Matthew 17.1-9, Transfiguration A, March 2, 2014
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? One where everything on your mind passes away and you are overcome with a powerful experience of God? These can happen in worship, on retreats, in nature, and even on literal mountaintops. I have had my share of these experiences over the years, many of which happened at Wartburg College.
Just yesterday, I returned to Wartburg for a one day workshop. At the end of the event, we shared worship in the chapel. We praised God through song, scripture, and prayer. As I looked around the sanctuary, I fondly remembered so many worship services from years past. After I sat down in a pew, I almost instinctively slid down so that my head rested on the top of the back of the pew. That was always the best angle to focus on the story-high cross window above the altar. So many of my prayers have been expressed by staring at that window.
I then looked at the Christ candle flickering and fondly remembered how I had to stretch on my toes to light it. At the end of the worship service, we went back to the baptismal font. As the worship leader sprinkled us with water, I remembered how Brett would often make the sign of the cross on his forehead with the font water. Then he would do the same for me.
I have so many fond memories that were made in the chapel - in worship and in my time working as sacristan. Yet that place does not continue to be a mountaintop for me solely because I have good memories. The Wartburg Chapel continues to be a mountaintop for me because I continue to experience God there.
In our mountaintop experiences, we feel closer to God than ever before. I can’t help but guess, though, that Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain was not exactly like our mountaintop moments. Jesus didn’t simply have a touchy-feely moment of inspiration; God was with him and revealed through him.
Before this passage begins, Jesus is talking to his disciples. He describes that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Then he will be raised on the third day. Peter can’t take it and tries to rebuke Jesus. Jesus responds by shouting at Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are so conceited to think you can change this.” Then Jesus tells all of the disciples that they must also take up their crosses and follow him.
Six days later, Peter, James, and John leave their friends and peers behind as they accompany Jesus up a high mountain. The four of them are standing at the height of the mountain when Jesus becomes transfigured - his entire appearance changes. Jesus’ face glows with heavenly light, and his clothes become brilliantly white. I can only guess that this narrative barely begins to describe what actually happened to Jesus on that mountain. No words can describe the powerful experience that Peter, James, and John had.
Then, if that experience wasn’t enough to show how special Jesus is, Moses and Elijah appear before them. Moses and Elijah, two of the most important prophets from the Old Testament, talk to Jesus - about what, we will never know. What they had to say must have been severely important for them to come to Jesus in earthly form.
Peter is taken back by this experience. Somehow he knows that these two men are figures from his own Bible, and he doesn’t know how to contain his emotions. What he does know is that he wants this moment to last forever. So, he foolishly interjects into their conversation saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. I will gladly make three tents, one for each of you.” Unlike last time, Jesus does not rebuke Peter. Although Peter’s statement is foolish - even we know that mountaintop experiences cannot last forever - something else happens.
Before Peter can even finish his statement, a great cloud comes down on top of them. This cloud is brilliant like the sun and casts a great shadow upon all of them there. They could feel that this is no ordinary cloud. Then God’s own voice comes from that cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples are overcome with emotion now. They cannot stay on their feet, and they fall prostrate to the ground. They are awestruck and terrified.
Jesus then approaches his disciples. He tells them to get up and be not afraid. He touches them and helps them to their feet. When they look up, all that they see is Jesus. The cloud, Moses, and Elijah have all disappeared. Jesus is no longer transfigured; the moment of God’s glory has passed.
So, like every good mountaintop experience, they go down the mountain and return to their regular lives. As Peter, James, and John descend the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about their experience, at least not until he has died and been resurrected. Maybe Jesus doesn’t want this experience to incriminate him before he is ready, or maybe the three won’t fully be able to understand or describe it until Jesus’ mission is complete.
Almost as soon as they return to the crowd of followers, a man kneels before Jesus and pleads that he heal his epileptic son. The disciples in the crowd could not heal this boy, but Jesus immediately rebukes the demon and heals him. Jesus doesn’t have a moment’s rest to process what had happened on the mountain; he immediately begins to do his work.
We also cannot avoid the work in the valleys of our lives. After such powerful mountaintop experiences, we cannot to keep it to ourselves. Instead, we can take that experience and share our newfound love and joy with those who need it most.
My time at Wartburg College prepared me to be here today. I am now refreshed and encouraged as I look forward to Lent. God was fully present there at Wartburg - and God is fully present here as well. Yesterday, I was fed so that I can continue to feed your spirits. Hopefully you are fed here so that you can feed others spiritually.
This is the eighth Sunday after Epiphany. On the first Sunday after Epiphany, when we celebrated Jesus’ baptism, we heard God exclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is fitting that as we conclude this season of light, we hear again God’s exclamation that Jesus is his beloved Son. But now, God commands us to listen to Jesus!
As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, let us strive to listen to Jesus, listen in our worship and in our study. Our ears will strain to hear a word of hope, and our eyes will squint for a vision of the holy. We will move toward the heights of Golgotha, and may we find God present there as Jesus dies on the cross. Amen.