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Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 2, 2014

I first went to the beach when I was seven. I remember the crash of the waves against the sand. The walks along the shore picking up shells. The fun I had with my family. I did not want to go home, but Dad had to go back to work, and we had to go back to a boring summer at home. The next time I went to the beach on vacation was with my friend Lynne not too many years ago. We walked on the beach in the morning and at night. We laid on the beach in chairs and read. We looked for shells. Once again, I felt transported out of the ordinary by my time near the endless expanse of water and shore. I had much more appreciation for the beauty and the majesty and power of God’s creation. I understood much more about the spiritual high that drew me there than I did when I was seven.

Peter, James and John go to the mountaintop with Jesus. They do not know why they are going there; they just follow Jesus. But Jesus knows, and he wants witnesses to the moment. He wants a mountaintop experience for the disciples. And do they ever have one. They watch as Jesus is transfigured from their friend and teacher to a radiant divine being. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes are a dazzling white, like there is light shining from his body through them. The three disciples take this pretty well. Then they see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. The experience is getting stranger and stranger, but Peter offers to build three shelters for them if Jesus wants. In the middle of his speech a bright cloud appears, and a voice thunders from heaven calling Jesus God’s beloved Son and commanding that the disciples listen to him. Now they are terrified. This is God’s voice they are hearing proclaiming who Jesus is. Their human rabbi is also a divine being, invested with power and majesty. They fall to the ground in fear as anyone would do. And then it is over. Jesus is suddenly alone again. He comes to them with a compassionate touch and tells them not to be afraid. Then they proceed back down the mountain.

The experience of the Transfiguration is full of meaning. Mountaintops are very important to Matthew. Early in his ministry, Jesus as human teacher and preacher gives his Sermon on the Mount, laying out for the disciples and others what life in the kingdom of God is like. Here he is the human Messiah, the one who came to be God-with-us, showing us how to be obedient to God and God’s wishes for humanity. Now, as he prepares to move toward Jerusalem and his death, he is transfigured on a mountaintop, showing the disciples his divinity. The Transfiguration is God’s promise of Jesus being resurrected in glory as the eternal Messiah after the awful events in Jerusalem. It is a command to listen to Jesus and obey him. At the end of Matthew, once again on a mountaintop, Jesus leaves the disciples with the Great Commission, to go into all the world to baptize and teach what Jesus has commanded them, so that others will obey God’s will and the kingdom of God will make its slow way into the world.

What did the Transfiguration mean for Jesus? Jesus obeys God by taking the disciples and going up the mountain, and God reveals him as God’s Son the Messiah. God sends Moses and Elijah to talk with him to signify that he is indeed the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and his interpretation is the true one. The radiance of Jesus and of the cloud remind Jesus of his divine origins and God’s promise that Jesus would be the light of the world. The experience of the Transfiguration provides hope and encouragement for a Jesus who has just begun to announce his suffering and death according to God’s plan.

The disciples are in another place altogether. Six days before, Peter has proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah. He has a little moment of glory when Jesus says that God must have revealed this truth to him and that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Minutes later, the rock turns to sand, as Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about his suffering and death. Jesus gives him the strongest rebuke ever given to a disciple when he calls him Satan. So the disciples are wavering. They want to follow God’s Messiah, but they don’t want to follow a suffering and dying Jesus. God designed their experience of the Transfiguration to be a moment of confirmation, an outside, objective revelation of what Peter’s heart said, that Jesus was the Christ in all his glory. The disciples grasp this, and Peter decides he wants to hold on to the experience of the good part of following Jesus. That is why he offers to build the booths. Just as I didn’t want to leave the beach and its out-of-ordinary-time feeling, the disciples do not want to leave this wonderful and powerful moment to go back to the reality that faces them below.

Just as I did not understand my feelings about the grandeur of the ocean when I was young, Peter, James and John did not fully understand what was going on. How could this Jesus on the mountain be the same Jesus that was going to suffer and die in the near future? How could this Jesus on the mountain be their friend and mentor, who literally or figuratively touched so many people and helped them not to be afraid? This reality is why Jesus tells them not to talk about the experience until he has been resurrected. Then they will be able to understand its full implication. Then they will be able to testify to it as the author of Second Peter does. The eyewitness and earwitness account of this event is very important in convincing his community that Jesus is who Peter says he is and will come again in glory, despite naysayers who preach that Jesus is not the Messiah and is not going to return. The light of the Transfiguration, the light that is Jesus, is something his community can hold on to until Jesus himself comes as the morning star rising in their hearts.

We cannot prove the historical reality of the Transfiguration. But because our culture is based in fact and not in mystery is no reason we should not believe it. In addition to our regular senses, we have been given spiritual sight (Annie Dillard) through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual sight allows us glimpses of the reality that is the risen Christ, as it did the disciples. But for most of us, as for the disciples, it is hard to hold onto this spiritual sight for very long. We are so bound up in the world that we lose our capacity to experience the glory that is God. But we can change that. We can use our spiritual sight to see God’s presence with us in all that we do and think and feel and say. Jesus has promised to be with us, and that promise can be fulfilled as we look for God precisely where we are, in our earthly lives. When we feel that grandeur that I feel by the ocean, we can know that God is there. When we feel the reassuring touch of another, we can know that Jesus is with us.

The commandment the disciples receive from God is to listen to Jesus because God lives in Jesus and knows what is best for us. God loves us so much that God came to be Immanuel, God with us. It is worth listening to and obeying this God in our lives, because we know we are loved and cared for. While we don’t have Jesus literally at our side telling us what to do, we have the Scriptures to follow and the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts, calling us to God’s new realities, calling us to a kingdom life of service to all. The Transfiguration is a moment of reassurance for Jesus, a moment of spiritual awakening for the disciples and a moment of confirmation of our faith to us. It is a spiritual event to be seen with spiritual eyes. In it is conveyed a commandment to listen and obey, to join Jesus in his ministry to bring in the kingdom. So listen to Jesus. No matter what it looks like, in doing so we will find our greatest fulfillment.


     - The Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:

Annie Dillard, “Seeing”, in Amy Frykholm, “Illuminating the Ordinary”, Christian Century, Feb. 28, 2011.