We often think that what we need is an experience like the
transfiguration. We think that an experience like that would prove to
us that God is real and active in our lives. It would give us direction
and confidence and change us completely. The disciples, however, show
us that that is not how those experiences work. That kind of
"mountaintop experience" is not what changes lives.
What we need… and what changes lives is the Spirit of God active
inside us… in our hearts… over time.
Transfiguration of Our Lord
February 10, 2013
When I was in my early 20s, I led groups of kids on backpacking trips in the badlands. One time, our third night in, we camped a short distance from the Little Missouri River. After the tents were set up, supper made, food was eaten and all the clean-up had been finished, I walked away from the camp to have a quiet moment to myself.
I sat down on a grassy rise overlooking the river.
It was just beginning to get dark. I relaxed my tired body and took in the surroundings. It was absolutely stunning. There was a soft, gentle breeze in the air. Before me the Little Missouri River rolled silently by, swirls of current careening around a bend in the river. On the other side of the water a herd of buffalo grazed quietly on the grassy bottoms.
Beyond the herd, a thick stand of trees stretched back to a line of rugged buttes. A dozen or so deer ambled along the edge of the woods. Above the whole scene a beautiful twilight sky was highlighted by a nearly full moon, low on the horizon.
As I sat there, I experienced a most powerful “sensation.” Like fibers of cloth absorbing water, I felt the majesty of God seeping into my being. I felt a wonderful nearness to God and a tremendous gratitude for being alive and there at that moment. I felt that the wonder and goodness of God had never been clearer to me than in that moment.
It was, for me, a transfiguration of sorts. Creation was transfigured before my eyes by the presence of God. I saw creation differently. I felt it differently. It was breathtaking.
The glory of the moment, however, didn't last forever. Eventually, night came, and I had to leave that grassy rise. I still remember the experience… and a bit of the wonder can still be felt. I know that the experience is still a part of who I am. It has played a small part in shaping me; but it's not the same.
I've had other powerful moments in my life when I've felt the nearness and power of God through creation, music, prayer, acceptance, scripture, forgiveness, family. Each time, I've been very grateful for the experience… the power of that moment.
I've always noted rather curiously, however, that as time goes by, the power of the experience fades in my mind. It just doesn't, over time, maintain in me the same wonder as it did at first. At the time, the experience seemed so transcendent and eternal. It just seems strange… and wrong… that such power should fade.
Today's gospel lesson relates an incredible moment of power and wonder. We know of this event because the disciples Peter, James and John experienced it as eyewitnesses.
Think for a minute about what these disciples encountered on the mountain.
First, there was what they saw. Their close companion and familiar friend, Jesus, suddenly changed before their eyes. The different Gospels mention both the change of his face and of his clothes.
In the Gospel of Mark it is said that his face “shone like the sun” and his dirty, ordinary clothes became a dazzling white — more white than any earthly cloth could ever be.
Then they saw two men appear before their eyes, also in dazzling glory. The disciples understood these two men to be Moses and Elijah, dead for a thousand years. But now these ancient prophets were standing right there, talking to Jesus.
Another important part of this moment is what the disciples heard. First they heard Jesus and the two prophets talking about what God was going to do through Christ at Jerusalem. In other words, they spoke of Christ's death on the cross.
Finally, they heard a voice, coming from a bright cloud that suddenly formed and overshadowed them. This voice belonged to their creator. It addressed them directly and commanded: “This is my Son, the beloved one, the chosen one…. Listen to him!”
And with that, the whole thing was over. What a mind-blowing moment! What a life-changing event! Or so one would think.
But what has always struck me as so incredible about this story is that immediately after, we see the disciples return to their ordinary lives… and they seem so completely unchanged!
Immediately after this experience, the Gospel of Luke, and all the Gospels, record a string of episodes that show how unaffected the disciples were.
They were repeatedly shocked by Jesus' deeds of healing. They do not understand (and are even angered by) his talk about the path of suffering he will take at Jerusalem. They get into petty arguments with each other about who among them is the greatest.
And what's more, in spite of the experience of the transfiguration, Jesus' closest disciples are totally unprepared for the events at Jerusalem. They scatter and abandon Jesus when the trouble comes. They deny knowing Jesus when questioned. They lose all hope when he dies and they disbelieve when they hear that he is raised from the dead.
You would think the vision of the transfiguration would stay with the disciples through all this, giving them insight, courage and hope; but it doesn’t seem to.
When we see how Peter, James and John experienced the vision of the glory of God and then how that vision utterly failed to affect their lives in the time following the vision, we see – in them – a truth about ourselves and a weakness all human beings share.
We often think that what we need is an experience like the transfiguration. We think that an experience like that would prove to us that God is real and active in our lives. It would give us direction and confidence and change us completely. The disciples, however, show us that that is not how those experiences work. That kind of "mountaintop experience" is not what changes lives.
What we need… and what changes lives is the Spirit of God active inside us… in our hearts… over time. And that's what we need to be seeking.
This is a process that is much more subtle and works slowly, but deeply. The transfiguration is one gift among many God gives to the disciples; but it is not a particularly powerful one. The more powerful gifts God gives to the disciples are the words Christ speaks to them, the time he spends with them, the Kingdom of God he shows them, and the Spirit he imparts to them.
All of these gifts are given… and they are at work in the disciples… over months and years and throughout their lives.
Over time, these gifts, altogether, make deep and powerful changes in the disciples.
And that's how it works for us too. If we want the power of God to shape and change our lives, then we need to look… not for big, mind-blowing encounters like otherworldly visions or spine-tingling mountaintop experiences… rather we need to look to the simple and common things in our midst that connect us to God and show us his Kingdom… like hearing, reading and pondering the Word of God, prayer, singing and treasuring the hymns of the church, being with and tending to God's creation, learning about and caring for our neighbor.
Like a river carving out a great mountain valley, these are the gifts of God that shape and change us forever.
The story of the transfiguration gives us a thrilling glimpse of the direct presence and power of God. But the truth is… we can't go directly from where we are to where God is drawing us to… not in one big leap. The disciples couldn't do it and neither can we. We, like them, need to take the long journey, letting God nourish and guide us all the way.
God's quiet spirit never ceases to work in us, enriching and enlightening our lives. The Spirit of God works in us like yeast works in bread. It works invisibly, slowly, but powerfully and wonderfully.
Though the experience of the transfiguration seemed lost on them, Peter and the others did, in time, grow in their faith and understanding. They went on to found and lead the church. There is no question that the transfiguration, along with many other experiences, was a part of that growth.
So it is with us. We must be patient as God is patient; and we must be hopeful as God is our hope.
This I promise you. God will be prodding and pulling and giving to us our whole lives. By his grace we will grow in the understanding of both our own emptiness and God's richness. As that happens, the gifts of God will grow in us, so that what God has done for us in Christ, will not be forgotten or wasted, but will bear wonderful fruit in us.