the rock, or leap up and run for our lives. Peter bravely looks up and immediately dislocates his tongue from his brain; like an extrovert at a party after one too many drinks, he seems to say the first thing that comes into his mind, babbling about “shelters” and “memorials.” The other two, we can presume, are still snorting pebbles on the ground. Then the moment takes over. More brightness: this time a cloud with a voice, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” More fear, more groveling – then stillness. And when they look up – when we look up – that lovely phrase: “they saw only Jesus.”
It is obvious the disciples had no warning this was coming. Jesus, it is not so obvious. But I think he probably didn’t. He obviously wasn’t as overwhelmed by the experience as they were. He obviously kept his wits about him. But did he know beforehand that he was going up that mountain to be transfigured before their eyes? I doubt it. I think Jesus was at a difficult place in his ministry. He was at a moment where he needed to reflect and pray and receive guidance from God. I think Jesus was getting away from the crowds and the daily grind in order to spend some time with God in prayer and try to sort things out.
To understand this we need to look at the context for this story, for this event, in the life and ministry of Jesus. This story appears at the halfway point in all three gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. In the first half of Matthew’s gospel, as we are introduced to Jesus, we see one picture of Jesus painted. There are numerous miracles, numerous acts of healing, and a lot of teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of this early section Jesus paints a picture for us of what God is like, how God is at work in the world, what does life look like lived in obedient relationship with God. It is a very positive outlook. It is an outlook of dynamic power at work building a better world.
Then something dramatic happens. Jesus’ cousin John the baptizer is killed, executed by the king at the whim of his wife and step-daughter. That seems to have a profound effect on Jesus. Shortly after that we hear him ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” What are the crowds saying about me? He is becoming very reflective, thinking about his life, his ministry, questioning just what he is doing. He even asks the disciples what they think about him. He then speaks for the first time about his own impending death. His mood seems to have shifted and he has become clearly aware that the journey he is on will not end well, but badly. So, I believe his trip up the mountain with his closest followers was a trip to continue this reflection and deepen it. He is going apart to try to put his cousin’s death and his ministry into perspective. He wants to understand just what it all means and what is he supposed to do next.
And what happened? Jesus is met on the mountain by Moses and Elijah. He is reaffirmed in his teaching on faithfulness to the tradition of the Law and the Prophets. These two great leaders of the Hebrew people, leaders who also faced tremendous odds and threats on their lives, speak to him about his own life and approaching death. But most importantly, he again hears the voice which he heard at this baptism: “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
At this moment when Jesus is facing a critical time of decision; this time when he is sorting out just what he is to do; as he has begun to realize that there is serious opposition to his message and ministry – opposition which most probably will lead to his death, Jesus hears again the words he heard at the beginning of his ministry: “This is my dearly loved Son.” At the beginning, when life was filled with promise, energy and success, and at the end, when life was filled with shame and horror and suffering, the situation is exactly the same: God makes it plain that things are as they should be. “This life brings me great joy.” This life, radically open to God’s power to heal, bless and reconcile; this life, radically open to the human experience, to suffering and death and sin; this life brings God great joy. And just as those words at the beginning of his ministry gave Jesus the affirmation and the strength and the power he needed to begin, now those words give him the affirmation and the strength and the power he needs to keep going and face where the journey of faithful living to the call of God will lead.
Jesus comes down from that mountain changed. Look at the gospel story after the transfiguration and you will see very few miracles, very few acts of healing, and Jesus’ teaching changes. Now he begins to teach about grace, about death and resurrection, and about the future judgment. He shifts from teaching about God’s activity in the world to talking about how we can respond to God’s work in the world. He shows us a response that involves becoming the least and the last, becoming a servant, and embracing death, so that we might experience resurrection, new life.
After the cloud left, after the voice had spoken, after Moses and Elijah had gone, it was only Jesus – and Peter, James and John. I am sure when they looked up he looked the same as he had before that moment. But everything had changed! Jesus had claimed his power. Power had been granted to him, and he had now clearly claimed it. We see that in his response to the disciples. They are clearly still groveling on the ground, terrified. And Jesus goes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
The Hebrew word for glory (kabod) means “weight” or “heaviness.” This speaks to the gravitas of a human encounter with God. It also speaks to the gravitas of the Christian life – that we are called not just to be prosperous and happy, but also to bear the cross – whatever that means. Maybe this means that when Jesus touches us, it’s a heavy touch that acknowledges the suffering and sin intrinsic to the human condition – and yet, it is at the same time a healing touch that lets us know that we are not alone in the human condition. God is also in it with us, helping us bear the heaviness.
So yes, everything has changed. Through Jesus, we are bound up into a relationship with a God who is present in the glory and the suffering – which are always intertwined, this side of heaven. There is grace despite all the limitations of this world and this life. So claim the power that God has given you for ministry and service as a follower of Jesus. Claim the power of the gospel to release the captives held down by racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Claim the power of the gospel to bring healing to those hurt by the condemnation and judgments of those fearful of different sexual and gender identities and expressions. Claim the power of the gospel to raise those dead to hope for a brighter future and to heal broken hearts. Everything has changed. Be powerful today for God.